35 Years After a Massacre: How the World Remembers

China Law & Policy remembers the Tiananmen massacre, 35 years ago on June 4.

Thirty-five ago this week – on the night of June 3 into the early morning hours of June 4, 1989 – the Chinese government did the unthinkable: it opened fire on its own people, killing hundreds if not thousands of unarmed civilians in the Beijing streets surrounding Tiananmen Square. That violent crackdown marked the end of the months-long, student-led, peaceful protests in the Square, protests that sought to bring reform to China.

While the world marks the anniversary, on mainland China, it’s as if the event never happened. Thirty-five years of censorship of the Tiananmen protests and massacre means that those alive at the time know not to talk about it and those born after have almost no knowledge of the event. In Hong Kong, which used to host one of the largest commemorations of the June 4th massacre, since 2022, when Beijing tightened its grip on the autonomous region, it is now a crime to remember.

But even under China’s repressive regime, there are still some who brave to acknowledge and record the truth. Yesterday, the Christian Times, a Hong Kong newspaper that usually features an annual Tiananmen commemoration article at this time of year, published its paper with a blank front page, with only a few characters stating that “cannot be published due to circumstances.” And as the China Unofficial Archives highlighted on Friday, there are number of Chinese people who have documented what happened the spring of 1989, providing links to the 31 entries it has on the 1989 pro-democracy protests and the June 4th incident. 

And this is why we must remember and memorialize this event. The west has ironically become the repository of China’s modern history, including the events of June 4, 1989. While these works cannot be published in China, we must continue to support efforts to house the Chinese people’s own interpretation of their history such as the China Unofficial Archives, and endeavor by former China reporter Ian Johnson to house these “underground histories.” Eventually, the Chinese people will demand that they be allowed to learn their own history and the West’s repository of knowledge will be an important first step.

China Law & Policy remembers the 35th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre on June 4, 1989.

Book Review – Red Memory: The Afterlives of China’s Cultural Revolution

Netflix’s Three Body Problem opens with the worst of China’s past. As the camera pans over a group of fanatical youths, chanting and saluting with Mao Zedong’s little red book, it eventually settles on an old man atop the stage. Bloodied and on his knees, his arms are pulled behind him, held taught by angry Red Guards. A tall, paper dunce cap sits atop his balding head. Around his neck, hanging from a sharp metal wire, is a placard that labels him a reactionary. As the Red Guards yell at him, we find out why: this physics professor had the gall to teach the theory of relativity, an idea that came from Western imperialists. After proudly refusing to confess to his “crimes,” the Red Guards, many of whom are his former students, bring his wife to the stage. In front of the frenzied crowd she criticizes him for his Western thoughts, betraying her husband to save herself. The crowd roars it support and the Red Guards, with faces seething with hate, beat him to death.

As Tania Branigan, the Guardian’s former China correspondent, shows in her gripping new book Red Memory: The Afterlives of China’s Cultura Revolution, the Three Body Problem’s opening scene was anything but unique during China’s Cultural Revolution. From 1966 to the Cultural Revolution’s end in 1976, “no household remained innocent. ‘Complicity’ is too small a word — comrade turned on comrade, friend upon friend, husband upon wife and child upon parent. You could build a career on such betrayals . . .” Branigan writes. Up to 2 million were killed and another 36 million persecuted for holding the wrong thoughts or just for their family background.

Opening scene in Netflix’s Three Body Problem

Red Memory features some of these harrowing stories and how people today are still trying to process it. Particularly appalling is Branigan’s retelling of Zhang Hongbing’s tale. In the waning days of the Cultural Revolution, Zhang heard his mother privately criticize Mao Zedong. A teenager at the time and indoctrinated in Mao thought, he and his father informed on her to the authorities, knowing that she could be executed for her comments. And she was. Zhang and his father did not attend her execution, but a family friend did, and he watched as the mother combed the crowded, likely looking for her son. Zhang now prostrates himself in front of the tombstone he had erected where she was shot in the head.

Then there are classmates of Song Binbin, one of China’s most famous Red Guards and who is often blamed for the first killing of the Cultural Revolution: the murder of vice principal Bian Zhongyun in August 1966 at one of Beijing’s most elite all-girls high schools. While not admitting to anything, Song had issued an apology and her classmates point out to Branigan the courage that took. But as Branigan notes, what these women were looking for was closure, not actual accountability.

But Red Memory does more than retell these horrific stories of violence and torture. Instead, its focus is on the competing viewpoints of the Cultural Revolution in China today, and this is what makes Branigan’s book particularly important. Outside of China, the Cultural Revolution is almost universally condemned. Inside China, where the discussion of the Cultural Revolution is increasingly suppressed, views are more mixed. Sure, there are those who see it as the worst period in modern Chinese history but Branigan also features those who cherish their experiences during the era. Branigan interviews a group of former “educated youths,” Red Guards, around 14 million of them, who were sent to the countryside for years after Mao tired of their fanaticism. The group Branigan interviews enjoy reminiscing about their time in the countryside. Then there is Zhou Jiayu, a Red Guard in Chongqing, a city that saw some of the most violent fighting between factional Red Guard groups. Zhou would eventually be jailed for beating rival Red Guards, but for this son of peasants, the Cultural Revolution was a time when the poor held power and education, health care were free and equally provided. A sharp contrast to what Zhou sees in China today – growing inequality and rampant government corruption. Finally, there are the performance actors who dress up as some of the Cultural Revolution’s leaders – Mao, Zhou Enlai, Lin Biao. Hired for parties, Branigan notes that “what was not permissible as history in China was allowed as entertainment.” There is a certain nostalgia for the era and for the young who never experienced it, an ignorance of just how violent it was.

But what is most interesting about this split view of the Cultural Revolution is the impact that it has on today’s ruling class. Some of Branigan’s most thought-provoiking chapters are on how two recent officials – Chongqing Party boss Bo Xilai and President Xi Jinping – use positive recollections of the Cultural Revolution to their advantage (although Bo, one of Xi’s main rivals, was eventually jailed for corruption early in Xi’s first term). With leaders in their 60s and 70s, the Cultural Revolution was a defining point in their young lives and no doubt shapes how they see the world. “It is impossible to understand China today without understanding the Cultural Revolution. Subtract it and the country makes no sense. . . .Unfortunately it is also impossible to truly understand the movement. . . .” Branigan states. 

Real life struggle session

Branigan inserts more of herself in Red Memory than is usual for a work of non-fiction, offering her viewpoints on certain events and the phycological impact that the Cultural Revolution has had on China as a whole. At times, these insights are helpful, for example when she questions Zhang Hongbing’s sincerity for his mother’s death. But at other times it feels a little too intrusive and a little too much armchair psychology.  But ultimately these are minor issues in an otherwise nuanced book. As Red Memory makes clear, we are unable to understand the Cultural Revolution because China has yet to collectively deal with the trauma of its past. But more importantly, with competing views, it could be that how the Cultural Revolution is ultimately remembered is not what the outside world would expect. 

Rating: ★★★★☆

Author Tania Branigan

Red Memory: The Afterlives of China’s Cultural Revolution, by Tania Branigan (W.W. Norton & Company, 2023), 254 pages.

Interested in purchasing Red Memory? Consider supporting your local, independent bookstore. Find the nearest one here.

Bucking the system: China’s underground historians

By , April 28, 2024
Author Ian Johnson

In his new book Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future, veteran China reporter and author Ian Johnson introduces us to a cast of idealistic, charming and courageous characters who are trying to document China’s true history, in particular the stories of those who suffered under the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”). By countering the government-imposed, white-washed history, they go to the heart of the CCP’s legitimacy. The CCP calls them historical nihilists; Johnson just calls them underground historians. “China’s underground historians consciously aim for the masses. . . the goal is action – they are unapologetically activists who seek to change society,” Johnson writes in Sparks.

