China's relative opening to the world in the late 1970s has provided scholars with something that many never imagined possible: the opportunity to compare facts that are known today to the assessments the scholars had made of that country when it was still tightly closed. Not surprisingly, some scholars got a great deal right. Others, were very, very wrong.
One of the best examples of this is the handling of the grim and stomach-turning story of how 40 million Chinese perished in the famines that resulted from Mao Zedong's disastrous attempt to make the Chinese economy perform "greater-faster-better-cheaper" during the Great Leap Forward. From a scholarly viewpoint, however, this is the story of a most remarkable sin of omission perpetrated by the Western China-watching community: The famine was not reported in the respectable Western media at the time.
Compare two scholars who got things right -- Jürgen Domes and Edward Rice -- with two who got them wrong -- William Hinton and John Fairbank.
Ironically, those who missed the great, mind-boggling tragedy were those who purported to take a "Chinese" point of view of the whole thing: those who sought to be culturally sensitive and aware. What they learned was that the Cultural Revolution flowed from Mao's important extension of Marx's theories, that class conflict did not end with the victory of communism but in fact continued. Regular struggles were therefore necessary to keep the revolution young and avoid bureaucratization and sclerosis.
Read this article on the American Enterprise Institute magazine website (new window will open).