My Take

Rights and wrongs of observing China

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 August, 2014, 5:05am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 August, 2014, 5:05am

Pierre Ryckmans, who died this month aged 78, was better known by his pen name Simon Leys. And Simon Leys was best known as a sinologist. But, given his vast literary and artistic interests, Ryckmans is best described as a man of letters, or a Confucian gentleman, for whom the humanities in the European and classical Chinese traditions had been a lifelong source of joy, inspiration and contemplation.

Sadly, I don't have space to go into his ideas about Chinese paintings, calligraphy and what may be called a Chinese philosophy of language and reality, which were what inspired him.

Ryckmans is usually credited as one of the first Western writers to warn against the totalitarian terror of Maoism and the Cultural Revolution. He did so at a time when the doyens of China studies such as Han Suyin, Ross Terrill and John King Fairbank were singing their praises. Why did he, as he once put it, see clearly where others didn't? He was observing from Hong Kong during those turbulent years and became an avid reader of the weekly China News Analysis, published in the British colony over almost four decades by the Reverend Laszlo Ladany, a Hungarian-born Jesuit.

If you had followed Ladany's work early on, you would have skipped all the romanticism about Mao, and concluded that the Communist Party was a secret society, its methods and mentality resembled those of "an underground mob" and that it only knew how to rule by terror. But given such idées fixes, Ryckmans' mind was closed to the possibility that the party could change, and in doing so, bring the economy into the globalised 21st century.

He would never write something like this: "Over the past 30 years," writes Hugh White, an influential Australian defence analyst, "the Chinese government has achieved by far the largest, fastest increase in human material welfare in history, [providing] fuller, and more secure and richer lives for something like a tenth of humanity in a single generation."

Ryckmans made the opposite mistake as the China apologists in the West a generation ago. If their early positive exposure blinded them to the horrors of Maoism, his early realisation of Maoist terror made him unable to acknowledge the party's positive transformation in recent decades.