CHINA: A NEW HISTORY. By John King Fairbank Belknap/Harvard U.
Press, 519 pp., $27.95 US, 19.95 British pounds
AT the time of the Nixon-Mao summit in 1972, William F. Buckley
accused historian Ross Terrill during an interview on the
television program "Firing Line" of making excuses for the Chinese
"To a degree I was," Terrill freely admits in his engaging book
"China In Our Time." In an effort to prove that detente with China
was in America's interest, "I tended to gloss over the repression
of freedom within China," he writes.
Over the span of 19 trips to China, Terrill, an Australian-born
research associate at Harvard University, struggled long and hard
with a country he calls "an arena of hope and fate."
He began with deep optimism. While meandering through Eastern
Europe, he knocked on the doors of Chinese embassies, finally
gaining admittance to China in 1964.
At the time, he writes, China was a "courteous and moral
society" where a taxi driver refused his tip and the bartender
happily returned his lost wallet.
By the mid-1970s, China was embroiled in the Cultural
Revolution. While gathering material in China for a book, Terrill
found the politics similar to a Peking Opera - but with sinister
undertones. He recalls cynically the man who claimed he married his
wife because "she had `beautiful Mao-thoughts.' "
As with many China watchers, the end of his love affair came
with the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989. He arrived in Beijing
in the thick of the confrontation between students and the Army. In
one of the more vivid passages in the book, the seasoned traveler
is shocked by the burning ambulances and screams of students being
The deaths could have been avoided, he maintains, if Prime
Minister Zhao Ziyang had won the support of Deng Xiaoping earlier
on or if the students had not clung so fiercely to their
demonstration and forced the government's hand.
Throughout the years of turmoil in Mao's China, Terrill had a
ringside seat. Henry Kissinger returned from his China summit
surprised that the Chinese knew so much about him - courtesy of
Terrill. On occasion, Terrill doesn't hesitate to trumpet his own
role in history.
But one ends the book grateful to have watched the Chinese
political opera with a seasoned buff who from time to time slips
away and reappears on stage.
The man Terrill cites as his mentor at Harvard, who is perhaps
the preeminent American scholar of modern China, John K. Fairbank,
died last year at age 84 just after completing "China: A New
Fairbank breaks little new scholarly ground in this work, but
that wasn't what he had in mind. …