Schell on US-China: Engagement, Tragedy, and Penetrating the Veil
A tour de force of the past thirty years inspired by Lu Xun, Hu Shih, Sophocles, Simon Leys, and Johann Sebastian Bach
The great Orville Schell, the director of the Asia Society, has graced us with his presence on ChinaTalk. It was a true honor to get to have such a wide-ranging and rich conversation with one of America’s greatest students of China.
His book with John Delury, Wealth and Power, I would put on my top-three books I’d want people to first read in thinking about understanding modern China.
The Tiananmen Papers was an incredibly formative piece of scholarship for understanding how the system really works.
Orville is most recently the author of a sweeping, 600-page novel that tells the story of modern China through the lens of a family who lived through the twentieth-century PRC.
In this show we cover a ton of ground, including:
The competition between Chinese tradition and Leninism — and how both philosophies have enslaved Xi Jinping today;
Xi psychoanalysis: how he differs from past PRC leaders, why Bach is Xi’s antipode — and why Xi is just so awkward;
The tragedy of failed engagement post-1989, and how ancient Greek tragedy helps us better understand the failure of overzealous dictators;
How we can understand modern China both accurately and deeply, even from afar — and the importance of writing the truth as you see it, regardless of the consequences;
An explanation for the root of Xi’s territorial ambitions over Taiwan, and how US policy can avoid provoking Xi — who is, as Orville said, “a poor, weak creature”;
Why the US was begging China — not the other way around — for continued engagement after the Tiananmen Massacre, and why Americans should be proud of that diplomatic legacy.
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Heart of Darkness
Jordan Schneider: We’re in a tricky moment, it seems. Orville, you mentioned you’ve been reading old Lu Xun 魯迅 darkness quotes. Give us one of them — and why is that?
Orville Schell: Lu Xun really reached the apogee of his writing career — as, I think, the greatest writer of modern China — 100 years ago. And he was obsessed with darkness: because all around him he saw darkness, and he wasn’t sure how China could ever get out of it. And he did not drink the Kool-Aid of Chinese communism — he was a leftist, but he never joined the Party, and was rather circumspect about it.
And many people often say to me, “Well, you’re so gloomy.” Well, I sure like Lu Xun, and let me just read one wonderful little quote — and if you aren’t enamored by Lu Xun, you should dive back into him, because he’s one of the few Chinese writers who really understands irony.
Anyway — Lu Xun said,
Let the awakened man burden himself with the weight of tradition and shoulder up the gate of darkness. Let him give unimpeded passage to the children so that they may rush to the bright, wide-open spaces and lead happy lives henceforth as rational human beings.
So he was, I think, deeply depressed most of his life, obsessed with darkness — but also obsessed with brightness. And you’ll remember, his wonderful short story 狂人日記 “Diary of a Madman” ended with, “Save the children” [救救孩子……] — as if that was all that could be done in the period that he felt himself and China floundering in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s.
Jordan Schneider: So Orville, why are things so dark today?
Orville Schell: I think it’s a combination of reasons, and it’s very hard to separate out what part comes from tradition and what part comes from Leninism. And I think those are the two prevailing dark forces in China.
And by way of tradition, I would say, here Lu Xun had it right and also maybe a little bit wrong — that tradition was an enormous weight on China, because it prescribed how everything should be done, how people should act, and how they should relate to each other. And he felt that that was a source of weakness for China.
But then along came Leninism. I think for the Chinese intellectuals of the early twentieth century, they saw China’s weakness as emanating from its tradition — that its traditional Confucian system had hogtied it and prevented it from being modern, technologizing itself, adopting new ways as the world was changing. And so they attacked it. In fact, there were many wonderful aspects of Chinese tradition (and I think we don’t need to go into them here) — but it also was constraining in a world that was changing so rapidly as China confronted the West.
