Ji Chaozhu's The Man on Mao's Right.

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 5 2008 5:59 AM

China's Tell-Nothing Ethos

What the man on Mao's right doesn't say.

The Man on Mao's Right

The title seems to promise a timely exposé in the age of the tell-all memoir, on the eve of the Beijing Olympics and China's bid for global openness: The Man on Mao's Right: From Harvard Yard to Tiananmen Square, My Life Inside China's Foreign Ministry. All the ingredients of privileged insight are on display: proximity to power, a hint of American savvy, a grim domestic reference, a promise of foreign intrigue. But open Ji Chaozhu's memoir, and you'll discover a very different kind of document, more of a memo to the grandkids than to history. As witness to a half-century of Chinese turmoil, at home and abroad, he says surprisingly little that is not already known. The revelation here is of how persistent the tell-nothing ethos of a totalitarian era can be. Ji isn't alone in hoping against hope that discretion, rather than dissension, might somehow pave the way to more openness.

Ji Chaozhu, chief English interpreter in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, really was the man on Mao's right. He's there at Mao's shoulder in an endless succession of photos with foreign leaders atop Tiananmen, starting in 1959, and there in a famous picture of Mao and Edgar Snow in 1970. Even more of the time, he interpreted for China's premier, Zhou Enlai. He also interpreted for foreign minister Chen Yi and for Deng Xiaoping during Deng's 1979 visit to the United States. That's Ji next to Deng, both men in cowboy hats, in a widely circulated photo that created enormous U.S.-China goodwill.

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Ji truly was a well-connected insider in MOFA, ultimately rising high in the ranks. He served as head of the America desk in the early 1980s, as Chinese ambassador to Britain, and, finally, as deputy secretary general of the United Nations from 1991-96. And well before that, he mingled with China's leaders on a wide variety of crucial occasions. He accompanied Zhou to the Bandung Conference in 1954 and to the Geneva conference on Indochina later that year. He went on Zhou's 14-nation Africa-Asia tour in 1963-64. But you won't find any new details about Zhou's substantive dealings with other countries' leaders. Ji's idea of vividness is to describe the premier's avuncular relations with his staff and deft responses to local protocol challenges.

Ji was the sole other person in the room when Pakistani President Ayub Khan notified Zhou that U.S. President Richard Nixon wanted a rapprochement with China. He interpreted when Zhou met Kissinger and Nixon. However, we already know what happened in these meetings from Kissinger's memoirs and from internal American memoranda that the Freedom of Information Act released to the George Washington University's National Security Archives. The U.S. leaders fawned over Zhou and promised to meet China's bottom-line demand not to support Taiwan independence. Ji's brief accounts of these meetings focus on Zhou's personal warmth and winsome courtesies.

Ji's account of official events and figures hews closely to the views of the PRC's official historians. Ji says that he worshipped Mao, Zhou, and Chen Yi. He describes Mao somewhat spookily as "serene," "regal," and "mentally far away, at peace." The dictator's crimes are dusted over with a liberal use of the passive voice ("people were beaten to death"), vagueness ("fiascoes … produced a famine"), euphemism ("Mao came up with schemes that were supposed to increase productivity but had the opposite effect"), and wishful thinking ("Mao united all those who could be united, only resorting to armed force when there was no alternative"; the Red Guard movement resulted from "the youthful instinct to rebel"). Ji sticks to the script: Zhou Enlai is heroic, warm, and selfless and "worked hard behind the scenes to protect veteran government officials." Deng Xiaoping set things right. China's diplomacy is unselfish. The United States and China have no reason not to be friends.

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