Commentary Magazine

Looking at China

To the Editor:

Let me say at the outset that although Sheila K. Johnson was critical of me in her article, “To China, With Love” [June], I strongly sympathize with the general drift of her article. I only too well remember the succession of clever fools who deceived us about Russia. As a newspaperman, I cannot to this day recall Walter Duranty, with his Pulitzer Prize, his great prestige, and his almost total misrepresentation of what was happening in the Soviet Union, without bitter indignation. Yet he misinformed the world much less badly than other visitors to the Soviet Union like Sidney and Beatrice Webb. When I went to China this winter, I had all this in mind. I believe with Mrs. Johnson that it will be most dangerous if the same kind of foolishness is manifested again, but this time in connection with China; and I think that there are some signs, especially on the academic Left, that just this is happening.

In my own case, however, I feel that Mrs. Johnson has been unjust. She apparently regards countries as large, unchanging entities, toward which one must always have a constant view. This is of course historical nonsense. The China of today, for example, obviously differs greatly from the China of the years of the Great Leap, or indeed the years of the Cultural Revolution—the two periods when I wrote my most critical reports on Chinese developments.

I recently reread the most severe of all my earlier articles about China, written for the China Quarterly in 1959 during the time of the Great Leap. To be honest without being over-modest, I was surprised by my own accuracy. I spoke of the clear possibility that the government might be brought down by the catastrophe that the Great Leap had produced in the Chinese countryside. At the time of writing, I did not know of the indisputably authentic Tibetan Documents (as this collection of Chinese military papers smuggled out of Tibet is called in the intelligence community). These Tibetan documents show that the misery in the countryside resulting from the Great Leap came desperately close to producing an army mutiny—just the sort of thing I thought possible—primarily because the People’s Liberation Army is a peasant army, and the peasants were the main sufferers from the Great Leap. I have no doubt that it was because of the threat of army mutiny that the policies of the Great Leap were so hastily junked. To this day, moreover, the Chinese people openly speak of the time of the Great Leap as “the three bad years.”

As to what I wrote about China when I went there this last winter, I do not think it was either favorable or unfavorable, except that it was mainly favorable to the Chinese people themselves, whom I have always loved and admired, and to certain individuals whom I encountered and also admired, like Prime Minister Chou En-lai. I have no settled opinion of what may be called the moral aspect of the Chinese regime. The morality of a government, so long as it is not for export, seems to me to concern only the people being governed, except in one very special kind of case. This is when the government in question is a giant power, and therefore always threatens to export its methods, even if it is not actually doing so, and when it is also committing crimes of a truly monstrous nature. Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia have been the two examples of this kind of special case in my working lifetime. In all of history, there have not been a great many others. Maybe, too, China will later become still another example of this kind of monstrous and menacing giant power. But I do not think that China today is to be equated with either Hitlerian Germany or the Soviet Union—at any rate if judged from the standpoint of the United States.

The new China seemed interesting to me for two reasons—because the strange workings of the world balance of power have made China into a quasi-ally of this country (with considerable advantage to us, as I believe); and because the new China, if successful, will inescapably have an enormous weight in the world. Hence these were the only two subjects I wished to investigate.

My first object was to determine, insofar as one can ever determine such things, the worth of China as a quasi-ally. On this point, I was reassured by the resoluteness, tough-mindedness, and clear view of world realities that I found among the Chinese leaders. In this respect, being in China was like being in Israel. In other words, I found myself thinking how useful it would be if we could swap some of their leaders for a good many of our own.

As to the larger question about China’s success, I saw what looked to me like signs that great future success was highly possible. This more complex impression of mine did not involve any substantial change of mind about the convulsions of the past. What seemed important to me was not to pass judgment on what had happened. It seemed important, rather, to make a rough but relatively reliable estimate of what was currently happening. For example, I believe that a China with no Communist revolution, with twenty bustling, enterprising Hong Kongs scattered up and down the China coast, would have come much closer to parallelling the postwar economic achievement of Japan. I doubt that such a China would have had the governmental strength and solidity needed for a giant power, partly because of the extreme social injustices that would almost certainly have been perpetuated. If this analysis is correct, however, such a China would have been far ahead, at least economically, of the new China today. On the other hand, this kind of speculation seemed to me totally academic in the circumstances, as it seemed to me academic to concern myself with the mistakes of the Great Leap Forward, when that strange episode lay so far in the past. The China which seems to me to show signs of great future success is the China that I saw in November-December last winter.

