To the Editor:
Congratulations to Edward N. Luttwak for his courageous and incisive article, “Seeing China Plain” [December 1976]. For the past three years I have been working on a book comparing the attitudes and perceptions of Western travelers (intellectuals in particular) who visited the Soviet Union in the 1930′s, Cuba and North Vietnam in the 1960s, and China in the 1970′s. . . . On the basis of my own study . . . , I would like to add a few comments concerning the main puzzle, which is, as Mr. Luttwak puts it: “After the great warning of the Russian Potemkin tours of the 1930′s, how could our intellectuals and our journalists—often explicitly mindful of the precedent—fall into the very same trap?”
First, I would say that they have not quite fallen into the same trap; the response to China has been more varied than in the Soviet case. Perhaps this is only a matter of degree, but on the whole . . . the Chinese reports have been somewhat more restrained than the euphoric exultation of the pilgrims to the Soviet Utopia of the 1930′s. It is of course also possible that the praise heaped on the Chinese system strikes us as more justified since we know much less about the China of the last few years than we know of the Soviet Union of the 1930′s. . . .
But there is no doubt that the appeals of China and the USSR (and Cuba and North Vietnam) have been almost identical for different generations of visitors despite quite different historical and cultural realities. After reading a sufficient number of such accounts of both periods, it is hard to avoid the impression that the visitors . . . had similar expectations and predispositions; . . . they were acutely aware of the shortcomings of their own societies and anxious to find others which transcended those defects. What is most intriguing in both cases has been the willingness to suspend critical judgment. Fierce social critics in their own societies, . . . these travelers undergo a magical transformation after they depart their own countries. A peculiar decomposition (or suspension) of the critical faculty seems to take place en route from New York, Berkeley, Cambridge, London, or Paris to Peking (or Moscow or Havana or Hanoi at other times). . . . Skeptics become believers, tough-minded social critics turn into enthusiastic affirmers of established authority. . . .
I agree with Mr. Luttwak that the desire to return to the countries in question provides some incentive for both journalists and scholars to curtail their critical impulses. But what about the vast China travel literature that has been produced by people for whom going back is not particularly important professionally (social workers, librarians, physicians, . . . etc.)? . . . I suspect that these uncritical outpourings in the main derive from the almost uniformly favorable expectations about China (as they did in the 1930′s about the Soviet Union). For some it is the expectation of a new paradise where total authenticity reigns and the spirit of community enhances the sense of identity; for others it is the appeal of social equality, the elimination of waste, the antithesis of their own decadent, self-doubting society, that carries the day. Still others expect to find a . . . society which has harnessed the . . . problem-solving capacities of the simple peasant. Many of these travelers feel that overcoming backwardness and the new profusion of material benefits justify some limitations on civil liberties. . . . Finally, there is the fact that most visitors who might otherwise be critical do not want to be labeled cold-warriors, hysterical anti-Communists, carping right-wing critics, antediluvian super-patriots, or ethnocentric perpetuators of false stereotypes about China.
Chinese techniques of hospitality enhance but do not create these attitudes, though few of us can respond negatively to being well treated. . . .
Those who fail to “see China plain” are in no way unique. Nor are the components of their attitudes and perceptions, which include, in as-yet-undetermined proportions, idealism, naiveté gullibility, and opportunism.
Russian Research Center
To the Editor:
Edward N. Luttwak’s “Seeing China Plain” was magnificent. In the midst of what Peter L. Berger rightly calls an “orgy of gullibility,” someone at last has said the appropriate thing. I found particularly gratifying Mr. Luttwak’s sensitivity to the imperialist character of the People’s Republic of China, that self-proclaimed arch enemy of imperialism, and to the cultural oppression that makes Leninist imperialism, Russian or Chinese, so much more vicious than the Western variety.
Perhaps the only point to which I might object is Mr. Luttwak’s reference to “submissive Tibetan Buddhists.” After more than a decade and a half, the Chinese have finally managed to reduce Lhasa to a safe showcase. The rest of the country is a different story. The Tibetan liberation struggle, best described in Michel Peissel’s The Secret War in Tibet, has amply proved that the Tibetans are among the world’s least “submissive” peoples in the face of an invasion by overwhelmingly superior forces. They are as proud, tough, and uncowed as the Turkic peoples of East Turkestan (so-called “Sin-kiang”).
The utter irresponsibility of Western intellectuals and journalists is indeed a scandal, as Mr. Luttwak says. What can be done about it? COMMENTARY is willing to publish a forthright article like this one; how many other journals would do such a thing? Somewhere in the past generation or so, the intellectual leadership of the West has fallen into a pathological state so pervasive that chances for recovery are slight. More articles like Mr. Luttwak’s . . . are desperately needed.
