Lessons in History: How a China Scholar Misread the Chinese Communist Party Twice
(Minghui.org) “The Farmer and the Snake” is one of Aesop’s well-known fables. One winter, a farmer took pity on a frozen snake and revived it. Regaining its strength, the snake bit the man, who said just before he died, “Learn from my fate not to take pity on a scoundrel.”
The fable is easy for even a child to understand. But in today’s complex society, telling good from bad may not be so simple. The late John K. Fairbank, a renowned China scholar from Harvard, learned the true colors of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) the hard way.
Two Instances of Support and Two Regrets
Even when he visited China in May 1972 at the height of the Cultural Revolution that claimed the life of his best friend Liang Sicheng, Fairbank still did not give up hope for the regime. U.S. President Richard Nixon’s visit to China was a sign that communism was “doing better,” unlike things that occurred in the 1950s, he wrote to a friend in the following year.
It was not until Jean Pasqualini published Prisoner of Mao, in which he described his seven blood-and-terror-filled years in prison in China that Fairbank changed his attitude. “Over the years, Mao's police have perfected their interrogation methods to such a fine point that I would defy any man, Chinese or not, to hold out against them,” Pasqualini wrote in his book. “Their aim is not so much to make you invent nonexistent crimes, but to make you accept your ordinary life, as you led it, as rotten and sinful and worthy of punishment.”
After Fairbank wrote a review for the book in November 1973, however, the CCP viewed that as hostile and refused to issue him a visa when he planned to visit China again. Still, Fairbank praised Mao Zedong in May 1975, referring to him, as always, as the greatest liberator. What he did not know was that Mao had caused the deaths of tens of millions in the Great Leap Forward and other political movements.
When China and the U.S. established formal diplomatic relations and a smiling Deng Xiaoping visited the U.S. in 1979, Fairbank reverted to his earlier attitude, beginning to praise China for its democratic trend.
It was the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 that finally awakened Fairbank and other China scholars like him. Several days before he died in 1991, he was able to finish China: A New History in which he corrected his erroneous opinions about the CCP. “Without the devastating Japanese invasion, the Nanjing government might gradually have led the way in China’s modernization,” he wrote in the book. “As it turned out, however, resisting Japan gave Mao and the CCP their chance to establish a new autocratic power in the countryside, excluding the elements of a nascent urban civil society that were still developing under the Nationalists.”
He also mentioned the brutal suppression of the democratic movement on Tiananmen Square at least 10 times. “...the violent military crackdown on demonstrators in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, in which it is estimated that anywhere from 800 to 1,300 people lost their lives and 10,000 to 30,000 participants were imprisoned,” he wrote.
He also pointed to the tragedies of the political movements such as the Great Leap Forward. “...the Great Leap Forward and its aftermath, in which more than 30 million peasants died from famine and malnutrition, and the Cultural Revolution, in which half a million people were killed or committed suicide and an estimated 100 million were persecuted,” he wrote.
He emphasized, “Chairman Mao Zedong killed millions and millions of Chinese while calling it a class struggle for revolution.”
Still, given his influence as an educator, scholar, and government advisor, Fairbank played a critical role in shaping U.S. strategy in favor of the CCP, both during the civil war in the 1940s and in connecting the countries in the 1970s. In his book, United States and China, he praised Mao above other leaders in history, from Caesar and Napoleon to Lenin. This book, written in 1948 and revised in 1958, 1971, and 1983, was one of the few books Nixon considered authoritative before he visited China in February 1972.
So how did Fairbank get the CCP wrong twice?
Judging a Book by Its Cover
Fairbank was born in 1907. After graduating from Harvard in 1929, he went to Oxford to study the Chinese language and history. After arriving in Beijing in 1932, he studied at Tsinghua University, where he met Liang Sicheng and his wife Lin Huiyin, two founders of modern Chinese architecture. Back at Oxford, Fairbank focused on the history of the Qing Dynasty, and Liang’s father was considered a distinguished reformer of the Qing Government.
