Orville Schell on the Long View on China

By Shaun Tan

By Shaun Tan

Founder, Editor-in-Chief, and Staff Writer

7/7/2021

Orville Schell (Picture Credit: World Economic Forum)

Orville Schell is one of the world’s greatest living sinologists. He has spent his life studying and writing about China, reporting on it for publications like The Atlantic and The New Yorker. He is the recipient of numerous prizes and fellowships for his work, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Overseas Press Club Award, and the Harvard-Stanford Shorenstein Prize in Asian Journalism. He’s the former dean of Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, and serves as the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society. He’s also the author of 15 books, including Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century, which he wrote with John Delury. His first novel, My Old Home, just came out this year.

 

Something I think he can really give people is a sense of perspective. Every day, we’re flooded with information on China, but he can offer perspective on that, drawn from his knowledge of Chinese history and his over 60 years studying the country.

Experience this interview your way.

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Read it here. (This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)

Rabbit Hole: You’re one of the foremost experts on China today. Whence came your fascination with China, and how did you first get into studying it?

 

OS: When I was an undergraduate at Harvard, I stumbled into this great course that was on China and Japan taught by John Fairbank and Benjamin Schwartz and a whole host of really wonderful, older-generation professors. And I’d taken it almost accidentally because [it was] the only course I could take that matched the schedule of my sister, who was also there. And I got to the end of it, and after wallowing through all the dynasties of China then, and the modern era, had so consumed my life I hardly knew what to do with myself at the end of it. And I had worked at the Harvard-Yenching Library and really gotten curious about what all the books that were arrayed around me said, in Japanese, and Chinese, and Korean, so I went off to Taiwan to study Chinese, and I got stuck on it and never got un-stuck.

 

Rabbit Hole: Your book, Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century, describes China’s pursuit of wealth and power from the end of the Qing Dynasty to the present. Ultimately, it was Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening up” that made this dream a reality and set China on the path to spectacular economic growth. Was this prosperity the result of China doing anything special, or just the result of it becoming more like a normal country?

 

OS: Well that really is probably the most interesting historical question to ask, isn’t it? I mean, think about it, in the 20th century, up until, well, right through the Second World War, China was known as “the sick man of Asia.” And if you read accounts, many of them by Western missionaries and others, there was a certain kind of disparaging attitude towards China, that it could never really pull itself together, never shape up and actually galvanize itself to the level of greatness it had historically attained. And, I think, when finally Deng Xiaoping came along after the agonies of Mao Zedong, the Chinese people – who in my estimation are incredibly hardworking and diligent – when they finally were just given a context in which they could just work hard and express their innate desire to have better lives, not completely controlled by the state or by circumstances such as the Japanese occupation or war, they just sort of exploded. And I think, in a strange way, all of the difficulty, all of the obstructions that they confronted in that period of modernization, gave them a certain Darwinian imperative – the people who survived were people who were really tough and really determined and really tenacious. And so in the 80s, we got this extraordinary effervescent wave of energy of people who had not been able to make their lives better, express their own personal thoughts, views, initiative, and it was that as much as the Chinese Communist Party’s control or organization or “secret sauce,” if you will, that allowed this economic miracle to arise.

 

Rabbit Hole: Did they do anything that any other normal country did not do?

 

OS: In many ways, as you well know, this period of economic dynamism began in the late 70s – when Mao Zedong died in ’76, Deng Xiaoping came along, and I was covering China during that decade for The New Yorker, and I remember how completely perplexed we all were. I mean, what was happening here? And remember that, when I first went to China, it was 1975, Mao Zedong was still alive, and if you had asked me then if I saw even the faintest suggestion of the reforms and the changes that were to come under Deng Xiaoping, I would have said, “No, you were bereft of your senses if you imagined an era such as China then entered in the 1980s,” and yet, under Deng Xiaoping, he declared this period of reform and openness, and, in an extraordinary way, China began to transform itself. And yet, and yet, and I urge everyone to remember this, there were within that whole equation of dynamic change and reform the seeds of the revolution that remain, sort of like genetic material. Just because Deng Xiaoping came along and waved his wand, [that] didn’t wave away all those years of Maoism. And that’s what we see, to jump ahead, rather precipitously, to the present, we see in Xi Jinping, is that the revolution did plant deep roots, it did fundamentally leave genetic material behind in China. It was very difficult to escape just by declaring reform and that we were in a new era.

 

Rabbit Hole: In Wealth and Power, you wrote that, for all the damage they caused, Chairman Mao’s revolutionary upheavals demolished China’s old Confucian, imperial system, and thus made it easier for Deng to introduce capitalist reforms. But, of course, these reforms ran into a lot of resistance from China’s Communist system and its adherents. Was the old Confucian, imperial system really more resistant to capitalism than the Communist system Mao replaced it with?

 

OS: Well, remember in the old Confucian system – it’s interesting, people often forget this when they say that Chinese have a natural entrepreneurial instinct – but in the old Confucian system there was a very strict hierarchy. At the top, sat, of course, the emperor, then the imperial officials, and then came the peasants, who were considered noble, but base, then came soldiers, who were sort of necessary, but also considered tremendously uncultured and unwashed, and last were the merchants. And what merchants in the Confucian system wanted more than anything was to make money and have their kids get tutored and pass the imperial examination and become an official. So, in the old scheme of things, China never really developed a tremendously active and respected entrepreneurial or capitalist class, so in that sense they were very much biased against market forces as we know them today. And, of course, Communism had an equal, but someone different, bias against the bourgeoisie – the entrepreneurial middle class, the exploitative class. So there was kind of a weird convergence when the revolution came along between these two traditions that did look down on just crude moneymaking as not the ultimate goal of life – in Communism it was politics, in the classical, traditional, dynastic system it was scholarship, because scholarship was the way to officialdom, and officialdom within the imperial system – become a provincial or county official of a lower level – was to be able to be rich and to be able to have status. So it was odd that, when Mao Zedong came along, when I first went to China, I had to sit through endless meetings of “pi Kong, pi Lin” (“criticize Confucius, and criticize Lin Biao”). Of course “Confucius” was Zhou Enlai, and he was considered the mandarin, in a certain sense, traditional official. So they wanted to extirpate and erase traditional culture because they saw it as feudal, exploitative, and in a class system it was the officials and the landlords against the peasants and the workers.

