The Book of the Week is “The Man on Mao’s Right, From Harvard Yard to Tiananmen Square, My Life Inside China’s Foreign Ministry” by Ji Chaozhu, published in 2008.
Born in 1929 in the Chinese village of Taijun, Ji lived a charmed early childhood, as his politically connected father was a law professor and commissioner of education. In 1937, his family was forced to move in with his paternal grandfather in Fenyang when the Japanese continued their siege of China.
By the end of the 1930’s, the family had fled from their palace to the United States. They moved into a tiny tenement in the East Village in Manhattan. One aspect of their living standards that was actually higher, was the modern plumbing.
Ji had a much, much older, politically connected brother– old enough to be his father– who purported to aid the Chinese Communists, then Americans, alternating between the two throughout his life. But his loyalties truly lay with the Communists.
Ji’s father behaved similarly, translating between English and Japanese for the U.S. Office of War Information after the Pearl Harbor attack, but also starting a secret pro-Communist Chinese newspaper sold in Chinatown. In 1946, he returned to China to become president of Peking University.
Ji learned English in a progressive private school. As he got older, he too began to believe that the Americans were imperialists, as they invaded Korea. He therefore quit Harvard in his junior year to return to China.
Ji had no problem enduring mean living conditions there– more than a hundred students in his Tsinghua University dorm had to share one bathroom. They had a communal bathhouse. A food shortage meant that his diet consisted of only sorghum, corn millet, dried sweet potato flour and pickled vegetables. There were no chairs in the cafeteria– students ate standing up.
When Mao Tse Tung’s Communist party took over China in 1949, the U.S. Seventh Fleet in Taiwan protected Chiang Kai-Shek, the corrupt, exiled leader of the defeated Nationalist party.
In April 1951, Douglas MacArthur was dismissed from his military leadership position by president Harry Truman for having grand plans to wage nuclear war against the Communists. Congress member Albert Gore, Sr. echoed MacArthur’s hawkish sentiments, proposing that the United States warn people to evacuate Korea, and then showering it with nuclear waste to force a stop to the war.
Ji began to attend self-criticism meetings and worship Mao as though he were a supreme being. But Ji wasn’t automatically accepted as a member of the Communist party because his reputation was tainted with Western values. His father and much, much older brother had worked for the American government in various capacities, and his family had lived in America for a time.
Nevertheless, Ji’s fluency in English, high-level education, and understanding of Western culture were major assets that few Chinese people had. So China’s Foreign Ministry recruited him to translate and take notes at the Korean peace talks in spring 1952. He and his fellow interpreters risked their lives in traveling to the site of the negotiations in Panmunjon in North Korea. They survived shelling, strafing and bombing.
Ji then survived the pressure to perfectly, manually type up the excessive number of revisions in Korean, English and Chinese that led to an almost-final written agreement in July 1953. This, after about two million war deaths over the course of two years, with neither of the multi-national sides making any significant progress geographically.
After a short stop at home, Ji was then sent to Geneva for more abuse, but without life-threatening dangers overhead.
Back in China, the landlords and the capitalists were under physical siege by the peasants in rural farming villages. Mao egged on the violence. However, in late 1956, after the common Hungarian people staged an uprising against their Communist oppressors, Mao realized he needed to take steps to avoid that kind of situation in China. So, “… for the first time, American magazines, books, and the occasional film became available. Before that, any Western literature or movies were banned.”
In a move that was nothing new under the sun, Mao gave the Chinese people a chance to air their grievances. One professor complained that Party members and cadres were living high on the hog while the peasants were starving.
Mao then wrote articles saying that the government then knew who the infidels were. He launched his Anti-Rightist campaign. A lot of bourgeois people were fired from their jobs, and sent to reeducation camps. Many people suicided, were executed or never heard from again. Unsurprisingly, the famine in China resulted in about thirty million deaths.
Beginning in the late 1950’s, over the next decade, Ji dutifully did the jobs he was assigned. For months at a time, he alternated between going to rural areas to help with manual labor, and sitting at Zhou Enlai’s side, sometimes even at Mao’s side– interpreting at diplomatic meetings.
In August 1966, a group of adolescents comprised of sociopathic sadists supplied with weaponry– also known as the Red Guards– terrorized anyone accused of disloyalty to Communist ideology (i.e., ownership by the dictatorial State, rather than ownership by private parties, of the means of production; plus other conditions). Anyone could be an accuser. Mao encouraged everyone to be snitches. The victims of violence also included embassy personnel of the former Soviet Union, India and Burma. Not to mention, in August 1967, people in the British consulate.
While ugliness raged in China and was exacerbated with U.S. intervention in Vietnam, there was a similarity with the two countries’ leadership. Zhou Enlai’s role under Mao was like vice president Hubert Humphrey’s under president Lyndon Johnson’s. The second fiddles both obeyed their bosses to keep their jobs, even though their bosses’s actions caused an excessive number of needless deaths and ruined lives.
Read the book to learn much more about the history of China, and Ji’s life and times.