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China in the International Spotlight

March 26, 2010

China in the International Spotlight: Some Problems in the Analysis of PRC Narratives by Foreign Scholars

Jeremy Murray (2005)

Foreign scholars studying the People’s Republic of China are often frustrated in their work by what they perceive to be a bifurcated political discourse within China. On the one hand is the government-sanitized narrative, which is generally a very positive assessment of policy implementation and societal reaction. This narrative is presented in domestic propaganda as well as for consumption by foreign observers. The other voice represents what some analysts consider a relatively uncensored and nonofficial notion of goings on and how people genuinely feel about state policies. Historians consider the latter to be elusive, of course, especially in any coherent form. The party line has historically been more accessible and presented in a tidy package for export, but scholars, foreign and Chinese, have generally considered it less useful in assessing the realities of society within the PRC. Foreign observers perceive this less valued China-for-export narrative as being state or party propaganda, and they generally hope to move beyond it to gain a broader and more fruitful understanding of Chinese history and contemporary politics.

This paper will outline developments in the production process of PRC narratives for foreign and domestic consumption, but the main focus will be on some of the reactions and solutions foreign scholars have had in their approaches to the simple but essential dilemma of getting beyond what some think of as the China-for-export narrative. I will emphasize trends within the American academy in the past several decades. In analyzing the reactions of foreign scholars to developments within the PRC it will become clear that the simple binary of official and nonofficial narratives is not always a productive way of understanding PRC history or the current social and political landscape. Also, as has become apparent in recent years, state propagandists do not always monopolize the China-for-export narrative.

Gradually increasing access for foreign scholars in the last three decades of PRC policies have made it easier to bypass state propaganda, or at least understand it more critically. Though this improved access has allowed for revision and reassessment of foreigners’ knowledge of the Chinese revolution, there are other new and perennial problems in the historiography of China that continue to challenge foreign scholars. It is no longer acceptable to frame the historiography of China within the binary model of, on the one hand, a false patina of propaganda, and on the other a treasure trove of genuine experience that contradicts the party line. In recent years, the formerly polarized official and nonofficial perspectives within China have moved closer together than they have been since perhaps the first decade of the PRC’s existence. (See Cochran, Esherick, and Perry essays in Dilemmas of Victory.) While increasing openness has led to measured self-criticism by the party-state, at the same time some disturbing trends of forgetfulness and virulent nationalism have served to balance those shifts, surprisingly coming from popular narratives.

The 1980s saw an outpouring of nonofficial voices from Chinese emigrants and from dissidents within the PRC that criticized the excesses of the party-state, especially the recent destruction and chaos of the Cultural Revolution. But since the 1990s, especially among the youth of the PRC, a renewed and invigorated nationalism has taken root. (See Gries) This has led to a reticence within popular narratives of PRC history in confronting the mistakes and disasters of the Chinese Communist Party. Instead, there has been a shift towards a triumphalist narrative of successful policies, state-society harmony, and national strength. Such a celebratory narrative is not unusual at the official level, but ultranationalism at the popular level is more prevalent today than it has been in several decades. Among specific prominent party members, a less bellicose or xenophobic official voice has combined with an increase in popular nationalism to bring the two formerly polarized official and nonofficial narratives closer together. It is in this complex moment of overlap of these two narratives – both of which contribute to the new China-for-export discourse – that we should look back at some of the broad developments that led up to this moment, and how foreign scholars have dealt with these changes.

In the first three decades of PRC history (1949-1979) the essentialization of Chinese voices by foreign observers was largely an inevitable byproduct of the limited access to PRC materials other than official publications of the Chinese Communist Party. Political alignments of the Cold War and a general wariness of such a narrow source of party propaganda made many observers skeptical of the rosy depictions of life in the early years of the PRC. Other observers heralded the new regime in China as the savior of the nation. (See Snow)

