China’s rise in recent decades has made it more imperative than ever to understand how top-level decisions are made in Beijing, why certain policies evolve and which personalities are in positions of power and influence – or not.

In societies with more open decision-making processes, foreign policy analysis is relatively straightforward. But how can outsiders gain clarity about China’s actions and possible intentions when the government structure is – in effect – a Russian doll-like series of quasi-secret societies, embedded within the traditional culture that invented Chinese whispers? And as communist parties across the globe have always played “smoke and mirrors” with consummate skill, obtaining reliable information remains profoundly hard.

While understanding the politics and personalities of the Communist Party of China has only become more important with the passage of time, the processes involved remain as complex as they were half a century ago.

In this regard, China watchers, as outside specialists from various disciplines are now known, fill a useful – and occasionally vital – role as observers and commentators.

Historically, Hong Kong has provided a convenient, mostly safe perch for their surveillances.

For more than four decades, their unquestioned leader was a Hungarian Jesuit priest, Laszlo Ladany. Born in Budapest in 1914, where he initially trained as a violinist, Ladany entered the Jesuit order in 1936, arrived in China that year and lived first in Peking and then Shanghai.

He came down to Hong Kong in mid-1949 and remained in the colony until his death from cancer, in 1990. A talented linguist, Ladany was fictionalised (as Father Low) by Han Suyin in her semi-autobiographical novel A Many-Splendoured Thing.

Ladany’s China News Analysis newsletter was published from Ricci Hall, the Jesuit-run student hall at Hong Kong University, between 1953 and 1982, and was the most authoritative external source for what was happening in China during that tumultuous period. Hong Kong offered one of the few available chinks in the “bamboo curtain” at this time, and what was reported from here was about as close as anyone from the outside world got to Chinese politics.

Ladany’s analysis relied entirely on official Chinese sources, which he used to shrewdly penetrate the surreal world created by Marxist thinking. Politically astute and almost prophetic, his writings were highly sought-after, and occasionally controversial. In particular, Western apologists for Mao Zedong’s China – and there were many in the 1960s and 70s – found his writing infuriating.

The truth, however, is not the fault of the person telling it and the sketch portraits of China’s leadership that Ladany unflinchingly fleshed out were deeply unflattering.

Jesuit training afforded Ladany an acute eye for internal power politics, casuistry, dogma, doctrinal shifts, the elevation of saints/ revolutionary heroes, proclamations of heresy/counter-revolutionary thought, vicious internal persecutions in the service of “truth”, and all the other ideological borrowings that communism took from Catholicism. Historical evidence is unequivocal; both belief systems have directly caused human suffering on an unimaginable scale – and along the way, have accidentally created some real and lasting good.

Intellectual links between the two belief systems are patent, though for many devotees (on both sides) they remain too close for comfort. Personality cults are obvious examples; life-size cardboard cutouts of the pope can be found at almost every Catholic church, and brightly coloured Mao posters remain commonplace all over the mainland.

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