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Friday, 1 October 2010

Review: 'The Dragon and the Snake' by M.A. Gates and E.B. Geelhoed

From 1974 for five years, American diplomatic interests in China were represented by the United States Liaison Office (USLO). Established after Nixon's famous visit to the People's Republic in 1972 and the 'Shanghai Communiqué' that resulted from it, the USLO prepared the way in Beijing for the normalisation of Sino-American relations in 1979-1979. Between May 1976 and April 1977, the Chief of the USLO was Thomas Sovereign Gates Jr., best known for his tenure as Secretary for Defence under President Eisenhower. 'The Dragon and the Snake' is an account of Gates' time as USLO Chief, written from the perspective of his wife, who was with him throughout his time in Beijing.

May 1976 to April 1977 was, as the book jacket suggests, a time of much “turmoil” in the PRC. The death of Premier Zhou Enlai in the preceding February and the decline of Chairman Mao Zedong throughout 1976 sparked off an intense period of factional struggle, with radical and moderate elements in the Chinese Communist Party vying to to position themselves to take over on Mao's death. The Chairman's passing in the early days of September led to a month of political conflict between supporters of Hua Guofeng, the extreme Maoists (led by the 'Gang of Four') and those allied to Deng Xiaoping and other long-time revolutionaries. This eventually resulted in the Gang's arrest on October 6th 1976, sparking off a six-month period that would see Deng rehabilitation and the beginnings of his rise to prominence.

Being present during such a key transitional phase in China's modern history, it is easy to see why Millicent Gates thought it was worth putting her husband's (and her own) experiences in Beijing down on paper. In the course of a relatively short volume, the reader is given a valuable insight into how the American and Chinese diplomatic channels operated during the run-up to normalisation, and how both sides approached the thaw in the Washington-Beijing relationship. In addition, Gates provides in depth detail on the USLO's activities and the various meetings her husband had in the course of his time as Chief.

However, the real asset of the book is its first-hand observations on the state of the Chinese capital in the months preceding Mao's death and afterwards. These include recollections of the details China-watchers in Beijing were paying attention too in trying to make sense of the political strife, and information on how Chinese diplomats and officials reacted and behaved as the pendulum swung towards Hua Guofeng and away from Jiang Qing et al. While the focus is very much on the government, we are also given a sense of how ordinary Chinese in Beijing reacted to events as they unfolded- American viewpoints such as this one are relatively few and far between.

Of course, having been published in 1986, the book does not benefit from the vast amounts of scholarly activity that has been done on the period since the time of writing. However, this is no weakness. What 'The Dragon and the Snake' represents is an attempt from a personal point of view to make sense of what is a very challenging era of the PRC's history. It is up to the reader top decide whether or not it achieves this. However, even if one finds that the latter true, this does not detract from the fact that Gates' books is a fascinating read.

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