 

Rabbit Hole: You’ve spent most of your life urging greater engagement between the US and China. But in 2018 you were responsible for a Hoover Institution report that urged the US to engage in tit-for-tat economic retaliation against China to compel reciprocity, and last year you wrote an essay titled “The Death of Engagement,” and you’ve become much more skeptical and hawkish towards Beijing. Explain yourself, sir. What’s changed in the past few years?

 

OS: Well, again, that’s a very critical and seminal question in the whole progress of China. As I say, in the 80s, when Deng Xiaoping came along, it really did seem, and I think there was a real possibility, that China, through reform – remember that reform was open up, engage with the outside world, and actually change the system of China. There were local elections, there were all sorts of market forces at work – it did seem possible that China, bit by bit, might molt out of its revolutionary class-struggle period, anti-imperialist period of Mao Zedong’s revolution, into something that was, not like the West, but at least less antagonistic and more convergent. I think, yes, Deng Xiaoping still believed in a one-party system, but that was a really deep hope, one that I think Nixon and Kissinger had planted in 1972 when they went to China and ganged up with China against Russia. However, it is undeniably true that there has been no one-party Marxist-Leninist system that has ever managed to evolve into a more democratic open society without a major disjunction. And you remember what happened in 1989, I was there – a million people demonstrating in Tiananmen Square for greater openness and democratic forms of governance, and the massacre came, and that shut down reform. After that, surprisingly, Deng Xiaoping actually said “No, we have to continue opening up to the outside world.” And Jiang Zemin, who was Party General Secretary, who at the time we thought was rather clownish and foolish, actually restored, in significant measure, the reform era. So we still could imagine that engagement might be a peaceful way to see China change and slowly become more absorbable in the global market system and the system of rules-based order as we call it in the outside world. But then under Hu Jintao things started to change, the United States ran into trouble, China started thinking that maybe they had a good model themselves, and then came Xi Jinping, who we can get to, but that really was the end of engagement.

Schell, with his wife, Baifang, and Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo, in Tiananmen Square during the protests in 1989

Now, you say “Explain yourself.” Was engagement foolish? Was it misguided? Did we misinterpret who the Chinese Communist Party really was? I don’t think so, I think it was worth it. Because it did hold real promise that China could slowly change and the antagonistic state of relations with the United States and with Europe and the liberal democratic countries could be tempered. But it didn’t work out that way. It could have gone either way, and it happened to go the way that Xi Jinping finally took it: in a much more belligerent, bellicose, antagonistic, confrontational way. So I think engagement was not ill-advised, but it failed, and it has failed abjectly until now, and we don’t know what will follow, and I think that’s the great tragedy of Xi Jinping, that he has given up, thrown away the very thing that allowed China to develop and create this extraordinary economic miracle and developmental success of quite staggering proportions and put it at risk.

 

Rabbit Hole: You’ve written that the failure of engagement was not due to any lack of effort or accommodation on the part of the US. But is there anything America should have done differently? Might engagement have succeeded had it asserted itself more in the relationship, particularly on matters of principle?

 

OS: You know I’ve asked myself that repeatedly, particularly when I wrote that long article which traced the process of engagement and how it failed. I think, in a certain sense, engagement – you could say was American leadership at its best. It tried to embrace a rather prickly, antagonistic alternative society with deep value disagreements with the United States. Civil society went in, foundations went in, companies went in, universities went to try and see if China couldn’t be helped to vacate its very savagely brutal and destructive revolution. I think that was good. So I think in a sense, I see America, which I can be very critical of, as having gone the last measure of devotion to make engagement work. And it really was this idea that the Communist Party in China has never been able to abandon that the West, liberal democratic countries like America, are hostile foreign forces – they’re out to overthrow the Party, and they’re out to bring regime change about. And in a certain sense I think the Communist Party’s assessment is right, that is its intention, so there was finally an antagonist[ic] contradiction to put it in Mao Zedong’s language, that couldn’t be overcome, and that’s where we’ve washed up now, on that shoal, shipwrecked on that shoal – finally there is a contradiction between system and values that is unbridgeable unless there is change.

 

Rabbit Hole: Do you think, though, that the engagement policy might have worked had America asserted itself more, especially when it came to matters of principle? I’m thinking a bit of the example you gave of after Tiananmen Square, when America went to speak to Deng Xiaoping, and it ended up- it was kind of funny because you’d think that a government that had massacred its own people would be sort of apologetic, trying to get the other countries to not dislike it because of what it had done. Instead, the US ended up begging China not to dislike it for judging it for that massacre, right? So, if the US had been more assertive, particularly when it came to principles like democracy and the right to protest and free speech and so on, do you think that might have helped engagement work?

 

OS: You know, I think if you go back as I did and you look at the transcript of the dialogue, when President Bush, right after the massacre twice sent an emissary to talk with Deng Xiaoping. I mean, it’s a little embarrassing to read it now, because here Deng Xiaoping and the Chinese Communist Party had just massacred we don’t know how many hundreds, thousands of people, and yet it was Deng Xiaoping berating America and saying that because America, of course, was on the side of the demonstrators. It wasn’t Deng Xiaoping saying: “We made a great mistake here, we value our relationship with America, stick with us.” Not at all. So I think America bent over backwards during that period not to break off the relationship with China and the Party, and that too did have some certain success, because when Jiang Zemin came along, he did sort of get China back on the path to some reform and to a more congenial relationship with the US. I went to China in, I think it was 1998, with President Clinton and I was just astounded by how friendly relations were between him and Jiang Zemin. And I remember vividly a press conference in the Great Hall of the People where the two were smiling and laughing, engaging in banter on the most controversial of topics, like Tibet, and Jiang Zemin had allowed the press conference at the very last minute to be broadcast live over radio and television all across China, something that would be unthinkable today. So, engagement did regain traction, and we did in some measure overcome the trauma of 1989 and the relationship – and I think the United States tried extremely hard not to throw just sort of throw China out and say “You’re immediately evil, you massacred your people, we want nothing more to do with you.” President Bush and President Clinton recognized that we should deal with China and kept trying to do so, worked extremely hard to get it into the World Trade Organization, stopped using the most favored nation clause to punish China, and yet, it didn’t finally make the difference, we couldn’t finally bend the metal of [this] Leninist, one-party system, that finally we see Xi Jinping at its one-hundredth anniversary the other day standing [at] Tiananmen Square in a Mao suit – the same color as Chairman Mao’s portrait – sort of bringing back that old era. And I think we have to acknowledge it [engagement] didn’t work. But was it wrong? No.