But then into that tradition: remember, China had 2,000 years of dynastic government. It was pretty autocratic. Even the Confucian element was embedded in this whole legalist theory of a strong, powerful emperor that was confirmed not by divine right of kings but by the mandate of heaven 天下, which is a cosmic force that conferred legitimacy.
So then came Leninism. And it was all about what? Well: how do you build a big, strong, one-party system? How do you organize? How do you unify the country? Because remember, Sun Yat-sen 孫逸仙 had called China “一盤散沙” yìpán sǎnshā — a dish of loose sand. [Ed. Sun Yat-sen, also 孫中山, was the first president of the Republic of China and first leader of the Nationalist Party of China, or Kuomintang 國民黨.]
So these two things came together, and I think they deeply embedded themselves in the genome of China — and so that even during reform, even during the most open-minded party general secretaries of the Party, they never could quite escape this toxic cocktail of traditional autocracy and Leninism.
And now, just to jump forward here: after a dalliance with reform and a very tempting few decades when we thought maybe China would peacefully evolve into something else — we find Xi Jinping enslaved by these two powerful traditions of autocracy and control and centralized government and reverting back to its old, most retrograde habits.
So that’s why, for me, Lu Xun is so powerful — because he recognized how deeply enthroned these two elements were in China’s tradition, and how hard it would be for China to escape and become something different.
Jordan Schneider: Are there other nineteenth-century or pre-Kuomintang thinkers or politicians which are useful reference points in trying to understand what’s happening with today’s China?
Orville Schell: Well, I always loved Hu Shih 胡適, who was China’s ambassador (finally) to Washington, went to Columbia to study. His writing reminds us that there is another side to China: the more enlightened side. And of course, Hu was one of the fathers of the “Chinese Enlightenment” — the May Fourth Movement in 1919 and in the 1920s. He really was very sage, a deeply knowledgeable man about Chinese tradition — but also deeply comfortable in the West and the tradition of the Enlightenment.
He once said a wonderful thing: “The only way to have democracy is to have democracy.” In other words, you have to experiment with it. It might not always succeed, but you can’t keep waiting. As China and the Communist Party always say, “We’re not ready for anything as radical as that. China is backward, and it’ll take a long time” — but Hu Shih said, “No! You get to someplace you want to go only by experimenting with it.”
So there are many other wonderful thinkers. Even Mao Zedong — he’s a really good read. The guy wasn’t stupid, and he wrote some very interesting essays, like On Contradiction 矛盾論. I mean, if you want to understand the source of China’s maladies today, one could do worse than a little tour of Mao’s writing.
Making Sense of Xi
Jordan Schneider: In trying to understand the psychology that drove Xi to take China in the direction it’s going today — you mentioned previously that the scars of the Cultural Revolution and Maoist China more broadly are something that folks really need to grapple with to understand that generation’s mindset, which is something I think you explore really beautifully in your novel, My Old Home 故鄉. Expand a little bit on that theme, Orville.
Orville Schell: I wrote this novel, My Old Home, because I felt that … I don’t know how many books I’ve written [Ed. at least fifteen full-length books!], but they’re piling up — but they’re all nonfiction. And I felt there was something I couldn’t quite get at that was at the heart of China’s malady (if you can put it in such a way) that could only be got after in things like literature, religion, music, and perhaps things like philosophy. And that’s why I turned to fiction.
And really, what I wanted to do with fiction was to counterpose these two different worlds of the Chinese Revolution and Marxism-Leninism (which is all about the outside, rearranging the furniture of the world) with something that I think that is really missed and that the West actually has wrestled with, largely through religion — and that is interior life; Confucius was concerned about this.
So I wanted to, in a sense, counterpose Mao Zedong with Johann Sebastian Bach. And so that’s why I chose musicians as the heroes of my novel — because what was Bach all about? He was not about making revolution out there. He was about coming to terms with yourself, your mortality, and your God in here. Those are two absolutely different ways of being in the world — and I think it is the latter that Xi Jinping was deprived of.