To understand more the role that underground historians currently play in China, China Law & Policy sat down with Ian to discuss the impact of their work in an increasingly surveilled society and with a leader even more hell-bent on maintaining CCP control of history. How are they able to get anything done, let alone change society?

Listen to our 44-minute interview by clicking the play button on the media player below. You can also read the transcript below the media player or download a PDF, timed-stamped version by clicking here.

Podcast Music: Clappy Hands by John Bartmann (intro); Outro Music: Motivational Day by AudioCoffee (outro)


This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity

This is China Law & Policy, and welcome to our podcast. In any society history and how we choose to remember it is fraught. That is especially true in a country like China where the governing Chinese Communist party seeks to control the historical narrative in order to maintain its legitimacy. As a result, the CCP tries to erase from memory many of its most violent events, such as The Great Famine, the Tiananmen Massacre, and increasingly the cultural revolution.

But has the CCP succeeded? Ian Johnson and his new book Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and their Battle for the Future shows that there’s a grassroots movement underway to counter the CCPs historical narrative and remember these events. Even in a country with increasingly tight surveillance, these stories are getting through.

Ian joins us today to talk about his book Sparks and the efforts to preserve an accurate account of China’s history. Ian is a veteran China reporter and author who lived in China for over 20 years, and in 2001 won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the Chinese government suppression of Falun Gong practitioners. He’s currently the senior fellow for China Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

CL&P: Ian, thank you for joining us today.

Johnson: It’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

CL&P: So just to start off, who are these underground historians? How do you define them and what is their importance to China?

Johnson: The term underground historians is a compromise. Some people will say, are they PhD historians who teach at universities, as we might think a historian to be? I use the term very broadly for anybody who is writing history in any way or making a documentary film about it–bloggers and journalists, essayists, and sometimes even novelists who are using historical fiction to challenge the party. So in this sense, it’s more analogous perhaps to how we in the West might think of popular history or grassroots history, that sort of thing. I say underground also to avoid the word dissident, which is a somewhat of a fraught term because these [people I write about] are not people who are holed up in their basement. They often have one foot inside the system and one foot outside the system. They might be professors at a university or hold some kind of other regular job, own property, send their kids to college and stuff like that. But they felt a calling to explore an aspect of Chinese history that they feel is being whitewashed and they publicized it as best as they can.

CL&P: Now, would you characterize any of them as dissidents?

Johnson: It’s a spectrum, and some of them are dissidents for sure. If he were still alive, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo could be included because of how he has looked and investigated parts of Chinese history. Some of them face harassment by the government, if that makes them a dissident or not it’s hard to say. I think the government is pushing a lot of people into the dissident category who in the past weren’t. I can give you an example: the novelist, Fang Fang, a pseudonym for a writer in Wuhan called Wang Fang. In the West she is best known for her Wuhan Diary that chronicled the roughly 60 days in 2020 when the virus erupted in Wuhan and the truly traumatic and draconian lockdown of that city.

In the past, she was a government-approved writer. She was head of the Writer’s Association in Wuhan and in the province of Hubei, which is a huge inland province of China on the Yangzi River. She was an establishment person whose books are published in China, and she wrote mainly about working class people and so on and so forth–things that were not far from the government’s interests as a communist party, let’s say. But over the past few years, even predating the Diary, in the late 2010s, I think it was 2018 or 2019, she began to tackle sensitive issues. One was on the campaign against the so-called landlords in the late forties and early fifties, which eliminated the gentry in China and paved the way for Party rule over local society, especially in the countryside. She wrote this book called Soft Burial, and that book at first was published in Beijing by an official publishing house.

And then I think the party realized, wait a minute, this is an area that’s super sensitive, we can’t allow this. The campaign against the landlords is in some ways the original sin of the PRC. And so they banned the book and then she lost her position as head of the Writer’s Association. She’s been pushed progressively into this dissident role. By the way, that book is going to be published in English in the autumn by Columbia University Press, translated by the well-known translator, Michael Berry from UCLA along with another novel of hers. So that’s something for people to watch out for in I think September of 2024.

CL&P: And when did things change for her with Soft Burial? You said that it was originally able to be published and now it’s been banned. When did that ban happen approximately?

Author Fang Fang

Johnson: It happened pretty quickly after it was published. I’m going to say it was 2019. I think the situation for people investigating the past has gotten worse over the 2010s progressively. It’s been a bit like the proverbial frog and the pot of hot water that’s getting hotter and hotter and doesn’t realize it. You can’t say the light switch suddenly flipped. I think it’s simplistic to say it all started with Xi Jinping taking power. Certainly as with a lot of things, he supercharged these trends that had been there earlier. If you want to think of a turning point, it really probably was around 2018 when he made clear that he was going to change the constitution to allow a third term, which was not allowed. It wasn’t some ancient tradition, but there had been this accepted norm of only having two terms for a top leader. He made clear in 2018 that wasn’t going to be the case, and that in 2022 he was going to take a third term, which is indeed what happened in 2022.

CL&P: I guess in that regards, when I read Sparks, you talked about how the CCP needs to control this history and to whitewash some of the worst parts of its history to maintain its legitimacy. But do you actually think that is necessary to maintain its legitimacy? Because in the 1980s, 1990s, you did have a lot of the memoirs about the Cultural Revolution where people wrote about a lot of the horrible things that happened and it didn’t topple the CCP. I mean, in your mind, is there a need to really whitewash this? Would this topple the CCP if a lot of this came out more?

Johnson: I don’t think it would topple the CCP. If you suddenly had freedom of the press and people could publish whatever they wanted, you might also find some people who are radical supporters of the CCP or super nationalists who are even more nationalistic than what’s allowed today. And yet freedom of the press could still contribute to the undermining of the Party. And I think that’s certainly what Xi Jinping thinks because one of his signature policies, if you look back over the 12 years that he’s been in power has been control of history. He has explicitly said that one of the key reasons for the fall of the Soviet Union was the ideological hollowing out of the project of communism. Gorbachev launched two initiatives, Perestroika and Glasnost: economic reconstruction and openness.

The [Chinese Communist] Party embraced the idea of economic reconstruction, so after the Soviet Union collapsed, Deng supercharged the economic reforms through the 1990s. He and his handpicked successors pushed for a more open market-based economy, thinking that a high standard of living would satiate most people’s desire for change. I don’t think Xi Jinping’s turned his back on that entirely, but he said the other problem, the key problem of Gorbachev and the Soviet Union was Glasnost. It was too much openness and that this caused the hollowing out of the Soviet Union. He [Xi] has a line in one of his speeches where he says  no one was “man enough” to stop this ridiculous effort to disband the Soviet Union–and we’re not going to allow that to happen in China. So we have to reassert control. From this you can see that he sees it (control of history) as a key issue. People sometimes have this idea that authoritarian leaders are omnipotent, but they actually have a limited amount of political capital that they can expand on any one issue, just like any politician anywhere. And so he chose to go after this because he thinks it’s important. Now maybe he’s wrong, but that’s at least what he thinks.

CL&P: In terms of the government’s approach, the Chinese government’s approach to history. I do want to ask you about historian’s access to the Chinese government’s archives. So I think in Sparks or maybe in another interview you mentioned Yang Jisheng‘s book Tombstone, which used the government archives to see how bad things got during the Great Famine where 35 to 45 million Chinese people starved [to death]. And I think the same has happened with the Culture Revolution. There was a little bit of opening in the late nineties of the archives about what the government was thinking, but my understanding is that those archives have largely closed. And I guess can you just give some of the background on that, the time period, why did it open? Why was it seen as good to open them? And then when around did it close? And what’s the impact of the closing of the archives on these underground historians, if any?

