Monday, March 9, 2009

Rotten eggs in Peking

‘Though among foreign correspondents in China good ones are certainly not wholly lacking, in the final analysis most of them are stupid and are rotten eggs.’ This was the Communists’ explanation for banning foreign journalists in the weeks after taking power, as recorded by Derk Bodde, an eminent American historian born 100 years ago today, in his Peking diary almost exactly 60 years ago. But, Bodde himself also comments: ‘It is difficult to see the justification for a step which, in its sweeping inclusiveness, transcends anything attempted even in Soviet Russia.’

Derk Bodde was born on 9 March 1909, a century ago today, in Brant Rock about 50km southeast of Boston, Massachusetts. As a boy he lived for several years in China, where his father taught physics. He studied at Harvard, and then spent several more years in China on a fellowship, before completing a doctorate at Leiden University in the Netherlands. From 1938, he began teaching at the University of Pennsylvania becoming emeritus Professor of Chinese Studies, and he continued to teach there until retiring in 1975, apart from sabbaticals and a period of war service.

According to an obituary in The New York Times, Bodde, became known as an expert on the Qin dynasty of the late third century BC, as the translator of Fung Yu-lan’s History of Chinese Philosophy, as an analyst of Chinese law of the 18th and early 19th centuries, and as a shrewd observer of Chinese politics of the late 1940s. Inspired by Galia Speshneff, his Russian-born wife who he met in China, he also wrote an analysis of how Chinese culture had influenced Tolstoy - Tolstoy and China - which was described as ‘solid and important’. He died only a few years ago, in 2003. More details of his life can be found on a University of Massachusetts website - Warring States Project.

The New York Times called Bodde ‘a shrewd observer of Chinese politics of the late 1940s’ on the basis of his Peking Diary, a book written thanks to a Fulbright scholarship. After the war, in 1948, Bodde went once again to China as the very first recipient of a scholarship programme set up by Senator J. William Fulbright. According to Wikipedia, the Fulbright Program is now one of the most prestigious awards programmes worldwide, operating in 144 countries and with 51 commissions - ‘more Fulbright alumni have won Nobel Prizes than those of any other academic program, including two in 2002’.

Bodde describes (in Peking Diary) how he got offered the scholarship: ‘One morning in March 1948 the telephone rang in my home in Philadelphia. It was a call from Washington. ‘Would you be prepared to go to China as a Fulbright Fellow?’ the voice asked. ‘We would like an immediate decision, if possible, so that we can make a press release today to say that the Fulbright Program has been started.’ I swallowed my surprise, remembering from wartime experience in Washington that when things happen there, they usually do so explosively. ‘I’ll be tremendously happy to go,’ I replied. ‘Please tell me the details.’ ’

Bodde, with his wife and son Theodore, travelled to, what was then still called, Peking in August 1948. The year he then spent in the Chinese capital happened to coincide with the fall of the Nationalist government and the arrival of the Communists. Throughout this tumultous period in the country’s history, Bodde kept a detailed diary, and this was published in 1950 by Henry Schuman as Peking Diary: A Year of Revolution. It is considered the first full-length account of the Chinese revolution by a neutral observer. The full text is freely available at Internet Archive.

In the introduction, Bodde says the diary ‘is offered in the hope that it may have some historical value as a fragmentary record of a crucial year in Chinese history, seen from the city which became the focus of events during this year’. ‘So far as I know,’ he adds, ‘no other foreigner kept a similar record while I was in Peking, the more so as the news activities of all foreign correspondents were halted by the Communists less than a month after their arrival.’

And here is an extract from the diary (with several paragraphs omitted), dated almost exactly 60 years ago.

4 March 1949
‘It is now thirty-two days since the People’s Army marched into Peking. Following the spate of meetings, parades, and congratulatory messages of the first two weeks, changes of a more concrete nature are beginning to make themselves felt. The honeymoon seems over.

Physically, conditions continue to return to normal. The enormous piles of unsightly refuse which had accumulated in the streets during the siege are gradually being carted away. The reopening of the Palace Museum, and probably of many other parks and museums, is promised within a week. Already the city wall is open as a promenade to those who wish to use it. From its top the evidences of destruction wrought by Peking’s former defenders are clearly apparent: on the wall itself, in the tunnels and piles of brick and earth remaining from hundreds of dugouts and gun emplacements; beyond the wall, in the gray waste of razed buildings which circle the city in a belt several hundred yards wide. Of these, only heaps of rubble now remain, from which boys are gradually carrying away the bricks on their backs. At one or two places a start has been made at rebuilding, but for the most part the scene is one of bleak desolation.

On the production front the papers are filled these days, quite à la Russe, with enthusiastic accounts of how the workers are rehabilitating industry to a point equal to, or even higher than, its presiege level. Improving communications are making it possible for thousands of refugees to return to their homes, helped by free transportation and grain allotments from the government. It was inspiring to revisit the Temple of Confucius a few days ago and compare its present stately calm with the former scene of refugee squalor, misery, and confusion. Almost the last evidences of that unhappy time are the piles of refuse now being carted away in preparation for its formal reopening a few days hence. Voids remain, however, where doors, windows, and furniture used to be all burned as firewood during the siege. [. . .]

Newspapers have suffered a high mortality, at least seven having been closed in Peking, including that to which I had subscribed, the World Daily News. [. . .]

During the past few weeks, however, I have concluded that the integrity of the press depends on more than simply the number of its papers, important though this may be. It does not greatly matter, after all, if a city possesses one, two, or five papers, provided they all print essentially the same news derived from the same source. As a matter of fact, what can be said of the press here in China can also be made to apply, in some respects, to the American press: too many American cities maintain only one paper, too many papers depend for news solely on a single news agency, too many Americans read the same feature columns syndicated throughout the country. The real difference between America and Communist China, however, can be summed up in a sentence: a speech by Mao Tse-tung has a fair chance of being at least partially reported in America; a Truman speech has no chance at all of being printed in Communist China, unless it suits the purpose of the authorities to permit it.

Most disturbing act of thought control is the February 27 order halting all further news activities of Peking’s foreign correspondents. Though only seventeen persons are affected (Australian, Swiss, Swedish, and Dutch, as well as American), the order in effect means the complete cessation of news (other than over the Communist radio) from Communist China to the outside world, since Peking is the only city in North China in which foreign correspondents are stationed. The same order bans the further circulation here of the US Information Service news bulletins, both Chinese and English, thus leaving the short-wave radio (for those who have one) as the only ‘free’ organ of information from the outside world.

It is difficult to see the justification for a step which, in its sweeping inclusiveness, transcends anything attempted even in Soviet Russia. The official explanation is that of ‘conditions during the present state of military activity.’ The Progressive Daily goes a good bit further by beginning its February 28 editorial with the words: ‘Though among foreign correspondents in China good ones are certainly not wholly lacking, in the final analysis most of them are stupid and are rotten eggs.’ As illustration it cites the unfortunate AP and UP dispatches describing the Communist entry of Peking. If these are the real causes for the present step, the Communists could have attained their objectives equally well either by expelling the two correspondents directly involved or by imposing general censorship. Though either step would have undoubtedly aroused criticism abroad, neither could have been as disastrous as the present move, the only practical effect of which is to close the mouths of the new regime’s potential friends abroad, strengthen its enemies, and make more difficult the re-establishment of those diplomatic and commercial ties from which the Chinese Communists themselves stand to benefit. [. . .]’

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