Schell meets US President Bill Clinton in Xi’an in 1998

Rabbit Hole: Let’s talk about Chinese President Xi Jinping. How would you compare him to his predecessors?

 

OS: He’s [a] very, very enigmatic man, as far as I can see, and I’ve only encountered him on two – I went on the trip with Vice President Biden and Xi in this country [the US]. And then, of course, Xi invited Biden to go to China. And then I went on the Trump trip to China just, I guess it was two years ago, and got to watch the two men together. I think the thing that impresses me about President Xi is that he is not a man who knows how to interact spontaneously, particularly with foreign leaders, he doesn’t speak a foreign language, he’s not comfortable in foreign countries, he’s never been abroad studying, and I think his formative experience was during the Cultural Revolution, when, yes, his father and his family were persecuted, but finally, that’s his frame of reference and that’s where his basic characterological foundation was formed, and what he knows is control. So when he’s in public with an American president or another foreign leader, what he relies on is not informal interaction, and “Let’s just give a little and get a little and talk this out and work it out,” no, what he seems to be most comfortable with is ritual, ceremony, pomp and circumstance – the affectations of power and grandiosity rather than the give and take that is the fundamental essence of diplomacy. So I think he’s very much a kind of a throwback to, even to the old Confucian, imperial system, and certainly to the era of Mao Zedong, but he has none of Mao Zedong’s panache, none of Mao Zedong’s sense of just being able to change his mind, be completely inconsistent, but to get what he wants. I think Xi is much more cautious, much more ritualistic, and much more lacking in transparency.

 

Rabbit Hole: How about when it comes to domestic policy, when it comes to philosophy of governance, for example, how does he differ from his predecessors?

 

OS: Well, you know, one of the things Deng Xiaoping did was to lay down both term limits, and remember that when Deng Xiaoping came on the scene in 1978, ’79, he didn’t become Party general secretary, or president (which is a bit of a throwaway position because the government doesn’t matter as much as the Party) – he was a vice premier, and he let people like Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang and Li Peng take the formal titles of premier and Party general secretary. So he confected a kind of a collective system of governance which I think was very artfully done and purposefully done to hinder the rise of a new big leader like Mao Zedong. So what’s Xi Jinping done? Well, first of all he’s abrogated the two-term limit to Party general-secretaryship, and, like Putin, he can rule as long as he wants, and he rules completely unilaterally, no whiff of collectivity about his leadership. In fact, his premier, Li Keqiang, is completely neutered. I mean, he is a kind of a eunuch, who has absolutely no power over anything. And remember that even Wen Jiabao under Hu Jintao had the ability to more or less guide the economy. So, Xi Jinping is very much in the imperial mode of not prima interpares (first among many), just “first,” there are no “many” – there’s no one even close to Xi Jinping.

Picture Credit: Пресс-служба Президента Российской Федерации

Rabbit Hole: How about in terms of how liberal or authoritarian he is? How does he compare with the others?

 

OS: Hu Yaobang, it turned out, was quite amazingly liberal, and he fell in ’86, ’87 when student demonstrations arose. Then came Zhao Ziyang, he fell in 1989 with the student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. Each of them were dedicated Communists to a one-party system, but they were also deeply dedicated to the notion of structural reform. And I think that’s what Xi Jinping does not have in his toolkit – he believes wholeheartedly in the Leninist system, a Leninist system that isn’t collective, but with one man on top. He’s more a Stalinist than his predecessors in China. Even Jiang Zemin, he had Zhu Rongji, an immensely powerful premier who reformed the whole Chinese economy. And all of those people also did believe, because of course China was weaker, that they had to get along with the US, and that meant horse-trading – giving a little, getting a little – [there’s] not a whiff of that in Xi Jinping. And his speech the other day where he said, “Anybody who thought that the US or other countries had the right to speak critically and lecture to China was completely deluded” – that gave you a suggestion of what he’s all about; he’s not gonna listen, he doesn’t want to work things out. Basically, for him it’s China’s way or the highway, and that is a very, very dangerous situation, both for the immense success that China has enjoyed, but also for the peace and tranquility of the global fabric, because you cannot have everything be a “core interest” that cannot be talked about and still live in the world and work things out. And that’s Biden’s challenge. But some things are getting much more confrontational in every respect, and increasingly dangerous in the South China Sea, Taiwan, East China Sea, where American Joint Chiefs of Staff members and former commanders of the Pacific Fleet are extremely alarmed that an accident could escalate into a real conflict.

“Xi Jinping believes wholeheartedly in the Leninist system, a Leninist system that isn’t collective, but with one man on top. He’s more a Stalinist than his predecessors in China.”

Rabbit Hole: How about his relationship with the Chinese people? How do you think Xi Jinping sees that and how would you compare that outlook with his predecessors?

 

OS: Well, I think he has created a somewhat hermetically-sealed information environment by the Great Firewall, the internet, locking out all other voices from the outside. But, that said, the Chinese Communist Party has been successful, and has provided a better life for people, it has brought order, albeit a very draconian one, and I think for many who don’t wish to stick their head up, and don’t care about politics, don’t care about being able to speak out at a university, a civil society, a church, or some other kind of organization, that’s been a great boon. So I think he’s not without substantial support amongst ordinary people, who are also very glad to see China strong again. The real question is not China’s strength, or whether it’s entitled to rejuvenate and regain its place in the world, it’s how it uses that strength, and does it put it to a good end that protects the success of the Chinese economy and the standing of the country, or does it put all that in jeopardy? That’s the question we are now wrestling with.

 

Rabbit Hole: Is Xi Jinping an outlier? Does he represent a break with tradition?

 

OS: I think Xi Jinping represents one aspect of a deeply unresolved situation in China, and the aspect he represents is a kind of a notion that the only way China can be successful, be proud, and regain its place in the world is through a one-big-leader autocratic system, which is a very traditional notion, it’s also a very Leninist notion. And it has been that notion contending with the different notion that’s more democratic, that involves a more collective leadership, a greater protection of individual rights, of liberty, of justice, equality, all of these kinds of things, that is in contention with that. That struggle is gonna go on. It is not over. Even though you don’t hear many people speak of it because they’re afraid. But that does not mean that Xi Jinping has no support, or that he’s not been successful, or that the Party has been completely unresponsive to people’s needs; I think in certain ways it’s responded quite well, and that’s what creates such a paradox, a society that on one level succeeds, functions, and has a certain connection to the people that is not completely unwelcome, on the other hand is so autocratic, and has its information feedback loop so amputated that it can’t hear warnings to protect its own interest.

