Review of The Man on Mao’s Right

Portrait of a diplomat

Ji, Chaozhu. The man on Mao’s right: from Harvard yard to Tiananmen Square, my life inside China’s Foreign Ministry. New York: Random House, 2008.

For those interested in the rise of the Chinese diplomatic establishment, this is a book well worth reading.

Ji’s career as an important Chinese diplomat is full of the usual twists of fate and odd family connections that make modern Chinese history such a fascinating read. In the case of Ji Chaozhu, he was the younger brother of Ji Chaoding, a fascinating figure, but very obscure because of the covert nature of his activities (he was a spy for the Communists for many years). Ji’s reminiscences of his brother made the early part of the book a highlight. For example, Ji claims that his brother first met Zhou Enlai all the way back in the May 4th movement of 1919! Amazing, if true.

During WWII, Ji Chaozhu left China and enrolled in Harvard. When the Korean War broke out, he returned to China, and after service in Korea, where he did some of the negotiations with the Americans, he rose quickly in the diplomatic ranks. Up until the middle of his career, Ji was a frequent English interpreter for both Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong. Interpreters’ experiences can make for great reading, and Ji was there for several important and famous meetings. He was also a witness to some famous quips, such as the Deng Xiaoping–Shirley MacLaine conversation where MacLaine told Deng how impressed she was by the rusticated Chinese scientist who told her how happy he was to learn from the peasants. Deng’s reply: “He was lying.” According to Ji, a true story.

Politically, during his career in China’s Foreign Ministry, Ji was perhaps not a major policy maker, but he was on close terms with many of them, and his picture of the Ministry’s members is the human side of an often analyzed, seldom humanized institution. He idolizes Zhou Enlai, admires diplomats such as Zhang Wenjin and Huang Zhen, dislikes his one time superior Han Xu, and came to violently dislike Wang Hairong and Nancy Tang, his one time neighbor and family friend. Of the grim struggles that rocked the Foreign Ministry during the Cultural Revolution, however, he is laconic and short with details; you will need to go elsewhere to find that.

In the end though, the most interesting part of the book was Ji’s own development. During his war-time studies in the US, he was very happy, encountering little prejudice, fitting in easily with his friends, excelling academically, and after entering Harvard, was clearly convinced that great opportunities awaited him. Yet he chose to return to China, a choice that he himself clearly wondered about sometimes. I wondered too in some places.

Still, some of Ji’s reasons are clear: his strong patriotism, his pride in his family’s revolutionary background, his loyalty. Once he gave his loyalty, he did not easily withdraw it; this shows in his defense of individuals such as Pu Shan, his mentor both at Harvard and in the Ministry, despite Pu’s being condemned as right wing, and in his defense of the revolution, the Communist Party, and even Mao Zedong.

Another striking aspect of his worldview is a lack of sympathy or even tolerance for dissenting opinion. During the Hundred Flowers period, he found democrats such as Luo Longji and Zhang Bojun offensive and even threatening, just as he found the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrators dangerous and their leaders such as Chai Ling contemptible.

For those who insist on a wholly sympathetic writer, this may be discomforting, but if you are interested in an opinionated, outspoken writer who lived a fascinating life, the book is well worth your time.

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