Many of the shrillest voices from both sides came not from academics, but from knee-jerk political adherents of causes that demanded a simple version of the Chinese revolutionary narrative. The first lines of Cold War alliances had been drawn even before the founding of the PRC. McCarthyism represented only the first phase in an ongoing legacy of simplistic domestic marketing of American foreign policy, which sowed the seeds of xenophobia, and helped to gain popular approval for defense spending and far-flung international military action. In an effort to overcome such irrationality, scholars like John Fairbank and his colleagues worked to establish programs of area studies. The vitality of China studies had been sapped by a combination of McCarthyist purges and extremely limited access to nonofficial Chinese sources. It would take the remarkable initiative of people like Fairbank to establish a new academy almost out of whole cloth, which could form the foundation of a better understanding by foreign observers of the Chinese revolution. Fairbank later wrote in his autobiography:

In the post-McCarthy years China was unappetizing. A dog may return to its vomit, but all the McCarthy era left behind was feces to warm over. Once the country was closed to us, the realities in the PRC were a matter of guesswork and dispute. It was a fine time to study history and develop the academic field and this is what we did. (Fairbank 351)

These scholars hoped to arrive at a better understanding of the Chinese revolution and the new regime without throwing in their lot with either side of the frothing debate. Neither the official narrative out of China nor the reflexive anti-communism of some foreign observers satisfied them. While the PRC was closed to almost all foreign observers, a vibrant community of China scholars emerged especially in the US with the “Fairbank school” at Harvard as its nucleus. Some nonofficial accounts of goings on in the PRC were available to China-watchers in Hong Kong and Taiwan who interviewed dissidents and emigrants. But the most significant developments in the foreign understanding of the PRC during the first three decades of the state’s existence came with the establishment of academic institutions designed for area studies. They would serve as the foundation for work to be done by foreign scholars in China once the restrictions on research there were relaxed.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s foreign scholars were given some limited freedom to do research in the PRC, freedom which has increased steadily in the past two and a half decades with notable individual exceptions. The rapprochement with the United States in 1972 and the end of the Cultural Revolution punctuated by Mao’s death in 1976 led to a gradual increase in access to foreign scholars hoping to do work in the PRC. This access introduced a new possibility of assessing the elusive nonofficial sociopolitical narrative within the PRC. Collection of oral histories and work in local archives allowed foreign scholars to reconsider their understanding of the Chinese revolution. For example, foreign scholars were allowed to visit villages and collect local accounts of the years during which only the official narrative had been available outside of China. In some instances, these studies reinforced the notion that the official narrative was dramatically different from the perceptions of state policy at the nonofficial, local level. There was a chasm of propaganda between what these scholars heard from peasants who had suffered in the era of collectivization and the narrative that had been exported through writers like Edgar Snow who had promulgated the myth of plenty as he was shepherded through the country in the early 1960s.

New studies that were done in rural China by historians and social scientists led to a new understanding of the trials of revolutionary China. One team of American scholars published their findings on the history of a single village during the 1950s. This study painted an intimate picture of the “cruel weight of pervasive security, police, and militia apparatuses” in that period that had previously not been understood in a coherent way by a foreign audience. (Friedman, et al, 268) But studies like this one also served to begin the complication of the official/nonofficial binary of revolutionary narratives. It was clear that the party-state, driven by Mao’s impatience, had penetrated the village and dictated much of their lives, often leading to untold hardships. But the blurring of the distinction between official and nonofficial entities and narratives at the village level manifested by people like “Boss Geng” served to caution readers from drawing simplistic conclusions.

While this period of increased access allowed for a gradually and steadily improved understanding of nonofficial narratives, from individual accounts to larger movements like the Democracy Wall writings of the late 1970s, it was the dramatic spring of 1989 that left an indelible mark on the field of China studies in the foreign academy. The Tiananmen Square protests of May and June 1989 represented globally publicized, unfiltered nonofficial voices out of China that vented massive dissent and popular anti-CCP demonstrations. Chen Xiaomei recounts some voices from the world of art and literature in this period in her work, Occidentalism: A Theory of Counter-Discourse in Post-Mao China. From film and theater to poetry, she outlines nonofficial voices of dissent that celebrated an idealized West as a means of anti-state intellectual insurgence. For most foreign observers, this prominent movement of nonofficial protest served to dislodge any remnants of platonic celebration of the CCP’s utopian project in China. Chen’s work demonstrates how the frustration and protest that erupted in 1989 had discernible origins in both the recent and remote past.

