A letter from Robert Lawrence Kuhn

Access Archive

The full text of Kuhn’s response to last Friday’s SupChina Access email, which discussed an argument he made in the South China Morning Post in support of Xi Jinping’s extended rule.

Dear Jeremy:

Waking up in Beijing, I was treated to your post. The groggy instant I read the headline, I thought, “Ah, good, perhaps I can learn something….”  

I did interview Jiang Zemin (November 2003), a formal discussion (with translator) and long dinner (in English), for three-plus hours. I was not permitted to use a recorder or even to take notes. I used every mnemonic device I could imagine. That night, iteratively for hours, I reconstructed more than 50 quotes/ideas, all of which are in the book.

Nothing I’ve ever written that is published outside of China is ever read prior to publication by mainland officials or checkers, much less censored. Anything I write that is published (or televised) in China, or translated for China, is subject to censorship, of course — the deal being they can take out whatever they like but cannot add or change anything. About 15 percent of the Jiang biography was cut from the Chinese version. Nonetheless, the Chinese publisher put a disclaimer at the beginning, something to the effect that “Kuhn knows China, he is our friend, but he is still an American and his views are not our views; the reader should take note (be aware).” Jiang’s comment to a friend, who told the Chinese media (I assume intentionally): “Kuhn wrote objectively; he didn’t try to beautify me, and he got my wedding date wrong.” (I got the date from his best man, but no matter.)

Regarding critics who claim I do not present China’s problems, I ask which do I not cover, and then point out where I do. The difference, as in the Jiang biography, is that I try to embed China’s problems within the full context of China’s real situation, as sensed by its people and officials. So whereas others may have China’s problems at 60-80 percent of their writings, mine may be at 20-30 percent (percentages are illustrative only). For example, see my previous essay in the South China Morning Post: China, under Xi Jinping, embarks on a quest to win the trust of its people.  

I try to convey what and how China’s leaders think in their own contexts (my last book, How China’s Leaders Think), and to that end, I try to be faithful to their actual words. For example, when commentators question the inner sincerity and long-term consistency of Xi Jinping, I can state unambiguously and firsthand that some of the concepts and phrases he uses today as China’s overarching leader are similar to those that he told me personally in 2006 when he was Party Secretary of Zhejiang Province:

  • “We need to assess ourselves objectively.”

  • “We should not overestimate our accomplishments or indulge ourselves in our achievements.”

  • China should see “the gap between where we are and where we have to go.”

  • “To understand our dedication to revitalize the country, one has to appreciate the pride that Chinese people take in our glorious ancient civilization.”

  • We “made great contributions to world civilization and enjoyed long-term prosperity… then suffered national weakness, oppression, humiliation. Our deep self-motivation is rooted in our patriotism and historic pride.” He described this as “a persistent and unremitting process.”

  • “Local realities are different realities. Before we implement new policies broadly, we always test them thoroughly at the grassroots level, gain experience, and subject them to analysis.”

  • “People, not material, are what we focus on.”

  • “We attach great importance to innovation.”

  • “In order to realize a well-off society, the biggest challenge is rural development.”

  • “Leaders are responsible to be decisive and action oriented.”

In January 2011, when interviewed by CNBC, I was asked by the host: “…there is a sense of opinion, certainly out there from analysts, that Xi Jinping could well be the weakest leader when it comes to the Communist era?” Based on my firsthand experience, I responded, “…I think it’s a mistake to say that Xi Jinping will be the weakest leader. That really misunderstands everything that’s been happening in China…” [Of course, who knew!]

On point, you may be interested in my “debate” with Minxin Pei on Amanpour/CNN/PBS last week.

While I’m in correction-requesting mode, Closer to Truth (TV and web) is about Cosmos (cosmology/physics, philosophy of science), Consciousness (brain/mind, philosophy of mind), and Meaning/God (philosophy of religion, philosophical theology, critical thinking).

We appreciate your good work.

Robert