Johnson: It’s hard to know exactly when the archives opened, but there was a possibility in the eighties and nineties, especially up into the two thousands to go into some parts of the archives. Yang Jisheng, when he was researching Tombstone, didn’t look in the Public Security Bureau files or something [sensitive] like that. He looked in mostly the Ministry or the Department of Agriculture files. And there he could find lots of statistics and information because often documents get cross filed. And of course you can think of famine that was mainly caused by agricultural policies, you’d find stuff there. He was able to mine those archives. So was Frank Dikötter in his book, China’s Great Famine or Mao’s Great Famine. Those two landmark works rely heavily on archives. Starting in the two thousands, the government began to realize that this was happening and began to close down access to archives.

So Yang Jisheng, for example, has not been able to access the archives in I’d say at least 20 years. And so that’s in fact why in Sparks, I don’t look at those historians so much. Yang is an important figure, a key figure in the movement early on. But I’m trying to see people who are active in China today.

I think the archives, this is across the board, you can talk to academics almost any topic, it’s almost impossible to get access to almost anything you can imagine. Even the Republican era or the Qing era, everything’s becoming more and more sensitive because of how it might be interpreted.

CL&P: And you said that they started closing the archives in the early two thousands. So this is even before Xi Jinping?

Johnson: Yes. That’s why I think it’s important to see these trends, not just for these underground historians, but if we’re looking more broadly at trends in civil society, that the tide had turned before he took power. Certainly by the Olympics, things had changed. If you want to see a symbolic turning point, it might be the arrest of Liu Xiaobo at the end of ’08. Clearly by then the government had made a decision that dissent in any form was a problem. It went after social media. Weibo was basically knee-capped in about 2010. They got rid of the big influencers on Weibo called the Big Vs, the verified accounts. These were big public figures who had sometimes millions of followers. They sanitized Weibo and pushed people onto WeChat and then sanitized WeChat. All of this predated Xi Jinping taking power. I think as in other areas, he supercharged this. He’s a more forceful leader who has more levers of power, has less opposition, and so could ram through these changes more forcefully than his predecessors.

CL&P: And I guess if these archives are now being closed, why doesn’t the Chinese government just destroy the archives? Do you think that would ever happen?

Johnson: It’s possible. It’s hard to know since we don’t have access to it. There’s a book by the British spy novelist Robert Harris called Fatherland. In it, he posits that the Nazis won World War II and destroyed all the evidence of the Holocaust. There were just a few people fighting in the Ural Mountains. There were rumors that there’d been this destruction of European Jewry, but nobody could actually prove it. Something similar could happen in China. The longer the Party stays in power, the more things will get sanitized. When things do come out of an authoritarian state, it often is during a period of crisis. What happened, for example, in East Germany was a once in a millennium event where an authoritarian state was toppled in a really short time.

The Stasi headquarters was overrun by citizen activists in ’89. They [the Stasi] were shredding paper. But the citizens got there before most of the stuff was shredded. And so that’s why they have this amazing resource, the Stasi archives in Berlin today. But that kind of thing was the exception. And the same with the Soviet archives. The Soviet archives were open for a few years in the early nineties, but by the end of the Yeltsin era was closed off. It was the same thing with the CCP. We have access to some stuff because of the turmoil at the end of the Cultural Revolution and the beginning of the Reform Era when the government tried to make amends.

This is a brief period under the former party Secretary Hu Yaobang in the early to mid-eighties when they tried to make amends for the events of the Mao era. I think we sometimes overemphasized the Cultural Revolution. It wasn’t just the Cultural Revolution, the whole Mao Era, the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Famine and so on. And so the archives and personal documents, personal files were made available to people. That’s why this magazine that I write about in the book, Spark, that’s why we even know about it because of that movement. So during those kinds of turmoil or upheaval, stuff will erupt from an authoritarian state. But if the authoritarian state can reassert control, such as happened in post-Soviet Russia under Putin or happened in post-Mao China, eventually then the archives disappear and are closed off again.

CL&P: In Sparks, you do seem to have a lot of hope for today’s underground historians, but as you’ve shown in your book, there have been others in the past that have attempted to counter the CCP’s official narrative, like the young people who drafted Spark, and their fate has often been prison or even execution. I guess why do you have more hope for the underground historians today than the people in the past?

Johnson: I don’t have hope that they’re going to become the Václav Havels of tomorrow and end up running China. But I think the human spirit is harder to crush than sometimes people imagine. I think China is also a messier place than we sometimes think. You can create a scenario, involving AI, facial recognition software and other things where China becomes a perfect dictatorship where nobody can do anything–they’re monitored the whole time. That could be the case in the future, this Orwellian or Aldous Huxley type idea of China. But if you actually go to China, on the ground things are a lot messier. It’s not carried out to quite the same extent, and at least for now. When I went back there last year, many of the people I wrote about in the book are still active.

Chinese President Xi Jinping

And so I think it’s not true that there is nobody doing anything in China. Some of the people, as I said that I write about, the underground filmmakers are still making films. The history journals like Remembrance are still being published. But it’s true that people have limited goals. Many of people working in this tend to see themselves as patriots who are trying to get on record as much as they can now for future generations. It’s a bit like a message in a bottle that they hope somebody will be able to find and read somewhere. That’s why they don’t feel defeated by the fact that, for example, when they make a film, they have to put it on YouTube and that most Chinese people won’t be able to see it [editor’s note: YouTube is blocked in China.]. They feel at least that way it’s preserved somewhere, it’s kept alive, and in the future, Chinese people, hopefully one day down the road, will be able to make use of this material.

CL&P: And in talking about the future Chinese generations, most of the historians that you feature, the underground historians you feature in your book, it seems like almost all of them are above the age of 50, maybe Jiang Xue is maybe a little bit younger. But I guess for younger generations, do you see the underground history movement continuing? Do you think there will be the same kind of interest in uncovering these issues for the younger generation that’s more online, that’s less in touch with the past with people from the Cultural Revolution or the Great Leap Forward or even Land Reform?

Johnson: Yeah, I do think so. I think it depends of course on China’s trajectory. If you think of young people in China, say young in the sense of maybe anybody under 40, until recently, they haven’t experienced a major trauma in their life. Perhaps if they were involved with Falun Gong, they might have. Of course, if they were Uyghurs they might have. But for the vast majority of people who are say 35, 40 years old, they probably don’t have any memory of Tiananmen. The nineties, two thousands, and most of the 2010s were a period of unprecedented economic growth averaging 9% a year over that period. Tomorrow was a better day, society might have a lot of problems, but if you kept your head down, you could go about constructing a comfortable life for yourself. You could follow hobbies; you could even explore some elements of the past.

But over the past few years that has changed. For the more politically-aware people, that might’ve started in 2018 when Xi signaled that he was taking a third term. That was a shock for many people that he was going to be there forever. We were sort of back to the Mao era when leaders just died in the saddle apparently and never stepped down. That was a shock. But certainly for many more people, the handling of the Covid situation was a turning point. Initially, I wrote a piece for the New York Review of Books in late 2020 called “How Did China Beat Its COVID Crisis?” It is kind of funny now to look at it, but at the time, it seemed like China had. They had a harsh lockdown in Wuhan but they were able to then reopen the country by May of 2020. And it seemed like they’d created an island of COVID-free life for 1.4 billion people.

