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Why China Hands Think What They Think

by Elizabeth C. Economy
January 28, 2013

My First Trip to China. Kin-Ming Liu.


These days, China books are a dime a dozen and so, too, are China analysts. Journalists, scholars, businesspeople, general foreign policy analysts, and random people living in Beijing all have something to say. To stand out, you have to bring something unique to the table—a new finding, a new framing, or, unfortunately, too often, just a willingness to say something controversial.

A new book, My First Trip to China, edited by Hong Kong-based journalist Kin-ming Liu, manages to be exceptional in a few respects. At one level, it is a great coffee table book—no pictures, but some truly fascinating reminiscences of first trips to China by a range of great scholars, as well as officials, businesspeople, activists, and journalists. The time span covering the authors’ first visits is vast—with the first trip recorded in 1942 and the last in 1986. Through the eyes of people such as Andrew Nathan, Jonathan Mirsky, Lois Snow, Sidney Rittenberg, Jerome Cohen, Steven Mosher, and others, the small details of modern—but not too modern—China come alive. The vast majority of stories are quite engaging and, since many of the authors write for a living, quite well-written as well.

At a deeper level, however, what makes this book so valuable is the entry it provides into understanding how some of the most important thinkers and actors in U.S.-China relations have had their perspectives shaped by their first trip to China. To a one, the authors approached their first trips to China with openness and excitement. Almost immediately, however, differences in outlook emerged. Ed Friedman and Jonathan Mirsky, who traveled as members of delegations and were shown a Potemkin world of China, became skeptics; their writings today reflect a continued skepticism of official Chinese proclamations. (No doubt the fact that Chinese officials locked Mirsky in his hotel room did little to endear official China to him.)

There is a special section devoted to first visits to China by Chinese expatriates, such as businessman David Tang, scholar Steve Tsang, and journalist Frank Ching that is quite moving. Each felt a sense of “going home,” although by the end of their first visits, their perspectives were radically different: Steve Tsang, for example, developed a stronger “Hong Kong” identity, while David Tang embraced the mainland as his motherland.

Still others, such as Steven Mosher and Lois Snow, had their views of China upended by a singular experience: for Mosher, it was bearing eyewitness to a forced abortion campaign; for Snow, it was Tiananmen and the heartbreaking case of Ding Zilin, a Tiananmen mother who lost her son. And of course, no “first visit to China” book could be complete without the story of Sidney Rittenberg, whose chance meeting with a group of children changed his life and made his story one of the great personal dramas of U.S.-China relations.

One of my favorite stories is that of my friend and colleague Jerome Cohen, who despite encountering numerous annoyances during his trip—such as having his hotel room bugged—manages to weave together the beauty, darkness, and absurdity of the country and its politics in one thoughtful and humorous account.

If I have one bone to pick with Kin-ming’s story selection, it is that there are so few stories written by women—only two-and-a-half (since one is a husband and wife recounting) out of thirty. I would, for example, have loved to hear from Jan Berris, who was involved in the 1972 ping-pong diplomacy and has been engaged in U.S.-China diplomacy through her work as the vice president of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations ever since. However, this really is my one criticism of an otherwise wonderful book that manages to be a great read for the China novice, the China expert, and everyone in between.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by John Hildebrand

    Type yis there a reason you did not go beyond 1986? A lot has happened that has encouraged a new generation of travelers and analysts in china since then.

    It does sOund like a great book that being said.

  • Posted by Elizabeth Economy

    Thanks John. I didn’t edit the book, so I can’t speak to Kin-Ming Liu’s decision to include only stories up to 1986. He may have simply had certain people in mind to tell their stories–and that was the last year that one of them took a first visit–or perhaps he wanted the stories to reflect a period of time when much less was known about China. In any case, I am glad that you think it sounds like a good book. It is well worth a read.

  • Posted by David Wolf

    Apropos of your sole criticism, we’re still waiting to hear about Ms. Economy’s first China trip.

    Another blog post?

  • Posted by Ken Parris


    Thank you for posting this great review of “My First Trip to China.” I’ve recently finished this book, and like you, found the stories fascinating.

    I was captured by the sentiment many travelers found in the changes they experience from these first visits “in country.” Many describe the emotions of crossing the Lo Wu Bridge from Hong Kong into Shenzhen with great excitement to finally experience their perceptions of China and then their return to the west transformed so significantly by what they had seen, experienced and learned through their interactions.

    It was serendipitous to read Sidney Rittenberg’s anecdotes in “Looking Back at Age Ninety,” and within in a few days discover a lengthy article in the Financial Times Weekend weaving even more details to his stories.

    I agree! This book is well done, and a great read.


  • Posted by Bob Walker

    comes out feb 27 for $ 28……….worth it ?

    timely………have to think about it bob.

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