Now, remember: yes, his father was persecuted; yes, his father was a veteran revolutionary; and, yes, many of us, including myself, hoped that he might end up being a reformer. But he did not turn out to be a reformer. So we ask ourselves, why? Who is he? What’s his fundamental genetic makeup?
Even Jiang Zemin [PRC paramount leader, 1989-2003] went to Russia for a while. Deng Xiaoping [PRC paramount leader, 1978-1989] went to France and Russia. Zhou Enlai [Premier of the PRC, 1954-1976] went to France. Many other people went abroad — in other words, they had some countervailing influences in their lives that leavened the loaf.
But Xi Jinping grew up in China during his formative years in the Cultural Revolution. And I think that was the track that got laid down, that was the toolkit he acquired — and he learned how to survive. He was in Shaanxi Province — a very backward area of China. (In fact, in 1975 when I went to China for the first time — and Mao was still alive and the Cultural Revolution was still going — I went up to Shaanxi, not far from where Xi was rusticating as an educated youth.)
He learned how to survive in the Maoist world through control, through manipulation, through tight organization, distrusting people around him. It was a very hostile world. And that’s his formative experience. It’s not the experience of religion, of forgiveness, of compassion, of love, of God, or even of Buddhist tolerance or any of these things. It was: how do you survive in a deeply hostile, deeply fraught world? And that’s who he is. That’s what he knows how to do.
And I think we see him, in certain ways, acting out the lessons that he learned during his formative years: about how, as a human being and as a leader, one has to act and has to deport himself in order to survive in this very rough-and-tumble world of Chinese Communist Party politics.
I think Xi Jinping is a creature of the Chinese Communist revolution. And we thought that when Deng Xiaoping came to power and waved his wand and reform began, the past would vanish. And what we’ve learned: no — the past lives on in people like Xi Jinping who came of age and were formed by it.
And I think this is what makes him so sublimely uncomfortable when he meets with somebody like Obama or Biden or Macron or someone like that in the outside world. He doesn’t speak a foreign language. He doesn’t really know how to deport himself in this really globalized world outside. Instead, he retreats to formalism, ritual, ceremony, pomp and circumstance. He wants to impress. He doesn’t want to hug it out with these guys. And I think this is very much a product of his coming of age of the Maoist era.
Jordan Schneider: It’s not just “impress,” right? It’s “prove wrong, overawe.”
Orville Schell: Awe — yes. And of course, this is a very traditional thing, too, isn’t it, Jordan? I mean, the awe of the Forbidden City, the awe of the imperial majesty of the emperor — and there’s the whole tradition of Han Feizi 韓非子, Guanzi 管子, and the legalist tradition of leaders never getting too close to the people, never puncturing the veil of immortality and infallibility. And I think that’s very much Xi’s modus operandi, too.
I don’t think he’s a man who’s very comfortable in the outside world. And thus China is heading back into a much more autarkic landscape: us and them — that’s where he feels comfortable.
I mean, Jiang Zemin went on a trip with Clinton — watch them together! Jiang Zemin wanted, desperately, to be absorbable in the outside world: reciting the Gettysburg Address, singing “O Sole Mio,” talking in English. He really wanted to run with the big guys and be out there with the global leadership.
I think Xi feels very uncomfortable playing that role. And so he’s very retracted in the Chinese world. He wants to draw people into that [world], and doesn’t go out abroad well and glad-hand and backslap and make friends.
Jordan Schneider: It’s interesting because he does do retail politics sometimes in China, where he meets with the delivery driver or eats baozi 包子 or whatever. [Ed. There’s an entire Chinese-language Wikipedia article dedicated to the “Xi Jinping eats baozi incident.”]
But the interactions are always very uncomfortable to watch — it always feels like, “Okay, it’s the twenty-first century, we have to fill up television, every other leader in the world does it — so I guess I should do it, too.” And I think there’s some odd stuff going on whenever he’s meeting with the 老百姓 lǎobǎixìng [ie. common people].
