The Education China Hands Need, But Most Do Not Get

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Today I came across an article three decades old, penned by Simon Leys in 1990. Leys is reviewing Laszlo Ladany’s The Communist Party of China and Marxism, 1921-1985: A Self Portrait, a book I have not read but will pick up now. Ladany made his name publishing a newsletter that analyzed the goings-on of Communist China during a period in which China was largely closed off from the world. Leys explains Ladany’s approach:

What made China News Analysis so infuriatingly indispensable was the very simple and original principle on which it was run (true originality is usually simple): all the information selected and examined in China News Analysis was drawn exclusively from official Chinese sources (press and radio). This austere rule sometimes deprived Ladany’s newsletter of the life and color that could have been provided by less orthodox sources, but it enabled him to build his devastating conclusions on unimpeachable grounds.

What inspired his method was the observation that even the most mendacious propaganda must necessarily entertain some sort of relation with the truth; even as it manipulates and distorts the truth, it still needs originally to feed on it…The analyst who wishes to gather information through such a process must negotiate three hurdles of thickening thorniness. First, he needs to have a fluent command of the Chinese language. To the man-in-the-street, such a prerequisite may appear like elementary common sense, but once you leave the street level, and enter the loftier spheres of academe, common sense is not so common any longer, and it remains an interesting fact that, during the Maoist era, a majority of leading “China Experts” hardly knew any Chinese. (I hasten to add that this is largely a phenomenon of the past; nowadays, fortunately, young scholars are much better educated.)

Secondly, in the course of his exhaustive surveys of Chinese official documentation, the analyst must absorb industrial quantities of the most indigestible stuff; reading Communist literature is akin to munching rhinoceros sausage, or to swallowing sawdust by the bucketful. Furthermore, while subjecting himself to this punishment, the analyst cannot allow his attention to wander, or his mind to become numb; he must keep his wits sharp and keen; with the eye of an eagle that can spot a lone rabbit in the middle of a desert, he must scan the arid wastes of the small print in the pages of the People’s Daily, and pounce upon those rare items of significance that lie buried under mountains of clichés. He must know how to milk substance and meaning out of flaccid speeches, hollow slogans, and fanciful statistics; he must scavenge for needles in Himalayan-size haystacks; he must combine the nose of a hunting hound, the concentration and patience of an angler, and the intuition and encyclopedic knowledge of a Sherlock Holmes.

Thirdly—and this is his greatest challenge—he must crack the code of the Communist political jargon and translate into ordinary speech this secret language full of symbols, riddles, cryptograms, hints, traps, dark allusions, and red herrings. Like wise old peasants who can forecast tomorrow’s weather by noting how deep the moles dig and how high the swallows fly, he must be able to decipher the premonitory signs of political storms and thaws, and know how to interpret a wide range of quaint warnings—sometimes the Supreme Leader takes a swim in the Yangtze River, or suddenly writes a new poem, or sponsors a ping-pong game: such events all have momentous implications. He must carefully watch the celebration of anniversaries, the non-celebration of anniversaries, and the celebration of non-anniversaries; he must check the lists of guests at official functions, and note the order in which their names appear. In the press, the size, type, and color of headlines, as well as the position and composition of photos and illustrations are all matters of considerable import; actually they obey complex laws, as precise and strict as the iconographic rules that govern the location, garb, color, and symbolic attributes of the figures of angels, archangels, saints, and patriarchs in the decoration of a Byzantine basilica.

To find one’s way in this maze, ingenuity and astuteness are not enough; one also needs a vast amount of experience. Communist Chinese politics are a lugubrious merry-go-round (as I have pointed out many times already), and in order to appreciate fully the déjà-vu quality of its latest convolutions, you would need to have watched it revolve for half a century. The main problem with many of our politicians and pundits is that their memories are too short, thus forever preventing them from putting events and personalities in a true historical perspective. For instance, when, in 1979, the “People’s Republic” began to revise its criminal law, there were good souls in the West who applauded this initiative, as they thought that it heralded China’s move toward a genuine rule of law. What they failed to note, however—and which should have provided a crucial hint regarding the actual nature and meaning of the move in question—was that the new law was being introduced by Peng Zhen, one of the most notorious butchers of the regime, a man who, thirty years earlier, had organized the ferocious mass accusations, lynchings, and public executions of the land reform programs.[1] (emphasis added).

Leys identifies four competencies needed to analyze the intentions and actions of the Communist regime:

  1. Fluency in Chinese 
  2. Stamina sufficient to plow through one jargon-filled document after another 
  3. The ability to ‘decode’ jargon into sensible, real-world meaning
  4. Sufficient historical knowledge to put official actions, campaigns, and the jargon associated with them in proper context

These same four skills are still the most important an analyst of Communist politics can possess. They empower an analyst to unearth the goals and intentions of the regime as they are communicated to the regime’s own cadres. It is the only sure way to understand what the leadership of the Communist Party actually wants done and what measures they advocate to get them done. Yet with the exception of the first of these skills, there are very few ways for a budding “China hand” to become competent in any of them.

I will reserve a full defense of this text-based approach to the study of the Communist Party politics for another day. [2] My main point today is this: even if you believe this approach is the right approach, self-study is about the only way to master it. Historians of modern China who focus on high-level politics learn something of the art, though they are chary to extend their analysis to the modern day. Those who come to the field through political science are even worse off. Political scientists are trained to model and hypothesis test. They search for general rules and underlying patterns; they face immense pressure to present findings relevant to broader literature of their field (say, on “authoritarian resilience,” “state building,” or “nationalism”), and tend to favor what can be easily quantified over what cannot. What I advocate is different: simply reading Party documents and telling the rest of the world what they mean. Exegesis is not social science. It is unreasonable to expect social scientists to teach their students how to do this.

