Searching for Xuanzang

When Romila Thapar was a young PhD student in London in 1957, a surprising offer dropped in her lap: how would she like to be a research assistant on a trip to China to study Buddhist cave art? Although Thapar had no particular expertise on China, she had helped the art historian Anil de Silva with some research on historical Buddhist images, which was apparently enough to recommend her. The interruption in her dissertation research was initially daunting to Thapar, but her friends and advisors naturally told her that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and she should just go. The diary that she kept on the resulting journey was recently published, more than 60 years later, as Gazing Eastwards: Of Buddhist Monks and Revolutionaries in China, 1957.

An accomplished historian, Thapar maintains a professional, elevated tone in the framing material she wrote for the new book. The diary itself is something quite different and more charming: the record of a youthful mind filled with enthusiasm and curiosity at encountering a new culture. The young Thapar is excited by the opportunity to learn about China first-hand and throw off the prejudices she had absorbed in the colonial education system: “As a child I imbibed the ridiculous stories about the Chinese that were fostered in India, no doubt by the Raj. It was the land where the sly, slit-eyed Mongoloid-featured people lived, the land of mystery and strangeness, typifying the unknown, where people were said to disappear, kidnapped by suspicious-looking others.”

You can already sense a bit of the later intellectual commitment to dismantling misguided colonial scholarship and erecting an edifice of knowledge on more solid foundations; the nice review by Aditya Bahl in the New Left Review has more on how the book connects to Thapar’s later career.

The guiding spirit of her journey, however, is the great Buddhist monk, traveler and translator Xuanzang, famed for his accomplishments in bringing Buddhist scriptures from India to China. She circles back to him several times over the course of the diary, but her reflections on standing in Xuanzang’s tomb outside Xi’an are worth quoting at length:

It felt uncanny being there, and I had a distinct sensation of what may be called the sweep of past centuries as I stood alone on the balcony of the upper room looking out at the main monastery and down the hill. This was in a sense the moment that crystallized my journey to China. How incredible must have been Xuan Zang’s journey across Central Asia and India–a sixteen-year venture in the seventh century AD, and all in search of what he knew of as the true Buddhism–the Buddhism of India, which for the Chinese was the location of the western heaven. He was such an extraordinary person, and judging by his description of the journey, a man with incredible perception of place and person.

Yet no one in India, not a single person, thought of recording the conversations that many must have had with him not only on Buddhism, but specifically on Buddhism in China or even the contemporary philosophies that emanated from China. I have often wondered about what accounts for this lack of curiousity among pre-modern Indians who remained uninterested in commenting on the world beyond their immediate own, yet it was a world that they visited and worked in, either as Indian traders or as teachers of religion in Central Asia or in Southeast Asia. … It is such a stunning contrast to the Chinese avidly wanting to know about the wider world and writing about it.

It’s clear that Thapar feels a kind of obligation, or aspiration, to make up for India’s historical indifference to Xuanzang: her own journey is a chance to demonstrate that Indians can avidly want to know about the wider world as well. Her enthusiastic curiosity about everything in China is perfectly honest, but also guided by a broader ideal of the two great Asian nations restoring and amplifying their past historical links. What makes her diary more than an episodic collection of the impressions of a tourist–and there is plenty here about trains, hotels and restaurants–is its tragic arc as this earnest hope of intellectual connection is repeatedly denied.

At the time of her visit, July to October 1957, China was in the throes of the Anti-Rightist Campaign, one of the early examples of the waves of Communist persecution of real and imagined internal enemies that would grip the country for the next couple of decades. Thapar gets her first inklings that something is going on behind the scenes soon after her arrival in Beijing. Many of the scholars whose names she had been given by her professors in London turn out to be mysteriously unavailable to meet with her.

Those that do attend the various government-organized dinners and functions mainly confine themselves to small talk rather than topics of professional interest. “They seemed quite content to go on sipping green tea and talking about nothing in particular.” Thapar mentions in passing that one of the only Chinese professors to talk openly with her about history was Ji Xianlin, a scholar of Sanskrit and other ancient Indian languages; in the 1990s Ji would become more widely known for his memoir of persecution during the Cultural Revolution, The Cowshed.

Still, most of her initial impressions are positive. Thapar notices some of the same things people still notice about China: the food is amazing, and there is always construction happening. She generally feels great sympathy for the Chinese people, a sense amplified by the familiarity of the physical environment. In Lanzhou, she remarks: “There were many moments when I was strongly reminded of the old North-West Frontier Province, the areas across the upper Indus, especially the parts around Peshawar and the Afghan border where I had spent my childhood–the same bleak grey hills, the dusty roads, the mud houses and the walled structures on low hilltops.” Overall, her feeling was that China and India were in the same situation and going through much the same process of national development: “The initial shock was that China is so much like India–it is very much an Asian country.”

But as she leaves Beijing and heads through the provinces, on the way to the Buddhist sites of Maijinshan and Dunhuang that are the object of her friend’s research, the mysterious gaps and silences continue to worry her. “Despite my making several requests that we meet with some archaeologists and historians of ancient China to discuss their methods of historical analysis, my requests were ignored,” she complains, more than once. The scholars she does meet avoid substantive discussion, even on technical issues, or resort to repeating general slogans. “I find a tendency towards oversimplification. They say it is necessary in the early stages of socialist reconstruction, but I feel scared that once it comes it will stay. This is what happened in Russia.” Yet despite her worries, she is reluctant to criticize too strongly: “Sometimes I wonder if the fault doesn’t lie with me? Perhaps I fail to understand the problems of China.”

