Roger L. Simon

Self-Criticism of an "Honored Guest"

I’m talking about myself here. I visited the People’s Republic of China in 1978 to research my novel Peking Duck – an overly PRC-sympathetic work which now seems a quaint artifact of another era. (Ironically, the Amazon link contains a hostile, graffiti-like review from the “left.” Obviously the reviewer didn’t read the book.)

[You’re being too hard on yourself. That satire you wrote of “radical chic” tours is kind of witty.-ed. You read it? Before we met.]

Meanwhile, Stanley Johnson, another “honored guest” from those days, discusses his visit to China in 1975 in the context of a Guardian article on Mao – the Unknown Story (the new biography which reports the Great Helmsman was responsible for 70 million deaths, making him history’s greatest mass murderer by far). Here’s Johnson:

I have been indulging, in true Maoist fashion, in my own small bout of self-criticism. Though I have been to China several times and once even wrote a (not surprisingly unpublished) novel entitled Chink in the Armoire, the focus of my attention has been on August 1975 when, with a group of colleagues from the European Commission, I spent three weeks travelling around the country on an itinerary which, remarkably for those days, included Peking, Shenyang, Wuxi, Nanking, Shanghai and Canton.

This was the tail-end of the Mao era. Mao himself was still alive, though ailing. The Gang of Four was jostling Deng Xiao-Ping and his allies for pole position in the race to succeed him. Though the worst excesses were probably over, it was not a happy time, or a happy place.

What astonishes me, looking back, is that we not only swallowed all the garbage we were fed, as we visited one commune, one factory after another; we positively lapped it up. Some of us actually sported Mao hats. All of us had notebooks and pencils in hand and scribbled away as we listened to endless lectures about how the “correct application of Mao-Tse-Tung thought” had led to record steel production from a million backyard furnaces, or to staggering rises in agricultural production.

In the evenings, wherever we happened to be, we were treated to performances of Chinese operas and ballets, all designed to reinforce the message. I can remember the titles of some of them now: The Two Heroic Sisters of the Steppe, The Gallant Aviator Sacrifices Himself for the Party.

I attended similar cultural events and even have on my wall to this day a block print of a collective farm I purchased on my trip entitled “Criticizing Lin Piao and Confucius Promotes Production.” It almost sounds like self-parody now. Almost, but not quite, because the same mind game is continuing today in a different context. People who brand themselves as “progressives,” as I did in the Seventies, excuse the worst kind of totalitarian behavior under other names. And I’m not just talking about obvious whackos like George Galloway and Ward Churchill. I’m talking about the same self-imagined “advanced cultural thinkers” we assumed ourselves to be then. (link via normblog; ht; Jeffrey Wendt)