Yet it is still a skill that must be taught. Who will teach it?

 I can identify about 12 people in the English speaking world who are very good at doing what I have described (for the curious: I am not one of them). Almost all of them work outside of academia. This makes sense: the art of figuring out what the Communists are talking about is a very practical craft, one with high demand in the world of practical affairs. Most of these people either came up in the old times when propaganda documents were the only way to understand anything that was happening inside China, or they learned their craft through difficult course of self-directed trial and error. But even in the world of practice, these people are vastly outnumbered by those without this training. Thus we have dozens of China experts who can deliver a statistical analysis of the universe of 20th century authoritarian regimes but cannot tell you what Party leaders mean when they say the regime is threatened by “political gaps” and “high level blacks,” or who can model US-China relations with dollops of game theory but cannot explain the significance of a fiery People’s Daily editorial written under the byline  “Zhong Sheng.”

The people who have never heard the phrase “high level black” or “Zhong Sheng” are not stupid. They could certainly learn these things if they knew they should: it would only take ten minutes or so of reading to understand the significance of both terms.[3] I suspect that the greater part of what you need to know to interpret Communist documents could be taught in a single graduate-level course or a month long intensive methods training program. But those do not exist. Neither do the books or glossaries that would make it easy to learn these things through self-study. This is an unfortunate reality. It is perhaps the chief bottleneck that keeps America from attaining a true and thorough understanding of the Communist Party of China.

If you are interested in other things I have written about China’s Communists, you might also find the posts “A Note on Historical Nihilism,” Xi Jinping Explains His Political Philosophy,”  and “Reflections on China’s Stalinist Heritage, Parts I and II” of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Simon Leys, “The Art of Interpreting Nonexistent Inscriptions Written in Invisible Ink on a Blank Page,” China File (Or. published in the October 11, 1990 issue of The New York Review of Books).

[2] For convincing defenses see Peter Mattis, “The Party Congress Test: A Minimum Standard For Analyzing China’s Intentions,” War on the Rocks (8 January 2019); Geremie R. Barmé, “New China Newspeak,” China Heritage,新华文体; Timothy Heath, “What Does China Want? Discerning the PRC’s National Strategy, Asian Security Vol 8, Iss 1 (2012), esp pp. 55-58; Paul Godwin and Alice Miller, China’s Forbearance Has Limits: Chinese Threat and Retaliation Signaling and Its Implications for a Sino-American Military Confrontation (Washington DC: National Defense University Press, 2013), 29-37; John Garver, China’s Quest: The History of the Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of China (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), passim.

[3] Graham Webster, “Who Speaks for the Chinese Government,” Sup China (20 January 2017); Guan Hai and Wei Lu, “Low-Level Red” and Other Concerns,” Chinese Media Project (11 March 2019).

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A fine post and a good reminder. I used to study the USSR, and would say the same things about becoming expert there. All the most important info was essentially in the footnotes, as it were.

Can you link to any of the 12 sages you mentioned, if any of them have a regular blog?


Just to clarify, what is a "high-level black" or a "low-level red"? From the linked article, it seems like "high-level black" means overly effusive praise employed with a sarcastic tone. Is that correct?

I'm much less clear about what "low-level red" means. The example used is that of a bystander who caused a Chinese marathon runner to slow down (and lose places) by attempting to thrust a Chinese flag into his hand in the middle of a race. So it seems like it's a sort of self-defeating enthusiasm? I'm not sure if my interpretation is correct and would appreciate confirmation and/or clarification.

I agree that grad modules and one-month intensive (professional development?) courses would be great for raising awareness of how the CCP communicates. It’s something I’m trying to get going here in the UK. I say “raising awareness” because while such courses would increase the number of people who take document reading seriously, and who are aware of how it’s done, unless new jobs are made available (whether in think tanks, academia, govt, wherever) the skills acquired will mostly go unused on a day-to-day basis. And these skills atrophy pretty fast if not exercised, though they can be re-learned more quickly than learned.

Do correct me if I’m wrong, but I think Father Ladany did his incredibly valuable newssheet for free, just out of his personal love of decoding CCP communications? If so, then the more people who are exposed to how such analysis is done, the greater chance there is of someone like that emerging. Party Watch are doing pretty good work on this front with their weekly news update.

My impression is that much more of this propaganda analysis work goes on in the worlds of intel analysis and private consultancy. If so, then is the main challenge concern how to broaden the application of this industry’s particular skill sets, or universalize its research “products”, or is it actually one of how to expand the industry itself? In an ideal world presumably all 3 in an ideal world, but in what order, and how?

Anyhow great post as always.

> It is perhaps the chief bottleneck that keeps America from attaining a true and thorough understanding of the Communist Party of China

Most certainly.

It is not an accident that time after time the Western discourse on China has gotten it wrong and by a scale which is comical.
Just a brief 5-Yearly procession of CCP Congress main-commentary-piece by The Economist since the early 1990s to the last one in 2017, makes this apparent. If after reading those TE articles one still feels it is a publication worth reading on matters concerning Chinese Politics they can't be salvaged.

This forms one of the greatest meta strengths of Chinese Republic in modern era and they know it. In a multi-polar world the one who obfuscates themselves better have an inherent edge, provided they can keep stability internally.

There are more than 12 people with the abilities you speak of. Not everybody wants their findings publicly released.

Soviet kremlinology provides a good example and a reality check.

As USSR collapsed, the view from inside is now known (unclassified documents, and insiders providing evidence on "how it was back then" and their own glorious role, etc.). Therefore, theories of kremlinologists can be compared and evaluated against the reality. And their predictive value seems to be quite low, to put it politely.

Who are those 12, in your opinion? As some who is trying to read voraciously about China, I have a feeling I know a few of them, but I want to find more of them.