Non-existent Inscriptions, Invisible Ink, Blank Pages

Watching China Watching (II)

In The China Expert and The Ten Commandments — Watching China Watching (I) we featured Simon Leys’ observations on China Experts. Although they were written nearly four decades ago, we are confident that readers today will enjoy the resonances between the Mao era and the Xi imperium. There is no doubt that making sense of the logorrhea of China’s contemporary Chairman of Everything, in particular given the Brobdingnagian corpus of his speeches and writings, requires the kind of heroic skill Leys describes with such withering precision.

We also previously introduced The Ten Commandments of László Ladány, editor of China News Analysis from its inception in 1953 until his retirement in 1982. Leys was renowned (and later only reluctantly celebrated) for his prescient and insightful writing on Mao-era China. Apart from the history, literature and thought of China, and Europe, Ladány’s China News Analysis was an essential guide to Leys’ work, a crucial aid in his understanding of Mao Tsetung’s People’s Republic, one that flew in the face of au courant ‘expert opinion’.

Below we offer Simon Leys on the ins and outs of ‘reading China’, followed by some reflections on his own work.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
7 January 2018


Further Reading:

The Art of Interpreting Non-existent Inscriptions
Written in Invisible Ink on a Blank Page

Simon Leys


China News Analysis was compulsory reading for all those who wished to be informed of Chinese political developments: scholars, journalists, diplomats. In academe, however, its perusal among many political scientists was akin to what a drinking habit might be for an ayatollah, or an addiction to pornography for a bishop: it was a compulsive need that had to be indulged in secrecy. China experts gnashed their teeth as they read Ladány’s incisive comments, they hated his clear-sightedness and cynicism; still, they could not afford to miss one single issue of his newsletter, for, however disturbing and scandalous his conclusions, the factual information he supplied was invaluable and irreplaceable. What made China News Analysis so infuriatingly indispensable was the very simple and original principle on which it was run (true originality is usually simple): all the information selected and examined in China News Analysis was drawn exclusively from official Chinese sources (press and radio). This austere rule sometimes deprived Ladány’s newsletter of the life and colour that could have been provided by less orthodox sources, but it enabled him to build his devastating conclusions on unimpeachable grounds.

Sunbeams from Cucumbers

What inspired his method was the observation that even the most mendacious propaganda must necessarily entertain some sort of relation with the truth; even as it manipulates and distorts the truth, it still needs originally to feed on it. Therefore, the untwisting of official lies, if skilfully effected, should yield a certain amount of straight facts. Needless to say, such an operation requires a doigté hardly less sophisticated than the chemistry which, in Gulliver’s Travels, enabled the Grand Academicians of Lagado to extract sunbeams from cucumbers and food from excreta. The analyst who wishes to gather information through such a process must negotiate three hurdles of thickening thorniness.

  • First, he needs to have a fluent command of the Chinese language. To the man in the street, such a prerequisite may appear like elementary common sense, but once you leave the street level and enter the loftier spheres of academe, common sense is not so common any longer, and it remains an interesting fact that, during the Maoist era, a majority of leading ‘China Experts’ hardly knew any Chinese. (I hasten to add that this is largely a phenomenon of the past; nowadays, fortunately, young scholars are much better educated.)
  • Secondly, in the course of his exhaustive surveys of Chinese official documentation, the analyst must absorb industrial quantities of the most indigestible stuff; reading Communist literature is akin to munching rhinoceros sausage, or to swallowing sawdust by the bucketful. Furthermore, while subjecting himself to this punishment, the analyst cannot allow his attention to wander, or his mind to become numb; he must keep his wits sharp and keen; with the eye of an eagle that can spot a lone rabbit in the middle of a desert, he must scan the arid wastes of the small print in the pages of People’s Daily and pounce upon those rare items of significance that lie buried under mountains of clichés. He must know how to milk substance and meaning out of flaccid speeches, hollow slogans and fanciful statistics; he must scavenge for needles in Himalayan-size haystacks; he must combine the nose of a hunting hound, the concentration and patience of an angler and the intuition and encyclopaedic knowledge of a Sherlock Holmes.
  • Thirdly — and this is his greatest challenge — he must crack the code of the Communist political jargon and translate into ordinary speech this secret language full of symbols, riddles, cryptograms, hints, traps, dark allusions and red herrings. Like wise old peasants who can forecast tomorrow’s weather by noting how deep the moles dig and how high the swallows fly, he must be able to decipher the premonitory signs of political storms and thaws, and know how to interpret a wide range of quaint warnings — sometimes the Supreme Leader takes a swim in the Yangtze River, or suddenly writes a new poem, or sponsors a ping-pong game: such events all have momentous implications. He must carefully watch the celebrations of anniversaries, the non-celebration of anniversaries, and the celebration of non-anniversaries; he must check the lists of guests at official functions and note the order in which their names appear. In the press, the size, type and colour of headlines, as well as the position and composition of photos and illustrations, are all matters of considerable import; actually they obey complex laws, as precise and strict as the iconographic rules that govern the location, garb, colour and symbolic attributes of the figures of angels, archangels, saints and patriarchs in the decoration of a Byzantine basilica.


