Essay

A Fellow Traveller’s Tale

How Mao Cost a Cambridge Economist the Nobel Prize - by Julian Gewirtz

In the autumn of 1975, there was one name “on everyone’s list for this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics,” Business Week magazine trumpeted: the Cambridge economist Joan Robinson. The week before the prize announcement, the magazine predicted that Robinson would be the first woman to win the prize. A major interpreter of John Maynard Keynes and Karl Marx, she was one of the most prominent economists of her generation.

But when the names of the winners were read out at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Robinson’s name was not among them. What went wrong? More than perhaps any other factor, one man was to blame: Mao Zedong.

Essay

“Like Diamonds or Fine Wine”

The most precious teas in China and Koreaby Joan MacDonald

Why does some tea cost more than fine wine and occasionally exceed the price for its weight in gold? While researching her latest novel, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, author Lisa See sampled many cups of tea, including some of the world’s rarest and most expensive. To set the scene for characters whose destinies are entwined with China’s wild Pu’er trees, See met tea farmers, tea masters and high end purveyors, who shared their vintage varieties, including a cup made with tea that cost $1,000 an ounce.

“Everywhere we went, we drank tea,” said the author. “Luckily for me, people wanted us to taste the teas that they were most proud of.”

Essay

Snap Judgment

Li Zhengde’s photography reveals an edgier side to China – by Thomas Bird

China’s second tallest skyscraper, the Ping An Finance Centre, was completed in the center of Shenzhen in 2017. The 115-storey superstructure is a testament to the city’s remarkable, four-decade ascent since its origins as a fishing village. Hong Kong has nothing as tall. Walking around mainland China’s third wealthiest city, Shenzhen feels rather well-to-do. Residential blocks have replaced the labyrinthine urban villages formed when high-rise buildings were hurriedly built in what had been countryside. A vast metro system has supplanted the old fleet of mini buses, while cars, not motorbikes, dominate the city’s six lane boulevards. The seedy border town once renowned for knockoff designer wares and sweatshop factories has given way to homogeneity and affluence.

Essay

Philosopher King

The classical philosophy that Xi Jinping ignores – by Sam Crane

In his first five-year term as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping regularly cited classical Chinese philosophy in order to bolster his image as a man of learning and virtue. In May 2014, he implied his own rectitude by invoking Confucius in Analects 15.1 at a meeting of young people: “The noble man considers righteousness essential.” Although we’ve been hearing more Marxism in connection to Xi’s name of late, there is good reason to believe he will continue to reach for a neo-traditionalist brand of political legitimation over the next five years.

But his apparent erudition is selective. In the collection of his favorite quotations, Xi Jinping: How to Read Confucius and other Chinese Classical Thinkers (yes, that’s real), he cites Mencius – the next greatest ancient Confucian writer after Confucius himself – but overlooks this passage:

The people are the most important element in a nation; the spirits of the land and grain are the next; the sovereign is the least.

Essay

One Country, Three Systems

The limits on freedom in today’s PRC – by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

When journalists interviewed me during the lead-up to the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Congress, some grew frustrated by my unwillingness to make predictions. In dodging their forecast questions, I often played the history card.  “Historians like me,” I would say, “are more comfortable focusing on the past than the future.” I sometimes added that it was worth noting how misguided much of the prognosticating chatter about Xi Jinping had been five years before when he first ascended to power. Many analysts seemed certain in 2012 that Hu Jintao’s successor was likely to be either another colorless status quo-maintaining figure or a reformer, perhaps even a liberalizer. In fact, Xi has turned out to be something quite different: a strongman leader with a growing personality cult.

Some illiberal trends were already underway during the second half of Hu’s decade at the top, which lasted from 2002 to 2012, but Xi, far from being a liberalizer, has ratcheted up controls over many spheres of activity. What I could have mentioned to the reporters, but did not, was that I remain keenly aware of how wrong I was myself just over twenty years ago when I slipped up and made a prediction.