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‘Privileged Segregation’ as an Illusion (Review)

Reviewed item: 

Beverley Hooper. 2016.
Foreigners Under Mao: Western Lives in China, 1949–1976
Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press
ISBN 9789888208746

In her early book, China Stands Up: Ending the Western Presence, 1948-1950, historian Beverley Hooper depicted a remarkable process of western residents gradually vanishing in China (Beverley Hooper, China Stands Up: Ending the Western Presence, 1948-1950, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1986). This process was imposed by the new regime which aims to eradicate all traces of the imperialist existence and to establish a brand-new communist society. Precisely 20 years later, the author’s new publication, Foreigners Under Mao, raised a few eyebrows by reminding her readers of the ‘new’ presence of westerners behind the ‘bamboo curtain’ in the Mao's China. This book is certainly an intentional sequel to the author’s early work. This, in her words, also serves to ‘give a voice’ to the group of westerners, who had lived under Mao's regime and most of whose experience otherwise might have been unknown and forgotten by people (p. 6).

Foreigners Under Mao contributes enormously to filling the gap in the specific historical period when foreign presence in China is often understated. Foreigners in the New China tend to be regarded as ‘visible’ only from the late 1970s onwards when the reform and opening-up policies were implemented to modernise China and build the reputation of the country on the world stage (Anne-Marie Brady, Treat Insiders and Outsiders Differently’: The Use and Control of Foreigners in the PRC, The China Quarterly 164, 2000: 946). Before that, their presence in China is, in general, simplified as ‘small in number’, except for the experts from the Soviet Union to support economic development in the 1950s (Frank Pieke, Immigrant China, Modern China 38(1): 43–44). Thus, the great contribution of this book is to bring this small group of the neglected population to the front stage of history.

Categories and Destinies
By ‘westerners’, Hooper refers to the people from Britain, Western Europe, North America and Australasia, who are from the so-called ‘imperialist camp’, an ‘adversary’ of the socialist China during the Cold War (p. 3-4). Her intention may be to show the underlying diversity and specificity despite the dichotomy of the ideological camps. In total, six categories are included in this book: ‘foreign comrades’, Korean War ‘turncoats’, diplomats, correspondents, ‘foreign experts’, and students, which also constitutes six main chapters in the entire book. Most of them came from, worked, studied, or resided in Beijing. In addition a few were from Tianjin, Shanghai, and other Chinese cities. In the first section of each chapter, the author sketches a vivid picture of this group of people: who they are, why they ended up in China, what they are engaged in, how one group differs from another, etc. In this sense, the political commitments to the regime and the extent of trustworthiness by the Party are regarded as central to understanding the distinction among different categories.

The author, however, does not attempt to essentialise the traits of each category. Rather, she perfectly weaves the ups and downs of these people into the changing political climate and social upheavals during nearly three decades of Chinese contemporary history. This entanglement endows this book with ontological width and depth, which I think is one impressive merit of this book. The destiny of the foreign comrades is the most dramatic one. Identified as ‘the oldest of China’s old friends’, several of them had committed themselves to the Chinese Communist Party and spoke out against imperialism, before the time when it achieved the national victory in 1949 (p. 13). They were even permitted by the Party to participate in the Cultural Revolution one year after its breakthrough in 1966. However, they were identified as ‘foreign spies’ soon afterwards due to the mounting political hysteria, most of whom turned out to be subject to incarceration, public denunciation, house ransacking by Red Guards (p. 43). Thus, reading these people’s destinies also helps readers to understand the volatile political environment during the Cultural Revolution and in Mao’s era in general.

‘Privileged Segregation’
Referring to the Chinese government’s strategy to manage western residents, Hooper adopts a loosely defined term ‘privileged segregation’. It refers to the situation in which foreigners are isolated and insulated from ‘the harsh realities of everyday life that ran counter to the publicised images of “new China”’ through being granted with ‘preferential treatment’ by the authority (p. 5). Without further clarification in the introductory section, this account, guides me, as a reader, to anticipate the enclosed alien communities, as those ‘expat bubbles’, vis-a-via the rigorous scrutiny by the authority in all aspects of foreigners’ daily lives in the entire book. Nevertheless, I believe this is certainly not all the author intends to reveal.

The author, in the following chapters, demonstrates little or no contact between Chinese and the western residents as an illusion in two aspects. Initially, regular and frequent interactions between these two groups are meticulously arranged and controlled by the government. For instance, diplomats have their regular ‘licensed contacts’ with selected locals (p. 95); foreign experts have their Chinese ‘liaison person’ (p. 178), international students are also arranged to develop a friendship with specific ‘Chinese friends’ (p. 209). These Chinese contacts are required to help their foreign friends while keeping them under close scrutiny and reporting their behaviour and thoughts to the Party. As a consequence, these arranged social contacts reinforce the sentiment of segregation and marginalization among the groups of aliens.

Additionally, Hooper highlights that the westerners were not simply ‘passive objects of CCP policy’, but instead she elaborates on their proactive responses and actions in the face of the administrative segregation (p. 6). For instance, journalists develop their China-watching skills to make interpretations based on the limited amount of information that they are allowed to get access to (p. 132); international students negotiate with restaurant staff in order to dine in the same section as other Chinese rather than in separated rooms (p. 204). The most striking part may be the tremendous efforts that Chinese–foreign mixed couples had to make to obtain permission to get married, which often evolves into an international issue and involves negotiation with government officials from countries on both sides of the relationship.

As a historian, Hooper has collected a wide range of documents in various forms, such as diaries, memoirs, letters and private collections in Britain, Europe, North America and Australasia (p. 6). However, she merely includes a limited number of materials in the Chinese language even though there are historical narrations available involving a sizable group of Chinese government officials, co-workers, and students who developed contacts with westerners. In this sense, Hooper attempts to adopt the method of oral history by conducting interviews with ‘a broad selection’ of westerners who lived in China during the Mao years, with an aim to fill in gaps in the written records (p. 7). In general, the interviews do play a role in enriching the narrative ‘thickness’ in each category. Nevertheless, the author obscures several fundamental issues by using this method: how informants are selected, in what specific methods interviews are conducted, and how interview notes are analysed etc. However, this deficiency does not substantially undermine the validity of this book’s narration. Given that this book is extremely readable and rich in documents, I would recommend it to scholars and anyone else who are interested in Mao’s China and foreigners’ lives in China in general.


Thanks the contributions of Xu Guanmian and Paul Harris to this review.

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