So the lockdowns worked initially. But by 2021, that no longer worked, especially with the Omicron variant. The lockdowns were getting harsher and harsher. The economy was slowing. People began to wonder, is this government as technocratic as we thought, is this social contract of ‘you’ll leave us alone as long as we don’t touch elite politics,’ is that still in place? And I think we saw the answer for a lot of people was “no.” In 2022, the Shanghai lockdowns, the White Paper Protests, these were not huge events, we shouldn’t exaggerate them, but they were significant. They were the biggest widespread protests in decades. So these events represented, for young people a bit of a shock to the system. And that’s why you see there are young people who are now writing about these events. There’s a filmmaker, Chen Pinlin, who made a film about the lockdown called Not the Foreign Force. Foreign force is a term that the CCP uses to say that it’s outsiders who are fomenting troubles – jingwai shili (境外势力). And she says that it is not the case. It is the story of the Shanghai lockdowns and how it spread because of the government’s heavy handed policies. So I do think you see young people writing about this.

It’s similar for other generations. For elderly people, it might’ve been that they personally experienced the Anti-Rightist Campaign or the Great Famine or the Cultural Revolution. Or if you’re middle aged, it might’ve been Tiananmen, but it probably is something that you experienced firsthand.

So it’s not surprising to me that there were not, until recently, that many thirty-something year olds doing that. But now we’re seeing people in the 20- 30-year age bracket who are getting involved because reaction to the government’s policies. But if the government turns things around, if we go back to strong economic growth, and if they lighten up a little bit on the heavy handed social controls and let people live their life a little bit more, you may find that these people are not as relevant as I’m thinking they may become. But if you look at Xi Jinping, who seems to be an ossified figure who is not able to course correct, I do wonder where China will be in 10 years from now. And if they don’t course correct, you’ll have probably all of these social problems that we have today, high youth unemployment, China maybe not making it into the ranks of the developed countries –then that could cause social problems down the road. And that will fuel people who are offering alternative explanations of reality, which is essentially what these underground historians offer.

CL&P: And just to focus again on what the underground historians that you covered are looking at vis-a-vis other incidents in the CCP’s history, most of the events that they are looking at for the underground historians in your book, they’re looking at things before the 1980s, before Reform and Opening. And I did find it interesting that you had no analysis of any historians looking at Tiananmen and the 1989 crackdown and massacre in Tiananmen. And I guess is that because there’s nobody out there. . . that is way too political that nobody can touch it in China, or was it just you didn’t find anybody to cover for that? I guess the absence of Tiananmen and analysis of that by underground historians was interesting to me.

Johnson: That’s a good point. It was something that I didn’t think about when I was initially doing researching and writing the book. But as I had a first draft, I thought, there’s not much on Tiananmen. Then I realized that I think the reason is that I wanted to focus on people who are doing things inside China today. And it seems like most of the research on that is overseas. And so I didn’t want to write about exiles and overseas dissidents. There’s a lot of great research that’s been done on Tiananmen, and certainly it’s something that I include. I’ve created this thing called the China Unofficial Archive, which makes available online the amazing output of these unofficial historians in China. And we do have material on Tiananmen. It’s [the website] still in its infancy, but we are putting more and more stuff on Tiananmen up.

So that was one reason. But also the Mao Era was a crisis for China that impacts people today. In some ways it symbolizes even for young people what went wrong. It was when China really went down a path from which it hasn’t recovered. You can think of the Reform Era as a desperate effort to use economic growth to pave over the destruction caused by the Mao Era. One of the people I write about in the book, and I’m writing a profile on now in a little bit more in depth, is Gao Er’tai. Gao Er’tai wrote a book called In Search of My Homeland, which is a series of essays about the Great Famine, and the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Cultural Revolution. He now lives in the United States and is 88 years old.

I encountered him online during the COVID lockdowns. His essays were being recirculated on social media. The camp that he writes about was called Jiabiangou. Jiabiangou has become a synonym, a slang term on the web in China, for “the Gulag.” Young people tell me that they even say, ‘watch out, or they’ll send you to Jiabiangou.’ Jiabiangou was closed down in about 1960, this era still resonates today in ways that maybe Tiananmen don’t quite resonate. And I think for young people Tiananmen, I have to be a little bit careful on how I put this, but some of the exile groups that have been most associated with Tiananmen have been involved in a lot of political infighting.

They’ve gotten caught up in the #MeToo movement. They seem to a lot of young people like typical exile groups throughout history that are squabbling more internally than addressing future issues. That’s not entirely fair, but I think maybe that’s why that particular crisis [Tiananmen] for young people today maybe doesn’t seem quite as relevant in assessing China as the Mao era, where the roots of today’s problems were laid.

CL&P: But to go back to something you just said about the Jiabiangou, the labor camp during the Anti-Rightist movement. So in reading your book, that was the first I heard about it. I don’t think there is a lot of focus on what happened during the Anti-Rightist Campaign. And you said that young people use that sort of to refer as in America where we talk about the Gulag. Is that a new development in bringing that into the vocabulary, or has it always been sort of known about Jiabiangou?

Johnson: It wasn’t that well known until the rise of the unofficial history movement in the late nineties and early two thousands. It entered the public consciousness first due to a Shanghai-based writer named Yang Xianhui. Yang wrote a series of vignettes translated as Woman From Shanghai that were based directly on oral histories that he conducted with people. His middle school teacher disappeared and died in Jiabiangou. He fictionalized the stories but they were basically true stories. Then the Paris-based, filmmaker Wang Bing made a film called “The Ditch” based on one of Yang’s stories.

Filmmaker Ai Xiaoming filming Jiabiangou Elegy

Wang Bing also did a purely art film called Traces, where he walks around the desert with his camera. It’s very abstract– a video installation. But I think Wang is probably a little better known than Ai Xiaoming, who’s one of the main characters in my book. She made a film called Jiabiangou [Elegy], which is an incredibly ambitious four and a half hour film influenced heavily by Shoah and other Holocaust films. Ai is an autodidactic filmmaker, but a very serious filmmaker who’s looked at all these great films about the Holocaust. Hu Jie, probably the best known independent filmmaker inside China still working, also made a couple of films about this same material. He made a film called Spark, about the Lanzhou student movement.

He also made a film called In Search of Lin Zhao’s Soul, which was also touched on that material. Through these works Jiabiangou and the events of that time became better known. And then Gao Er’tai’s memoirs, which were first published in 2004, and then an expanded form in 2009 began to spread. They became popular in social media because they’re written as a series of vignettes. They’re about 62 kind of standalone essays. They’re interlinked chronologically, but you can just carve out one and put it online as a 3,000, 4,000 word piece. They became really popular during the lockdown. I don’t have systematic proof of that, but this is certainly based on what other people tell me. On social media feeds, there is a bit of an echo chamber, I realize that, but it seemed like it was pretty popular because it explained the absurdity of CCP rule, the heavy handedness of CCP rule, the arbitrariness of one-man rule and things like that–the Mao Era having a direct resonance today in the Xi Era. Again, I think maybe why the Mao Era resonates more than say Tiananmen.

CL&P: And just in looking at the events that you cover, that the underground historians investigate in your book, I mean they are some of the most horrific and shameful parts of Chinese history. And given that your book is for a general audience, not just for a China-based audience, are you worried that people who aren’t as familiar with Chinese history and Chinese culture when they finish the book, might think that China’s uniquely troubled? And I bring this up because the Three Body Problem on Netflix is being shown, and I know I have a lot of friends and colleagues who’ve asked me about the struggle session that opens that series. And there does seem to be questions that seem to come from a place where this is a uniquely Chinese thing, the horribleness that people can treat each other. I guess, were you worried about that at all in focusing on these events?

Johnson: Yes, I do mention in the introduction, and then especially in the conclusion, I say, rather than seeing them as uniquely Chinese, we should see them as part of a global conversation about how we deal with the past. And that rather than seeing people like Fang Fang as a one-off author in this far away land–“planet China”–that has these weird things going on, we should see her as part of our cultural heritage. She uses techniques of historical-based fiction used by U.S. superstar academic writers like Saidiya Hartman at Columbia University. She uses fiction to recreate the enslaved person’s experiences because we don’t obviously have memoirs and diaries of enslaved people. So she does all the research possible, and then she uses a bit of imagination to put herself in that person’s place and writes about what it might’ve been like to come over on a slave ship.