Orville Schell: It’s very stylized — it’s almost like a scripted play where everything has to go according to the script. And we saw that, of course, in the [20th National] Party Congress, where Hu Jintao [PRC paramount leader, 2002-2012] wandered out, and they had to defenestrate him, and nobody quite knew what to do. There was a sweet disorder in the dress, but it didn’t kindle in anyone any wantonness. It was just a great big mess.
So, yes, Xi is very scripted. Every meeting with the common people is scripted.
1989: A Genuine Tragedy
Jordan Schneider: You recently said,
Xi believes that China is in a fundamentally hostile political relationship with the US and the West.
Thinking about contingencies — was this inevitable for the Chinese leadership class to convince themselves of this?
Orville Schell: This notion of there being an antagonistic contradiction 敵對矛盾 (as Mao Zedong would have put it) — one that cannot be solved except through struggle or violence — is very deep in China’s operating system.
That doesn’t mean it’s the only thing there, but it means that, at different times in modern history, the idea of the West is implacable — and is out only to engage in regime change, whether through violent war or through what they call “peaceful evolution” 和平演變 (which is equally toxic for the party). It’s deeply there. [Ed. As recently as May 4, the PRC Foreign Ministry accused the CIA of seeking “peaceful evolution” via using “long-term cyberattacks” 長期網絡攻擊.]
[Ed. Hu Yaobang was a high-ranking CCP official who in the 1980s sought to downgrade Maoism; in the wake of student protests in 1986 and 1987, however, he was forced to resign from his position. He died suddenly from a heart attack in April 1989, sparking the student protests which culminated in the Tiananmen Massacre. Zhao Ziyang was also a high-ranking CCP official, and likewise reform-minded; he famously discouraged CCP leaders from responding to the 1989 student protests with violence — he was subsequently purged and lived under house arrest until his death in 2005.]
And the reform element — the peaceful rise, the “let’s make friends with the West,” “let’s globalize” — was more ascendant.
But with Xi Jinping, the notion of hostile foreign forces has come back to the fore again, and he deeply believes that there’s an antagonistic contradiction between us and them — and that we would like to overthrow them, that we would like to remove the Chinese Communist Party from the face of the Earth.
And in a certain way, he’s not wrong — but that doesn’t mean we didn’t do many decades of engagement. And nine US presidents all supported engagement, which was dedicated to trying to slowly work with China — not turn them into ourselves or replicas of republican democracy, but to make them a little bit more soluble in the global world so that we could at least work together.
And for a while, it seemed to be hopeful and promising and possibly even successful. But that, I think, was ended by the advent of Xi in 2012 and 2013 when he came to power.
Jordan Schneider: So I guess the question then is: if we’re taking as a premise that Xi believed this as soon as he got into power and it was baked into his worldview, did whatever happened in the 2000s and 2010s that led to Hu hardening and then the selection of Xi — do you think that was baked into the legacy of imperial stuff and the Leninism that’s still in the system? Or were there contingencies around 1989 or even after 1989 that could have played out in a different way?
Orville Schell: Well, that question, I think, lies at the heart of the matter. My own view is that China is a deeply unresolved political culture. It doesn’t know which direction it really wants to go in — so it goes in one direction for a while and then another (not so different in many ways from some other countries that have these different political forces at work).
I think the tragedy was in 1989. And remember, the 1980s was an extraordinary period in China. I lived through the whole thing, in and out of China, and I couldn’t believe what we were seeing — the degree to which the system was flexing.
But 1989 ended that. And that was the tragedy — not simply of the massacre, but that those tendencies of reform were amputated.
But nonetheless, Jiang Zemin brought them back again to some degree — so that by the time he left power, it was relatively hopeful that engagement and the global compact with China involved might still go forward.