To the Editor:
An old Jesuit friend of mine in Hong Kong . . . (an illustrious but unpublicized scholar of Communist China) and I have flirted with an idea for years: why not write a book called Chinoiserie through the Ages, subtitled, “From Marco Polo to—,” filling in the name of the most recent congressional or American journalist visiting the mainland? Another subtitle could well be “From the Encyclopedists to the Charles River Fraternity.” What we are saying is that a peculiar combination of Chinese culture, fascination with the centuries-old skill of the Chinese in handling guests (even under Communist conditions), and the mysterious psychological appeal of China and the Orient for Western man since the time of the Greeks, have overcome the critical faculties of most of these visitors.
It is refreshing that Edward N. Luttwak does not fall into the trap. . . . Yet . . . I wonder if he, too, hasn’t failed the test by falling into another trap: the belief that Chinese totalitarianism is a thing apart. Brutal, hideous, inhuman, and reactionary beyond our wildest imaginations. I concur. But during the winter of 1972-73, when I taught at the Chinese University in Hong Kong, I had the unique experience of talking with my students, young Cantonese residents in Hong Kong, who had visited their friends and relatives in Kwantung (Canton) province during the holidays. What they told me was that the whole system of controls did not really work once one was inside Chinese society, at least not over cultural and private opinions. Their relatives listened to the Hong Kong radio and not only could they sing all the then-popular commercials, but they knew a great deal about what was going on outside China and in the North. From my students I discovered also that some of the most cherished clichés of the regime proved not to be true; for example, that the official kuo yu (Peking) dialect was actually being learned and had become the lingua franca of the young (a claim made for most of the mainland by the super-apologists for the Peking regime as one evidence of its unifying functions). . . . Though Canton has always been a special case historically, nevertheless I don’t think such evidence should be dismissed.
I do not believe that Peking has created the People’s Liberated Man any more than Moscow created the Soviet Man so vaunted by Russian apologists in the 1930′s. For one thing the control system in the major cities and near points of interchange with foreigners, which is apparent to visitors with any kind of perspicacity like Mr. Luttwak, may actually be more superficial than it appears (after all, how much of the vast land did Mr. Luttwak and his friends see even on their extensive tour)? We might also remember that we are only a decade away from claims that the Chinese Communist apparatus had somehow avoided the bitter power struggles of the Russians. . . .
In sum, I simply want to say that there may be less about the Chinese scene—except in degree—that is exclusive or unique. And that is after all the great problem: our negotiators and statesmen tend to apply to the Chinese, . . . and to their relationship with us, terms of reference that are faulty because they see the Chinese as unique. . . .
Sol W. Sanders
To the Editor:
Within its scope, Edward N. Luttwak’s article is a superior job of reporting. His cogent point—that current observers tell what China’s establishment wants them to—is somewhat ironic, however, as the same was true of all major-media reporters during Chiang Kai-shek’s regime, which was (and is) overwhelmingly responsible for our chronic myopia toward matters Asian that persists to this day. . . .
For longer than half my lifetime . . . Americans have believed . . . that Chiang Kai-shek was the head of a great state. On the contrary, to the end the Kuomintang was an incredibly corrupt spoils system consisting of a gaggle of warlords and their henchmen, who nonetheless had a pipeline to our Eastern establishment through Chiang’s in-laws, the Soongs, and Madame Chiang.
The Generalissimo . . . never really had control of the situation or even a grasp of it. . . . So rife with graft and corruption was the Kuomintang that the quarter-million tons of U.S. provisions, shipped halfway around the world and flown over the “hump” at great risk by American fliers (loss rate: thirteen planes per month), seldom reached the troops for whom they were intended. Consequently, many thousands of the latter died needlessly of sickness, starvation, and exposure, great numbers of the survivors ultimately deserting to join Mao’s forces in the North. Considering the plight of Chiang’s soldiers, who were supposedly enjoying priority by reason of their military importance, the misery of the common people can only be imagined. . . .
I draw this picture . . . to provide a tableau against which to assess the informative and incisive account of today’s China given us by Mr. Luttwak. Considering the monstrous botch we have made of what might otherwise have been a golden opportunity to guide an awakening Asia—thanks to the greed and stupidity of vested interests—I regard any dosage of remedial perspective to be in order whenever Asian issues are discussed.