This is in the conclusion, I issue a plea for civil society in the West to try to bring these people more into our conversations. We don’t translate their works enough. Thank goodness that Fang Fang’s novels are now being translated a little bit. But when I think back to the Cold War, people like Václav Havel and Milos Forman and Milan Kundera were kind of household names among educated people in the West in a way that their Chinese counterparts today are not. We need to find a way to get these works published, get the movies out there, have a festival for some of the films. And that’s why I hope it can become part of our world and not just some weird thing off in China.

CL&P: Yeah. And why do you think it’s not part of our world? Is it a language or cultural issue, right? You talked about the Cold War, there were more translations going on. Is it a lack of funding? I mean, why do you think it’s not being brought into the Western canon as much?

Johnson: There’s a bunch of reasons, and I’ll mention a few, in no particular order. But I think one, for example, is publishing. I remember in the 1980s, Philip Roth wrote a series of introductions for Central European authors, and they were published by a mainstream publisher [Penguin]. But publishers today are under much more commercial pressure, so that if you’re an editor, you can’t just say, “hey, you know what? I’m just going to publish this stuff because I know it’s not going to make any money, but I feel that this is an important thing. I am going to commission the translation, and we may lose money, but we’re going to make a ton of money elsewhere.” And now when you go to Amazon, you see hardcover books that list for $25 being sold for $19. That $5 is a big chunk of the profit margin of the publishers. So they have to look really carefully at what they publish. This is part of the digitization and the way you can compartmentalize financial returns on things that affect the media in general, newspapers and so on. So there’s that reason.

But also China for many people feels further away. Central Europe was part of the West, so to speak, or you could see them as part of the West, especially Czechoslovakia and Poland and even Russia. Solzhenitsyn wrote in a format–the Russian novel–that was familiar to educated people in the West.

Language is [also] a problem. When they do get overseas, if you were to invite some people over, they don’t speak English. By and large, almost none of the people I write about in the book speak English. People like Ai Weiwei is the total outlier. That’s why he gets so much media attention, because he can speak great English. For example I was trying to get a prominent Chinese journalist a fellowship at a major university here in the West, and they said, well, ‘how’s she going to participate in the fellowship if she can’t speak English very well?’

Finally, there’s a fatalism toward China. We have this idea, we’ve written off China in a way. We’ve just decided we’ve got to decouple from China. Nothing’s happening in China. We need to protect ourselves from China. Basically there’s nothing good happening there. And that’s why I think so few people go and study China. So few young people are excited by going to China or wanting to do that, which I think is a real pity because we have a huge chunk of humanity that we’re just writing off.

CL&P: And I think the underground historians you feature, you really humanize them and they sound like fun, quirky people that are doing really good work. And one of the things I did notice, and you do write about this in Sparks, is two of the recurring characters, Jiang Xue and Ai Xiaoming, and then also Fang Fang, who you mention a lot, they’re women. And I think in a lot of movements in China, you don’t see women featured as much. I mean, I do think that is changing. The feminist movement in China, or at least now outside of China is very strong. But I guess why are you seeing more women in this movement and how are women treated in this movement by their male colleagues? Is their scholarship treated as on par with theirs, or is there any kind of negative gender dynamics?

Johnson:  I didn’t set out to have two women as my main characters, but that’s essentially what my reporting found. And obviously there’s some path dependency when you’re doing research like this. But I do think that a disproportionate number of women are involved. Sometimes when you get men involved in these kind of situations, the male ego, the testosterone, gets involved. It tends to be very confrontational: it’s me against the goddamn system kind of thing. Whereas women tend to, here, I’m stereotyping massively, but maybe women sometimes just set about doing stuff and actually creating things, creating networks, creating works. Perhaps that’s one reason for it.

Cover page of the first issue (of two) of the mimeographed journal, Spark.

But also, women are outsiders in Chinese society. Chinese politics is run by men. There are almost no women. There are no women in the Standing Committee of the Politburo. I don’t think there’s any woman in the Politburo now for the first time in decades. So if you’re a woman, you are from the beginning an outsider. It’s similar perhaps to Jews in European society last century, where they were part of the society, but were always outsiders. That gave Jewish people a bit of a different view of things. And that’s often the interesting view. If you’re too much inside the system, you can’t describe it so well. If you have a little bit of an angle, if you’re isolated, if you’re marginalized to some degree, then you do have a more critical analytical and maybe objective way of looking at society. I think that’s what women bring to the table.

CL&P: And I see we’re  running short on time. I just wanted to switch gears a bit. You had mentioned the China Unofficial Archives website that you’ve started. Can you just briefly talk about that? Is it accessible in China and what’s the goal of that website? And maybe even give the website name, which I will also put in the transcript.

Johnson: Yeah. It’s called the China Unofficial Archives or in Chinese, it’s the Mianjian Dang’an Guan (民间档案馆). The URL is actually the pinyin of that, which you could put in. . .

CL&P: Yeah, I’ll put in the transcript [https://minjian-danganguan.org/].

Johnson: We’re a 501(c)(3)-registered charitable organization in the US. It was set up for a couple of reasons. The main reason was to make available just all of this material in one site. People often ask me, Hey, where can I read this stuff? Where can I find out more about this? At the end of my book, I have some suggested readings. I was just building the site at that time, and I didn’t maybe emphasize it enough. But that is where you can find all the people I write about in the book, and many, many, many more. It’s still in its infancy. We have 850 items in the archive. They’re sortable by era format, creator and theme. So if you want say, films on the Cultural Revolution, you can click on format: film  and era: Cultural Revolution, and it’ll quickly sort and give you the films we have. We’re just digitizing another 125 films and putting them up on the site. We also offer downloadable PDFs of public-domain books and magazines.

The main audience is Chinese people, but the site is fully bilingual. We have descriptions in English and in Chinese. But I think of it as serving people who might be interested in this topic in China or abroad who don’t have access to a major research library. It’s not available in China, it was very quickly blocked because there are these search bots that just find words like Cultural Revolution, so on. It was immediately blocked once we went live in December of last year.

But I think that’s okay because the people who are most active have VPNs and they also act as gatekeepers. They can download the PDFs of these books and magazines and spread them inside China. So that’s the basic game plan. I think also, maybe the 20% or 10% of my idea was also to show people in the West that there are more writers and directors than they think. It’s not just a few dissidents doing this. It’s actually a lot of people in many different parts of China who are working on these things. I want to destroy the idea that it’s just a few dissidents in Beijing or Shanghai or some places like that who are active. It’s actually a broad based movement. We’re going to be moving to a new data management system, which will allow us to do data visualization so we can see where the people are, where the works are on a map of China, and you can isolate that and work with that.

CL&P: Okay, cool. No, I’ve looked at the website and it’s super cool, and I’m really excited to see it moving forward and everything. So yeah, so I think that’s everything for today. I really appreciate you taking the time to speak to us today. I thought Sparks was really a great book, and I do highly recommend it to other people to not just learn about Chinese history, but to also learn about these amazing people who are trying to preserve Chinese history, the accurate Chinese history for future generations. So thank you, Ian.

Johnson: My pleasure. Thank you.

Short Take: Why are Chinese migrants crossing the Mexican border?

By , February 19, 2024

Short Take is a periodic series where China Law & Policy briefly analyzes a current China-related issue and give our take. We aim for 500 words or less (around a 4-minute read).