Obviously great risks still lie ahead of China, for example in the change of leadership that must inevitably come. Obviously, too, a wandering foreigner like myself, with no particular agricultural or industrial knowledge, cannot be sure of reading the signs correctly, even if he goes to places he knows well already, as I well knew the provinces where I spent most of my time. So when I say that I think China will be strikingly successful within fifteen or twenty years, it is like betting on a horse in a race with many risks.

On the other hand, I am convinced that China is now a good bet. I believe, first of all, that China has now entered the stage of mutation, in the direction of greater flexibility and what I can only call Chineseness, that should be easy to recognize for anyone who has read Chinese history. Such mutations have taken place at least twice before in the long Chinese past, after the short Ch’in and Sui Dynasties. Both were dynasties that remolded China. Both ended in revolutions. Both were then followed by the most successful governments China has ever had—and both the successor governments used the new structures just built up, and benefited from the sweeping changes just made. But I see no reason why a comparable mutation, this time, must necessarily be produced by an actual change of regime. A radical change of direction, tone, and purpose should be quite enough. I believe this kind of change has begun.

In the second place, I am firmly persuaded that almost everyone underrates the vast resource constituted by the Chinese people themselves—the most intelligent, ingenious, and hard-working people on the face of the earth, as far as I have been able to observe. Thirdly, I also saw major physical signs of success in the Chinese countryside. I was closely familiar with the countryside in the Second World War. It has been astonishingly and beneficially transformed, at least from the standpoint of the state’s prosperity—for I do not pretend to be able to pass on what has really happened to the farmers who have carried out the transformation. Finally, I must observe that a bet on China’s future success is the biggest single bet, from a rational historical viewpoint, that anyone can now make. China is after all seven times the size of Japan. In the last twenty years we have seen the impact of Japan’s success. If China is, say, one-half as successful economically as Japan, we shall be living in a world with a new economic weight in it four times as great as Japan’s weight. That means we shall be living with a new world balance, different from the balance familiar to all the generations since Western imperialism began in earnest in the early 16th century. This, therefore, is a bet that is well worth exploring from all possible points of view.

In closing, I must add one final comment on the intellectual life of the new China. I did not touch upon this in my reports from China, because I felt totally incompetent to do so. I could find no trace of any intellectual life even remotely comparable to that carried on in Russia by the great dissidents like Solzhenitsyn and Mme. Mandelstam. I have no idea whether the China of the future will permit intellectual creativity, except in the area of science. In any case, it seems to me that for an American newspaperman, writing solely from the standpoint of American practical interests, this is a relatively minor question. What happens between China and the Soviet Union and ourselves; how China evolves, and particularly whether China becomes a giant power; what will then be the relations among the three giant powers, the U.S., the USSR, and this China of the future—these are the subjects that ought to interest American newspapermen. Other subjects may be left to persons of different formation, who may or may not be better equipped to deal with them.

Joseph Alsop
Washington, D.C.



To the Editor:

Sheila K. Johnson . . . fails to appreciate that China, like love, is a many-splendored thing, to use words popularized by one who has written much about both, but knows little of either. Mrs. Johnson tries to squeeze too much into variations on the fellow-traveller theme, and therefore slights the current appeal of China to Americans of many other persuasions.

First, the appeal to the Super-Patriot: When others all about were talking of the evils of carpet-bombing, it was possible last December for Chinese and Americans to stand mao-t’ai glass to mao-t’ai glass toasting a growing friendship which could not be fazed by the mere raining of bombs on Hanoi. And, at present, benumbed 100 per cent Middle Americans can take heart from the considerateness of the Chinese government in not breathing a word about Watergate to the Chinese public, for it would be bad form to publicize the troubles of a new friend. (A Chinese “journalist” recently remarked, “You Americans shouldn’t talk so much about Watergate, for it can only make Mr. Nixon unhappy, and he is such a nice man.”) . . .