And then we got this period of ambiguity under Hu Jintao. You’ve got him claiming the South China Sea. And remember this idea of “core interest” 核心利益, which was stuff that you can’t negotiate: the South China Sea, Tibet, Xinjiang, other border regions. And that’s when things started hardening up. [Ed. For example, in a speech given in Washington, DC, on January 20, 2011, Hu Jintao made five proposals for “healthier and more stable Sino-US relations,” the last of which was for the US to respect China’s “core interests”; there he specifically mentioned Taiwan and Tibet.]
And then along came Xi Jinping and this whole idea of a national rejuvenation and the China dream. It really froze things into a very rigid “us and them” posture, where the forces that had been latent of a hostile West in opposition to China came back with a vengeance.
And that was the sad, tragic ending of engagement. And in my view, whatever successes China has had — which are not inconsiderable and must be acknowledged — there’s an immense tragedy building here, because China has been so successful: it’s accomplished what it could not accomplish for a century — which is to become a modern, wealthy, powerful country. And Xi Jinping is now threatening to undermine all of that with an absolutely senseless provocation of all the countries around him. It makes it very difficult for them to collaborate, and for “peaceful rise” or “peaceful development” to become the hour of the day. Instead, we have “wolf-warrior diplomacy” 戰狼外交, and we have blocs dividing like oil and water.
Jordan Schneider: Let’s stay on the theme of tragedy for a second. What Greek dramatist most captures what we’re currently seeing?
Orville Schell: Well, we spoke earlier about why one turns to fiction. I do think if you want to understand China, you’ve got to vault out of the world of policy, because policy presupposes rationality. There’s a reasonable assessment of national interest in a rational way, but I don’t think that’s what people like Putin and Xi are doing now.
I think what they’re doing very much grows out of their own insecure personalities. And both are deeply steeped in victim culture, grievance culture, and in this idea that “the world is out to get us, disrespects us, disesteems us.” And I think this creates a psychological syndrome that really needs a little bit of attention to understand how they’re making decisions and why they’re doing things — which I think is very hard to view as in the national interest of either of these two countries.
And this is why I think China is potentially a bit of a tragedy, and why we have to turn to things like Greek tragedy — because what’s Greek tragedy all about? It’s about able, smart leaders who have overweening ambition, are very thin-skinned, and they go too far. That’s hubris. And what’s the outcome? Well, whether it’s Sophocles or Euripides, in play after play they bring the whole world down around their shoulders. And they, too, have tragic endings.
So I think there’s a bit of something there — the Greeks really got the fragility of human ambition. When it gets overboard and leaders get too pumped up on their national glory, it can lead to a very bad ending.
China’s Latent Non-Communism
Jordan Schneider: Orville, have you read Julian Gewirtz’s Never Look Back, which is basically a political history of the 1980s?
Orville Schell: It’s sitting right beside my bed, and I have a couple of other books I have to gnaw through before I get to it — but I know Julian, and I thought, “Wow, bingo. That’s right on the money.” But of course, I lived through the 1980s; I wrote three, four books about the 1980s. And it was an astounding period.
And it’s a period we do need to go back to look at — to remind ourselves that the potentiality of China is not just Xi Jinping-ism, but there is a whole other tradition of much more outward-reaching openness and a more humanistic, tolerant tradition that grew out of the May Fourth Movement in the early part of the twentieth century.
So you have to remember that, when you look at China, what you see is not everything that’s there — it’s [just] what forces are ascendant at the moment, in the form of the big leader who is ruling. But there are these other incipient forces that are much different, much in contradiction with what Xi Jinping is all about. And they’re latent — and they are there.
And we saw them come out during the White Paper Revolution. We’ve seen them come out again and again and again. I was there for Democracy Wall in 1979. I was there in 1989 — a million people in Tiananmen Square. These incipient forces are not gone. They’re just slumbering. They will reappear — when, we don’t know.
Jordan Schneider: That was one of the fascinating lessons of this book. It’s almost the high-politics version of that: we know so little about what’s going on in the heads of any of the actors on this stage. And because people were really pissed after Tiananmen, a lot of people moved to the West and leaked their papers and brought their diaries — and so we got a little peek into what was going on in the heads of Hu Yaobang and the other players on the stage in that moment.