Last week, New York Times’ reporter, Li Yuan, appeared on The Daily in a fascinating podcast that retold the story Gao Zhibian, a Chinese migrant who entered the United States by taking the perilous trek across Central America’s Darien Gap and up through Mexico, eventually crossing the Texas border. What caught my attention was the numbers Yuan reported. In 2023, 24,000 Chinese citizens took this path. That number surpassed the number of Chinese crossing the Mexican border from the previous 10 years combined. Prior to 2023, Chinese migration through Mexico was a mere 1,500 per year.

For years, if not decades, Chinese citizens have been able to travel visa-free to Ecuador. It is from there that they trudge through the Darien Gap, Central America, Mexico to reach the US. This has long been the route of choice for Chinese citizens unable to obtain a US student visa, an H1-B visa, or even a tourist visa. In other words, this has been the only way into the US for China’s migrant workers, the farmers from the countryside that moved to China’s cities to become the construction and factory workers. It is these workers that largely propelled China out of poverty, enabling it to become the second largest economy in the world. With increased income, they too shared in China’s economic miracle.

What has caused this sixteen-fold increase in the last year?  No doubt China’s slowing economy, whose future is uncertain, is one reason. But it is more than that as Yuan shows in her interview with Gao Zhibian. Gao didn’t leave China solely because of the economy. After succeeding as a migrant worker, he ended up developing a small apartment building in the suburbs of Beijing, becoming a small-time landlord. But in 2018, the local government confiscated his land to sell to richer developers, with the local government retaining all the profits. Gao sought justice through China’s legal system in the form of petitioning to the national government. But he and his family were constantly harassed by the local authorities and Gao gave up his fight, losing his land and receiving little to no compensation. It was the Chinese legal system’s failure to provide justice or even establish a fair system that caused Gao to start researching migrating to the US through Central America. 

Similarly, CNN, in its excellent, in-depth reporting on Chinese migration from Ecuador, featured a Chinese migrant that also fled China because of the lack of justice. Zheng Shiqing, a 28-year-old, high school migrant worker, left China after his factory wages were unlawfully withheld and the formal complaint he filed was ignored.

Economics certainly plays a major role in the increased Chinese migrants along the US’ southern border, but for both Gao and Zeng, it’s the Chinese legal system’s failure to provide for any form of redress that adds to the mix.[1] For China’s migrants, it is this lack of a rule of law that any hope that the legal system can protect the rights of the weak.

Recommended reading/listening:

Li Yuan and Michael Barbaro, How China broke one man’s dreams, New York Times’ The Daily (Feb. 15, 2024), 32 min listen.

Yong Xiong, Simone McCarthy and David Culver, The ‘walking route’: How an underground industry is helping migrants flee China for the US, CNN (Jan. 8, 2024), 15 min read.


[1] What doesn’t play a role are the far-right media’s unsubstantiated claims and racist tropes that these Chinese migrants are spies for the Chinese Communist Party.

恭喜发财! Happy Year of the Wood Dragon!

By , February 6, 2024

On February 10, we say goodbye to the introspective, more pensive rabbit and greet the most prized of all the Chinese zodiac signs, the dragon. But not just any ordinary dragon; 2024 ushers in the year of the wood dragon. Buckle up because it is going to be a wild ride!

In addition to being associated with a zodiac animal, each year is also associated with one of the five elements (earth, wood, water, fire, metal). This year’s element is wood. While the dragon is an auspicious sign, it is also a volatile one, offering fast-paced opportunities that could yield tremendous successes or abysmal failures. The wood element – which fuels flames – enhances the intensity of the dragon. Expect the possibility of great transformations that positively impact the course of world events. In the last wood dragon year, 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Beatles arrived in America, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. But there were also great upheavals. The U.S. radically ramped up its involvement in Vietnam and students began protesting en masse; Nelson Mandela, after giving his “I am prepared to die” speech, was sentenced to life by a South African court; the second most powerful earthquake – registering a 9.2 on the Richter scale – occurred in Alaska; and three civil rights workers, a part of the 1964 Freedom Summer, were brutally murdered in Mississippi.

But we should keep hope that the wood dragon will usher in peace and positivity in the world as the dragon is not just the most revered animal of the Chinese zodiac, it is also the kindest. When the Jade Emperor, ruler of heaven and earth, created the Chinese zodiac, he decided to create a 12-year cycle calendar, with an animal representing each year. Instead of just choosing his favorites, he challenged the animals of the world to a race. The first 12 to arrive at his palace on the other side of the river would become part of the zodiac. The dragon came in fifth. Shocked, the Jade Emperor asked the dragon how that could have happened given that he can fly. The dragon told him that he had gotten waylaid. First, he had to stop to help provide rain to a village of farmers whose crops were dying from draught. Then, as he was about to fly across the river, he saw the rabbit clinging on to a log in a sad attempt to cross the river. “I had to help the rabbit” the dragon told the Jade Emperor. “So I blew gently on the log to make sure the rabbit would safely arrive on the other side of the river.”  

For the dragon, power should be used to help others, not dominate over them. And that fits with some of the most famous dragons: Bruce Lee; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Joan of Arc; John Lennon; Adele; and Pelé. With the wars in Ukraine and Gaza and the U.S. presidential election, hopefully this characteristic of using power to help others will dominate in the year to come. Heavens knows we need it.

What does the wood dragon have in store for you? That all depends on your own Chinese zodiac sign. Fortunately, the aptly named website, The Chinese Zodiac.com has listed its Lunar New Year predictions for the 12 zodiac signs. You can read what is in store for you here (remember those born in late January to early February should look up the precise date of the lunar new year for your birth year to make sure you have the right zodiac sign).

Ultimately the lunar new year is less about predictions than it is about spending time with family and friends. So to our East Asian friends who celebrate the lunar new year, 恭喜发财! (Gong Xi Fa Cai – pronounced gong see fa tsai and meaning “wishing happiness and wealth”).

China’s Living Dead: The assault on the Uyghurs continues

By , January 31, 2024

Originally published in Commonweal

Gulbahar Haitiwaji hoped it would be the last time she would have to betray a family member. She had already denounced her own daughter, her husband, and Uyghur activist leader Rebiya Kadeer the month before. That video-recorded “confession” had secured her release from the Chinese prison camps, where she had been detained for more than two years. But Gulbahar was not actually free. Instead she was sitting in a plush room in a house adjacent to the prison camp, ordered by the Chinese police who lived with her to call her family in France. She had not spoken to her husband or daughters since she was first arrested two and a half years earlier. Did they even know she was still alive? What would she tell them?

Gulbahar did not have to worry about being tongue-tied. The police would sit next to her during the call, providing her with notes on what she should ask and what she was forbidden to mention. If she ever wanted to see her family again, the police told her, she would instruct them to stop their public advocacy on behalf of her and millions of others caught up in China’s genocidal campaign to destroy the Uyghur people.

She readily complied. Refusal to go along with the police meant going back to the hell of the Xinjiang camps, with their constant degradation: sharing a small cell and one squat toilet with thirty other women; a starvation diet; rarely bathing and wearing clothes encrusted with two years of dirt; constantly being called a “filthy terrorist”; being shackled and hooded whenever she was moved to a new room or camp; being forbidden to speak her native Uyghur or show any signs of her Muslim religion; rarely seeing daylight; and being chained to her bed for twenty days, forced to defecate in front of her cellmates.

Gulbahar’s calls continued to be monitored for months. “Are you sure you are alone?” her daughter would ask whenever she called. Yes, Gulbahar would sheepishly reply, as the police wrote down her daughter’s every word—including the fact that she was meeting with French government officials in an effort to free her mother. “My room became the field headquarters for a Chinese intelligence operation directed against my own family, and I was a part of it,” writes Gulbahar in her powerful, heart-wrenching memoirHow I Survived a Chinese “Reeducation” Camp: A Uyghur Woman’s Story. “I had become a bargaining chip between my family and the police…. Lies leave a terrible taste in your mouth.”

