The Occidental Tourist
FOR MORE THAN forty years China has been my drug of choice. From time to time there have been experimental forays into other stimulants, but China has always produced the most reliable high. When you find something that works, that doesn't lose its kick or require stronger doses over time, you stick with it.
As a Jewish American kid growing up in Los Angeles, I had no particular predisposition toward China or the Chinese. My parents were the offspring of Russian and Eastern European immigrants. Before graduating from high school, the closest I ever came to Chinese culture was Charlie Chan, Fu Manchu, and the egg rolls at Madame Wu's Cantonese Garden; the only pearls of ancient Oriental wisdom I encountered were the faux-Confucian platitudes embedded in said Madame Wu's fortune cookies.
After starting at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1957, I floundered for a while as a pre-law major, taking some constitutional law classes and pitching for the freshman baseball team. In the middle of my sophomore year I realized that law was not for me and switched to political science. I also joined a campus fraternity, but I soon tired of the bloated, beery bravado of the “brothers” and dropped out after one year. By then, chronic bursitis in my left shoulder had put an end to my pitching aspirations. I tried playing first base for a while but just couldn't hit the curve ball. After batting only .167 in half a dozen intrasquad games, the baseball coach, Art Reichle, called me aside and told me I was being cut from the varsity. I was crushed.
For two years at UCLA my grades were mediocre—mostly Bs and Cs.
Like so many other students then and now, I was adrift, lacking motivation. But being cut from the baseball team helped focus my attention. At around the same time, the end of my sophomore year, I began dating my future wife, Carolyn Paller—a community college transfer student who carried an intimidating 4.0 grade point average. Her academic success stirred my competitive juices, and in my junior year I began studying in earnest. I took a couple of courses on international relations and found them to my liking. One of my professors, a gentle, grandfatherly Scotsman named Malbone Graham, took me under his wing. I began to blossom, and my grades showed distinct improvement.
But it was not until my senior year that I accidentally stumbled into the course that would ultimately change my life. With baseball practice no longer part of my daily regimen, I had a part-time job as a storeroom clerk at the UCLA Student Health Service. Because of my work schedule, I needed to find a Tuesday-Thursday afternoon class that would count toward my major in political science. As it happened, the only one offered that semester—the spring of 1961—was Poli. Sci. 159, “Government and Politics of China.” Such are the banal roots of life-altering events that Chinese politics, far from being a calling, was in the first instance merely a scheduling convenience.
The professor, H. Arthur Steiner, was a crusty old geezer, a former Marine Corps colonel who had displayed no particular interest in China prior to being assigned to the U.S. liaison force that landed at Tianjin, in Northeast China, at the close of World War II. Professor Steiner was a real piece of work. Rigid and demanding, brooking no nonsense from students, he was the closest thing to a drill instructor I ever encountered. But he was a challenging teacher, and his stories about postwar China were fascinating. He definitely got my attention.
The first book we read in Steiner's class was Red Star over China, Edgar Snow's engrossing tale of the early years of the Communist revolution, including the first authorized biography of Mao Zedong and a blow-by-blow account of the Red Army's epic 1934-36 Long March. It was utterly captivating—a real-life adventure of derring-do, featuring Mao and his heroic band of Red Army guerrillas repeatedly outwitting and outmaneuvering Chinese Nationalist generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his much larger but inept anti-Communist forces.
When I told my father about Red Star over China
, he was, to say the least, skeptical. A union shop steward in the Hollywood film industry, he
was an intense, emotional man, with strong liberal political views and a rabid anti-Communist streak. During World War II his union had fought an attempted takeover by Stalinist agents, and he never outgrew his visceral disdain for anything “made in Moscow.” When I tentatively suggested that the Chinese Communists were somehow different
, he merely scoffed. Affecting the self-assured, dismissive manner of Gertrude Stein, he firmly proclaimed that “A Communist is a Communist is a Communist.”
Thus rebuffed in my first full-blown Oedipal offensive, I retreated meekly, immersing myself in my studies. Professor Steiner next assigned us Benjamin Schwartz's compelling history of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao, along with Harold Isaacs's eye-opening anti-Stalinist exposé, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution. The Chinese Communists really were different, it seemed. Mao had rejected Stalin's self-serving directives in the late 1920s and 1930s, thwarting the Soviet dictator's plans to turn China into a Soviet puppet state. My self-confidence began to grow.
