China's Tell-Nothing Ethos
What the man on Mao's right doesn't say.
Also in Slate, Minxin Pei reviews Out of Mao's Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China.
Ji is hardly more forthcoming about experiences that involved him personally, not simply as an interpreter-spectator. The foreign ministry was rife with factional struggles, yet Ji tells frustratingly little of "meddling power plays" that targeted him among others. Even after Mao's death and the fall of the so-called Gang of Four, conflict in the ministry continued "that eventually involved my having to suffer through repeated struggle meetings aimed at expelling me from the Foreign Ministry." What was that about? Ji says no more, and he also speeds over the other deprivations he endured during the Mao years. Like other intellectuals, he went hungry, was frequently separated from his wife, did periods of hard labor on a commune and in a May 7 cadre school, and suffered ritual denunciations and self-criticisms. He is stoic about these occasions, which is admirable but not instructive.
Between the lines, however, Ji's testimony does offer some unwitting insight into just that—the stoic reticence to which he is committed and that hardships only reinforce. His memoir comes to life in its focus on his family, in which "intrigue and discretion were a way of life," and where he, too, learned what he calls "survival diplomacy." His revered father and older brother were secret communists even though working for the pre-PRC Nationalist regime. The family came to New York in 1939, when Ji was 9, to avoid the war in China, and stayed for more than a decade, poised to go home at the right moment. His reminiscences of New York in the 1940s are vivid and charming, full of well-observed period details. Ji attended elementary and high school in the city and then spent a year at Harvard before breaking off to return in 1950 to participate in New China's struggle for survival. There he faced yet one final survival lesson, to "learn to be Chinese."
Ji perfected the useful skills of averting his gaze and staying out of trouble. "I heard the rumors and felt the mood," he says of the mass movements of the early 1950s, "but I was preoccupied." "If I'd known the whole truth, I would have been horrified," he writes about the famine that started in 1959. In a rare act of courage, he went to visit a colleague who was falsely accused, but apparently he did not flaunt this act publicly, because "in the end, no one noticed or complained." On another occasion, he chose not to call on a condemned colleague because "it would have attracted the wrong kind of attention to make too much of my association with him, or my sympathy."
As Ji insightfully says, "Perhaps the biggest reason people suffered in silence through the bad times was to protect their families. … In this poisonous atmosphere, millions of us kept our doubts to ourselves, even among family and friends." China today is by no means the totalitarian terror state of the Mao years, yet bad things are still happening, and people still normally bury the troubles they personally experience or witness—official corruption, abuse of power—rather than confronting the system. The parents pursuing justice for their children crushed in the Sichuan earthquake have been told officially to shut up, and the rest of society has moved on. The multifingered propaganda authorities promote patriotic groupthink, often from behind the scenes, on topics like the Olympics, Taiwan independence, relations with Japan, and human rights. Today as in the past, dissident voices are challenged less by police repression than by mass indifference. All this is not new. Without intending to do so, Ji gives us some insight into how it happens and why it persists.
Andrew J. Nathan is professor of political science at ColumbiaUniversity and co-editor of the forthcoming How East Asians View Democracy.