Only after her husband and daughters removed all of their social-media posts about Gulbahar’s disappearance, in August 2019, did the Chinese government finally allow Gulbahar to return to France.

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The Human Toll of a Cold War: “Agents of Subversion” and “Lost in the Cold War”

By , January 4, 2024

Few Americans know the story of John “Jack” Downey, the United States’ longest-held prisoner of war who served over 20 years in a Chinese prison. But given the current broken relationship between the U.S. and China, it’s important to understand Downey’s ordeal and the human toll of the last Cold War. Fortunately, two new, thought-provoking books, Lost in the Cold War: The Story of Jack Downey, America’s Longest-Held POW, written by John T. Downey with explanations by China political scientist Thomas Christensen and a moving epilogue by Downey’s son, John Lee Downey, and Agents of Subversion: The Fate of John T. Downey and the CIA’s Covert War in China, by China historian John Delury, recounts Downey’s story and the repercussions of trying to “win” a cold war.

Downey’s story starts with America in 1950. Communism was spreading across the world and many in D.C. were looking for someone to blame for the “loss” of China to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) the year prior. Senator Joseph McCarthy settled upon the China hands at the State Department, hauling them before the Senate to accuse them of being Communist sympathizers. By October 1950, the CCP had entered the Korean War, turning the tide against the Americans forces. For the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”), overthrowing the CCP through covert action became a priority. Initially, the CIA used Chinese operatives, agents it called “the Third Force” because of their lack of allegiance to the CCP or the prior party that had governed China, the Kuo Min Tang (“KMT”). With only minimal training, the CIA would clandestinely air drop these Third Force agents into a village in China, hoping they could go on to form a successful resistance movement against the CCP. But after the corruption of the KMT and years of war, most Chinese were not interested in overthrowing the CCP. Of the CIA’s 212 Third Force operatives it dropped in China, 111 were captured and 101 killed. 

But these abysmal numbers did not stop the CIA. Instead, it hatched an even more absurd plan:  send American agents into China to try to help these Third Force operatives. In November 1952, the CIA sent two of its American agents into Chinese airspace over Manchuria to physically pick up one of these Third Force operatives: Jack Downey, only a year out of Yale University and with no knowledge on China, and agent Richard “Dick” Fecteau, also a recent grad with zero China knowledge. Their plane was to fly low over a meeting point, with Downey and Fecteau holding out a long hook that the operative was to attach to his vest, and as the plane ascended, Downey and Fecteau would pull the hook up into the plane, bringing the Third Force operative with it. But the operative had already been discovered by the CCP weeks earlier, had flipped, and CCP forces were awaiting Downey and Fecteau’s plane. As soon as the plane was low enough, CCP forces shot it down, killing the pilots and capturing Downey and Fecteau. 

For two years, the Chinese government kept secret the capture of these two Americans. The CIA presumed the two dead and sent letters to their families to that effect. But in 1954, when Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai made public that the two were very much alive and had been convicted of espionage, with Downey receiving a life sentence and Fecteau twenty years, the U.S. government went into crisis mode. But instead of admitting the truth, that they were in fact spies, the U.S. government concocted the story that the two had been civilian employees of the army and their flight from South Korea to Japan had been blown off course into Chinese airspace due to a storm.

For the next twenty years, the U.S. government maintained this fiction to the world and to its own people even though between 1954 and 1966, there were at least two opportunities to free the men.  All that the U.S government would have to have done was to admit that the two were CIA operatives. Then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles refused. To him, such an admission would be a victory for the Communists and every Administration went along with his decision. It would not be until the early 1970s, and the formation of a new China policy by President Richard Nixon, that there would be any movement. With warming relations between the two countries, Fecteau was freed on December 1971, but Downey, always viewed by the Chinese as the mission’s leader, only received a reduction in his life sentence. Finally, at a press conference about Vietnam POWs in January 1973, Nixon admitted that Downey was a CIA agent. Two months later, on March 12, Downey would cross the Chinese border into Hong Kong, finally a free man.

Lost in the Cold War is Downey’s memoir of the mission, recounting his zealousness in signing up for the CIA during his senior year at Yale (“Suddenly, my life had purpose”), his training, his capture, and then how he mentally and physically survived close to twenty-one years in a Chinese prison. Written in secret and only discovered by his family after his death in 2014, Downey’s writing style is engaging, making his ordeal into a page-turner. Interestingly, he harbors little resentment against the Chinese government, accepting that a life sentence was appropriate for what he did – unlawfully fly into Chinese airspace with the intent to overthrow the CCP. There is also no ill-will toward the U.S. government even though years of his life were wasted because of Dulles’ belief that negotiating with Communists was below him.  Although Downey doesn’t express any anger, the reader cannot help but feel it for him. When Downey returns to Connecticut in 1973, he visits Yale; it was his memories of Yale, where he was a popular star athlete, that sustained him through prison. But all he finds on campus are ghosts. When he reunites with some college friends he sees that Yale is long behind them. “They had homes, jobs, wives, and children to enjoy and worry about. To them, the years at Yale were a distant memory.  To me college was yesterday. . .In many ways, I was still twenty-two.”  When he visits his sick mother, she firmly grasps his hand, unable to let go of the son she had to fight her own government to bring home.

Jack Downey crossing the border to Hong Kong

How could the U.S. government allow this suffering to continue for 20 years and what was it all for?  That is where Christensen’s chapters become important. For the majority of Americans today – two-thirds of whom were born either in the waning days of the Cold War or after it was over – the Cold War is nothing more than a plotline in a movie. Christensen reminds us that at the time, both the U.S. government and the American people really believed that every last resource had to be used to fight Communism. What we perceive as immoral choices today – letting Downey and Fecteau rot in a Chinese prison – were perceived as necessary to protect America. But even with this perspective, the failure to put a human life first still seems unnecessarily harsh. Downey’s son, whose moving epilogue is beautifully written and presents Downey as a kind, if somewhat tortured father, is much less forgiving. When he recounts the “celebration” the CIA held for his father and Fecteau in 2010, his tone is biting and rightfully so, reminding the reader of the human toll of all this. 

Delury’s Agents of Subversion is an important supplement to Downey’s memoirs, artfully putting Downey’s story into the larger narrative of the United States’ changing society in the early 1950s. It starts with the intellectual battles that were brewing in post-World War II America, between those who thought the U.S should focus on its own domestic issues and those who believed that any means that could eliminate Communism from the world should be used. Ultimately those who wanted to take on Communism through subversive and covert operations  – especially John Foster Dulles and his brother, Allen Dulles who was the CIA’s director at the time – won the day. 

Further, by using original Chinese language sources, Delury shows that instead of fermenting revolution in China, the CIA’s efforts had the opposite effect: they justified Mao’s fear that the United States was seeking to undermine his rule, and validated his suppression and surveillance of the Chinese population. Delury also recounts the U.S. government’s response to the failed mission, its subsequent cover up, the constant pressure of Downey’s mother to free her son, and the road to Fecteau and Downey’s release after Nixon takes office. With deep research and a well-written narrative, Agents of Subversion is an important contribution to the intellectual history of the United States in the 1950s as well as its policy toward China. 

In 2013, the CIA awarded Jack Downey (L) and Dick Fecteau (R) its highest award.

Today, the U.S.’ China policy seems to be circling back to a cold war mentality of the 1950s and 60s, with increasing anti-China rhetoric coming from both sides of the aisle. There are aspects of the current Chinese regime that undermine a lawful and human rights-respecting world order that the U.S. must combat, but a complete vilification of the country does not serve that goal. And, as in the case with Jack Downey, it may even cause us to lose sight of our own values. Lost In the Cold War and Agents of Subversion are timely reminders that when ideological stakes are running high, our government is not above lying to its own people or forsaking its own citizens.