 

Rabbit Hole: So you’re saying he’s not so much an outlier as he is representative of this darker aspect of the Chinese tradition?

 

OS: You know, if I look at Chinese history, and I’ve been peering at it, albeit through a glass darkly for, well, many, many, many decades, I think the thing that impresses me most about it is that it’s quite bipolar. It has very strong tendencies towards openness and democracy and reform, very deep feelings of affection and closeness to the United States, for instance, and a deep yearning to be in the global world. But, on the other hand, it has an opposite sort of double entry, sort of two columns, that’s very myopic, xenophobic, tends to wanna be isolated, this idea of dual circulation goes back to the old Maoist notion of zili-gengsheng (self-reliance), that China could be a world unto itself, which it was traditionally before the West battered down its door with its gunboats in the 19th century in the Opium Wars, etc. So it’s a contradiction, I think there’s no country in the world that’s more deeply unresolved in terms of the contradictions that continue to struggle against each other. And that’s why we have leaders in China, even in the Communist Party, who are so different. They bespeak different sides of the argument that China’s been having with itself over the last hundred years about how to relate to the outside world, how to reform its old culture, its old system, how to become a modern nation without giving up its 5,000 years of classical, traditional identity, and it’s not over. And Xi Jinping is just a very extreme form of one side of that contradiction.

“I think there’s no country in the world that’s more deeply unresolved in terms of the contradictions that continue to struggle against each other.”

Rabbit Hole: Does China’s increasing aggressiveness represent a break with Deng Xiaoping’s admonition that China “hide its brightness and cherish obscurity” and avoid picking fights whilst it was still relatively weak, or is it a logical corollary to it since China is now much stronger and so arguably no longer needs to hold back?

 

OS: You know, when Deng Xiaoping said that phrase in Chinese, “taoguang-yanghui” (“keep your head down and bide your time”), there was a lot of discussion about what it meant. Many in the West thought “Well, that’s good, they’re not gonna try to dethrone anybody here; they just want to quietly develop.” But, as I recall, that aphorism or chengyu, in Chinese, if you go back and look at the origins of it in the story, it wasn’t that you keep your head down forever. The key part of that is “bide your time” – wait. And there is another legend, another story in Chinese classical culture, this guy Goujian who got captured by one state – this was back in the Warring States period – was very submissive as a prisoner to the other state, and did the master’s bidding, but he never forgot that he would someday revenge his defeat, and he did. And I think there was a bit of that in Deng Xiaoping’s aphorism of “keep your head down and bide your time” – what it meant was eventually China’s time would come, and it would stick its head up, and Xi Jinping is now doing that. The only question is how you choose to stick your head up. Do you do it in a way that is constructive and advances China’s national interest and its place in the world, or do you do it in an antagonistic, bellicose, self-defeating way? So you have to ask yourself, after all of China’s success, why does it want to alienate so many countries around the world? It was unimaginable a few years ago that China would have completely alienated Australia, India, Canada, Sweden – even now countries like Norway, and many in the EU are beginning to turn. Why do that? Korea, with the whole THAAD missile thing, you know, they cancelled K-pop culture, they shut down Lotte stores, they cancelled tourist trips to Korea and tanked their economy. Why do that? What possible advantage does that confer on China? Why doesn’t China enjoy its success, be much more open and accommodating to the world? And I think it’s because Xi Jinping has misidentified what it means to be a great power. Because when China was a victim of great powers it was exploited, it was pushed around, it was hectored and bullied, and I think there’s sort of a – and I write about this in my novel at some length because it’s very close to the heart of the matter – there’s a very close relationship between being master and slave, being the [bully and the bullied], almost as if Xi Jinping thinks: “Ok, we’re a great power now, what do great powers do? Oh, I know, they bully people.” And, you have to ask yourself: “Why is that in China’s interest? How does it advance anything except create antagonism and resistance?” And that’s where we are today. We don’t know how it will all work out.

Sword of Goujian, Hubei Provincial Museum

Rabbit Hole: Is China powerful enough to be behaving like this at this stage, or has it jumped the gun?

 

OS: Well, “jumping the gun,” you’d have to ask yourself: “Does it ever make sense to do this?” I mean, is the object of power to be able to bully other people, other countries? I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, and I certainly don’t think it’s in the interest of a powerful, successful country to put its resources to this end. I have to say I understand it in a psychological way – and this is why it’s so hard to make sense out of China through policy, because I think deep within the inner workings of this dynamic with the outside world is some very complicated, sort of psychological syndromes that need to be understood. Otherwise, policy doesn’t make any sense – you can’t explain why this is happening in policy terms, because most policy is supposed to be advancing a country’s national interests. Xi thinks he’s advancing China’s national interests. I think he’s undermining it, and you have to ask yourself: “If that’s true, why is that happening?” And here, I think, we get into something that really we can only understand through literature, religion, music, culture, values – things like that which help us understand why it is that a leader like Xi might be taking the positions he is in a way that seem[s] to be at odds with what you might imagine China’s rise as a country that can exist more or less peacefully in the world. It’s a bit of a mystery, and I don’t think we have good answers for it yet, which is why it’s very hard to make good policy, because we don’t know why China is doing what it’s doing.

 

Rabbit Hole: Could part of the answer be just its authoritarian system?

 

OS: I think that authoritarian systems, this is their great weakness, that they’re subject to one leader’s predominant sensibility, and it’s very easy for these information feedback loops – which is why democracies have checks and balances, it makes them clunky and sometimes unable to act, but it also makes it difficult for a single leader to enact his own policies without review – and I think this is the great danger for China in this modern, complex world of ours, that one leader’s, sort of, syndrome, whatever if it’s political, psychological, whatever it is, will go unreviewed and become extreme and run the whole train off the tracks. That would be an immense tragedy after the extraordinary success and all the hard work of so many Chinese to actually make China great. To put that at risk seems to me foolish beyond description.

“This is the great danger for China, that one leader’s, sort of, syndrome will go unreviewed and become extreme and run the whole train off the tracks.”

Rabbit Hole: I mean, not just that, but authoritarian regimes tend to rule through fear, right? And some of them have done so pretty successfully, and China is one of them.

 

OS: Yup.