To find one’s way in this maze, ingenuity and astuteness are not enough; one also needs a vast amount of experience. Communist Chinese politics are a lugubrious merry-go-round (as I have pointed out many times already), and in order to appreciate fully the déjà-vu quality of its latest convolutions, you would need to have watched it revolved for half a century. The main problem with many of our politicians and pundits is that their memories are too short, thus forever preventing them from putting events and personalities in a true historical perspective. For instance, when, in 1979, the ‘People’s Republic’ began to revise its criminal law, there were good souls in the West who applauded this initiative, as they thought that it heralded China’s move toward a genuine rule of law. What they failed to note, however — and which should have provided a crucial hint regarding the actual nature and meaning of the move in question — was that the new law was being introduced by Peng Zhen, one of the most notorious butchers of the regime, a man who, thirty years earlier, had organised the ferocious mass accusations, lynchings and public executions of the land-reform programs.

Or again, after the death of Mao, Western politicians and commentators were prompt to hail Deng Xiaoping as a sort of champion of liberalisation. The Selected Works of Deng published at that time should have enlightened them — not so much by what it included, as by what it excluded; had they been able to read it as any Communist document should be read, i.e. by concentrating first on its gaps, the would have rediscovered Deng’s Stalinist-Maoist statements, and then, perhaps, they might have been less surprised by the massacres of 4 June 1989.

More than half a century ago, the writer Lu Xun (1881-1936), whose prophetic genius never ceases to amaze, described accurately the conundrum of China-watching:

Once upon a time, there was a country whose rulers completely succeeded in crushing the people; and yet they still believe that the people were the most dangerous enemy. The rulers issued huge collections of statutes, but none of these volumes could actually be used, because in order to interpret them, one had to refer to a set of instructions that had never been made public. These instructions contained many original definitions. Thus, for instance, ‘liberation’ meant in fact ‘capital execution’; ‘government official’ meant ‘friend, relative or servant of an influential politician’, and so on. The rulers also issue codes of laws that were marvellously modern, complex and complete; however, at the beginning of the first volume, there was one blank page; this blank page could be deciphered only by those who knew the instructions — which did not exist. The first three invisible articles of these non-existent instructions read as follows:

  • Art. 1: Some cases must be treated with special leniency.
  • Art. 2: Some cases must be treated with special severity.
  • Art. 3. This does not apply in all cases.

Without an ability to decipher non-existent inscriptions written in invisible ink on blank pages, no one should ever dream of analysing the nature and reality of Chinese communism.


A Few Friends and a Couple of Newspapers

Simon Leys


When I am told that I was dead right all along on the subject of Communist China, such a compliment (for it is generally intended as a compliment) can hardly flatter my vanity; indeed, forcing me as it does to re-examine the reasons for which I had to adopt my rather lonely stand, the results of such an examination give me little cause for self-satisfaction, and even less reason to be sanguine about the future. As far as I am concerned, I could already see my fate many years ago; the writing is on the wall (and ironically, it many not be in Chinese).

Let us not kid ourselves. The facts which I have been describing during these last twenty years may have been distasteful and unpalatable — they were also public knowledge. They were all too easy to collect — there was no need to search for them, they kept coming at you; their evidence was as plain and direct as a punch on the nose. My first encounter with communist political practice was in 1967 in Hong Kong, when I found on my doorstep the dying body of a courageous Chinese journalist — seconds after he had been horribly mutilated by communist thugs.[1] After that first elementary introduction to communist politics, the rest was clear sailing. For the next few years, I merely listened to the conversations of a few Chinese friends and every day I read a couple of Chinese newspapers over breakfast. This modest intellectual equipment eventually enabled me to write four books on Chinese current affairs,[2] which apparently were quite sound and reliable, since their contents have been confirmed by the subsequent developments of history and by countless testimonies of unimpeachable Chinese witnesses.