Second, there is the appeal of China to all unreconstructed Tories who thought that they would never live to see the day when it would be possible in polite society to extol the sweatshop and the company union. Anyone with even the slightest streak of Andrew Carnegie in him will certainly find pleasure in learning that Chinese housewives work in their “neighborhood cooperative factories” eight hours a day, six days a week, for less than nine dollars a month, and he can become absolutely ecstatic on being told by earnest radicals that the women neither need nor want more, for rent costs only a pittance, medicine is nearly free, child care is provided for a nominal sum, and their free day can be given to moral uplift and political consciousness-raising—and anyway there is nothing to buy, for China is not a materialistic society addicted to consumerism. If that isn’t enough to bring together Tory and radical, think of the condition of the Chinese male factory worker who gets between one and two dollars a day, who is now “enthusiastically welcoming” the establishment of government-sponsored unions that exhort him to work harder and longer and not ask for more pay. As radical young Americans proclaim that “Chinese workers are supremely happy” with their Spartan lives, the unreconstructed Tory must think that he is hearing again the blessed words of those 19th-century divines who preached that hard, uncomplaining work, avoidance of gin and sin, and proper moral dedication was the only path to ultimate happiness.

How can we criticize a country which has brought together our radicals and reactionaries and made it impossible to tell them apart? . . . Just possibly, China rather than the post-industrial West will succeed in truly bringing an end to ideology.

But beyond ideology there remain appeals which can’t be classified in general terms but reflect a moment in history. Some Americans may have empathy for China as another society struggling to pull back from the brink of chaos, permissiveness, disregard for authority, and what have you. Most Americans wouldn’t have the nerve themselves, but underneath they are prepared to tip their hats in silent admiration for a people who will take no nonsense from their young, happily ship millions of high-school graduates off to lonely years of learning what labor is all about on isolated farms and in gloomy factories, and insist that any who are admitted to college will have to follow a narrow and precise curriculum without any time-wasting electives and imagination-provoking courses. . . .

There are many other appeals of China which Mrs. Johnson overlooks, and which space precludes mentioning, but most serious of all, she fails to consider the question: What do those of us who are committed to old-fashioned liberalism see in China that is not offensive? That is a tough question. The Chinese have made it no easier since they agree with both radical and reactionary that liberalism is a thing of the past. But there is one slight difference, and that is that the Chinese, unlike the American radical or reactionary, shares with the rear-guard liberal an appreciation for civility, and . . . wherever you can find civility these days, you shouldn’t pooh-pooh it. It may not last very long, but let’s hold on to it while we can.

Lucian W. Pye
Cambridge, Massachusetts



To the Editor:

. . . Many medical scientists are equally, or perhaps even more, infatuated with China than the writers Sheila K. Johnson comments on in her article. Mrs. Johnson is disappointed with the superficial impressions and conclusions of most of the writers she discusses, but it is perhaps even more difficult to understand the enthusiastic subjugation of medical experts to Chinese propaganda in the field of medicine.

One visitor to China, Dr. Sam Rosen, professor emeritus of Otolaryngology at New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine, recently presented a lecture on acupuncture and Chinese medicine in general to a group of several hundred physicians in Cincinnati. Dr. Rosen’s talk, which I attended, was followed by a film illustrating surgical case reports and showing actual opertions.

We know that acupuncture has been practiced in China for 4,000 years and was used for all sorts of ailments. In 1969, however, it was suddenly discovered that the insertion of a few needles in certain points of the body can cause complete anesthesia and a patient can be operated on without having to use any other medication, sedation, or other anesthetic agents. But even if we were willing to grant that acupuncture has the mysterious power to replace ordinary anesthetics, the lecture and film presentation went far beyond this claim. Let me cite a few examples.