Fieldwork at the local level had served to amplify nonofficial voices while complicating the separation of the once easily discernible official and nonofficial narratives, but the violent denouement of the Tiananmen Square protests served to harden the divide between state propaganda and dissident voices out of the PRC. In this moment there were two China-for-export narratives that came out of the PRC, and the official and nonofficial voices clearly did not overlap. One narrative spoke from the streets with passionate and patriotic frustration about corruption and bureaucratism within the highest levels of the party. This message was delivered to the foreign audience directly through the news cameras that had been set in place for a visit from Gorbachev. The other China-for-export narrative used terror and bullets in its attempt to silence the first, and meanwhile convey to the foreign audience its absolute domestic authority.

Many foreign scholars took common cause with these voices of protest, and publicized dissident narratives to raise international awareness of the gap between official rhetoric and reality in the PRC. The Tiananmen Papers: The Chinese Leadership’s Decision to Use Force Against Their Own People – In Their Own Words is a volume that sought to explode any remnants of the myth of state-society harmony in China. An anonymous official with the pseudonym Zhang Liang compiled minutes from hundreds of high-level meetings in the days surrounding the Tiananmen crackdown, and with editors, Perry Link and Andrew Nathan, presented the inner workings of an authoritarian regime that sought to retain its power by any means. Also outlined in the work are the nonofficial voices of anti-party protest that were vented in the demonstrations.

The year 1989 was obviously a watershed in Chinese history, but it also demonstrated to foreign scholars how wide the gap between official and nonofficial ideologies and experiences in China had become. Moreover, it showed that time would not organically resolve this problem of disjuncture between the two. Though foreign scholars heard the dissident voices from within China louder than ever before, the violent conclusion promised more difficulties for further study in China, not fewer. It was clear at this moment that the voices of dissent from within China were distinguishable from the official narrative of the party. But it was also clear that there seemed to be no predictable curve in the relations between the two narratives that could be traced through the PRC’s history.

In the 1990s increasing archival access led to foreign scholars producing more nuanced studies of the Chinese revolution. Following Mao’s death, increased access to oral history had allowed the beginnings of the reconsideration of the revolutionary narrative, and by the 1990s opening archives not only in China, but throughout the world, allowed a more thorough understanding of the past fifty years in China and in global history. Chen Jian’s Mao’s China and the Cold War relied primarily on official sources that had been opened to him in the former Soviet Union and in China, and in this work he was able to dislodge many of the explanations of the Cold War narrative from the PRC’s perspective that had been constructed during and following events such as the Korean War and the ongoing hostilities between the PRC and Taiwan. He also forced the reconsideration of the simplistic Cold War models that had dictated much of the historiography of that period both in China and in the American academy.

Thomas Kampen published a slim volume that is devastating to the official party narrative of revolutionary history though it does not venture far from the official sources that were made available to him for his study. In Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and the Evolution of the Chinese Communist Leadership, Kampen disproves the narrative that continues to prevail within China and in most foreign scholarship, which portrays Mao rising to supreme leadership of the CCP as early as the beginning stages of the Long March in January 1935 at the Zunyi Conference. Kampen’s study demonstrates that Mao did not wield unrivaled power over the party until the “rectification campaigns” carried out through the first half of the 1940s. Kampen cites the exclusion of certain significant documents from party-sanctioned and published collections of documents that retroactively reinforced the official narrative of Mao as the helmsman of the party from the early or mid-1930s. (Kampen 99-117)

Works like those of Chen and Kampen demonstrate the complication of the formerly simple mutual exclusion of the categories of official and nonofficial narratives in the PRC. Increased availability of official sources clearly showed that upon closer analysis, many of them had distinctly nonofficial, or non-doctrinal, stories to tell. Foreign scholars were no longer required to rely on nonofficial oral histories to reconstruct a more accurate narrative of the Chinese revolution.

While this development in source availability complicated once more the perception of mutually exclusive official and nonofficial voices out of the PRC, the shift in popular consciousness described in the introduction to this paper would also dislodge old assessments of a binary model of party and dissident narratives. As the PRC emerged in the 1990s as an economic and military force on the global stage, a strong and renewed sense of popular nationalism emerged as well. Meanwhile, effective internal suppression and manipulation of the history of June 1989 helped contributed to the increasingly intimate confluence of state propaganda and nonofficial popular nationalism.

