This is one of those books that remind us that there are certain moments in history when opportunities seem suddenly to arise. The word “seem” is essential here, for all too often these turn out to be mirages, although there will always be those who continue to claim that the window of opportunity was indeed real: The fault lay with those who did not take full advantage of it.
The period under discussion in British writer and broadcaster Patrick Wright’s intriguing book is 1954, a year after the death of Josef Stalin, when there were high hopes in the West that there could be real changes in the communist world and an opportunity to, at the very least, reduce Cold War tensions. This seemed to crystallize around the Geneva conferences dealing with the recently ended Korean and still-boiling Indochina conflicts. Although they were able to do nothing about the first (with consequences still very much with us today), an agreement of sorts was hammered out about the latter - and we all know just how well that turned out.
The United States, under the stern sway of John Foster Dulles and Dwight D. Eisenhower, still kept aloof from much of this process, but as Mr. Wright points out, the actions of European powers like France and even Britain were motivated in part at least by a desire to differentiate themselves from their allies across the pond, if not by elements of outright anti-Americanism.
So there was a lot of windy talk about the “spirit of Geneva,” which afforded both the Soviet Union and what was then still commonly referred to as Red China an opportunity to mount what the British like to call a “charm offensive.” Although there was no question of any change in their policies at home or abroad, a smiling Zhou Enlai and less than customarily dour Kremlin leadership could win a lot of brownie points. The Chinese were especially welcoming, strewing invitations for cultural and political delegations “all expenses paid.”
“Passport to Peking” centers its narrative on three groups of Britons who rapidly took advantage of this opportunity and set off in 1954. The first delegation was political and included the former prime minister and current leader of the opposition, Clement Attlee, and his Labor Party colleague Aneurin Bevan, the leader of its left wing. Both it and the subsequent political delegation was all Labor; no bipartisanship here, and indeed the Churchill government made clear its opposition to these visits.
The cultural delegation did not attract the kind of heavy hitters that characterized the political forays: It was notable for the absence of any British literary figure, and its best-known figures were artist Stanley Spencer and philosopher A.J. Ayer.
Attlee’s administration had promptly recognized the new regime in China five years earlier, an example of how British policy differed from that of the United States from the outset despite the closeness of the two nations during the Cold War. But British diplomats found themselves all but ignored in Peking (as Beijing was then known).
Mr. Wright makes it clear that the authorities preferred to work their charms on any distinguished visitors they could lure, rather than bothering with fostering real bilateral relations, and the acid comments from the diplomats he quotes form a refreshing corrective to the appreciative reactions of the delegations to what their hosts carefully chose to show them. Not that they were really fooled, as their articles and pronouncements on their return home show. Still, it is inconceivable that any such nongovernmental group today would go on such a mission to such a place without vocally raising human rights and other political issues with their hosts.
It is unfortunate that “Passport to Peking” for all the tantalizing questions it raises does not do a better job of crystallizing them. Or of making the story of these delegations clearer and crisper. Perhaps because he goes back and forth among the three of them - to say nothing of countless forays back into history, forward to later such visits, and sideways all over the place - Mr. Wright’s narrative is murky, to put it mildly. It is also unclear just where the author stands on the anti-Americanism he spotlights constantly. Not knowing whether he is deploring or applauding it only serves to dull still further what could have been a much sharper and more interesting story.
What is clear from reading this book is that the early openness of Britain and other Western powers to the People's Republic of China was little more than an insignificant blip on history’s radar screen. The uniqueness of America’s global position even before it was acknowledged to be the world’s sole superpower was demonstrated by the fact that it was not until the Nixon/ Kissinger demarche of the 1970s that China really began the process of engagement with the world at large that has brought it to its current position.
This has certainly been advantageous for that nation economically and geopolitically, although sadly it has not brought democracy or liberty to the Chinese people. Whether it will in the end prove as advantageous for those nations so eager to let loose that genie out of its bottle remains still very much to be seen.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.
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