Review of “The Man on Mao’s Right: From Harvard Yard to Tiananmen Square” by Ji Chaozhu

Recently I read The Man on Mao’s Right: From Harvard Yard to Tiananmen Square by Ji. Chaozhu. Ambassador Ji’s book is divided intwo three sections. The first is his childhood, from a “landlord’s home” in China to a neighborhood in New York. The second is his long induction into the Chinese Communist Party, during which he moved back to China, interpreted for Zhou Enlai, and assisted in the negotiations to end the Korean War. The third is his career as a high-level foreign ministry official.

Ambassador Ji on a business trip
Ambassador Ji on a business trip

Ji’s early life in China is spent under the shadow of an absent early brother, who was a student in France with Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, and who continued his studies in the United States instead of immediately returning to China. Jis’ family clearly had connections, as his father was approached by both the Chiang Kaishek and Wang Jingwei governments as acting as an official for them. The most vivid episodes from Ji’s early life are hiding from Japanese planes on the voyage to Chongqing and eating icecream on the boat to America. He must have been an outgoing child, as he mentions visiting Elanor Roosevelt (unannounced) shortly after the death of her husband.

Events from early in Ji’s career combine both personal anecdotes and interpretation of wider events that should be taken with a grain of salt. The personal anecdotes are vivid, such as his attempt to cover up an error he made in translating English for Zhou Enlai (who, unbeknownst to Ji, also knew English). At that year’s party for the Foreign Ministry, Zhou’s speech had a line about the importance of honesty — directly of course at Ji. Likewise, Ji discusses his work as a translator in the Korea and Geneva talks, his hovel, and his wife (whose father was one of the few accidental emigres to ROC-controlled Taiwan). However, when Ji interprets events from this period, he interprets them from the perspective of his younger self, without the benefit of context or handsite. For instance, he refers to narrowly surviving an assassination plot against Zhou Enlai — but does not mention that the person who tipped off Zhou was probably Chiang Chingkuo. In this unspoken subtext, Zhou’s ‘accidental’ life-saving move of bumging Ji from the plane is all the more meaningful, as Zhou was choosing which of his young aids would live, and which would die.

Ji’s later career is told in the context of his early work at the Chinese legation office / embassy in DC (a building he found), his Ambassadorship to Guam, and his Ambassadorship to the Court of Saint James’s. Ji’s time in DC was complicated by high-level politics between Cultural Revolution radicals (such as Jiang Qing) and opportunists (such as Nancy Tang, Ji’s childhood acquaintance in New York and future nemesis and Wang Hairong, Mao’s grand-niece). Ji was once recalled, but when he was sent back, he was given special permission to meet with his father-in-law, a KMT member now residing in Los Angeles. He was then demoted to being ambassador to Fiji, before being re-promoted as Ambassador to the United Kingdom. Sadly, there is little inside information about the Foreign Ministry from this period, which is disappointing considering that Ji met Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton.

Two general themes emerge from this work. One is the role of the Returned Students faction, of which Ji, his older brother, and Zhou Enlai were members. The book can be read as the long story of the triumph of this faction of Chinese politicians against the Whampoa Clique (the book’s focus on China resumes in 1950, after the Youth Corps was defeated on the Mainland and retrocessed with its KMT benefactors to Taiwan). The other is the his recurrent ‘reforms’ in the countryside, which have been recounted in every biography of a Chinese bureaucrat I have read.

Amazon.com includes a review by Roger W. Sullivan, a published academic who makes an important observation about the text:

I knew Ji back in the 70′s. At that time none of us, I suspect, had any idea the hardships he had endured in China, particularly during the Cultural Revolution. Toward the end of the book, however, when he gets to Tiananmen, I felt he was trying to set up his readers to conclude (incorrectly) that the Tiananmen demonstrations were essentially a reenactment of the Red Guards/Cultural Revolution excesses and as such deserved to be suppressed by whatever means necessary. This of course is the party line in China and it was disappointed to see someone like Ji parroting it. Toward the end I even began to wonder if the whole purpose of the book was to justify the Tiananmen massacre.

The Man on Mao’s Right: From Harvard Yard to Tiananmen Square is an interesting book. It is not as insightful as Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary, not as immediate as Prisoner of the State, and not as grand as Chiang Kaishek and the the Struggle for Modern China. But it is a life of one man which complements, and a good resource on how the Chinese Communist Party appears to see itself.