The weeks working on the Buddhist sites pass quickly and blissfully in the diary, and all too soon Thapar is on her way back to Beijing in preparation for final departure. On her second visit the evasions of her hosts are even more obvious: “I have repeatedly been requesting meetings with young people, university students and researchers, and young intellectuals, and all I have got by way of reply is a polite smile. It makes me so frustrated and even angry.” Talking to other foreigners in Beijing she begins to figure out the reason: “The Chinese are not lacking in courtesy. Clearly there were other reasons. One had heard about the ‘rectification campaigns’ that were currently going on in many offices…perhaps this made them reluctant to meet foreigners lest some of the issues inadvertently get talked about.”

In Beijing, she is caught up in a whirl of glamorous diplomatic receptions for foreign guests, hears a lecture by Joan Robinson, even shakes hands with both Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. But finally, a friendly, Chinese-speaking foreigner clues her in to the political reality by translating a newspaper article about one of the professors she had tried and failed to meet, who turns out to have been targeted as a rightist. “He was charged with not accepting the interpretation of history as authorized by the government; and he is said to have remarked that a hundred flowers were not blooming in the field of historical thought in China today, as is claimed, but only five, and that these were not sufficient since they all said much the same thing.” This crushing of dissent in history–her own discipline–is shocking and dispiriting.

Despite her best efforts to exemplify what she thinks of as the Chinese virtues of Xuanzang–open inquiry and cross-cultural exploration–she can find no one in Mao’s China who feels free to do the same in response. “I am interested in the experience of others because I believe that one learns from comparative studies,” the young Thapar writes, rather forlornly.

The best books I read in 2022

As usual, this list is a purely subjective account of the books I most enjoyed reading this year. In each category my favorite is the first one, the others are in no particular order.


  • Geoff Dyer, The Last Days of Roger Federer, and Other Endings. Impossible to adequately describe, a truly unique book–and how many of those are there? Not actually about Roger Federer but also not not about him either; it’s a series of reflections on late style, failure and decline in sport, arts and life. The writing is casual and the connections seem enjoyably free-associative and arbitrary at first, until the rigorous structure begins to emerge.
  • After finishing it I went straight on to read more Dyer: the essay collection Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, from a decade earlier, covers a similar eclectic range of topics (photography, music, fiction and non, personal history) at greater length. Dyer has great taste and, as with the best critics, his enthusiasms are infectious.
  • Sebastian Faulks, The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives. One of the many interesting books discussed by Dyer in Last Days; he has a particular interest in nonfiction of literary quality (he also champions Eve Babitz, who I too think is amazing). I don’t often enjoy biographies: too often they are neither analytical enough to be of intellectual interest nor well told enough to be of narrative interest. But Faulks’ treatment of three people who did not live to realize their early promise succeeds on both fronts.
  • Harald Jähner, Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945-1955. A fascinating exploration of German life during the end of one social order and the creation of another one; it covers everything from “rubble tourism,” mass migration and regional cultures to to jazz dance halls, sex toys, interior decoration and avant-garde art (here’s an excerpt for flavor).
  • I read it together with Volker Ulrich’s Eight Days in May: The Final Collapse of the Third Reich, a less thematic and more plainly narrative account of the period immediately before the one covered by Jähner that usefully sets the stage. Both books are great examples of how interesting the history of transitional and interstitial periods can be.
  • Patrick Radden Keefe, Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland. I had never previously cared enough about UK or Irish politics to educate myself on the Troubles of Northern Ireland, and I can’t remember why I decided to pick this one up. But I couldn’t put it down; the deeply reported detail is impressive and immersive, the stories compellingly told. I can’t speak to how better-informed readers might receive it, but for me it was eye-opening.
  • William Deresiewicz, The Death of the Artist. A well-reported look at how working artists at the middle and low levels of fame actually make a living. The arts turn out to be an excellent lens through which to look at the 21st century service economy, and the lessons here are of broader interest.


  • Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark. Is this the Great American Novel? It is, at least, a great telling of a classic 20th century American story, of someone from a small place who goes to a bigger place to pursue bigger dreams, and what they gain and lose along the way. Which is also my story and the story of so many people I know, American and otherwise.
  • Gabrielle Zevin, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow. Probably the most popular book on my list–I actually saw people reading it in the airport–and deservedly so: I found it utterly charming and free of cliché. What I enjoyed most was its combination of very contemporary material (video game designers) with a quite old-fashioned narrative voice, wry and opinionated.
  • Lionel Davidson, Kolymsky Heights. Not a great book, but for certain tastes a very pleasing one. The opening is awkward and the McGuffin around which the thriller plot revolves is ludicrously implausible. But the meat of the book is a very detailed process of solving desperate logistical problems in the Siberian winter. Great fun, in other words.
  • Anthony Doerr, Cloud Cuckoo Land. What is usually called an “ambitious” novel, this yokes together quite different narrative strands written in modes of historical fiction, sci-fi and contemporary realism. Doerr pulls it off in a very satisfying way that is not at all gimmicky, in just lovely prose.
  • Walter Jon Williams, Metropolitan. Nothing dates faster than visions of the future, but this 1995-vintage science fiction novel still seems fresh and strikingly contemporary: great technological power coexists with depressing social stagnation, its capabilities used mostly for bureaucracy and status-seeking.
  • James Kestrel, Five Decembers. An excellent historical mystery revolving around the bombing of Pearl Harbor, with vivid evocations of wartime Hawaii and Hong Kong.
  • Damon Galgut, In a Strange Room. A compact, concentrated novel about backpacking and missed connections. “He is intensely happy, which is possible for him when he is walking and alone.”