Fairbank returned to Harvard in 1936 to teach Chinese history. He was later recruited to work for the U.S. government, which dispatched him to China in September 1942 for 15 months. His next assignment took him back to China in October 1945 for nine months. Visiting the CCP-held territory of Zhang Jiakou in June 1946, he was presented with CCP propaganda, such as “...we declared that, first, China needs peace and, second, China needs democracy,” as Mao wrote in October 1945.
With sincere respect for Chinese history and culture, Fairbank accepted the CCP at face value, with no way of knowing that the CCP would toss out these flowery remarks after seizing power several years later. Presented with only one side of the story, he did not know how the CCP regime had ruthlessly destroyed countless landlords—financially, physically, and mentally—in the name of “class struggle.” As a result, he encouraged the U.S. to work with Mao instead of Chiang Kai-shek and introduced the CCP to the United Nations.
Although the Korean war taught Fairbank the harm of communism and the political movement against intellectuals showed him the regime’s cruelty, he still had hope for the CCP. “Our reaction to Chinese Communism is naturally surcharged with resentment,” he wrote in The Atlantic in April 1957, “Our present posture toward China is righteous, isolated, and negative.”
Considered a China expert, Fairbank not only taught students and established the Center for East Asian Research in 1955 (later renamed The Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies), he also served as an advisor for the U.S. Embassy in China and U.S. government agencies. Because of his pro-communist opinions, he was denied a visa to visit Japan and was called to testify before the McCarran Committee. Nonetheless, his fame and status at Harvard protected him, enabling him to write articles in favor of the CCP.
Similar to Fairbank, what Nixon saw when he visited China in 1972 was also staged, “including the propaganda machine, the security apparatus and efforts to mobilise the masses,” reported the BBC in a June 2018 article titled, “‘The week that changed the world’: How China prepared for Nixon.” For example, children were taught how to answer questions such as “Do you have enough to eat and wear?” and “Do you like America?” correctly.
“Truckloads of supplies were ferried to shops to fill the shelves, with a wider variety of goods on offer than usual,” the article continued, adding that even “tourists” on the Great Wall were “10 politically reliable people” previously picked with training on how to respond, according to a witness. “Much of the interaction between the Nixon party and “normal” Chinese people also appeared to be staged by Beijing,” concluded the BBC report.
Friends’ Tragedies and Final Clarity
Aside from Pasqualini’s Prisoner of Mao, there could have been other factors, such as the tragedies of his friends, that led to Fairbank to rethink the CCP in 1973.
As mentioned above, Fairbank met the Liang couple at Tsinghua University in 1932 and befriended them. His Chinese name, Fei Zhengqing, was actually given to him by the Liang couple. Liang and his wife had both studied at the University of Pennsylvania, where Liang earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in architecture, and his wife a bachelor’s degree in art. After the couple returned to China in 1928, although Lin was already ill, they managed to evaluate over 2,000 ancient structures in more than 200 counties in China within several years, making a significant contribution to the study of ancient Chinese structures. When the Allies planned heavy bombing of Japan in World War II, Liang successfully convinced America to spare the Japanese cities of Kyoto and Nara. He was hailed a hero in protecting ancient structures during the war.
In December 1948, Chiang Kai-shek sent planes to Beijing to bring renowned scholars to Taiwan. Both Liang and his wife were on the list, but they refused to leave due to their confidence in the CCP. It was too late when they learned that Mao had decided to demolish the majority of ancient structures in Beijing in 1953, claiming they were symbols of feudalism. The couple was grief-stricken when the buildings were destroyed one by one. Lin died two years later. Liang, on the other hand, was tortured and humiliated countless times before he finally passed away in January 1972.
Liang was not alone, as Fairbank’s other Chinese friends who stayed in mainland China also had similar experiences. Sociologist Fei Xiaotong was attacked between 1957 and 1980, Legal expert Ch'ien Tuan-sheng earned his Ph.D. at Harvard in 1924 and was attacked after 1957.
