THE NEWS CHINESE EMPIRE:
AND WHAT IT MEANS FOR THE UNITED STATES
by Ross Terrill, Basic Books $30
Ross Terrill and I have something in common. We have both been arrested — and forced to write confessions — in the People’s Republic of China. Millions of Chinese have shared the same fate, of course, but foreign members of this club are relatively rare.
I fell afoul of the authorities in 1980, on an approved trip to China’s interior. I was held incommunicado in a guest house in the remote province of Guizhou, where I was hectored by senior police officials who accused me of violating the travel regulations for foreigners. Endlessly, they demanded a written admission of wrongdoing. I possessed a valid travel permit and politely declined to confess. As the days passed, my interlocutors made it clear to me that I would not be released until I did so.
Mr. Terrill’s encounter with China’s heart of darkness came many years later, but followed similar lines. In 1992, in the aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre, he visited China. There he met up with Shen Tong, a leader of the Chinese democracy movement. On the eve of a meeting with the foreign press in Beijing, Shen Tong was arrested, leaving Mr. Terrill alone to explain to reporters what had happened to his friend. This led to his arrest on charges that he was holding an “illegal meeting.” He was told that he would be expelled from China — as soon as he confessed.
Such an experience wonderfully concentrates the mind. If a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged, then a China critic is a “friend of China” who has been arrested. My interrogations were a practical illustration of the utter lack of the rule of law in the Middle Kingdom. Shorn of the protective mantle of the Fifth Amendment, habeas corpus, the right to legal representation, etc., etc., I stood naked and helpless before the Chinese state. The experience revealed to me, in a way that a dozen graduate seminars in Chinese society and politics had failed to do, the utter impotence of Chinese unlucky enough to be caught up in the net, and the associated terror of disappearing forever into the Chinese gulag. Mr. Terrill experienced a similar epiphany.
But why this obsession on extorting confessions? In one of the most perceptive passages in “The New Chinese Empire,” Mr. Terrill explains that “[T]here could be no Chinese Communist Party without confession. It affirms the infallibility of the higher authority. It renews the sense of mission of the political priesthood to have the helplessness of the rank and file stated repeatedly. Each time a confession is made that contains untruth, as did the Chinese text of my own confession in 1992, the person concerned contributes to the mountain of lies on which the Chinese party-state is based.”
The Chinese party-state arrests, intimidates and, all too often, kills dissidents not merely to maintain control, like any a thuggish developing world regime, but to enforce the orthodoxy of its bedraggled Marxism. Beijing “takes its mandate from a Marxist-concocted ‘history,’ the contemporary manifestation of ‘heaven,’” Mr. Terrill writes, and not from the consent of the Chinese people. Those who refuse to accept these myths or, worse, openly proclaim the illegitimacy of a government that has never been elected, are forced to confess their error.
For the instruments of repression that the party-state controls are real enough, as are the atrocities that it continues to commit. Consider the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, the continued crushing of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, underway since 1999, and the ongoing violence of the one-child policy towards women and unborn children.
And what of the Chinese party-state’s larger ambitions? Mr. Terrill writes that China wants to hold onto its “steppe empire” of Xinjiang (Western Turkestan) and Tibet, while expanding its “maritime empire” to include not only Hong Kong (absorbed in 1997), but also Taiwan and the South China Sea. In my view, China’s ambitions extend beyond this, but this is an accurate summation of the Middle Kingdom’s current drive for local hegemony.
I must admit to being a little put off by the ending of the book, in which Mr. Terrill offers no fewer than seven different “scenarios” for China’s future development. Multiplying scenarios is an increasingly respectable dodge in academe, but it is a dodge nonetheless. Simply outlining all possible future trajectories creates a maze, not a road map. If we are to progress in our understanding of China, then we China watchers must run the risk of being wrong.
Still, this stutter step aside, Mr. Terrill has written a fascinating book, filled with historical lore and contemporary observations, about the red dragon.
Steven W. Mosher is the President of Population Research Institute and the author of “Hegemon: China’s Plan to Dominate Asia “(Encounter Books).