Previous lists: 2021 | 2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012

Acadian Books & Prints, New Orleans, Louisiana

The Jiang Zemin Consensus

Former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin, who died Wednesday at the age of 96, managed to be underestimated for most of his life, despite rising to exalted heights. He was not considered an inspiring figure when Deng Xiaoping plucked him from Shanghai to run the government after the 1989 purge, and in accounts of the pivotal economic reforms of the 1990s he is often overshadowed by the charismatic and decisive Zhu Rongji.

Yet looking back, it seems clear that Jiang was responsible for establishing many of the basic political and economic contours of contemporary China. The best short summary of his legacy I have seen came from historian Frank Dikötter, in an interview earlier in November; the whole thing is worth reading but here is the key excerpt:

I think that we have been fooled by very superficial impressions of a man who occasionally comes across as something of a buffoon. He likes to burst in song; he has a smattering of foreign languages; it’s rather easy to mock him. But this is a man who really has made all the key decisions.

However you look at it, it is very much Jiang Zemin who has shaped the China we know today: the giant flagship conglomerates; the grip that the party has on the private sector; the shift towards much greater support for state enterprises; the determined effort to ward off any attempts at so-called ‘peaceful evolution’ [i.e., toward democracy]. The list goes on. A remarkable man, if I may say so.

There are two biographies of Jiang, both of them making a good case that he should not be underestimated. Bruce Gilley’s Tiger on the Brink from 1998 offered an early assessment of Jiang’s tenure from a journalist who was on the ground in China for it, while Robert Kuhn’s hagiographic The Man Who Changed China from 2004 has more of the flavor of an authorized biography, valuable mostly for the interviews he scored with Party insiders.

In my own notes on the history of the 1990s, I’ve been tempted to call the political economy that emerged the Jiang Zemin Consensus. Deng usually gets the credit for restarting economic reforms in 1992 after the conservative turn in 1989, and it does seem that Jiang was initially slow to figure out what Deng wanted.

But once he did, Jiang was able to establish a much more consistent direction than the contentious back-and-forth of the 1980s. Jiang forged an enduring elite consensus on two fundamental issues in China: the relationship between politics and economics, and the relationship between the state and the private sector.

With his formulation that China is a “socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics,” he managed to finally end the long-running ideological debate within the Communist Party over whether market economics could be consistent with a socialist (or more precisely Leninist) political system. Today, almost everyone in China accepts that both market forces and state planning can be deployed to achieve particular goals.

And with his two-track reforms to state-owned enterprises, Jiang reset the balance between the state and private sectors. Thousands of small or underperforming SOEs, mostly belonging to local governments were closed or privatized, reducing the fiscal burden on the government and enlivening the private sector. But the remaining SOEs were consolidated into larger entities and received more direct government supervision and support.

That balancing of interest groups has also proved remarkably durable: in purely quantitative terms, the share of economic value-added generated by the state and private sectors has hardly changed at all since the mid-1990s (see my piece Some Facts About China’s State Capitalism).

For all of Xi Jinping’s power and ambition, he hasn’t yet altered the basic tenets of the Jiang Zemin Consensus.

It only looks like ideology from the outside

Ideology seems to be everywhere in today’s China: there is a huge apparatus devoted to propagating the correct official views on the big questions of the day, from the Covid-19 pandemic to financial regulation. Given how much effort the Party and the government put into criticizing incorrect ideas and repeating correct ones, it’s natural to think that ideas are truly central to Chinese politics.

An alternative view emerges from Joseph Torigian’s recent book, Prestige, Manipulation, and Coercion: Elite Power Struggles in the Soviet Union and China After Stalin and Mao, a detailed account of the internal battles at pivotal historical moments in two Leninist systems. Torigian suggests that what in standard historical accounts appear as epic struggles over the direction of the nation were in fact narrow arguments over specific political issues, that were driven less by differences of ideas than by maneuverings to gain personal power. It’s certainly a deflating, cynical view, but given the historical evidence he marshals, it is hard to say it is wrong.

Take for instance one of the most famous ideological statements in China’s recent history, the 1978 decision that the Communist Party should shift its focus away from class struggle and toward economic growth. Generalists like me tend to see this as a major historic turning point, when China’s leadership turned its back on Maoism and embraced pragmatism and markets. This corresponded with a change in leadership from Mao’s handpicked successor Hua Guofeng to Deng Xiaoping. But in Torigian’s account, this statement turns out not to be about “class struggle” in the general sense but only a recent internal campaign:

At the November 1978 work conference, [Hua Guofeng] did not oppose changing the party’s “key link” from “class struggle” to economics. The idea that Deng somehow triumphed over Hua on this issue is wrong. During Hua’s tenure, “class struggle” did not have the same meaning that it had during the Cultural Revolution. Then it meant the campaign to expose and criticize the Gang of Four. … At the Eleventh Party Congress in 1977, the plan of Hua and the top leadership was to finish the “ferreting-out” phase of exposing and criticizing the Gang of Four within the year or a little longer. At the Fifth National People’s Congress in February and March 1978, Hua said that the “ferreting-out” campaign was basically finished on a national scale.

Torigian agues that discussion among the top leadership on was mainly over the precise wording of how to announce the end of “class struggle” in this restricted sense, and that Hua and Deng were basically in agreement on the need to end the campaign.