Yet I dare affirm that, in these four books — even though they passed for a while as shocking, scandalous and heretical — it would be hard to find a single revelation, a single original view or personal idea. From beginning to end, I merely translated and transcribed what would have appeared at the time, to any reasonably informed Chinese intellectual, as mere common sense and common knowledge — tragic, yes, but also utterly banal. The only technical competence required for this task — an expertise that could hardly be deemed exceptional, since it is shared by more than 1 billion people on earth — was a good knowledge of the Chinese language. In a way, with my modest transcriptions, I was turned into the ultimate Bouchard and Pécuchet of Chinese politics.

It seems rather apposite to evoke here the image of Flaubert’s diligent and earnest imbéciles. If indeed a man of middling intelligence (whose courage is, alas, well below average) could perform a task which most of his equally well-informed and much brighter colleagues would never have contemplated touching, it is quite obvious that, in order to do this, besides the basic prerequisite of language which I have just mentioned, only one qualification was necessary: an uncommon degree of foolishness.





[1] Here the author is describing the murder by Maoists of the popular Hong Kong journalist Lam Bun 林彬. In his radio broadcasts Lam mocked ‘Lefties’ for staging demonstrations, using violence and creating havoc.

On the morning of 24 August 1967, Lum and his cousin were waylaid in their car by politically motivated assassins dressed as road workers. They were doused in kerosene when hit by a fire bomb. Lum died of his injuries the following day, his cousin passed away a few days later. Ta Kung Po 大公報, run by the pro-Beijing sycophant-capitalist Fei Yimin 費彝民, reported the attack under  the headline: ‘Underground Commandos Punish a Traitor, The Scum Lam Bun Badly Injured’ 地下突擊隊鋤奸 敗類林彬受重傷.

In his biography of Simon Leys, Philippe Paquet writes:

[I]t definitely stopped feeling remote for Pierre Ryckmans, one day in August 1967, when he witnesses the assassination of Lin Pin and one of his cousins, on his very doorstep. They were burnt alive in their care, at which a ‘commando tasked with punishing traitors’ had thrown a fire bomb, as the communist daily Ta Kung Pao reported the following day, without any further concern. Lin Pin was a variety artist who hosted a satirical radio show in Cantonese which was as popular in Hong Kong as it was on the other side of the border, in the province of Canton [sic]. As the time, he exercised his talent at the expense of the Maoist and so the latter decided to make an example of him by liquidating him ‘in an atrocious and utterly cowardly way’.

Ryckmans never forgot that horrible scene. ‘It was the first real political lesson of my life,’ he claimed in Broken Images. ‘My first encounter with communist political practice,’ he added in an essay of 1989; or, as he put it in the French version, ‘communism in action’. ‘I understood then that you’re cornered, that it isn’t possible jut to be outside the world, in a privileged observation post, to be above the melee, noting the events unfolding below. You’re inside, and there’s no way of not taking a stand’, he told Pierre Boncenne, who saw the murder of Lin Pin as ‘Simon Leys’s birth certificate’. Ryckmans summed it up: ‘You know, when I started getting interested in China, I had strictly no interest in politics and I was persuaded you could get away with disregarding it. I thought it was possible to live reading books or looking at paintings you liked, calmly enjoying Chinese culture’.

Philippe Paquet, Simon Leys: Navigator Between Worlds,
trans. Julie Rose, Melbourne: La Trobe University Press
in conjunction with Black Inc., 2017, p.241-242

[2] The four books to which Leys is referring are:

  1. Les habits neufs du président Mao: chronique de la “Révolution culturelle” (Paris: Champ libre, 1971); The Chairman’s New Clothes: Mao and the Cultural Revolution (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1977; London: Allison & Busby, 1979);
  2. Ombres chinoises (Paris: 10/18, 1974); Chinese Shadows (New York: Viking Press, 1977);
  3. Images brisées (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1976); Broken Images: Essays on Chinese Culture and Politics (London: Allison & Busby, 1979; New York: St Martin’s Press, 1980); and,
  4. La Forêt en feu: Essais sur la culture et la politique chinoises (Paris: Hermann, 1983); The Burning Forest: Essays on Chinese Culture and Politics (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1985).

The Chairman’s New Clothes, in particular, is a model of Ladány’s Ten Commandments in practice. It remains essential reading for anyone interested in the dynamics of China’s gangster-state.