East Palo Alto, California
To the Editor:
I certainly agree with Edward N. Luttwak that the debunking of the endless stream of mythology spread by gullible Westerners was long overdue. There is no reason to doubt the Chinese skill in constructing their own Potemkin villages to show foreign visitors the “future that works.” Nevertheless, some statements about his visit to Sinkiang strike a false note and diminish the credibility of the whole piece.
Having spent several years of my youth in or near real Kazakh . . . yurts on the Soviet side of the Tien-Shan mountains, I know something about these people. The Kazakhs are (or were) mainly herders and speak a Turkic language, but to classify them as Europeans, either in appearance or behavior, is stretching the imagination quite a bit. Their features are more akin to those of Mongolian peoples than to Europeans. Uzbeks speak a similar language, but they more closely resemble the Mediterraneans Mr. Luttwak had in mind. Even the Uzbeks, however, do not consider themselves Europeans, and why should they? As to their gestures, these might simply have been greeting signs, widely used in Asia.
To describe the inhabitants of the region as having “some culture” or as primitive, is reprehensibly condescending. . . . I had the impression that Mr. Luttwak imputes such attitudes to the Chinese in regard to the minorities in their midst. This may be true, but somehow Mr. Luttwak also seems to have difficulty in keeping his own biases in check.
The people of Central Asia do have culture and dignified behavior, perhaps different from Mr. Luttwak’s. I too have often witnessed the throwing of not-completely-denuded mutton bones to women. This is a part of the local culture and customs.
To the Editor:
Edward N. Luttwak’s critical examination of totalitarianism in the People’s Republic of China appeared completely authentic to me . . . until he began to document his charge that common people on the streets of Chinese cities are forbidden to speak to foreigners and resolutely refuse to do so. . . .
In June 1975 my wife, who speaks Mandarin, and I talked freely and enthusiastically with chance civilians in Peking, Chengchow, Loyang, Sian, and Shihchiachuang. Between six and eight in the morning, after eight at night, or on midday occasions when we passed up the scheduled tour, we were on our own, striking off in directions unknown even to ourselves. This included the unending alleys of Peking described by Mr. Luttwak. The striking, unchanging characteristic of these unplanned wanderings was the friendly, smiling readiness of the Chinese to talk with us and their great interest in the fact that my wife had once lived in Wuhan. The utter contrast of this visit with my experience in the Soviet Union only a few months before, where pedestrian reluctance to talk was precisely what Mr. Luttwak attributes to China, made Chinese openness and lack of fear all the more impressive.
What accounts for this conflict of experience? Was there that much difference between 1975 and 1976? Hardly. Did what Mr. Luttwak was seeking as compared to what my wife and I were seeking influence the response? Did the high-level nature of the [James] Schlesinger party create an atmosphere of self-consciousness and unrest that became a barrier to any kind of effective, relaxed two-way communication? One is tempted to speculate, probably most unfairly. I don’t doubt the accuracy of Mr. Luttwak’s reporting, but I completely reject his broad generalizations and deductions therefrom.
How sad that he failed to experience the openness and joy, despite the poverty and social restraint, of the ordinary Chinese people. And what else did he miss that has significance for his other findings?
David R. Hunter
Council on Religion and International affairs
New York City
To the Editor:
. . . As one of the “uncritical, untaught Americans” who have so spoiled the Chinese with our blissful naiveté, I would like to respond to Edward N. Luttwak’s article.
Mr. Luttwak aims . . . to convince us that his perception is both keen and unique, but in the end I doubt the validity of his observations. Mr. Luttwak is suspicious, for example, of having been shown only token goods in the technological area. In my own experience, however, the Chinese themselves were the first to acknowledge a paucity of computers and advanced technology in general. In the interests of balanced development and the employment of appropriate technology, they are in a sense proud of this shortage and would have little motive to deceive.
Again, Mr. Luttwak claims that many Americans have found it “undeniably gratifying” to be asked their opinions on issues of national policy. But even those of us with no access to classified matters have been queried by polite hosts, well-informed about our backgrounds via lengthy visa applications. To believe that such conversations have a serious intelligence motive is nothing more than self-flattery. . . .
Mr. Luttwak’s assertion, to take a third example, that “Chinese colonialism is oppressive not merely politically but also culturally” bespeaks either an ignorance of the important cultural role minorities play in Han China or a willingness to overlook programs which saturate China with minority-group cultural performances, fulfilling goals of both political integration and cultural protection.