Standard historical accounts present the 1978 third plenum as the culmination of an ideological struggle between Hua’s retrograde leftism and Deng’s free-thinking pragmatism. What was at stake was encapsulated by a phrase in a People’s Daily editorial in 1977 which became known as the “two whatevers”: “We will resolutely uphold whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao made and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave.” The official account of this debate appeared in a note to the Collected Works of Deng Xiaoping, and it has since been followed by many scholars:

After the downfall of the Gang of Four, the Party Chairman, Hua Guofeng, who was in charge of the work of the Central Committee, clung to the erroneous notion of the “two whatevers” and reaffirmed the wrong theories, policies and slogans of the “cultural revolution”. On April 10, 1977, Deng Xiaoping wrote a letter to the Central Committee, proposing that to guide the work of the Party, it should use instead a correct understanding of Mao Zedong Thought as an integral whole. Later, he talked with Party comrades on many occasions, explaining to them that the “two whatevers” did not accord with Marxism.

On September 19, 1977, when talking with the leading member of the Ministry of Education, Deng said that seeking truth from facts was the quintessence of the philosophical thinking of Mao Zedong. On May 11, 1978, Guangming Ribao carried an article entitled “Practice is the Sole Criterion for Testing Truth”, which stated that the most fundamental principle of Marxism was the integration of theory with practice. This was a criticism of the principle of the “two whatevers”. It was this article that gave rise to the debate about the criterion for testing truth.

Hua Guofeng and others tried to suppress the debate, but as the majority of the central leaders, including Deng Xiaoping, were fully in favour of it and took the lead in it, it gradually spread throughout the country. The debate demolished the “Left” ideology that had long shackled people’s minds and laid the theoretical and ideological foundation for the convocation of the Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee.

The attempt by Party historians to paint Hua as the slavish follower of Mao always lacked a certain plausibility: after all, Hua had in 1976 led a coup against the Gang of Four, Mao’s chief hangers-on during the Cultural Revolution. Torigian’s account of this event makes clear that the arrest and trial of the Gang of Four was in fact a coup, in the sense of a violent and illegal change of government, because the arrest was not formally approved by the Party and was accomplished through the use of force. Hua’s willingness to risk instability by forcibly removing Mao’s favorites just a month after the great leader’s death reflected the urgent need he and other leaders felt to move on from the Cultural Revolution. Why, then, would he change course in 1977 and argue so forcefully that Mao’s wishes needed to be respected? Torigian says he didn’t, and it was all a misunderstanding:

New evidence shows that the origin of the “two whatevers” had nothing to do with political or economic orthodoxy. … What, then, did the “two whatevers” actually mean, and why did so many individuals in the elite misinterpret the expression? The key to understanding this puzzle is that the immediate challenge facing Hua was how to show his flexibility without raising concerns that he was moving too quickly to reject the Maoist legacy. Unfortunately for Hua, he handled this problem in a particularly clumsy way, and it was this clumsiness, as opposed to political dogmatism or opposition to Deng, that led to the “two whatevers.”

The “two whatevers” ended up in the People’s Daily not because Hua was trying to send a top-down signal of the country’s political direction, but because Hua’s speechwriters were trying to find a way to ease the concerns of the still-numerous supporters of Mao and the Cultural Revolution. Obviously the expression turned out to be easily misinterpreted, and it upset Deng, for which Hua later made a self-criticism. In Torigian’s account, this sloppy drafting turned out to be a political windfall for Deng, allowing him to portray himself as being on the right side of a major ideological debate. But this ideological debate was largely an illusion, a cover for Deng’s maneuverings against Hua. In order to oust Hua, Deng went on to say a lot of things that he very clearly did not actually mean:

In August 1980, Deng famously gave a speech criticizing “feudal practices” and calling for an institutionalized political system. The speech is often interpreted as a programmatic statement in favor of “political reform.” However, this is a fundamental misreading of the speech’s origins and implications. Criticisms of feudalism and calls for political reform were not a real platform but rather an ideological justification for Hua Guofeng’s removal from the leadership. …

As Deng Liqun freely admitted, “This speech by Comrade Xiaoping in actuality was directed against Hua Guofeng; it was preparation for Hua to leave his position, to find a theoretical justification.” When a friend pointed out that this speech was a reason why many people believed that Deng Xiaoping supported real inner-party democracy and institutionalization, Zhao Ziyang discounted this analysis, saying, “At this time, Deng was primarily addressing Hua Guofeng; he was struggling against Hua Guofeng.”

Torigian’s detailed reconstructions of the politics behind ideological debates are impressive, but also somewhat depressing for those of us trying to understand China’s contemporary policymaking. Much of the evidence he uses for his revisionist account of the 1970s and early 1980s has only emerged fairly recently, and similar detailed behind-the-scenes evidence is much less available for recent decades.

After digesting his book, it’s harder to have confidence in analyses that take Chinese ideological debates and statements at face value. Most of the time, it seems, outsiders to the system do not really know the precise context for the Party’s various political slogans and the internal uses to which they are being put. What looks like a struggle over ideology on the outside may just be a plain old power struggle.

What was the Cold War, and is it over?

I belong to the first generation for whom the Cold War is mainly history rather than lived experience. By the time I went off to college and started learning about the wider world, the Soviet Union had already collapsed. Even though the events of 1989-90 were in fact very recent, to me they did not seem like the news of the day but history that had already acquired the aura of age and inevitability, like the Protestant Reformation or the French Revolution. Communism seemed faintly ridiculous and largely irrelevant; even the left-wing student radicals invoked it as more a symbol of opposition to mainstream America than as a serious system of ideas. This impression was only reinforced when I moved to China in the late 1990s: China at the time seemed to be busily dismantling the apparatus of socialism and building ties with the US and the rest of the world.