Toward the middle of the semester we read John K. Fairbanks's classic account of chronic American misperceptions of the Chinese revolution, The United States and China, along with the as yet unpublished World War II dispatches of John Stewart Service, a career foreign service officer who, as a member of the U.S. government's “Dixie Mission,” had liaised with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai at their wartime Yan'an headquarters in 1944. These readings portrayed a dynamic Chinese Communist movement possessed of high morale, outstanding military leadership, and the broad support of China's peasant masses.
The more I read, the clearer it seemed that the Chinese Communists had been welcomed as liberators by most of the populace. Mao had confiscated the property of the rapacious landlord-gentry class and distributed it to the impoverished peasants; his outmanned, under-equipped guerrilla forces had fought victoriously against both Chiang Kai-shek's corrupt Nationalists and the brutal Japanese invaders—architects, among other things, of the horrific Rape of Nanking. At this early point in my education I was still quite naïve, but I was definitely hooked. My arguments with my father now became a bit more heated—and a lot more evenly matched.
Then, in the last half of Steiner's course, my Oedipal struggle took a sudden turn. Reading about the new institutions and policies of the post-1949 Communist regime in China, I began to see that by the mid-1950s the CCP had begun implementing policies that, on balance, had done more harm
than good. After distributing land to the peasants, the Maoists took it away again. At first, participation in collective farms was voluntary, but after 1955 it became compulsory. Resistance was met with disciplinary “struggle” and even imprisonment. By 1957 a large number of Chinese intellectuals, who at first had generally welcomed the Communist regime, turned against it. In the Hundred Flowers Movement they expressed their dissenting opinions on wall posters—only to suffer persecution as “rightists” in a subsequent rectification campaign. At that point in Steiner's course, a few weeks before the final exam, I stopped arguing quite so vehemently with my father. His general distrust of Communism seemed a bit more reasonable than before—though I continued to insist that Mao's brand of Communism was very different from Stalin's.
Then disaster overtook China. Mao launched his Great Leap Forward in 1958, and in the last few weeks of Steiner's class we pored over the available documents. Steiner would come into class each Tuesday and Thursday afternoon armed with stacks of mimeographed documents, hot off the ditto machine. I devoured them eagerly, searching for clues as to what had gone wrong with Mao's radical experiment in social engineering, and why. By the time the course ended, Steiner had dissected the rise and fall of the Chinese rural people's communes, cornerstones of Mao's utopian vision. The communes—with their ubiquitous backyard steel furnaces, free food distribution scheme, militarized labor organization, and unrealistic procurement quotas—proved to be a man-made calamity of the first magnitude.
Though we did not know it then, Mao's folly ultimately cost the lives of more than thirty million people. But the “Great Helmsman” was too stubborn to acknowledge error, and he purged those, like the outspoken army commander Peng Dehuai, who dared question his judgment. By 1959 the debacle could no longer be hidden, and Mao was forced to retreat from the front line of policy making. Thereafter, the Great Leap was quietly but effectively dismantled by two of Mao's more sensible and pragmatic lieutenants, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping.
I found all this quite riveting. I couldn't possibly know it then, but over the next forty years I would spend an inordinate amount of time and energy pondering the impact of these three men—Mao, Liu, and Deng—on the course of modern Chinese history.
To prepare for Steiner's final exam, I pulled several consecutive all-nighters. Coffee, No-Doz, and the occasional Dexamyl upper fueled my orgy of concentrated study. I thoroughly reviewed all the books, articles,
documents, and class notes from the course. By the day of the exam I was primed.
Then the old coot threw me a curve. One of the two most heavily weighted essay questions on his final exam asked for an analysis of a mimeographed CCP document on the organization of the rural people's communes. I drew a complete blank. Somehow I had overlooked this one particular reading assignment. On the verge of panic, I did the only thing I could think of—bait and switch. I wrote a couple of brief paragraphs on the organization of the communes and then, without breaking stride, shifted my focus onto a different issue altogether—the collapse of the Great Leap Forward. Although it was off topic, it was a damned good essay. After the exam I went home and found the missing document, which had somehow gotten shoved under my bed. I waited nervously for the better part of a week to get the exam results, cursing my stupid oversight. When the postcard came in the mail, it contained a short, cryptic note in Steiner's hand: “Nice try!”
I got an A from Steiner—the most treasured grade of my entire college career—and it changed me. First of all, my struggle with my dad ended well. Though neither of us would concede error, he began listening to me more attentively, showing new, if grudging, respect for my opinions. Second, I became a very good student, pulling straight As in my senior year. Third, I made up my mind to go to graduate school. H. Arthur Steiner had lit a fire in my belly.