 

Rabbit Hole: North Korea, for all its weakness, for all its poverty – the Kim regime has endured all these years by ruling through fear, and I suppose it could be that they think it was effective and it worked, so why not do it on the international stage? And they probably look back at Tiananmen Square and they probably look at it and say: “If we hadn’t done that the Party would have collapsed, and we would have lost power, and because we did that it worked, and people were mad at us for about a year and then most of the rest of the world kind of forgave us after that and came back after a year because they wanted to do business with us, so it worked then, why wouldn’t it work now?”

 

OS: Well I think you are right, and this is why I think it’s really important to have a deeper understanding of authoritarianism, and particularly Xi Jinping’s brand in China, because there are aspects of it which do work, and have worked, and we see the evidence of that in the amazing development of China in my lifetime. I mean, in 1975 there was not a single tall building except the New Beijing Hotel in the capital – not a single high-rise building – now look at it today: it’s extraordinary. But in assessing the strengths and weaknesses of such a regime, we don’t want to just look at the strengths, and the weaknesses are exactly the weaknesses that ran the Chinese Communist revolution off the rails: its totalism, its extremism, and its inability to correct itself. And it led to calamity, and the death of tens of millions of people. So this is the pathology again, every system has its weaknesses, and the weaknesses, I think, of one-party Leninism are that it doesn’t know how to course-correct, it doesn’t know how to listen, it doesn’t do ambiguity well, and you get what the big leader knows, what he thinks, and that gets written large, larger and larger, and nobody can challenge it. We saw that under Mao, and that was exactly what Deng Xiaoping wanted to try to correct. And he did. And now it’s gotten changed back again. So, in a certain sense, we are in a sort of plus ca change moment in China, where we are snapped back to the past in a way. However, it’s not exactly the past because the new one-party system under Xi Jinping and all of its surveillance and digital currency and social credit, all of this is connected up to a very powerful economy. So it’s unprecedented in world history, and we don’t know how to analyze it, and we really don’t quite know how best to respond to it.

 

Rabbit Hole: What is the significance of Xi Jinping scrapping presidential term limits and designating himself “core leader”?

 

OS: I think that, given the scheme of things as he sees it, his role as paramount leader is critical. And if he had, after the first five-year term, as everyone else had done before – Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao – had designated a successor, or the Party had designated a successor, he would have in fact then become a lame duck. And that seemed like a total contradiction in terms to his notion of leadership, which was to do whatever he wanted and to be unalloyed authority. So the minute he declared a limit to his term, he became compromised, he became bound by some rule, some boundary line, and he didn’t have the kind of power and authority he thought was necessary to continue to effect his policies, and so he scrubbed it. And I understand that – anyone can understand it – the question is you have to look at how it might help China (and it has ways it might help China), but how will it hinder China? And I think one of the things that I see there is not just this autocratic rule within China which, you could say is the business of the Chinese people, but the way he has projected himself abroad, in ways that are incredibly dangerous, and have alienated countries that one would never have imagined to turn against China, countries that came to its aid in the 1950s and 60s, you know, sort of neutral nations, and are now in a state of complete antagonism. Australia and India are two good examples. And Canada. Who alienates Canada? And Canada is one of the most vanilla, obliging, sorta non-antagonizing countries in the world, and yet they’ve managed to completely almost sever relations with it.

 

Rabbit Hole: What implications does it have for the peaceful transition of power in China?

 

OS: I don’t think there will be a peaceful transition of power in China, because that was exactly the mechanism that Deng Xiaoping set in motion by having term limits and designated successors so the Party could get used to the next person who’d be coming up. Xi is a mortal, he’s 68 years old, and people rumor that he may have some degenerative disease, who knows, but he is mortal, he won’t be around forever, and then what? So we know that these transitions are difficult, and he has upended the gift that Deng Xiaoping did give China, to help it elide over such moments of transition in the best way possible. And we all know from America that even [there] transitions are difficult – in every country they’re difficult. But in China they can be perilously so.

 

Rabbit Hole: Speaking of Deng Xiaoping’s legacy to China, Deng opened China up to the rest of the world, and his deputy Zhu Rongji moved the Chinese economy towards the private sector and away from its inefficient state-owned enterprises. These moves were instrumental to the Chinese economic miracle. How significant is it that Xi Jinping seems to be reversing these policies?

 

OS: I think it’s immensely significant that he is reinstalling Party cells in businesses, he is putting a clampdown on companies like Alibaba, which admittedly are enormous, and Jack Ma was acting like a head of state, sort of flying his private jet around the world, speaking with government officials and corporate titans as if he were the head of some national entity. But what’s ominous about it is that this had given China most of its economic vibrancy – these new national champions, these private enterprises that have now attained global status, and it seems very self-evident that slowly the Party has amputated almost all of China’s famous, huge, iconic moguls who’ve started to operate on a global scale, and is now starting to control again, through the Party, their companies, which is exactly what Deng Xiaoping and Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang had tried to separate – in other words, to take the Party out of business. Now Xi Jinping is putting it back in again. So, what the effect of that will be we don’t know. Will it have a suffocating effect, or will China manage to muddle along – it’s surprised people in the past – it seems counterintuitive to those of us in the West that if the Party’s controlling everything that [it] may diminish entrepreneurial energy and creativity and people’s feeling that it can do things themselves. But we’ll have to wait and see.

 

Rabbit Hole: Some people have speculated about the way the Chinese Communist Party, and Xi Jinping in particular, have treated people like Wang Jianlin, and Jack Ma, and even non-businesspeople, celebrities like Fan Bingbing. What do you think is the reason behind what it’s done with them?

 

OS: I think the Chinese Communist Party under Xi, and this wasn’t true under many previous Party general secretaries, simply cannot bear the idea of independent authority that is substantial, that stands outside of the Party system and Party control. And this is very much the tradition of Stalin. So the system that China acquired from Russia during the Stalinist period in the 50s is the same system that’s still there. And Xi Jinping has reimbued it with a Stalinist sensibility as well as the structure of the one-party state, where the Party rules, the Party governs the army, not the government, the premier is not significant, it’s just a bunch of officials that don’t do much. So, in that sense, that is the through train and that was exactly the part that we thought reform was gonna slowly diminish – namely the Party’s control of everything, and now the Party is back.

“The Chinese Communist Party under Xi simply cannot bear the idea of independent authority that is substantial, that stands outside of the Party system and Party control.”