That’s my excuse, anyway, for why I never got around to learning much about the Cold War; I had managed to acquire the quite mistaken impression that it was not something urgent to understand about the world. When in 2022 foreign-policy commentators began busily proclaiming “the start of a second Cold War” (Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times) or that “the Cold War never ended” (Stephen Kotkin in Foreign Affairs), I realized that I could not evaluate those claims because I did not have a clear definition of my mind of what exactly the Cold War was. So, I read a book about it: Odd Arne Westad’s The Cold War: A World History. Although it’s a long book with lots of details, the Cold War is helpfully defined on the very first page:

The Cold War was a confrontation between capitalism and socialism that peaked in the years between 1945 and 1989, although its origins go much further back in time and its consequences can still be felt today. In its prime the Cold War constituted an international system, in the sense that the world’s leading powers all based their foreign policies on some relationship to it.

Westad’s definition of the Cold War has two aspects: that of an ideological conflict between two totalizing and incompatible systems, and that of an international system, which forced many different issues and conflicts among countries into alignment with that ideological conflict. I found this is a useful distinction, as the arguments for a contemporary Cold War generally focus on the second aspect, the pattern of international relations. There’s no question that, since the invasion of Ukraine, the US and Western Europe are in increasingly direct rivalry with Russia and China. The continuity of this division with that of the Cold War period is what Rachman and Kotkin focus on in their essays.

But it’s harder to see a similar ideological conflict underway today. Westad consistently emphasizes how in the twentieth century both the US and the USSR were highly ideological states, organized around universalizing ideas not just national interests. Both countries were led by elites who believed that they were spreading the right ideas about the way to organize human societies throughout the world, and that their right ideas were mortally threatened by the other side’s wrong ideas. “It was its ideological origins that made the Cold War special and hyperdangerous,” Westad writes. The existential struggle between capitalism and socialism made every minor issue seem like a terminal conflict, encouraging both sides to raise the stakes.

While there have been occasional attempts on both sides of the current divide to paint it as essentially ideological as the same way as the original Cold War, these are less convincing. I found this interview with Chinese foreign-policy scholar Wang Jisi, translated by David Cowhig, to be a useful contribution:

Q: The question of whether there is a “new cold war” between China and the United States is now more controversial in academic circles. How do you see this issue?

A: Compared with the U.S.-Soviet relationship during the Cold War, the current U.S.-China relationship is still different in many ways. First of all, neither side can resort to “bloc politics”, so the U.S. and China will not become a bipolar opposition like the U.S.S.R. By “poles”, I mean attracting other countries to unite around them and form a united camp. The United States wants to do this, but it is difficult to do so. China, for its part, does not seek to build such a camp. In contrast, as the gap between other countries and China and the United States grows, the future may turn out to be a world in which the two powers stand side by side, but there will not be two camps as there were during the Cold War.

Secondly, from the ideological aspect, the competition between China and the United States is not as obvious as the ideological confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, but is mainly a manifestation of nationalism. Therefore, there is no ideological struggle between China and the U.S. like the one between the U.S. and the Soviet Union back then.

His analysis that what is underway is a conflict between national interests rather than totalizing ideologies seems correct to me. The US foreign-policy elite is historically prone to prone to seeing global events in ideological terms, and has tried to portray the current division as one of democracy and liberal values in opposition to authoritarianism. This is par for the course for the US; as Westad notes, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, “American foreign policy rolled on, unperturbed by any significant adjustments in strategic vision or political aims.” Since the US saw itself as the victor in the ideological conflict, its ideology was not in need of adjustment.

On the other side, though, the role of ideology has changed. Although Russia and China famously proclaimed a “no limits” partnership just before the invasion of Ukraine, this is founded more on a shared desire to resist US power than any shared ideology. The leaders of both Russia and China have articulated some grand theories underpinning their foreign policies, but both are more interested in national greatness for their respective nations than exporting a universalizing system of thought. The pattern is less of two broad ideological camps than of varying forms of opposition to US global leadership.

This is more or less the pattern that Ken Jowitt predicted in his essay “The Leninist Extinction,” originally published in 1991 (it’s available in his book of the same name, which I’ve previously praised here). Given how fresh the collapse of the Soviet Union still was at the time, the piece is remarkably insightful in its broad analysis of the consequences (though some of the specific predictions have not panned out). It’s worth closing with a lengthy excerpt of what now seems like quite a key passage:

The primary axis of international politics has disappeared. Thermonuclear Russia hasn’t, but the Soviet Union/Empire most certainly has. Its “extinction” radically revises the framework within which the West, the United States itself, the Third World, and the countries of Eastern Europe, the former Russian Empire, and many nations in Asia have bounded and defined themselves.

The first imperative is to anticipate national environments characterized by conflict (along both civic-ethnic and regional fault lines) and an international environment whose primary characteristic will be turbulence, not the stereotyped, fundamentally apolitical quality of international life during the Cold War. Turbulent environments produce more than their share of simultaneous emergences for a significant number of national and sub-national elites. An emergency environment calls for different political skills and leaders than the stereotyped bipolar environment of largely contained, and occasionally ritualized, emergency characteristic of the Cold War. On balance, in a turbulent world environment, leaders will count for more than institutions, and charisma for more than political economy.

