THE FOLLOWING IS TAKEN from Pankaj Mishra’s introduction to Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land, edited by Angilee Shah and Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom; Wasserstrom is Los Angeles Review of Books Asia editor. The book contains essays by Alec Ash, James Carter, Leslie T. Chang, Xujun Eberlein, Harriet Evans, Anna Greenspan, Peter Hessler, Ian Johnson, Ananth Krishnan, Christina Larson, Michelle Dammon Loyalka, James Millward, Evan Osnos, Jeffrey Prescott, and Megan Shank, all of whom tell stories of ordinary people living in divergent circumstances, all affected by the storm of change sweeping their enormous country.
Looking back four decades later at his years as a journalist in China in the 1940s, the historian John K. Fairbank blamed himself and his journalistic colleagues for “one of the great failures in history”: “We had no knowledge, in other words, and no way to gain any knowledge, of the life of ordinary Chinese people. . . . Our reporting was very superficial. We could not educate or illuminate or inform the American people or the American leadership in such a way that we could modify the outcome.”
What was this outcome he so regretted? Fairbank not only had in mind the American support for the Nationalist Party (Guomindang) and unstinting hostility to the Communists. He was also thinking of the way America reacted to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949: that it had “lost” China to Communism.
Fairbank was targeted for his allegedly Communist sympathies, so he knew all too well that this anti-Communist obsession had serious consequences. The vengeful rage of budding cold warriors found ready scapegoats among diplomats and journalists — the many “China Hands” — who had correctly perceived the strengths of Mao Zedong’s army and the weaknesses of America’s ally Chiang Kai-shek. Promptly branded fellow travelers of Communism, they were purged from positions of influence in the government, universities, and the media — a self-mutilation that led to the intellectual and military fiascos of Korea and Vietnam, when the United States, drawn into ground wars in Asia by Cold War paranoia, could barely see its enemy.
Fairbank implicated himself and other American journalists in these wars, which he described as “a first-class disaster for the American people.” Reading him now, you may wonder if he was exaggerating his own role in history. The general public may have been underinformed but to what extent could journalists be blamed for failures in American foreign policy making?
The West’s understanding of China, a country always deemed more “inscrutable” than its Asian counterparts, had long been filtered through the varying interpretations of foreign writers in the country — right from the carefully detailed accounts of the first Jesuits in China to the jubilant news spread by American businessmen and publicists about the world’s last unexplored market in the early twentieth century. In the 1920s and 1930s, Anna Louise Strong, Agnes Smedley, and Edgar Snow attempted to educate American progressives about left-wing currents in China. At the same time, children of American missionaries in China such as Pearl S. Buck and Henry Luce — the first a Nobel Prize-winning writer, the latter the publisher of Time, Life, and Fortune magazines — helped establish China in the popular imagination as a test case for America’s engagement with the world.
It is largely forgotten today that China, apparently hapless before civil wars and foreign invasions in the early twentieth century, was adopted by many American do-gooders, who hoped that American democracy and culture might be transformative forces beyond the country’s borders. Hence, the great fury when this needy orphan was, as it were, “lost” in 1949.
The new caretakers of China, of course, had no time for its aspiring foster parents in the West. They favored those foreign journalists — and there were quite a few of them — who sang the praises of the revolution. Narrative journalism about post–World War II China has been logistically possible only since the early 1980s, when the country began to emerge out of a long period of political and cultural isolation. But have contemporary writers on China done a better job than those Fairbank deplored?
The Cold War, during which China moved from “Yellow Peril” to “Red Menace,” is over, even if some attitudes from it linger in the semi-hysterical predictions about the Chinese taking over the universe.
There is no question that we have entered a multipolar world in which China is too big and strong to be patronized or pushed around. But it’s too easy to say that the decline of old ideological certainties in West, and improved access to China, automatically makes for perceptive writing about the country. For post-Mao China is, in many ways, even more dauntingly — to use a much-abused word — inscrutable; and writing about it requires many skills not taught at journalism schools.
Most coverage of China in the mainstream press aims to alert the West to the promise and perils of rapid economic growth in the country. You might think that writing about a civilization with a long history in terms of whether its “rise” would help Westerners make or lose money is self-limiting. However, most journalists, especially correspondents of business periodicals, don’t aim very high. At their most thoughtful, they might speculate about the timetable for the introduction of Western-style “democracy” in China.
Not surprisingly, their writings reveal very little about how most Chinese live or see themselves and the world, but very much about how certain ideological assumptions and prejudices of the “West,” so strengthened by its supposed victory in the Cold War, have overwhelmed many journalists in Britain and America.
The Chinese, we are repeatedly told, have embraced capitalism and globalization. But the word “capitalism” scarcely describes an economic system in which a one-party state controls the major banks and companies and regulates the movement of capital. And while embracing globalization, China has surely also adopted commonplace Western practices such as the privatization and truncating of public services, deunionization, and the fragmenting and lumpenization of urban working classes.
Many in China’s new middle classes have done very well out of two decades of capitalism, and the country’s ruling elite struts across the world stage, browbeating its neighbors and standing up to America, as never before. But what does China’s “rise” mean for the large majority of its population? What is one to make of the lingering reverence for Mao in the age of post-Mao prosperity? How does the embattled trade union organizer in Guangzhou perceive Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaobo, two “dissidents” celebrated in the West?
Plainly, any worthwhile discussion of the New China must continually dismantle ideological frameworks in both China and the West and focus on the diversity and many internal schisms of Chinese society. Even a commonplace triumphalism like “globalization has lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese above the poverty line” is freighted with particular assumptions. For it does not tell us what poverty, always a relative concept, means in the context of the world’s biggest-ever transition from rural to urban areas. Or, how the awful boredom of collective stagnation, what Marx called the “idiocy of rural life,” compares to the distress of extreme inequality and exploitation in urban areas. Does the rural migrant worker from Shanxi find his desolation in Wenzhou preferable to a hand-to-mouth existence with his family at home?
There are no simple answers to these questions, largely because the Chinese themselves, gaining some things, losing others, cannot but be internally split about the great changes in their society. As Jeffrey Wasserstrom shows in his introduction to this collection, the one constant about China today is rapid and bewildering changes in personal lifestyles and ideologies. Honoring this complexity is the fundamental task of any contemporary writer about China. As Fairbank pointed out:
“Every journalist is walking on a fault line — of unresolved and ambivalent historic situations — trying to represent it some way in words. It is probably the essence of the journalistic profession . . . that reporters deal with ambivalent situations where the outcome is uncertain, the values are mixed, and the sides are in conflict.”
This has never been as true as it is in the case of today’s mercurial China. And, it’s not an exaggeration to say that only journalism that aspires to the condition of literature can do justice to contemporary China: a mode of writing that creates in its readers not certainty of any kind but a profound sense of the ambiguity and irony inherent in human desires and aspirations.