And this is why, this contradiction, this waxing and waning of opening up and closing down, of becoming more authoritarian and less authoritarian at different times, this is why I turn to writing fiction, because I felt we couldn’t really explain this almost schizophrenic character of China in the modern world, between these sort of competing forces that are constantly going back and forth, except to look at it through the lives of individuals, to see who gets affected by what, and how does that express itself in the most human of terms. And it is still, I have to say, after all these decades of trying to figure it out, it is a mystery because China is a giant set of unresolved contradictions – it doesn’t know where it wants to go, it doesn’t know what the final model will look like, it keeps experimenting, it keeps trying on things like trying on clothes to see what fits, and different leaders have very different views of how China should be, what kind of system it should have, what kind of relationship to its people should the government have, what kind of relationship to other countries around the world, and it’s never felt comfortable with total equality, and it has either been bullied, just like [famous Chinese writer] Lu Xun said, China has two ways of being, it can be the slave or it can be the master, and I think there’s a little bit of that, that’s why I turned to literature, because I don’t know anybody in the policy world who can talk about these things in a way that makes much sense to me, and yet I think they are absolutely fundamental in understanding how to approach China.

 

Rabbit Hole: Your first novel, My Old Home, just came out this year. Can you tell us a bit about it?

 

OS: Well, you know, “My Old Home,” of course that’s a wonderful Lu Xun story, guxiang [hometown], of him returning home, finding it changed, and him feeling always in exile, never quite at home, even in China, and, I think, in a certain sense, why I wanted to write a novel was because I felt that I’ve lived my life back and forth to China; my wife was Chinese, and I tried to straddle that tremendous divide between these two countries; my kids are half-Chinese, half-American, speak Chinese, speak English, speak French, but they’re sort of in the middle of that too. And so, it seemed to me that this question of these two sides trying to find accommodation with each other, there’s such a deep affection and fascination between them, and yet there’s also such deep suspicion and sometimes more than that, it’s kind of a love-hate relationship that is so profound and yet so important, because they’re the two most important countries in the world. So I thought, alright, let me plunge into this, let me try to write a narrative of some characters who try to overcome this. And I thought, you know, I love music, so I thought “Let me take a Chinese classical musician who loves the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, but also deeply traditional kind of a figure, and let me just put him in Chinese history from 1949 on and see what conclusions we can draw from this.” So that’s what I tried to do and [it] took me 30 years *laughs* I don’t know whether I’ve come to any grand illumination, but it’s helped me understand what a complicated clash of cultures, politics, geography, history, culture we have as the US and China try to find some angle of repose between each other; it’s on again, off again, it’s love, it’s hate, it’s attraction, it’s repulsion, it’s all of these complicated things, but it is not on one side or the other – and we’d make a great mistake to assume that – and it is not over. Xi Jinping is a mere waystation – to where, we don’t know. But I’ve lived through this to see the demonstrations in 1989, I saw Chairman Mao, I saw what it was like in the Cultural Revolution – I spent several months in China then. Every time it’s different, China is a country of extremes; it’s always lurching from one side to another, and Xi Jinping is an extreme, it is not a final resting place.

“China is a country of extremes; it’s always lurching from one side to another, and Xi Jinping is an extreme, it is not a final resting place.”

Schell with his wife, Liu Baifang, in front of Tiananmen, 1986

Rabbit Hole: You describe your book as “A Novel of Exile,” and its title comes, as you’ve mentioned, from the story by the famous Chinese writer Lu Xun, which is also called “My Old Home.” In this story, the narrator returns to his old home and sees how it’s changed, and there’s this great sense of melancholy and loss. The protagonist of your novel, Little Li, also experiences these feelings when he returns to his old home in Beijing after a long absence. You lived in China for many years, and I’m sure you think of it as your old home. How do you feel when you look at China today, and to what extent is this reflected in your novel?

 

OS: You know, I look at China with an immense sense of wistfulness. I had hoped that the US and China would find a better way to interact and that those of us who had grown accustomed to living on both sides of this divide would not be forced into exile on one side or the other. And that’s what my book is about, trying to come to terms with, as you will know, the character of Little Li, his mother was American – half Chinese, half-American ethnically – but she grew up in America and married a Chinese classical musician from Beijing and had this son, who then was sort of stuck in between, and goes to America to try to explore America, it seems like the promised land, and maybe this will be the answer, and he finds out it isn’t really and comes home. So, he belongs on neither side. And I think this has been for many Chinese a kind of a bitter experience: those who have actually been deeply traditional, maybe raised to study Chinese philosophy, history, literature, culture, go abroad, become comfortable abroad, become comfortable in both places, and want to live in between, and that’s what Lu Xun sort of was writing about. He spoke of a person he called a “zhongjianwu” (people stuck in the middle), and for him it was stuck between Japan or China, because he’d studied in Japan. People who were stuck between modernity and traditionalism, between ancient Chinese culture and Western culture, and that’s what I think we have today, but, sadly, these people can only live on both sides of the divide, or in the middle, and that’s exactly what Xi Jinping has made impossible. So I think it’s perfectly possible I’ll never go back to China, never see my wife’s parents again, never see my apartment in Beijing again, I’ll have to live on one side, because that’s what Xi Jinping has done – he’s put us all in exile. And there’re many Chinese who may never come back to America, even though they love America – they may be critical, but they may still be very much a part of it – and we are now heading back, I think, as Henry Kissinger said, into the foothills of a Cold War, decoupling, dividing. And that world we painfully put together, where we could be cosmopolitan people on both sides, Xi Jinping’s vision of a future doesn’t allow. So we better get used to it.

“Xi Jinping has put us all in exile.”

Rabbit Hole: Novelists often write somewhat autobiographically, and they often base certain characters on themselves, or they draw from their own personalities when crafting characters. Do you see yourself in any characters in your novel in particular?