Liberal capitalist democracy has generated a heterogeneous set of opponents: Romantic poets, Persian ayatollahs, aristorcrats, the Catholic Church, and fascists. However, for all the genuine and substantial differences separating these diverse oppositions, one can detect a shared critique. Liberal capitalist democracy is seen as one-sided in its emphasis on individualism, materialism, achievement, and rationality. The Roman Catholic preference for the family over the individual and the Nazi preference for “race” in place of the individual are radically different critiques, but the general critique is the same: liberal capitalism fails adequately to provide for the essential group needs and dimension of human existence.

As long as the West retains its partisan liberal capitalist democratic identity, it will regularly generate movements–internally and externally–opposing or attacking, attempting to reform or destroy it; movements that in one form or another will emphasize the value of group membership, expressive behavior, solidary security, and heroic action.

All of these have indeed come to pass: a “turbulent” international environment, an increasing role for charismatic leaders, and the persistent popularity of critiques of liberal values. The legacy of the Cold War is still very much with us, but its particular style of global ideological conflict probably is over, having been replaced with something not yet properly named.

What will self-reliance mean for China?

Self-reliance seems to be an important value for Chinese leader Xi Jinping. In a public discussion with agricultural experts in March, he invoked the term to urge attention to food security: “Who will feed China? China has to put its faith in self-reliance, and feed itself!” Xi declared, “in a resounding tone,” according to the account in the People’s Daily. In Liaoning province in August, on a tour of a robot manufacturer, he used it again in the context of technology: “We must adhere to self-reliance, make developing the strength of the country and the nation the basic point, and firmly grasp the initiative of development.”

The phrase conventionally translated here as “self-reliance” is zili gengsheng (自力更生), which has historical resonances in Chinese that the neutral English translation fails to capture. Zili gengsheng was a key slogan during the Mao era, and Xi’s repeated use of the term in recent years is one of the things that make people think he wants to return to the autarky of the 1950s.

But like many good political slogans, zili gengsheng works to elicit an emotional response–who doesn’t want to be self-reliant?–without necessarily referring to a specific set of policies. The best short explanation of the term I’ve found is in Jason M. Kelly’s recent book Market Maoists: The Communist Origins of China’s Capitalist Ascent, a history of foreign trade policy during the Mao years:

Trade with capitalists was indispensable, but also dangerous. It must be controlled. This view produced an early and abiding tension in CCP trade policy. On the one hand, the Party must remain aloof from foreign capitalists to safeguard China’s independence; on the other, it must “struggle” to engage them. The Party reconciled these divergent aims in the concept of zili gengsheng, or “revival through one’s own efforts.” Zili gengsheng, which became a pillar of economic policy in the Mao era, was never just a policy. It was a disposition, a blend of caution and ambition from which Party leaders could derive the orientation and scope of China’s economic interaction in a given historical context. The term offered a foundation for thinking about the political implications of trade, especially the dependencies and vulnerabilities that accompanied it. Trade could breed dependency if not carefully controlled, and dependency brought vulnerability. In its broadest sense, zili gengsheng meant never trusting one’s fate to outsiders and never placing all of one’s eggs in a single basket.

I think this applies to the contemporary use of zili gengsheng as well. Xi’s use of the term conveys a conviction that China exists in a dangerous world surrounded by rivals and competitors. Because no one else is going to help China become rich and powerful, it must do that on its own, without depending on outsiders. Xi’s choice of this specific term, out of many possible synonyms for self-reliance, is certainly a gesture to the Mao era. But the use of zili gengsheng signals more of a “disposition,” in Kell’s term, than an endorsement of the specific policies of extreme isolation that Mao pursued. China’s central position in the global trading system means the starting point for any pursuit of self-reliance today must be quite different. The total value of its imports and exports is equivalent to around 35% of China’s GDP, a high ratio for a large economy, compared to around 5% in the 1950s.

During the Mao era, zili gengsheng was a general political value with varying interpretations, not a single program. Another very interesting book on trade policy in the Mao era, Lawrence C. Reardon’s The Reluctant Dragon: Crisis Cycles in Chinese Foreign Economic Policy, explains how Zhou Enlai in the early 1960s articulated an alternative to Mao’s version of self-reliance. Zhou agreed that China needed to become self-reliant, as the break with the Soviet Union had led to a major loss of foreign investment, aid and technical advice. But he argued for controlled foreign trade to obtain China’s needs, rather than autarky, and more orthodox socialist planning to guide development, rather than the disastrous campaigns of the Great Leap Forward.

Zhou did argue that “China’s strategic policy is to obtain self-reliance,” but also that “it is impossible to close the door to the outside world to implement communism.” He thought China should export the goods it knew how to produce in order to earn the revenue to import what it needed to develop further. The debate was not over whether China should be self-reliant, but over the best program for achieving that self-reliance: Zhou’s relative and flexible one versus Mao’s extreme and doctrinaire one.

Zhou ended up losing the debate on economic policy to Mao, and the more moderate development model he and others proposed in the early 1960s was abandoned for mass campaigns and autarky during the Cultural Revolution. their ideas lived on, and were an inspiration for some of the initial moves away from Maoist autarky in the late 1970s. But in the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping abandoned self-reliance entirely and pursued a different model, of export-oriented growth and attracting foreign investment. The level of trade openness that Deng endorsed was a fundamental change from what socialist economics had previously considered desirable.

