Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

China Past and Present: Two Perspectives

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

China Past and Present: Two Perspectives

Article excerpt

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 communists.

"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 shot.

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 History."

Fairbank breaks little new scholarly ground in this work, but that wasn't what he had in mind. …

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