MAJORING IN POLITICAL science, I entered graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, in the fall of 1962. My declared field of specialization was international relations (IR). It seemed like a reasonable choice for a kid who was hooked on world politics, and besides, Chinese politics was not a terribly practical career option—the more so since I was still, at that point, a complete stranger to the Chinese language.
It took me about two months to realize that I had made a big mistake. My first course in IR theory at Berkeley was taught by a visiting professor from Oberlin College. We read the “great books” on international politics, written by such eminent scholars as Hans Morgenthau, Ernst Haas, and Kenneth Waltz. By the end of the eighth week of the class I was totally depressed. The big debate in IR theory—over whether interests or ideologies were more important in shaping relations among nations—struck me as basically silly. Whole armies of theorists were arrayed on one side or the other of this epic battle, but I wanted no part of it. It seemed perfectly
obvious to me then (and still does now) that both interests and
ideologies matter, and that the two serve to shape, constrain, and define each other. Perhaps I was missing some of the subtler nuances in the debate, but I didn't care: IR was not for me. (I hasten to add that IR theorists are still fighting this same battle. Although their arguments and methodologies have become more complex and sophisticated in the intervening forty years, the essence of the debate remains unchanged.)
At the end of my first semester of graduate school I wrote to Arthur Steiner, telling him of my quandary and asking for advice. He suggested that I get in touch with a Berkeley political science professor, Robert A. Scalapino, and take a course from him if possible. Scalapino taught East Asian politics and foreign relations, and Steiner held him in high esteem.
My first classroom encounter with Bob Scalapino, though not as random as my initial encounter with Steiner, had an equally profound effect. From the outset, I responded positively to his rich understanding of East Asia, his nondogmatic style of teaching, and his consummate professionalism, both in and out of the classroom. Bob had very mixed feelings about China's emergence as a Communist power, but he never became emotional about the People's Republic of China (PRC), and when asked about the future of U.S.-China relations, he invariably replied that he was cautiously optimistic. Indeed, “cautious optimism” was Bob's signature mantra. I did quite well in his class, and he became my academic adviser as well as my mentor and role model. After finishing his course, I left the field of international relations for good and never looked back.
At the end of my first semester with Scalapino, he urged me to take a course with one of his young colleagues, Chalmers Johnson, who was just beginning his teaching career at Berkeley. I enrolled in Chal Johnson's first seminar on Chinese politics. It was a real eye-opener. A couple of weeks into the course, he was lecturing on the World War II Dixie Mission. About halfway through the lecture a tall, gaunt fellow in the back row, wearing wire-rimmed glasses and appearing quite a bit older than the rest of us, raised his hand. Eventually Johnson called on him. “With all due respect, sir,” the man began politely, “there's a part of the story that's missing.” Johnson, who did not take kindly to being contradicted by mere students, looked at him with a mixture of contempt and disbelief. “And just who might you
be?” he demanded. “My name is Service, sir,” came the soft-spoken response. A look of slow-dawning recognition crept over Johnson's face. He began to stammer. “Not…not John Stewart
he asked. “Yes sir,” came the reply. For the first and only time in all the years I have known him, Chal was at a complete loss for words.
Jack Service's frank wartime assessment of debilitating Nationalist corruption and superior CCP leadership had landed him in deep trouble in the early 1950s, as hard-line anti-Communists in the U.S. Congress searched for scapegoats to explain the “loss” of China. For his candor as a member of the 1944 Dixie Mission, and for his postwar connections with the Institute of Pacific Relations, a liberal Wilsonian forum devoted to the analysis of East Asian affairs, Service was hounded out of the foreign service as a “Communist sympathizer” by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his supporters. Subsequently reinstated by order of the U.S. Supreme Court, he came to Berkeley in 1962 to pursue a master's degree in political science. Afterward, he stayed on as library curator and publications editor for the university's Center for Chinese Studies. There he generously shared with me and other graduate students his rich personal experiences and insights about China. Later he would play a small but pivotal role in helping to launch my professional career.
Throughout my Berkeley years, Bob Scalapino and Chal Johnson proved to be superb academic mentors. As different as night and day—Bob was soft-spoken, reflective, and diplomatic, while Chal was opinionated, bombastic, and blunt—they complemented each other nicely. Though our relationship would be tested at times by the severe political storms of the ‘60s, I benefited enormously from their guidance.