Xi Jinping’s renewed invocation of self-reliance, and related concepts like “dual circulation,” show a discontent with Deng’s outward-focused model and a desire to reduce China’s external vulnerabilities. At the same time, there is a recognition that China’s position as the hub of global supply chains gives it economic power and influence over other countries, which Xi wants to enhance rather than abandon. Given this context, Maoist autarky is not a practical option. Despite the occasional rhetorical gestures to Mao, Xi seems to be more of a strong-state nationalist than a true Maoist (see this previous post, “Who won the battle of ideas in China?“). The renewed pursuit of self-reliance in today’s China may end up being a variation of Zhou Enlai’s strategy of accepting the necessity of trade while guiding it to benefit the nation.

Lessons from Hall Overton

I knew the name Hall Overton from Thelonious Monk records: he was the arranger on Monk’s two large-ensemble recordings, At Town Hall and Big Band and Quartet In Concert. But I didn’t know anything else about him when I next came across his name, in Steve Reich’s new book Conversations, which transcribes chats with various friends and collaborators.

It turns out that Overton was an important music teacher and figure in the cross-pollination of musical worlds that was happening in the 1950s and 1960s. It makes sense that Reich, whose minimalism was in part an effort to recreate some of the dynamism of jazz and other musics in formal composition, would have studied with Overton, who was one of the first musicians to engage seriously and on equal terms with both jazz and the European tradition.

Reich thought very highly of Overton as a human being and a musician, and I particularly liked this anecdote about his lessons:

Steve Reich: I remember the very first day Hall gave me a compositional exercise to do. He said, “I want you to write some melodies,” and he went into my music notebook and drew it in pencil: “Write a melody that goes like this, down, another that goes up, and a third that goes straight.”

I looked at him, because this was the very, very beginning, and I said, “Hall, I don’t think I have enough technique.” And he looked me right in the eye and said, “You’ll never have enough technique. Get to work.”

David Lang: (laughs) Oh, that’s such a great lesson.

SR: Isn’t that wonderful? I mean, it’s still true.

DL: It’s still true.

SR: I’m gonna die and think, “Ugh, I was just getting started.”

DL: That’s like every composer’s great fear, you know? “There are things I wish I could do, but I’ll never be good enough to be able to do them.”

SR: So, best to do what you can do and get on with it. Because you’ll do that well, and who knows, you could get better.

DL: Yes.

That strikes me as pretty good advice for everyone, not just composers.

Ethan Iverson has also written a typically interesting and in-depth appreciation of Overton’s own compositions; he doesn’t claim that they are lost masterpieces but judges that he “successfully harnessed some of the jazz scene’s incandescent energy for the realm of fully notated formal composition.”

Robots in Chinese literature circa 1902

The concept of the “robot,” a mechanical replacement for a human worker, seems to have been one of those things that was just in the air at the turn of the twentieth century, across the world. As is now well known, the English word was coined by the Czech writer Karel Capek (who credited his brother Josef for the inspiration, from the Czech word robota, forced labor). In the interesting short article, “Techno-Utopias And Robots In China’s Past Futures” in the new, free anthology Proletarian China: A Century of Chinese Labour, Craig A. Smith details the early history of robots in Chinese literature, which is not completely unlike the Western science fiction of the day. Here are some excerpts:

The idea of animated or mechanical humanoid servants and labourers appeared in classical Chinese texts. Mozi, a utilitarian philosopher active in the fifth century BCE, even created mechanical birds and beasts, and is now the namesake of a technology company. However, the concept of a ‘machine-man’ (机器人, the modern Chinese word for robot) only made its way from elite texts into the popular imagination towards the end of the Qing Dynasty.

Around the turn of the century, the entire world became fascinated with the idea of humanoid automatons and their potential for labour. The most memorable example of this in the West is the Tin Woodman from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), a depressed cyborg lumberjack yearning for a heart. Chinese fiction was in step and introduced labour automatons but with decidedly Chinese characteristics. In 1905 and 1906, the newspaper Southern News serialised a lengthy novel by Wu Jianren entitled The New Story of the Stone (新石头记).

Although other Chinese science fiction writers penned stories with automatons at the time, Wu’s novel was a wonderland, its plot following Jia Baoyu, the protagonist of the eighteenth-century Dream of the Red Chamber (红楼梦), China’s most famous novel, into a twentieth-century technological utopia. Passing through a technological device called a ‘civilisation mirror’ (文明镜), Jia enters this utopia and is immediately served tea by a talking automaton ‘boy’ servant. The journey then proceeds through a melange of advanced technologies, including flying machines and submarines.

It might have been around this time that Kang Youwei wrote the Book of Great Unity (大同书). The complete volume did not appear in regular print until 1935, eight years after his death, leading to controversy and numerous studies on the dating of the text. Tang Zhijun’s extensive research has shown that Kang most likely finished his manuscript in 1902, a finding corroborated by Wang Hui.

Building on a few short chapters from [the Confucian classic] The Book of Rites (礼记), and contextualising these ideas within the modern reality of nation-states and new political economies, Kang envisioned a future world with no suffering. He saw robots playing an important role in his Confucian utopia, yet his position as a member of the literati class shaped his understanding of how robots would bring an end to the traditional hierarchies: ‘There will be no slaves or servants, but their functions will be performed by machines, shaped like birds and beasts.’

Kang imagined that ‘in the time of the Great Peace, there will be no suffering. Labourers will only find enjoyment.’ This will be possible because they will only put their skills to use in creating works of
art, as the heavy lifting will all be done by robots. Like H.G. Wells, Kang saw technological advancements bringing an end to toil and opening the door to universal leisure: ‘One will order by telephone, and food will be conveyed by mechanical devices—possibly a table will rise up from the kitchen below, through a hole in the floor. On the four walls will be lifelike, “protruding paintings”.’