It remains unclear whether Fairbank knew all this back then. Nonetheless, his awakening in 1973 did not last long and he became a CCP supporter after Deng Xiaoping visited the U.S. in 1979.
After Fairbank passed away in 1991, the CCP's influence in the U.S. continued. On the recommendations of politicians, U.S. administrations have, in general, taken an appeasement approach towards China in the past four decades.
There was a belief among American scholars in the 1980s that, as China opened up more and adopted more of the American lifestyle, such as eating fast food like McDonald’s, the Chinese would think more like Americans and political reform would transform China. Even the Tiananmen Square Massacre did little to squelch that belief.
“The Communist Party signed its own death warrant that night,” wrote Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist and self-described progressive, adding that the freedom to order Starbucks would be an indicator of democracy. “So Communism is fading, in part because of Western engagement with China – trade, investment, Avon ladies, M.B.A.'s, Michael Jordan and Vogue magazines have triumphed over Marx,” he wrote in a June 2004 New York Times article titled “The Tiananmen Victory” to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the event.
If scholars’ mistakes in the 1940s helped the CCP to take over China, their failure to learn the lesson in “The Farmer and the Snake” helped the CCP to become a global power and advance communist ideology globally as we see now.
Before Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji visited the U.S. in 1999 to discuss China’s entry into the WTO, Richard Bernstein and Ross Munro published The Coming Conflict with China in 1998. These two former Beijing bureau chiefs with long experience in Asian affairs warned America of China’s continuing portrayal of America as the enemy, China’s increasing military strength, and its concerted efforts to hijack technology. The authors also analyzed Beijing’s “rigorous attempts - often through American corporations profiting in China - to influence U.S. policy” as well as espionage.
“We are brought face-to-face with the startling implications of the trade imbalance between the United States and China (our deficit is $40 billion and growing). We learn of the struggles within the Chinese leadership and how assertive Chinese nationalism augurs a turbulent period ahead,” wrote the authors, “This book is an informed and illuminating examination of a high-stakes clash of competing ideologies and economic interests.”
But Ezra Vogel, then Director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, dismissed these concerns and defended the CCP. During a hearing in the Committee on Foreign Relations in the U.S. Senate on April 11, 2000, Vogel and 11 other scholars were strongly in favor of granting the CCP Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) and entry to the WTO.
“China's workers need higher labor standards, but opposing Permanent Normal Trade Relations for China is not going to help... Whoever may benefit from a sanctions approach to trade with China, it will certainly not be Chinese workers or their children,” wrote the open letter.
Twenty years have passed and the Chinese people are still suffering under the communist regime. The only difference is that the CCP is stronger and more powerful worldwide, suppressing opinions globally and threatening the free world.
Learning from Lessons
Yu Ying-shih, a renowned Chinese-born American historian, said that many scholars outside of China who study the CCP had some level of idealistic bias instead of looking at solid facts.
The lessons mentioned in this article are not limited to Fairbank alone, as many other scholars have also been deceived by the CCP’s propaganda. Over the past few decades, the CCP has changed its narrative from time to time to serve its own growth, expansion, dominance, and control. Similar things also happened with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).
Fortunately, some scholars were able to see through the CCP’s tactics. One example is Roderick MacFarquhar, author of The Origins of the Cultural Revolution. In a book review he wrote for Mao’s Great Famine, he explained the scale of the Great Chinese Famine (1959-1961): demographer Judith Banister estimated a death toll of over 30 million with solid academic analysis, while senior journalist Yang Jisheng suggested 36 million.
“Perhaps the crucial source is the finding of a team of two hundred officials sent out by Premier Zhao Ziyang at the beginning of the reform era in the 1980s to assess the human impact of the famine... The report was never published, but according to a senior member of the team, Chen Yizi, in exile in the US since the Tiananmen events, the conclusion was that the number of excess deaths ranged from 43 to 46 million,” he wrote.