Lost in the Cold War: The Story of Jack Downey, America’s Longest-Held POW, by John T. Downey, Thomas Christensen and, John Lee Downey (Columbia University Press, 2022), 344 pages.

Rating: ★★★★½

Agents of Subversion: The Fate of John T. Downey and the CIA’s Covert War in China, by John Delury (Cornell University Press, 2022), 408 pages.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Interested in purchasing these books? Consider supporting your local, independent bookstore. Find the nearest one here.

*******Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to Eugene McCarthy instead of Joseph McCarthy. This has now been corrected. Apologies.

Was it really Kissinger who changed US-China policy?

By , December 10, 2023

With Henry Kissinger’s death last month at the age of 100, obituaries around the globe have wrestled with his controversial legacy. Some label him a diplomatic genius, others a war criminal. But regardless, each one credits Kissinger with re-setting U.S.-China relations with his secret trip to China in July 1971 while serving as President Richard Nixon’s National Security Adviser.  Six months later, Nixon would make his historic visit to Beijing, meet Chairman Mao and essentially end the Cold War between China and the U.S. “Engineered the United States’ opening to China,” The New York Times wrote about Kissinger last month; “the orchestrator of Washington’s opening to communist China,” noted The Guardian in its obituary; “a key figure in China-US icebreaking in 1972,” claimed The Global Times the day after his death; and “the impresario of Nixon’s historic opening to China,” stated The Washington Post.

But was he?  Was Kissinger the brains behind changing the U.S.’ China policy from one of isolation to one of engagement?

Two must-read op-eds from last week unequivocally say no. The first, by Prof. Jerome A. Cohen and published in The Diplomat, provides personal anecdotes that show not only did Kissinger not come up with the idea to engage China, but he wasn’t the all-powerful diplomat he pretended to be, cowering when Nixon would call.  The second, by former China journalist and author James Mann and appearing in Politico, uses some of the documents Mann obtained in Freedom of Information Act requests over the years to show that Kissinger thought it insane to even contemplate détente with China.

If it wasn’t Kissinger’s brain child, then whose was it?  Mann, in his piece, gives credit to Nixon as “the driving force behind the decision to reestablish diplomatic relations with Beijing.” Nixon might have been that force, but ultimately it was a group of China academics at Harvard University that didn’t just set the stage for Nixon’s trip but provided a roadmap for a new China policy.

Back in 1967, ten East Asian scholars, Jerome A. Cohen, John King Fairbank. Roy Hofheinz, Jr., Dwight Perkins, Edwin O. Reischauer, Benjamin I. Schwartz, James Thomson, Ezra Vogel, A. Doak Barnett, and Lucian Pye, decided that the U.S. needed a new China policy, to bring China into the international community, to avoid a war with the country, and to help end the Vietnam War (China was seen as increasingly crucial to that effort). For over a year, these scholars met to not only discuss how the U.S. could go about engaging a communist country, but how to handle the fallout of that engagement with China’s surrounding neighbors, in particular Taiwan. The final product would be a letter to whichever presidential candidate would win the November 5, 1968 election.

On November 6, 1968, the day after Nixon’s victory, the scholars sent their letter to the president-elect. That letter, and the policy that Nixon ultimately followed in sending Kissinger to China on a secret trip, was published in the Congressional Record in August 1971 by Congressman John Rousselot who was angry after learning of Kissinger’s China trip a month prior. “I urge my colleagues to carefully study this document,” Rousselot wrote, going on to note:

“The effect it has obviously had on our policy toward Communist China is startling. Dr. Kissinger’s ‘advice’ so closely parallels the position taken in this memorandum that I cannot overemphasize how important it is that each Member realize that as early as November 6, 1968, at a time when we were most deeply committed in Vietnam, the plan which is being followed today to appease Communist Chinese aggressors was being presented to the President.”

The letter – which can be read in the Congressional Record here – starts with the recommendation that Nixon task a trusted advisor to have confidential and “perhaps even deniable” conversations with the Chinese leadership in more informal settings, a.k.a a visit to Beijing. The letter also recommended greater people-to-people ties, something the Nixon Administration followed through in permitting the U.S. ping pong team to visit China in 1971 and encouraging the Philadelphia Orchestra’s visit to Beijing in 1973.

Finally, the letter wrestled with what to do with Taiwan, and it is here that Nixon – and future administrations – failed to fully adopted all of the policy recommendations. The letter made clear that the China seat on the United Nations’ Security Council should go to the People’s Republic of China (it had been held by the Nationalist Chinese government on the island of Taiwan), which eventually happened in 1971. But the scholars provided more support for Taiwan at the U.N. stating that the U.S. should seek to “preserve a general assembly seat for Taiwan, whether as the Republic of China, an independent nation, or an autonomous region of China.” One wonders if Nixon had followed that advice, if the current China-Taiwan predicament could have been avoided.

In Brownsville Girl, a lesser-known Bob Dylan masterpiece, Dylan sings “if there’s an original thought out there, I could use it right now,” and that’s what Kissinger did here: take this 1968 letter and pretend like it was his original idea to change U.S.-China relations. But it was not. That credit is due to the ten China academics who had the courage to provide an alternative roadmap to policymakers in the hopes of maintaining peace in East Asia.

Want to Reset China-US Relations? Bring Back Fulbright China

By , November 30, 2023

Restoring the Fulbright Program could be a gateway to alleviating tensions and closing the China expertise gap.

by Colleen O’Connor & Elizabeth M. Lynch

Originally published in The Diplomat

The recent meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in California was heralded as an initial attempt to thaw relations. As part of that broader effort, both sides expressed interest in expanding educational exchanges. China’s announced goal of hosting 50,000 U.S. students in the next five years looks wildly ambitious compared to the current 211 Americans studying in mainland China today, but ten years ago, as many as 15,000 studied there annually. 

The drastic decline of American students in China is creating an expertise gap that threatens the United States’ long-term ability to navigate the complexities of the China-U.S. geopolitical landscape.  CLICK HERE to continue reading this article.

Book Review: Josh Chin and Liza Lin’s Surveillance State

By , August 14, 2023

Originally published in Commonweal

Every so often, I witness a scene in my neighborhood that’s all too common in New York City. A single car is double-parked on a narrow side street in front of a large apartment building. A blocked, frustrated driver—say, of a school bus full of frenetic children, or a delivery van on a tight schedule—angrily lays on the horn, sometimes for a full minute or more. Sometimes the guilty party sheepishly emerges to move their vehicle. But just as often they don’t.

If this were not Queens but Hangzhou, a city near China’s eastern coast, there would be no need for honking. In China’s “smart cities,” surveillance cameras immediately flag double-parked cars and run their plates to identify the owner. Local city managers, known as the Chengguan, then order such cars be moved via text message. Traffic can then resume flowing within minutes.

This is one positive element of China’s increasingly data-driven governance, analyzed by veteran reporters Josh Chin and Liza Lin in Surveillance State: Inside China’s Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control. Their presentation can make Hangzhou seem like a paradise of efficiency, even to Americans skeptical of government control. Given China’s extensive record of human-rights violations, it can be tempting to dismiss innovations like Hangzhou’s camera and AI-based technology as tools of oppression.

CLICK HERE to finish reading this review.

Rating: ★★★½☆

Josh Chin
Liza Lin

Surveillance State: Inside China’s Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control, by Josh China and Liza Lin (St. Martin’s Press, 2022), 320 pages.

Interested in purchasing the book? Consider supporting your local, independent bookstore. Find the nearest one here.

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