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.

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.

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.

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.