 

OS: Well, I think anytime anyone writes anything, particularly fiction, you, of course, have no choice but to draw on your own experience or the experience of people close to you. And I think my life with my wife who was Beijing-born, who came across the divide, and went to Berkeley, we were married almost 40 years, and my life, Chinese studies, which preceded meeting her, spoke of a strange fusion. And, in the best of all possible worlds, as I just said, we can maintain that kind of balancing act and be part of both cultures. That was the promise of Deng Xiaoping, and that was the promise of reform, that China would become slowly more absorbable in the outside world, more congenial, and that we too would become more understanding of what China was, and not have to choose, as we did in the Cold War. When I first went to study Chinese, I had to go to Taiwan, couldn’t go to China – I was very envious of people who could, but I couldn’t – didn’t get there till 1975. And then, when I went, I mean, I spoke Chinese, I was very bewildered by how unabsorbable I was – nobody would talk to me, I was sort of a pariah, and every time I would stray away to just try to meet someone as a human being, maybe go to their house, maybe talk to them, I’d get hauled back, I even got locked up: I was working in Dajia in Shanxi province, and I was put in my cave and locked inside for a couple of days because I was trying to interact in a human way with people individually, but that wasn’t possible. So, I have to say, that for me – and I’m an indelible American and Westerner – the way that the Chinese Communist Party traditionally has treated people from the outside is, one, it treats them as hostile, with great suspicion, and they need to be controlled, they need to be managed and isolated and kept apart from Chinese, and if we’re headed back into that world, that was the world I began with in China, I lament it, I think it’s tragic, and I think it doesn’t serve China well, it doesn’t serve anybody well, and that’s Xi Jinping’s intention, and, again, I don’t know how to talk about these things in a policy paper or in non-fiction, and I think one only can do it through literature, through [fiction], where you can broach some of these very squishy, difficult topics that are not easy to quantify.

Schell in the Shanghai Electrical Machinery Factory, 1975

Rabbit Hole: In a previous interview, you said that “more than any time in my life – even during the Mao era, where we were looking through the glass darkly from the outside – we knew more about what was happening in terms of the factional disputes and leadership struggles than we do now.” I find this quite hard to believe. Can you elaborate on this?

 

OS: The Mao era was a black box for Americans, but at least we could go to Hong Kong, talk to travelers, diplomats, and whatnot. It amazes me what a black box the Chinese leadership is today. I mean, does anybody know a high leader who they can just call up and go visit? No, it’s all very ritualized, and there’s no kind of informal interaction where you could really let your hair down and say, “What’s going on here, how do we work this out, what can we do?” It’s all ritualized, ceremonialized, and I think that has meant that our ability to find a way out of this impasse is severely restricted and limited. So, that I think is very much in the MO of Mao Zedong and that idea of China as a kind of sealed off, so distrustful of the predatory, imperializing, colonializing, exploiting West that you can’t even allow people, when you invite them on a friendship tour, to talk to anybody. All you can do is have- you know there was a thing, they call it “jiandan de jieshao” (a kind of brief introduction), and every place you’d go you’d get a brief introduction, but you never got to talk to anybody just in private, and if you did, they’d be very scared, and the minute they did, if they did, they’d get in trouble afterwards. So this is not very conducive to working things out. It’s a very paranoid system that animates Leninism, Chinese Communist Party, and all that they’ve borrowed from Stalin’s Russia, and I do lament it, I’m alarmed by it, I consider it an immense tragedy that the US and China, which do share much, and do care about each other in deep ways, has come to this again.

“I consider it an immense tragedy that the US and China, which do share much, and do care about each other in deep ways, has come to this again.”

Rabbit Hole: But what you said, exactly, was that it’s even more difficult to know what’s going on in China now than it was during the Mao era. Of course, during the Mao era, there was so little access to information, the US didn’t have a diplomatic presence in China, the diplomats had to try and figure out what’s going on by looking at Communist Party newspapers and looking at the photos and seeing who’s standing next to who, and maybe if this person hadn’t appeared in a photo for a while, that person had been purged. How could anything be worse, in terms of access to information, than it was back then?

 

OS: Well, remember that, during Mao Zedong’s time, there was a period in Yan’an when- my old friend who died some years ago, Jack Service, and people like that, had lived in Yan’an with Mao, with Zhou Enlai, with Zhu De and all these people, and Edgar Snow wrote Red Star Over China, which is basically a psychological profile of Mao. We have no such thing on Xi. Nobody knows Xi. Nobody ever knew Xi. He went to Iowa and our former ambassador says he was good friends with Xi, but not really. I mean, Xi hasn’t had a real experience with anybody on the American side, as far as I can see, ever. I mean Mao Zedong actually hung out with the Dixie Mission in Yan’an, and Zhou Enlai was in Shanghai, you know, very cosmopolitan city back in the 20s and 30s. But there’s none of that with Xi. So it’s a very different situation – he is a kind of a Kim Jong-un-like person in a sense that his experience does not include interacting with people from other countries in a close, personal way. Now, his daughter went to Harvard, and she’s just sort of disappeared, who knows what she tells him, I don’t know.

 

Rabbit Hole: We are now deluged with information (and misinformation), more information than we could possibly consume. What would your advice be for China watchers today seeking to get an accurate picture of what’s going on there? What are the keys to understanding China, and what things should we pay attention to?

 

OS: Well, I mean, just look behind me here at my library, and that’s probably a small percentage of the books that have come out on China. We are in an avalanche of books on China and specialists on China, and yet, we still don’t know what to do, and I think the reason why that is is because, again, I don’t want to make America sound like it’s so great and faultless, but, the truth is, I don’t think there’s anything much America can do at this point. I don’t think there is any secret policy we haven’t thought of that, if we could only dream it up, it would transform things. I’ve just written a long piece on ping-pong diplomacy and read all of Henry Kissinger’s books over again, to wonder if there isn’t a moment that we could catalyze once again like 1972 to transform and change, fundamentally, the relationship with China. I think it’s worth a try, but I don’t think it’s gonna happen. Why is that? It’s sort of astounding. All of these books, all of these specialists, all of these articles, everybody trying to dream up what could we possibly do to prevent this thing from coming a cropper, and nobody able to figure out the answer. And I think that’s because the answer does largely lie in China. I hate to say that, cos it makes it sound as if I’m just vacating responsibility for America. But I frankly don’t see what the United States at this point could do to make it better. Maybe there’s some little things. But I think the fundamental problem is that, under Xi Jinping, China has become an antagonistic force in the world, as liberal democratic societies conceive of it. And we do not want to live under a one-party system run by Xi Jinping, and that is what Mao Zedong would have called “an antagonistic contradiction.” It can only be solved by struggle. And I wish it weren’t so, but I think that’s exactly what engagement sought to remedy, that it could be remedied by slow change, slow engagement, and we’ve lost that promise, we’ve lost that operating system, and we don’t have a new one yet.

“Under Xi Jinping, China has become an antagonistic force in the world, as liberal democratic societies conceive of it.”