In the late 1950s Berkeley had established the Center for Chinese Studies, funded by a multiyear, million-dollar Ford Foundation grant that was intended to stimulate academic research on Chinese Communism. Happily for me, my fascination with China deepened just as the center began dispensing graduate fellowships. With the applicant pool relatively sparse (few graduate students were specializing in the study of Chinese Communism in those years), Bob and Chal urged me to apply. I survived the screening process, and for the next five years my tuition, fees, and basic living expenses were paid by the Ford Foundation and its administrative successor, the Foreign Area Fellowship Program. In exchange for my stipend I was expected to take a series of Chinese-language classes plus five hours a week of individual and small-group language tutorials.
FOR A BUDDING
young Berkeley China junkie, the mid-1960s were the best and the worst of times. China was just beginning to undergo revolutionary
turbulence, its people stirred to revolt by their aging idol, Mao Zedong. Now in his seventies, Mao had returned to the front lines of power with a vengeance, riding on the shoulders of his youthful minions, the Red Guard. Teenagers ran wild, waving Mao's “Little Red Book” of quotations, smashing all traditional icons, emblems, and embodiments of rank, status, and authority save one—Überchairman Mao himself. The Cultural Revolution was a living political laboratory, a real-time experiment in the dialectical interplay of utopian fantasies and totalitarian nightmares, poetic omelettes and prosaic eggs. “A revolution is not a dinner party,” said Chairman Mao in his characteristically enigmatic, oracular way.
In some ways China's national trauma was a graduate student's dream. Observing the Cultural Revolution at a safe distance from the commanding heights of the Berkeley Bear's Lair, my peers and I sipped coffee and debated the finer points of Mao's “strategic plan.” For some of my Berkeley classmates—the left-wing philosophes sois-disants and radical acolytes of Herbert Marcuse, Che Guevara, and Frantz Fanon—the Maoist vision of an egalitarian future free from egoism, greed, and the “revisionist” pursuit of material self-interest trumped all considerations of human cost and collateral damage. Berkeley was, after all, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement (FSM), the Black Panthers, and the Vietnam War resistance, a mélange of disparate liberationist philosophies cavorting together under an existential blanket of pot-blown communal bliss.
For some, however, the high costs of Mao's last revolution could not be wished, washed, smoked, or philosophized away. Untold numbers of Chinese people were reportedly being humiliated, imprisoned, tortured, or driven to suicide in the name of revolutionary virtue. Though the full human toll of the Maoist “decade of destruction” would not be calculated for years to come, enough was known by the mid-'6os to raise serious questions about the relationship between the Maoists' arguably virtuous ends and their palpably brutal means. In their haste to rid China of bourgeois influence, Mao and his radical acolytes, including his notorious wife Jiang Qing and her Shanghai colleagues, later reviled as the Gang of Four, were pushing China to the brink of anarchy. While some saw Red Guard violence as “necessary destruction,” others grasped the relevance of Molière's ironic caveat: “More men die of their remedies than of their illnesses.”
Berkeley's graduate students were not alone in debating the relative costs and benefits of Mao's last revolution. Our academic mentors were similarly divided. More often than not the faculty's intramural disputes
mirrored preexisting ideological and political schisms, sharpened and amplified by the ongoing antiwar and Free Speech movements. The resulting antagonisms were intense and often deeply personal, and more than a few graduate students found their career prospects held perilous hostage to philosophical rifts among and with their faculty advisers. One friend, a teaching assistant, had his academic dreams abruptly shattered when his supervisor fired him for encouraging students to take part in an antiwar boycott.
Not all the career-threatening wounds suffered by grad students in the Berkeley culture wars were inflicted by the faculty. Some were self-inflicted. My best friend Jerry dropped out of school in 1966 to become a self-styled “movement junkie” after being manhandled by police, who dragged him off in handcuffs from a Sproul Hall sit-in led by Joan Baez. Today he still wears Birkenstocks, curses the “pigs,” and recites poetry in Berkeley coffeehouses, when he isn't off demonstrating to save the Indonesian rain forest or the baby seals in Newfoundland. I might have gone down that road, too, but when I heard the police were coming into Sproul Hall, I made a quick exit. Comps—the hellish battery of written examinations endured by all pre-doctoral students midway through their graduate studies—were just a few weeks away, and I couldn't afford to spend the night in jail, not even with Joan Ba...