from Asia Unbound

Why China Hands Think What They Think

January 28, 2013

My First Trip to China. Kin-Ming Liu.
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United States

Diplomacy and International Institutions

These days, China books are a dime a dozen and so, too, are China analysts. Journalists, scholars, businesspeople, general foreign policy analysts, and random people living in Beijing all have something to say. To stand out, you have to bring something unique to the table—a new finding, a new framing, or, unfortunately, too often, just a willingness to say something controversial.

A new book, My First Trip to China, edited by Hong Kong-based journalist Kin-ming Liu, manages to be exceptional in a few respects. At one level, it is a great coffee table book—no pictures, but some truly fascinating reminiscences of first trips to China by a range of great scholars, as well as officials, businesspeople, activists, and journalists. The time span covering the authors’ first visits is vast—with the first trip recorded in 1942 and the last in 1986. Through the eyes of people such as Andrew Nathan, Jonathan Mirsky, Lois Snow, Sidney Rittenberg, Jerome Cohen, Steven Mosher, and others, the small details of modern—but not too modern—China come alive. The vast majority of stories are quite engaging and, since many of the authors write for a living, quite well-written as well.

At a deeper level, however, what makes this book so valuable is the entry it provides into understanding how some of the most important thinkers and actors in U.S.-China relations have had their perspectives shaped by their first trip to China. To a one, the authors approached their first trips to China with openness and excitement. Almost immediately, however, differences in outlook emerged. Ed Friedman and Jonathan Mirsky, who traveled as members of delegations and were shown a Potemkin world of China, became skeptics; their writings today reflect a continued skepticism of official Chinese proclamations. (No doubt the fact that Chinese officials locked Mirsky in his hotel room did little to endear official China to him.)

There is a special section devoted to first visits to China by Chinese expatriates, such as businessman David Tang, scholar Steve Tsang, and journalist Frank Ching that is quite moving. Each felt a sense of “going home,” although by the end of their first visits, their perspectives were radically different: Steve Tsang, for example, developed a stronger "Hong Kong" identity, while David Tang embraced the mainland as his motherland.

Still others, such as Steven Mosher and Lois Snow, had their views of China upended by a singular experience: for Mosher, it was bearing eyewitness to a forced abortion campaign; for Snow, it was Tiananmen and the heartbreaking case of Ding Zilin, a Tiananmen mother who lost her son. And of course, no “first visit to China” book could be complete without the story of Sidney Rittenberg, whose chance meeting with a group of children changed his life and made his story one of the great personal dramas of U.S.-China relations.

One of my favorite stories is that of my friend and colleague Jerome Cohen, who despite encountering numerous annoyances during his trip—such as having his hotel room bugged—manages to weave together the beauty, darkness, and absurdity of the country and its politics in one thoughtful and humorous account.

If I have one bone to pick with Kin-ming’s story selection, it is that there are so few stories written by women—only two-and-a-half (since one is a husband and wife recounting) out of thirty. I would, for example, have loved to hear from Jan Berris, who was involved in the 1972 ping-pong diplomacy and has been engaged in U.S.-China diplomacy through her work as the vice president of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations ever since. However, this really is my one criticism of an otherwise wonderful book that manages to be a great read for the China novice, the China expert, and everyone in between.