Rabbit Hole: As someone who’s studied China for such a long time- when you first arrived there, you talked about how it was difficult to get people to talk to you, how did you go about trying to get to the essence of things, to try to see things as they really were? I’m thinking back to this scene in your book, My Old Home, where these American hikers arrive at this place called Yak Springs, which is some far-flung waystation in China, and they go there and they talk to all these people, including the main character, Little Li, who’ve been briefed on how to conduct themselves around them, and they visit Yak Springs, which has been turned into some sort of Potemkin village, and obviously these guys don’t get an accurate picture of what’s going on from that. So, as someone who’s studied China for such a long time, how do you get to the essence of how things really are? How do you try to see what is really there, rather than what the authorities want you to see? How do you find out things that people might be afraid to tell you?

 

OS: Well, in my case, I married a Chinese woman.

 

Rabbit Hole: Well not everyone can do that!

 

OS: Well that certainly gives you some insight, and it opened for me a whole other horizon of friends and people who I could speak to confidentially, and as a human being, not as a bureaucrat, not get lectured with a “brief introduction.” And I think it did help understand that there were many, many different thoughts and voices and feelings, and what you see on the outside through the propaganda organs of the Party are not what’s actually all going on within society. It tells you something, but it doesn’t tell you everything. So, for me, I did get more than a little glimpse, I think, of behind the screen.

And, again, that’s what turned me to fiction, because I felt it was those things of what it means to be human that are missed in so much of the books that are on my shelves behind me that are non-fiction, because in that world we are only sort of allowed to deal with the exterior world. But what I think fiction can do, and literature, is deal with the interior world of people, and if you can get into that world of what they’re thinking, what their aspirations are, what their hopes are, what the contradictions are in their lives, you get a much better understanding of what’s going on. And I think actually more of that would be helpful in policy decisions; I hope more diplomats would read my novel, My Old Home, because, maybe it’s just arrogance on my part, but I think it will help them understand both the complexity and the psychological dimensions of what drive people to do what they do in China, particularly leaders. Yak Springs in my book, when the mountain climbing expedition comes in, in Qinghai province – I was on such an expedition in 1981, so I lived out there for a while. Why did they have to make it all look perfect? Well, because China is deeply sensitive about loss of face, and they don’t want to look like a backward country, immense sensitivity to appearing backward, and that’s precisely what the economic miracle set out to change – and has to large degree. But it bespeaks of that deep feeling of wanting to be respected and viewed as consequential, and not just as “the sick man of Asia.”

So all of these things, I think, might help in some small way to understand how to better deal with someone like Xi Jinping, and what it is he’s really after. I mean, is he really after Taiwan, or is it something else? Why is it so important to him? Why is he willing to jeopardize everything for something like that? Or the South China Sea. Those are questions which I think we really do need to have some hint of an answer to before we start sending aircraft carrier task forces through the Taiwan Straits. Why does China care? How are they liable to react? Why are they liable to react with such strenuous talk as what we saw in the 100th Party anniversary speech that Xi just gave about bashing people’s brains in and blood flowing and iron walls of steel that we’ll confront if we continue to lecture China. I mean, you know, what’s going on here?

 

Rabbit Hole: Different people have different methods of trying to understand a place, so I’m curious as to what are the things you look for to try to understand China. A lot of Westerners, particularly high-profile Westerners, they sometimes go on trips to China and they meet high officials and the officials take them around to the places that are bound to impress them, they go to the big cities like Beijing and Shanghai to try to get an understanding of how China is. There’s someone like Peter Hessler, who seems to take the exact opposite approach and he sort of eschews all these high officials and bigshots and so on, and he speaks to all these, like, smugglers and people who live on the fringes of society. And the investor Jim Rogers, he says that apparently he takes a motorcycle- he tries to enter different countries by land by motorcycle, instead of arriving there at the flashy airport, he crosses the land border and he looks at how things are at the land border and he thinks that gives him a good idea of what’s really going on in the country. There was a Harvard professor [William C. Kirby] – I heard from him that, to understand who really holds power in China, you should look at who’s the chairman of the Central Military Commission, that’s one of the things he paid attention to. So what are the things you look for when you try to understand a place?

 

OS: Well, I always also try to look behind the veil, beneath the surface of big leader culture. I have really no interest in talking to a big leader, because they never say anything that they don’t say in public that you can’t read, and it may be gratifying to one’s ego to sit down with Xi Jinping or Wang Qishan or someone, but for me it’s not interesting, cos nothing will be said. But what I do do in terms of big leaders- I like to just watch, so I’ve gone on a whole number of presidential trips where you can sort of stand back and look at the interaction that’s going on, and people’s body language, how they discourse with each other – things like that I find quite telling. And I think it’s important to do like Jim Rogers, I mean, it was years ago he rode a motorcycle across China. But Peter Hessler just got thrown out. I mean, he was very careful about how he wrote, because he did live there and he was hoping he wouldn’t get thrown out, but he did, he didn’t get his visa renewed. So he’s gone. And it’s a great tragedy again that the Chinese would prevent people who just want to live in society and listen and watch and understand better. The Chinese Communist Party always says that they want better mutual understanding, but actually I don’t think they do. They don’t want you to see beneath the surface. And I always say, well, yeah, maybe if there is better mutual understanding, if we understand things better, you think we might like you more, but many people might like you less. So I think that’s their fear. That’s why they close it off, that’s why they don’t let people just spontaneously go around the country because they’re fearful that people will see things that will let them understand the situation better, but not lead to admiration, lead to criticism instead.

 

Rabbit Hole: And how do you try to see beneath the surface? And obviously there’re lots of China watchers now trying to do just that. How should they go about it?

 

OS: Well, I understand when people are representing big papers or media outlets, you’ve got to report on what the leaders are doing and meetings that go on and statements that come out, and I’ve done a fair amount of that, but that’s not as interesting to me as I say as trying to figure out what the subtext is and what’s really going on, and one reason I like history and do a lot of historical writing is because it stands still, it’s there, you can go back and look at it, and the records are quite telling because a thing that’s said at one moment, may become verboten, forbidden the next, but you can see it historically. And, I think China is a country deeply affected by its history, deeply, deeply affected by it. And, because its history was so painful, and its narrative of humiliation and victimization is so profound, even distorted, I would say, and also, you know, you can’t be a victim at the same time as you’re successful, so that’s a real problem for its narrative today, if it wants to be successful, it has a difficult time being a victim and being bullied, because those things don’t go together.

 

Rabbit Hole: Orville Schell, such a pleasure. Thank you so much for joining us today.

 

OS: Well thank you, Shaun, I really, really enjoyed it; you’re a wonderful interviewer, and I’ve enjoyed just kicking all these ideas around. Thank you.