There have been other scholars who really understand the CCP. Michael Pillsbury, Director of the Center on Chinese Strategy at the Hudson Institute, is such an example. In his book The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower, he referred to a CCP plan to replace the U.S. as world leader 100 years after its establishment in 1949. The book was written based on declassified files and other resources available.
The book mentioned two defectors, “Mr. White” and “Ms. Green,” who came to the U.S. in the early 1990s. Mr. White said “the power of the hawks, and their sweeping effort to crush pro-American sentiment in the country” had gained support from Deng Xiaoping. Ms. Green said Deng and his successor Jiang Zemin wanted to cooperate with the U.S. Unfortunately, U.S. officials chose to believe in Ms. Green.
Mr. White also said, “a strategy was devised to build a winning pro-China coalition inside the American government.” But U.S. officials still did not listen. Later Ms. Green was proven to be a double agent and many incidents by then had confirmed Mr. White’s prediction. But it was too late. Helping the Chinese economy and its entry into the WTO did not improve democracy in China. Instead, it made the CCP’s economy and media more powerful.
A third defector, Ms. Lee, described “a secret unit at the top of the Chinese leadership that controlled the media carefully to ensure that only the ‘right’ messages got out about China. The key, she said, was to shape messages to foreign nations, and especially the United States, by first disseminating them in domestic channels.”
“She revealed that the operation had a $12 billion annual budget and was run by the Politburo’s Standing Committee,” Pillsbury wrote in the book. “The other component of this operation was a secret unit... called the United Front Work Department and has its own intelligence collection and analysis capability.”
One example is how the CCP influenced a U.S. congressional vote in 2000 on trade normalization between China and the United States as well as China’s full membership within the WTO. “The strategy of the program in this instance was to suppress information both inside China and overseas about China’s absolute opposition to relinquishing its socialist economy, and to imply instead that China’s moderate reformers wanted to move to a free market and were likely to succeed in doing so. This line would be needed to win over a generally skeptical U.S. Congress.”
The Crossroads of 2020
In these stories, Pillsbury emphasized how the CCP had been deceiving the U.S. and the free world. He had been there and he knew it well. Unfortunately, concrete trade actions with China and sanctions did not happen until 2019.
During an interview on May 20, 2019, Trump talked about such mistakes made by previous U.S. Administrations, “They [CCP officials] took advantage of us for many, many years. And I blame us, I don’t blame them. I don’t blame President Xi. I blame all of our presidents, and not just President Obama. You go back a long way. You look at President Clinton, Bush—everybody; they allowed this to happen, they created a monster. We rebuilt China because they get so much money.”
Different from Fairbank who judged the CCP by its cover, Pillsbury analyzed his information and crosschecked with information from witnesses and other sources. Communist society is different, he explained. For example, an American appeals court judge visiting China was asked how the Republican Party was involved in issuing rulings in legal cases—does direction come from the Republican National Committee (RNC) or other channels? When the American judge replied that it was illegal for a political party to bypass legal procedures, all the Chinese judges in the room thought he was lying.
To understand what the CCP really is could be feasible, even for someone who does not read Chinese, joked Pillsbury. As long as you know how the CCP officials think, you can read between the lines of its official propaganda newspaper, China Daily, on how the regime crafts its narratives to achieve its goal.
In an interview on April 1, 2020, he warned that the U.S. is “very vulnerable” to misinformation from China. “Whenever you become a China expert, the first thing you're taught is about Chinese belief in the power of deception, that nobody ever tells the truth,” he explained. “Everything is done for a principle, a larger goal. And that seems to be what’s going on [about the pandemic disinformation].” During an interview the following month, he said that the CCP had three fears: the regime’s collapse, being held responsible by countries globally, and Trump’s reelection.
As the year turns from 2020 to 2021, it is time to reflect on what we have learned so that we can have a clear understanding of the CCP. Examples such as the Soviet Union, China, and Venezuela have shown us the harm of communism and socialism. It is our turn to defend freedom for ourselves and for future generations before it is too late.