And you have to imagine that it’s not everyone who is 100% on board with where the system is currently headed.
Orville Schell: No, it isn’t. And you know, Jordan, I was not only writing about China and doing all sorts of research on China. I was married to China: my wife was from Beijing.
That meant I had the needle right in my arm. I mean, through her I could see. Suddenly, it was like being conferred with a set of x-ray vision glasses: because things that were a little bit obscure to me just as a white guy wandering around China (I speak Chinese, but still there’s an impermeable membrane to get through) — suddenly I could get through with ease, through her friends.
So I’m painfully aware that what Xi Jinping represents is not China. It’s an aspect of China, a very powerful aspect of China — but there is an entirely different tradition that gained much momentum during the twentieth century repeatedly.
I mean, even Chiang Kai-shek 蔣介石 [leader of the Republic of China, 1928-1975] of the Nationalist government — remember: he had cabinet members and high officials in the Kuomintang government that were Christian, who spoke very good English, French, German. His government was corrupt in many ways and autocratic in certain ways — but it was also very globalized and very comfortable. Remember his wife, Soong Mei-ling 宋美齡? She addressed Congress during World War II in perfect English, went to Wellesley. And Chiang Kai-shek became a Christian himself — and so was Sun Yat-sen (even though he was also very traditional).
Jordan Schneider: What role do America and the rest of the world have to play in making sure there’s enough re-agent for whatever else there is in China?
Orville Schell: Well, I think many of us have been quite critical of China of late — but that should not cloud recognition that I think many of us are also children of engagement.
And I think engagement was, for America in many ways, a crowning achievement of diplomacy, where we did keep an open mind. It was a bipartisan effort to bend the metal of Leninism, to embrace China in the hopes that it could evacuate itself from its very brutal Maoist revolution — and to some extent it did.
So, it’s a reminder: the outside world does have an effect on China, and we should keep the door open wherever possible — without being simple-minded about it and trusting the Party when it’s not deserving of trust. But nonetheless, we should remember that it does react to the outside world, and there are forces within it that we could influence, for better or worse.
So going forward, I think even as we feel threatened — and we do need to respond to that threat, because it’s real — we also, if we want to be a truly great power, have to try wherever we possibly can to remember that things will change. We never predicted a single big change that’s happened in China. It’s just sprung forth like Athena out of the head of Zeus, and then afterward we look back and say, “Oh, I understand that. I see where that came from” — but nobody prefigured it.
And the next big change, I don’t know when it will come, but it will come — because there are incipient forces within China that are unreconciled, and they will continue to contend and evolve. And China will continue to be an unresolved society and country, I think, for a long, long time, and there will be changes.
Jordan Schneider: So that’s a beautiful place to end the conversation — but I got you for another half an hour, so we’re going to keep going.
‘For now we see through a glass, darkly’
I think it’s a beautiful sentiment — and it’s also a scary one, because things can also get a lot worse before they get better.
It is of great importance that we try to learn something more about the strange and fascinating Chinese nation — about its past, its present, about the aims of its leaders and the aspirations of its people — because we may be heading toward war with each other, and it is essential that we do all we can to prevent that calamity, starting with a concerted effort to understand the Chinese people and its leaders.
Please reflect on that quote for 2023.
Orville Schell: Well, you’ll remember that J. William Fulbright was a senator from Arkansas, but a very astute and globally minded senator. And he held, subsequently, some of the most interesting hearings on China in the Senate. As I recall, he was head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
And I think we need to do that again. Now, we have the House Select Committee, the new committee run by Mike Gallagher in the House — and they may do something like that. But I think this is exactly the thing we need to do again: not simply to understand China as an enemy or a hostile force that we may have to oppose, which is important, but also just to understand it.
And you remember also that, when Fulbright was around, they started the Fulbright Fellowships to try to bridge the gap. They also did, as I recall, a National Defense Education Act, which gave hundreds of millions of dollars to universities to train people like me to learn Chinese and study Chinese politics and history. I think we need that again.