This great trust in the emancipatory potential of science continued throughout the twentieth century, and revolutionaries, including Mao Zedong in his youth, found Kang’s work inspirational. However, largely
due to his promotion of constitutional monarchy, Kang is now remembered as a conservative opponent of revolution.

The lived experience of market orders

Harald Jähner’s recent book Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich 1945-55 is a fascinating window onto German life during the end of one social order and the creation of another one; it covers everything from “rubble tourism,” mass migration and regional cultures to to jazz dance halls, sex toys, interior decoration and avant-garde art.

There is also quite a lot on how the people living in Germany’s ruined cities made ends meet on a daily basis, through a combination of official rations, looting and the black market. Jähner’s reflections on how people’s lived experience of these different types of economic systems influenced their thinking is interesting if somewhat speculative:

In an atmosphere of mistrust and curiosity, the black market was a vital learning experience for the Germans, offering a radically different trading experience and providing a fundamental corrective to the Volk community fetishised by the Nazis. It was a lesson that remained in the memory for many years. Its lack of defined rules, which “rewarded the cunning and punished the weak,” created an economic terrain “in which people had apparently once more become wolves towards their fellows,” as the historian Malte Zierenberg writes. The widespread wariness so characteristic of the 1950s found a powerful source here. That narrow-minded, stuffy atmosphere that lingered around the black market was the smell of mistrust. Even the appetite for cleanliness, tidiness and order in 1950s Germany, which appeared strange to the next generation, had an origin in the chaotic conditions of the illegal markets.

The black market only thrived because of the existence of its opposite pole, the rationing system. On the one hand the wild interplay of raw market forces, on the other rationed per-capita distribution. People were caught between two different systems, always experiencing both at the same time: the state dirigisme of the shortage economy and the anarchic freedom of the unbridled market. Two conflicting logics of distribution, both of which had severe shortcomings.

This daily exercise in practical sociology, with all the exertions that it entailed, explains the unshakable faith that West Germans would later bring to the system of the “social market economy,” which, from 1948, became the patent remedy for the emerging Federal Republic. The very phrase sounded like a magical formula, because it reconciled both sides: the caring state ensuring that everybody got something and a free market system that was demand-led and placed the consumer at its centre. The few black-market years ensured that the social market economy became an article of faith for generations.

This “practical sociology” of ordinary people may not have directly determined the top-level government policy decisions that built Germany’s postwar social market economy. But the functioning of that system, like any other, depends on some shared consent to and understanding of economic norms.

His discussion also reminds me of the way popular support for the planned economy in China fell apart in the 1970s. At first this happened in the scattered local experiments with local agricultural markets and light industry that were facilitated by the chaos of the Cultural Revolution; Frank Dikotter’s wonderful 2016 article on “Decollectivization from Below” compiles a lot of fascinating archival material on this theme. The government’s later, more organized efforts to build a “socialist market economy” were informed by this widespread rejection of the old system, a discontent that was all the more effective because it was based on practical lived experience rather than ideological preconceptions (see my older post on China’s grassroots market liberals).

Hong Kong in 1945

The backstory to why Hong Kong ended up still being a British colony after the end of World War II is interesting, and I did not previously know the details. At the time it probably appeared to be a small matter, but it did have big long-term consequences. This account is a from a recent review essay by Stephen Kotkin, Stalin’s biographer, in Foreign Affairs:

Arguably, with the exception of the Soviet capture of Berlin in May 1945 and the stern telegram that U.S. President Harry Truman sent to Stalin in August of that year warning him not to invade Hokkaido (one of Japan’s four main islands), the physical reoccupation of Hong Kong by the British in 1945 exceeded any other wartime episode in its strategic implications.

When Japan’s surrender suddenly appeared imminent in the summer of 1945, surprising Washington, the Truman administration hastily accelerated work on a plan for the hand-over of Japanese-occupied territories and assigned the acceptance of Japan’s surrender of Hong Kong not to the British but to Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalist government. The British, however, undertook furious military and political preparations to reclaim Hong Kong for themselves. U.S. officials wanted to satisfy their British allies but also allow Chiang to save face, and so they cleverly suggested that the British could accept the surrender on behalf of the Chinese government. But the British refused that offer, and eventually, Washington acquiesced. Chiang acquiesced as well, dependent as he was on U.S. military and logistical support to reclaim other areas of China. The upshot was that Hong Kong passed from the Japanese back to the British and remained that way even after 1949, when the Communists triumphed over Chiang’s Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War but shrank from attempting to expel the British from the strategic southern port.

Had the British acquiesced rather than the Americans and Chiang, history would have played out very differently. As it was, the communist regime in Beijing was able to take extraordinary advantage of something it would not otherwise have possessed: a world-class international financial center governed by the rule of law. During the period of Deng’s reforms, British Hong Kong ended up funneling indispensable foreign direct investment into mainland communist China—from Japan and Taiwan, especially.

People often ask why Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, when attempting to reenergize the Soviet economy in the second half of the 1980s, did not follow the successful Chinese approach to reforms. Beyond the immense gulf between a highly urbanized, heavily industrialized country and a predominantly rural, agricultural one, the Soviet Union had no Hong Kong to attract and direct incoming investment according to market, rather than political, considerations. No British Hong Kong, no Chinese miracle.

Japan surrenders Hong Kong to the UK