Mr. Luttwak further maintains that the linguist in his group had but a single unofficial conversation with a Chinese citizen during the whole journey . . . and that in Peking “even old ladies and young boys knew that it was forbidden to speak with any foreigners.” . . . This is quite simply nonsense. Some Chinese are shy, particularly in rural villages where Westerners are a most uncommon sight, but in the major cities one has little trouble speaking with the ordinary citizen. Stores, buses, noodle shops (similar to our all-night diners) provide innumerable opportunities for conversation. . . . I could attach more credence to Mr. Luttwak’s report about Sinkiang and Tibet had he not misrepresented the situation in Peking and Shanghai.
Mr. Luttwak does make some valid points. China is not a liberal society, and by any reasonable standard, some poverty still remains. There are areas in the North which make the moon look fertile, and the People’s Republic no doubt has its share of idiotic bureaucrats who would attempt cosmetic changes for the benfit of the foreigner. My own hosts were very candid on these issues. . . . I accept Mr. Luttwak’s good intentions in cautioning against apologists, especially in the light of America’s traditional infatuation with China. . . . But how can Mr. Luttwak’s observations justify his cavalier indictment of China per se?
Wayne R. Decker
Johns Hopkins University
To the Editor:
I will cite only those factual errors, among the ludicrously many in Edward N. Luttwak’s article, that distorted his description of my report in the New York Times on Sinkiang.
Mr. Luttwak says he visited “three multicolored tents” which he describes as the East Wind commune and then complains that I treated “the whole thing as real” and had “obviously not thought it strange that a visit to a commune should not include even a glimpse of housing, animals, or peasants.” Mr. Luttwak did not see my article plain any more than he saw China plain. What I find strange is that he could believe that three tents in a meadow could be East Wind or any other commune and that he could assume he was in the same place I was.
I saw none of his pretty tents because I was too busy touring the yurts and log cabins of the Kazakh peasants and observing them herding their thousands of camels, sheep, horses, and cattle on the mountainous grazing land of the 2,400-square-mile commune.
Mr. Luttwak questions my acceptance of a change in the status of the Kazakh women since he noted at a lunch that serving girls caught “scraps of lamb” thrown by his hosts.
Women in Sinkiang are not fully liberated, just as we are not fully equal in all respects in Western countries. However, since I first lived in China (Nationalist) in 1948, I have seen them drop their black veils and achieve political, economic, and social status before the law and increasingly so in custom. I, too, ate many meals with the Kazakh herdsmen and women on the floors of their yurts and we enthusiastically threw the leftover bones to the waiters who were both male and female. It is a practical Kazakh custom to clear the table this way in preparation for the next course—not to feed the starving women. . . .
Scarsdale, New York
Edward N. Luttwak writes:
It is with some diffidence that I thank Messrs. Hollander, Reynolds, Sanders, Burdick, and Shelef for their kind words: as the text should have made fully clear, I am wholly unqualified as a Sinologist, Turcologist, or Tibetanologist, if such beings exist. It is therefore with still greater diffidence that I venture to comment on their observations. I read with profit Paul Hollander’s acute analysis, but would tentatively add the suggestion that the “decomposition of the critical faculty” which overtakes so many of our intellectuals on their passages to Russia, China, Cuba, and the rest owes much to their deeper emotions: these intellectuals are after all the lost souls of each generation, who have abandoned the established certitudes of religion and tradition without having acquired at the same time the courage to confront the human condition in solitary individuality; hence their eager readiness to embrace the new dogmatic certitudes they find in totalitarian societies, so long as these are sufficiently exotic to permit self-delusion. And this segment of the intelligentsia will find added virtue in totalitarian states which happen to be intensely hostile to their own, for the acute dissatisfaction with the void in their own spirit is unfailingly projected upon the society which nurtured them, generating a deep though often unacknowledged hostility. (The diplomatic rapprochement of Peking and Washington may thus eventually erode the appeal of China to this segment of the intelligentsia.)
Stephen Reynolds allows me the opportunity to make amends; my description of the Tibetans as “submissive Buddhists” was foolish and ahistorical; but the Tibetans, whose emotions were transparent enough to affect me deeply even on a brief acquaintance, were both profoundly sad and also seemingly resigned, being no doubt sufficiently well-informed of the true scope of our newly reaffirmed attachment to global human liberties.
Sol W. Sanders writes that the efficiency of the Chinese variant of the system of totalitarian control is imperfect; my remarks, however, were more directly concerned with the theoretical structure of the system (and in particular its preclusive nature) rather than with its actual performance in specific places, at specific times. As he correctly points out, my own exposure to its operation amounted to no more than a few random glimpses. These sufficed to reveal the outline of the model, while being wholly inadequate to convey the totality of its transactions. (Incidentally, Mr. Sanders’s “old Jesuit friend” in Hong Kong is not so unpublicized as he believes; his writings have enlightened even this casual traveler.)