Ambassador Nick Burns [the current US ambassador to the PRC], with whom I spoke the other night, was lamenting that there are just under 300,000 Chinese students studying in America, but less than 300 American students studying in China. There’s a real deficit there.
So I think we’re back at that period where Fulbright was alive and he recognized that we had to understand China — but we also had to recognize the Chinese threat, we needed to be able to speak the language, we needed to be able to know what was going on; and then they did fund people of my generation to go into Chinese studies in all of its various aspects.
Jordan Schneider: So we’re hitting a lot of inflection points. [On March 23], CNKI — the Chinese equivalent of JSTOR, which holds every mainland social science paper — decided that no one’s allowed to access it from outside the PRC. And this is probably the most obvious manifestation of the idea that the type of research which foreigners were able to do in China over the past forty years is coming to an end.
So I’m curious, Orville: you had a long-standing relationship with Franz Schurmann. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about him, and the skills and mindset that folks need to cultivate to do more of the “watching China from afar” text-based-type analysis.
Orville Schell: Yes — the incontrovertible fact is that the old world where we could all live in two worlds — back and forth from the US, Europe, China, Japan, wherever — is over. And that profoundly affects what journalists can do and what scholars can do by way of being in China and writing stories or researching in archives in China.
So we’ve entered a world where we are decoupled in terms of research, and we have to look back, I think, to the period when I first began studying China — where my passport said, “Not good for travel in the People’s Republic of China,” just big bold letters. And I yearned to go to China. Instead, I had to go to Taiwan, and I stayed there for a year and a half — I used to lie on a beach near Keelung 基隆 at night with my roommates from 台大 [National Taiwan University] and listen to a transistor radio and the programs crackling in from the mainland and be very excited by it. But I couldn’t go there.
But there were some amazing people who, whether they were in Hong Kong or wherever, actually penetrated the veil from afar.
And one of them was Simon Leys, [a.k.a.] Pierre Ryckmans, a Belgian Sinologist — an immensely talented man who worked with people like Father [László] Ladányi in Hong Kong who were reading provincial newspapers. And Simon Leys actually nailed China better than any of the “panda huggers” that were allowed to actually go there and look around and have these very stylized tours.
And another such person was my mentor with whom I wrote three books, Franz Schurmann, of the University of California here at Berkeley. And he wrote this amazing book called, Ideology and Organization in Communist China. And he’d never been to China, but he was the guy that just could hoover up a language in about six months, whether it was Afghani or Pashto or Japanese or Chinese — and he managed to x-ray from afar the Chinese system, both in terms of its structure and its thinking. And that book still stands.
So that’s a craft which I’m afraid — as China becomes more autarkic, more cut off, more isolated, and more neuralgic to the idea of having foreigners run around within its midst — we’re going to have to learn how to do.
Jordan Schneider: The Ladányis and Schurmanns of the world — they were able to interact with exiles; it wasn’t just white guys: there were a lot of Chinese people who were supporting them on this quest.
And I guess I’m curious: what does that mean when you don’t have places like Hong Kong anymore that are these entrepôts?
Orville Schell: Well yes, we don’t have Hong Kong as we used to when it was a British colony. It was free and clear and open and a porthole. We do have Taiwan, and we do have a huge Chinese diaspora outside of China — and people are coming out every day, and more will follow.
So it’s not as if we’re completely cut off. It’s just [that] we can’t go there as we used to, and just roam around and expect to get a visa easily, and have nobody following us, and have meetings and academic conferences and journalistic interviews and one thing or another — that world is gone.
So we have to learn how to see what’s going on in China through this cloud darkly. That was exactly where things were at when I first became interested in China — and I have to say, one of the reasons I was interested in China was because I couldn’t go there! It was like Lhasa back in the old days: everybody wanted to go there because they couldn’t go there. So there is a seductive quality to a place that doesn’t want you — but it takes a certain kind of person to want to become involved in that an affair.