One response to the blurring of official and nonofficial ideology is to look more closely at policy implementation, namely military action, as a starting point and then work backwards toward a more thorough perspective on official and nonofficial ideological underpinnings. While Chen Jian’s study, Mao’s China and the Cold War, urged the reader to consider the importance of ideology in policy formation, Andrew Scobell arrived at his interpretation of ideological motivation through a decoding of China’s use of its military from 1949 to 1979. (See Scobell) This type of analysis is one possible reaction by the foreign scholar of China who, after taking stock of the murky historiographical waters surrounding the PRC, decides to take a direct route to interpretation of the event. Like Chen’s work, increased archival access and the labor of scholars before him has allowed such a study to jettison a more careful consideration of nonofficial sources. A critical approach to official propaganda sources has become a given in the historian’s assessment of party documents. But this has not heralded lasting stability in foreign interpretations of PRC history.

From the potentially subversive role of the internet to a controversial new biography of Mao, the interpretation of PRC history and its many narratives continue to present challenges to foreign observers. While historical amnesia and the vague nationalist celebration of China have led to some nonofficial voices out of the PRC sounding more and more like state propaganda of old, one book works hard to counterbalance this new state-loyal patriotism. Jung Chang and Jon Halliday have presented the reign of Mao in a new biography as that of an unscrupulous tyrant at the helm of a party that had absolutely no ideological engine beyond Mao’s insatiable hunger for power within China and beyond. The methodological shortcomings and factual errors of the work are numerous, but the popular accessibility of the writing style will lend it significant weight in the foreign perception of the Chinese revolution.

Chang’s previous work, Wild Swans, is a fascinating memoir of her life growing up in China as a Red Guard with a privileged background, and so this work might be considered a nonofficial voice of the Chinese revolution. Though she has lived with her husband, Halliday, outside of China for many years, this illustrates how a globalized media can contribute in new ways to foreign perceptions of PRC narratives and their sources.

The internet has also served to complicate the notion of the monolithic nonofficial voice of dissent perceived in the 1980s. The work of Xiao Qiang, for example, in establishing a multilingual website related to contemporary PRC topics has been done mostly outside of the PRC. He certainly represents a nonofficial Chinese voice, as do people within the PRC who are actively organizing their voices on the internet. While Xiao Qiang’s site ( is often vociferously anti-CCP, not all of the Chinese voices on the internet are. The internet has also become an organizing tool for nonofficial voices that represent a celebratory national consciousness that is not limited by the PRC’s borders.

In both political and cultural analyses of the PRC, foreign scholars and journalists often try to locate a definitive and monolithic Chinese voice as representative of either the official government perspective or the nonofficial popular consciousness of the Chinese people. But whether this was once considered possible, certainly today neither narrative can be homogenized in this way. Multiple conflicting official voices emerge from the CCP as a result of strategic policy and intraparty dissent. In the nonofficial realm, geographic spread, technological innovation, and the unpredictability of a diverse and rapidly changing populace have rendered counterproductive the project of essentializing popular Chinese consciousness. Worthwhile topically and temporally focused studies continue to be produced, building on the developments in foreign understanding of the PRC and the many narratives of revolution.


Brown, Jeremy and Paul G. Pickowicz, eds. Dilemmas of Victory. (forthcoming)

Chang, Jung, and Jon Halliday. Mao: The Unknown Story. London: Jonathan Cape, 2005.

Fairbank, John King. Chinabound: A Fifty-year Memoir. New York: Harper and Row, 1982.

Friedman, Edward, Paul G. Pickowicz, and Mark Selden. Chinese Village, Socialist State. New Haven, Yale University Press: 1991.

Gries, Peter Hays. China’s New Nationalism: Pride, Politics, and Diplomacy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Kampen, Thomas. Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and the Evolution of the Chinese Communist Leadership. Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2000.

Scobell, Andrew. China’s Use of Military Force: Beyond the Great Wall and the Long March. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Snow, Edgar. The Other Side of the River: Red China Today. New York: Random House, 1962.

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