Bruce Gilley ("In China's Own Eyes," September/October 2005) is correct that my biography, The Man Who Changed China: The Life and Legacy of Jiang Zemin, portrays Jiang as he might see himself. My intention (as stated in the book itself, on pages 691-92) was to move beyond all the hype and bias about China so as to understand how Chinese leaders think.
But Gilley's review is weighted with conspiracy theory. He asserts that "Jiang chose Kuhn," "a secret state propaganda team oversaw the writing of the book," and that I had a "Chinese collaborator."
The truth is almost the reverse.
Jiang didn't choose me; I chose Jiang. The book was my idea; I planned it, financed it, and wrote it to trace China's story through eight tumultuous decades of trauma and transformation. I had help -- translators, researchers, editors -- but I maintained absolute editorial control and made every editorial decision, and no one in China ever thought otherwise.
How did I get my interviews? I had a track record in China before I began writing: I had advised China's government, without compensation, on science, the media, and mergers and acquisitions for a decade. Furthermore, as Gilley recognizes, science and business resonate with China's leaders -- my education was in science (I have a Ph.D. in anatomy and brain research), and my career and previous writings have been in investment banking and corporate strategy.
Gilley charges that "the book's main intended market was China itself." Everyone involved knows this is false. My 2002 deal with Random House called for publication in English, German, Japanese, and Korean; a Chinese edition would be published in Hong Kong. In 2004, the Random House catalog was posted online, and mainland publishers contacted us. We selected one in September, but authorization was not granted until just before publication in February 2005.
Distracted by conspiracy theories, Gilley misses the big story of my book's publication in China. My rendition of events, such as the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia in 1999, differs markedly from that of the official Chinese media. In a publisher's note, Chinese readers are advised: "Certain viewpoints and opinions of the author, as a Westerner, bear a definite distance from those of our own. Hopefully the reader will understand."
My book is unprecedented -- the first biography of a living leader published on the mainland. Furthermore, there is inside information in it that Chinese media and officials aver that they never knew. One reporter complained publicly about the fact that this breakthrough was made by a foreigner.
Another phenomenon inconsistent with Gilley's conspiracy theory was my book's uneven media coverage in China. Since the biography was a commercial venture, not a government project, the official national media -- the Xinhua News Agency, the People's Daily, China Central Television -- were unlikely to cover it. And, indeed, no national media outlet reported on my book. But we worked local media in a grass-roots commercial campaign covering 32 cities and generated numerous front-page stories. During these appearances, I discussed China's image in the world, the challenges facing President Hu Jintao (such as economic imbalances and sustainable development), and what China can learn from the American model. I was called the first foreigner to lecture in China on Hu's "scientific development perspective," which seeks sets of integrated solutions to arrays of economic, social, and environmental problems.
Regarding my "collaborator," the man had been recommended as "chief researcher and interviewer," but before we began he sought to be co-author. I declined immediately -- this book could have only one voice. For the entire period of writing, we had no contact, and I conducted all the interviews.
Since journalists know that single, self-serving sources must be corroborated, why did Gilley come to believe in a conspiracy? I think he couldn't escape his own frameworks -- the scholar needing facts to fit a theory, the journalist sniffing a good story. One can read Gilley's review as a kind of metatext that is useful to deconstruct how some China-watchers think.
What does Jiang himself think about the book? "He [Kuhn] wrote very objectively; he didn't beautify me," Jiang was quoted publicly as saying, "... but he got my wedding date wrong."
Robert Lawrence Kuhn is Senior Adviser, Investment Banking, Citigroup, and Creator and Host of the PBS show Closer to Truth: Science, Meaning, and the Future
Bruce Gilley replies:
I admire Robert Kuhn's attempt to redeem his book from charges that he was a propagandist for Jiang Zemin, the now-retired general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Alas, his letter reveals the seductions of access to dictators, in general, and the allure of being an official friend of communist China, in particular. Kuhn still does not know that he was used.
Kuhn's claim that "no national media outlet reported on my book" is untrue. On February 2, 2005, the cabinet-level China News Service carried two reports on his book. On March 1, 2005, the direct voice of the party, the Xinhua News Agency, ran a story on the book entitled "Bringing True Story of China to the World." On March 21, 2005, the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the party, carried an interview with him entitled "China Should Be Applauded -- a Dialogue With Dr. Kuhn." finally, on May 19, 2005, Xinhua News carried another story on the book entitled "Westerners' Negative Image of China Requires Updating Through The Man Who Changed China, Says Its Author." As of early November 2005, the book was being promoted as a "finest books" item on both the Xinhua News online site, www.xinhuanet.com, and the People's Daily online site, www.people.com.cn.
Kuhn has said elsewhere that Yang Yang, director general of a department in the Chinese government's State Council Information Office, which handles overseas propaganda efforts for the CCP, facilitated his work on the book. That Kuhn declined Yang's offer of the services of a veteran party propagandist, Ye Yonglie, does nothing to diminish the evidence of official backing for the project, evidence that Ye himself detailed in a March 2005 article in the Hong Kong newsweekly Yazhou Zhoukan.
That Kuhn's intended audience was American readers I am ready to accept. But the intended market of those who oversaw the project in China must have been China, given the rapid approval and distribution of the book in that country by official censors. The great Chinese tradition of chukou zhuan neixiao ("exporting in order to reimport") is plain in this book's publication.
Kuhn believes that my review of his book reflects "how some China-watchers think." Indeed it does. Years of official falsehoods and deception have imbued most scholars of China's politics with a deep mistrust of party propaganda. In an era when China's people and its scholars likewise refuse to believe the lies of the regime, the party has had to find unblemished minds to do its work. Kuhn is right that his "track record in China" helped him to land the job. It was a track record of someone who would be a dutiful stenographer of the party line.
Kuhn's letter evinces an almost willful naiveté about China's political system and its leadership. Like Mao Zedong's hagiographer Edgar Snow (a loyal servant of the U.S. Communist Party -- although not a member, as I mistakenly wrote in my review), Kuhn holds fast to a miraculous story of a hard-working American who strikes up a friendship with a CCP leader and reveals him to be a kind and gentle man whose story the world should know.
Jiang was no Mao, but he found his Snow.