If Stuart Burdick’s main remarks were an oblique reference to my passing comment on Taiwan, he will agree, I trust, that the Chinese state established on that island has achieved a most remarkable success in the economic sphere.
Mordecai Shelef will not permit me to describe the physical appearance of the Kazakhs as Europeans. It is all a matter of perspective: while he once lived in Soviet Central Asia, it was my own good fortune to pass the formative years of childhood in Sicily. And Kazakhs look at least as European as the Sicilians do. Mr. Shelef defines my two-line ethnography of Turkestan as “reprehensibly condescending.” It is true that I do not share the prevailing cultural relativism that prohibits informative distinctions among the cultures of others. But perhaps even Mr. Shelef will agree that literate town dwellers may legitimately be differentiated from pastoral highlanders, or nomadic herders who do not command the use of their own written language and who do not possess an established literature in written form. A purely oral tradition is not to be despised, as we do not despise Homer, but Mr. Shelef would surely concede that the limited capacity of the human memory does inhibit the accumulation of culture.
I cannot account for the profound difference between the experience of David R. Hunter and his consort and that of our party. My own knowledge of Mandarin is not celebrated in Sinological circles, but we did have one totally fluent speaker of Mandarin in our group, Charles Benoit, a man of (almost) irresistible affability. And in his endless attempts at free conversation, Mr. Benoit was not burdened by the attendant retinue of a semiofficial visit; he went out on his own for long walks wherever he could, and for hours at a time. Nevertheless Mr. Benoit discovered that he could not converse freely even in his perfect Mandarin.
But Mr. Hunter does give me the opportunity to correct one more omission: while I did not see any “openness and joy” among the Chinese, I was much affected by the human qualities of the Chinese I met, including several of our official escorts. After a few days of travel, they ceased to be exotic in my eyes, and their genuine warmth, high intelligence, and pleasant conduct engendered feelings of friendship that endure with me still. And it was precisely this effortless communion with the humanity of many of the Chinese whom we met that stimulated my resentment against a system of governance that ceaselessly attacked their human dignity by forcing them to repeat absurd slogans a hundred times a day, and by compelling them to simulate indifference to the ordinary social decencies and to the normal emotions of family life.
Wayne R. Decker obviously has a conception of intelligence-collection which is derived from adolescent fiction; nowadays most of the information that competent intelligence departments collect is unclassified, and Mr. Decker no doubt supplied his own share of social, educational, and economic intelligence. There is nothing sinister in this, but the Chinese do need the data, and they get them. Mr. Decker challenges the notion that Chinese rule over the non-Han peoples is oppressive. He writes that I overlook “programs which saturate China with minority-group cultural performances.” He must therefore believe that the state-sponsored song-and-dance troupes of the minority peoples adequately embody their national values. He would no doubt accord the same validity to the officially-sponsored Zulu tribal dance groups which are widely advertised in the brochures issued by the South African Tourist Office. But nowadays the Zulus insist that their national values can only be validly expressed by a national independence, and no longer accept the tribal dance troupes as an adequate substitute. Why should the peoples now ruled by Peking differ so very greatly from all the other peoples which were once under colonial rule? It is of course possible that Mr. Decker is a cultural supremacist, a follower of Cromer, or at least Kipling. But if Mr. Decker is not a nostalgic colonialist, how can he refuse to concede to the non-Han peoples trapped in the Chinese empire the rights which most former colonial peoples have successfully claimed?
In conclusion, formality compels me to acknowledge the letter of Audrey Topping. I freely confess that I had charitably presumed a casual transit in Kazakh lands on her part. I now read that she has actually observed the Kazakhs at close quarters. Why then did she fail to convey in her articles their profound resentment of Han oppression? Surely she must know that all warlike pastoral people everywhere resent even the most tolerant and remote governance, while in fact Chinese rule in Turkestan is the opposite of both. Did she miss the central phenomenon of Kazakh social life? Would she have written in the same tones of sustained enthusiasm of the joyful lives of the Zulus of Natal? I concede that it is not impossible that the colonial peoples of China actually want to be ruled by Peking, just as any scientific spirit must concede the theoretical possibility that unicorns may yet exist in some remote African dale. But the evidence of all historical experience suggests otherwise. And this is a deduction that all members of our party saw vividly confirmed even in our few and closely controlled contacts with both Tibetans and Kazakhs.
In a perverse sense a fair exchange obtains: while the native intelligentsia is apt to see only evil in totalitarian systems, these systems can usually obtain the unstinting praise of some of our own intellectuals.