A middle-aged woman is shown being operated on in Peking for the removal of a large fibroid tumor of the uterus. With the acupuncture needles she is completely relaxed. During the operation she talks to the surgeon and attendants. No hemostats or sutures are used to stop bleeding which is usually abundant in this type of operation. When the operation is finished, the woman immediately sits up on the operating table and shakes hands with everyone concerned. To our amazement we were shown a group of women working with pick and shovel only a few days later and were told that this post-operative woman was one of them. Apparently the acupuncture had not only succeeded as an anesthetic but had caused immediate healing and a miraculous cure, since, according to what we saw, the incision healed promptly without sutures and even heavy physical work did not open the wound.

Another patient who is being operated on for a gastric resection, which means losing a major part of his stomach, is not only completely relaxed and even entertains the surgical team during the operation, but at its conclusion he sits up on the operating table without help and enjoys a glass of orange juice. Thus there is no sign of the lack of peristaltic action which always occurs post-operatively in gastrectomy, nor is it necessary that the fresh wound heal, a process which everywhere else in the world requires intravenous feeding for at least five or six days before the patient can take even an ounce of water.

An eight-month-old boy is brought into the operating room squirming, yelling, and crying and being held down by three attendants. But he responds immediately to the acupuncture needle and lies back on the operating table relaxed but conscious. . . .

In another case, a large brain tumor is removed in no time. There is no bleeding of any kind, electro-cauterization needles are not in sight, nor are there any hemostats or sutures. The trauma of surgery does not cause any temporary coma—always the case in this type of operation—and the patient is also completely well right after the operation. . . .

These are only a few examples of what we saw. One would think that even a moderately critical observer could reach only one conclusion: namely, that the films were staged propaganda. Indeed, unless one were to believe either in witchcraft or miracles, there is no other possible explanation. Yet in an audience of several hundred physicians, representing almost every field of medicine and including chairmen of medical and surgical departments of various hospitals, there were only three skeptics. . . . Perhaps the enthusiasm for all things Chinese which Mrs. Johnson decribes can cause even scientists to lose all touch with reality.

A. M. Wigser, M.D.
Cincinnati, Ohio



To the Editor:

. . . Thank you for the delightful article on China and her lovers by Sheila K. Johnson. Although I enjoyed the rhapsodies of Salisbury, Galbraith, Alsop, et al. as good kitsch, I think it is Anonymous, the Shanghai official who answered a question about Lin Piao with, “Eat your lunch,” who deserves immortality. . . .

Helena Skalecki
New York City



Sheila K. Johnson writes:

I am pleased to stand corrected by Lucian W. Pye, and I find it intriguing to juxtapose his letter to that of Joseph Alsop. For all his acerbic wit, Mr. Pye is certainly as fond and admiring of the Chinese as Mr. Alsop claims to be (aside from being a noted scholar of Chinese politics and society, Mr. Pye was born and raised in China), and I think it is partly his affection for the Chinese that makes him long to see their government evolve into something less ideological and more libertarian. By contrast, Mr. Alsop declares that the fate of intellectual life in China is a “relatively minor question” and that “the morality of a government, so long as it is not for export, . . . concern[s] only the people being governed.” Employing those standards, we would have to be unconcerned about the fate of Solzhenitsyn or of Soviet-Jewish intellectuals trying to emigrate to Israel, and indifferent to the massacres and breaches of human rights being perpetrated by the current regimes in Greece, Uganda, and South Africa (to name just a few).

I do not, of course, regard countries “as large, unchanging entities, toward which one must always have a constant view”; if that were so, I would not be so upset by certain leftist scholars who, in addition to praising China, are arguing that Japan is just as imperialist, war-minded, and anti-democratic as it was in the 1930’s. What I was mainly deploring in my article is the sort of black-and-white stereotypic thinking that makes China all-bad one day, and all-good the next. Mr. Alsop notwithstanding, I believe that such a radical change of outlook cannot be explained wholly in terms of changing circumstances within China. Instead, I believe there are too many visitors going to China who are unwilling to raise difficult questions (such as, for example, those raised by Dr. A. M. Wigser), just as there are too many visitors prepared to swallow any and all Chinese answers. “Eat your lunch” may be an adequate response to a four-year-old who asks an adult an embarrassing question, but it does not strike me as a universally acceptable way to deal with political and human issues.

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