Jordan Schneider: Yeah, I mean, it really is a different mindset. And you weren’t really a child of engagement, right? But I was. And everyone twenty years younger than you and up to my age has got into this stuff probably not because they were fascinated with how a Leninist regime ticks, but more because they saw all these other potential connection points that drove them to engage with either their country of heritage or something that they wanted to invest an outrageous amount of time learning.
What’s really interesting, Orville: the folks younger than me who are still doing it knew what they were getting into with Xi — which is a depressing but fascinating transition that we’ll see playing out over the coming years, I think.
Orville Schell: Well, I’ve been to all the “stations of the cross.” I mean, I’ve been shut out in the beginning, yearn to get in, would wander around Cambodia, spent two years in Indonesia going to the Chinese Embassy wondering if I could somehow get in. I couldn’t. I finally did in 1975.
And then we had that immense pleasure that Julian Gewirtz writes about of the 1980s, when we could imagine China was emerging from this chrysalis of Maoism into something more tolerant, open, just, and involved in the world — that created a tremendous amount of optimism, and was utterly absorbent.
And then, as we discussed, 1989 came, and then ultimately Xi Jinping ended that whole promise and sent us back into a world — [which] is not the Maoist world, because China is much more wealthy and much more powerful, but it is a world where we’re going to be more and more cut off.
And I think companies are very foolish if they don’t have a plan B for decoupling. We have a petri-dish example in the Ukraine of what happens when a leader decides they need to, for whatever reason, take some territory they believe is somehow theirs. And that could easily happen in the Taiwan Straits — and then things are going to decouple with a vengeance. Whether you have a plan or not, whether you want to or not — doesn’t matter. Then it’ll be over.
So this is where the gloomy part of me gets into gear: I think there is a real possibility that could happen. I hope not, and we should do everything to prevent it. But this is going to rent the fabric of the world that we knew over the last twenty or thirty years. And if it does happen, it will throw us back into an irrevocably divided world that will make the Cold War, I think, look rather like child’s play.
Jordan Schneider: I’m going to come back to that, but I want to stay with the personal for a second.
So you talked about being on the different “stations of the cross,” and mentioned to me that life is easier when you say and write what you think, and just try to be in truth. Expand on that point (before we get back to World War III)?
Orville Schell: Even during the 1980s, the question of access — of visas for journalists, scholars, and businessmen — is absolutely critical, because without it, you’re dead. If you get excommunicated, it’s like being ostracized.
So the sword of Damocles hung over all of our heads — but it became more and more intense after 1989, and the threat that we could be cut off did condition what we were able to say, write, and even think.
And I have to say that one thing about the pandemic when we couldn’t go there — I think it relieved a lot of people of that burden. And I myself, at my age — of course, I’d love to go back to China: my wife’s parents still live there, and I haven’t seen them since she passed away; I have many, many friends who I haven’t seen for a long, long time. But I am ready not to go back.
And Chinese love to talk about liberation. And I have to say that, as a writer — an avocation for which being able to write what you really think is the most elemental and important aspect of your whole existence — to have that liberation, to say what I think and not worry how the Chinese Communist Party will respond and whether they’ll excommunicate me or not is an immense relief. And one of the great reliefs, I think, of growing older is that you can decide, “All right, I don’t need to worry about my future career. It may depend on China, but not necessarily being able to go there.”
Face and the Taiwan Question
Jordan Schneider: I guess we have to come back to Taiwan.
Why is it so important to Xi?
Subscribers get access to the rest of our conversation, where Schell reflects on:
Why Taiwan is so important to Xi, what scenarios he thinks could trigger a conflict, and what advice he has for US and global policymakers to stave off this catastrophe;
A diagnosis of engagement’s failure and reflections on US policy post-Tiananmen;
How the ghost of Chen Yun haunts Xi’s China;
Schell’s book and music recommendations.