Orville Schell

A 30-year veteran of reporting on China discusses Deng’s counterrevolution.


COMMUNIST PARTY GENERAL SECRETARY JIANG ZEMIN’S scheduled visit to Washington, D.C., this fall will be the first time a Chinese head of state has come to the White House since 1985. Few American observers are better positioned to put the historic sojourn in perspective than Orville Schell. Schell started writing and reporting on China in the early 1960s. His grandfather was a visiting doctor there, and Schell has visited the country scores of times — most recently to observe the British handover of Hong Kong. Schell has written nine books on China, and most recently co-produced an award-winning “Frontline” documentary called “Gate of Heavenly Peace” about the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.

In 1996, Schell took over as dean of the University of California Graduate School of Journalism in Berkeley. On the eve of Jiang’s visit, Schell shares his thoughts on potential Chinese flash points, such as Tibet and Hong Kong, and on America’s sometimes inspired, sometimes naive, and sometimes hypocritical relationship with the world’s most populous nation.

Q: What’s the state of China today?

A: China is in between so many different kinds of systems, ideologies, transitions. It doesn’t know if it’s Marxist or Leninist, capitalist or democratic. It doesn’t know, after a decade of emphasizing economic self-reliance, whether it’s now in the world market system. China once said, “Put politics in command.” Now it says, “We have to escape politics; they’re destabilizing and disruptive.” China’s been on every side of so many issues over the last 30 or 40 years. There’s a profound identity crisis in China.

Q:Is it easier to draw conclusions about specific areas or events there? For example, Tibet.

A: Tibet in certain ways has replaced China as the land on which people in the West can project their own fantasies. It’s everything that the West is not. It’s a society that’s built on religion and matters of the spirit rather than on secular society and materialism — a place that’s very isolated. And then, of course, China came along in the ’50s and it was a collision of utterly dissimilar worlds — communist, Marxist materialism colliding with Buddhism. But that made it almost more interesting for the West, because this place of spirituality and mysticism had become the little guy beaten up by the big bad guy.

Q: Is that a proper construction, in your view?

A: China has done some monstrous things to Tibet. But China’s also brought a certain measure of development — roads, power, buildings (even if they’re ugly), a certain amount of education, medicine. Lhasa is quite a drab city as a result, but Tibet was a feudal society completely cut off from the outside world. The Dalai Lama himself says Tibet can’t survive without some affiliations with a large country like China, and he has sort of backed off the idea of independence and says he is now interested in autonomy.

Q: Do you see China’s major flash points — Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan — as related problems for the leadership in Beijing?

A: Well, as goes Hong Kong, I think in a way, so will go Taiwan. If the leadership’s support of “one country, two systems” doesn’t work out with Hong Kong, there is certainly little chance of reintegrating Taiwan peacefully back into one China. Of course, China’s record doesn’t make one particularly sanguine about Hong Kong…but if it is able to keep its hands off, it would be a great victory for China. It would show that it’s maturing and could be trusted and that there is some hope for a federation of places like Taiwan, Tibet, and Hong Kong that weren’t under the thumb of Beijing all the time. But I’m not certain that Deng Xiaoping’s successors will adhere to “one country, two systems” if Hong Kong starts to, say, attack the Beijing leadership or print subversive publications or allow labor unions that compete with the Communist Party.

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