Journalist Jonathan Mirsky Remembered as Sharp Observer of China

13/10/2021

Friends and colleagues of Jonathan Mirsky, an American journalist known as one of the sharpest observers of China, are reflecting fondly on his legacy ahead of his funeral in London Wednesday, one month short of his 89th birthday.

Mirsky, who died in September, was a prolific writer, with hundreds of bylines inked in major publications in both Britain and the United States. In the end, the story of his life, how he changed from a self-professed “Mao [Zedong] fan” to one of the “sternest and most knowledgeable” critics of Beijing, as one obituary writer put it, was as much a story as any he covered in a career that spanned six decades.

The year 1989 was an eventful one for China, and for Mirsky. He almost lost his life while reporting on the pro-democracy movement that ended with a massacre directed by Chinese authorities. Mirsky watched students die in Tiananmen Square “right under the Mao portrait” before soldiers started beating him up.

Several teeth were knocked out and an arm was fractured, but he survived, thanks to a fellow journalist who rushed to the rescue. The next day, he would witness more people being killed as they tried to recover loved ones who had been injured or killed the night before.

Among those shot in the square were some of the medical staff from the Beijing Union Hospital, where Mirsky’s father, an established molecular biologist, had visited and worked in the 1930s.

Such bloody scenes were a far cry from the Beijing Mirsky had envisioned 20 years earlier, when, as a young college professor teaching Chinese culture and history at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, he stepped into a boat, along with five other American “peace activists,” and set sail to the shores of the People’s Republic.

Their goal was to break through the lack of contact between the Chinese and the American people since the Communist victory in 1949, as he recounted in a 1969 article for The New York Review of Books, under the title Report from the China Sea.

“Four days out of Nagasaki and seventeen miles from China we were intercepted by a Chinese Coast Guard vessel. After five days of discussion and entreaties we finally got the point: no Americans can visit China, no matter how friendly they seem,” Mirsky wrote.

It did not help, he wrote, to tell the Coast Guard officials, “We do not represent our government. We are private citizens who oppose American foreign policy regarding China.” The Chinese response, he said, was, “Chairman Mao does not agree to your coming. He wishes you to go away.”

The group had no choice but to abandon their mission of “friendship and goodwill,” and sailed back.

Mirsky, however, was undeterred by the setback. His wish to step on the soil of a Chinese “socialist paradise” — in contrast to a “greedy, imperialist America” — was fulfilled three years later. In March 1972, shortly after Nixon’s historic visit, Mirsky embarked on a six-week tour of the People’s Republic with a group of young American academics openly supportive of Beijing.

On that journey, he wrote later, he learned two lessons: the way workers and their families lived in China differed drastically from the prototype shown by officials, and secondly, the authorities really didn’t like anyone deviating from the script, including a spontaneous morning walk out of the hotel. Above all, he was touched by the honesty and bravery of ordinary Chinese people who didn’t hide their true living conditions when they were not monitored by government officials.

These lessons from 1972 would resurface, over and over, in the ensuing years as Mirsky became a foreign affairs writer focused on China, first for The Observer, then The Times of London, later The New York Review of Books, among others.

In 1989, the tension between “state” and “society” was laid bare in images seen around the world showing citizens of Beijing spontaneously organizing themselves in large groups and forming walls to stop the People’s Liberation Army from entering the city.

“That spontaneity spread from Inner Mongolia to Guangzhou. In Beijing, instead of the usual greeting between acquaintances, ‘Have you eaten yet?’ people asked, ‘Have you demonstrated yet?’” Mirsky wrote in a 25th anniversary piece about what happened in 1989.

He also recalled that “the staff of the Party’s newspapers appeared in the square holding high a banner bearing the words, ‘We don’t want to lie anymore.’”

Two years after Tiananmen, Beijing banned Mirsky, an erstwhile guest of the state who had been received in the 1970s by the likes of Zhou Enlai, from entering territories controlled by China. That didn’t stop him from continuing to observe the gap between the state and the society. Recounting a conversation he held with one of China’s leading dissidents, Wei Jingsheng, shortly after the latter had been let out of jail and sent into exile, Mirsky described Wei’s reaction to the sight of the Chinese embassy in London.

“As we drove past the Chinese embassy in Portland Place I said to Wei, ‘That’s your embassy.’ He burst out laughing. ‘I don’t know whose it is. It’s certainly not mine.’”

Upon hearing of Mirsky’s death, Wei issued a statement saying his straightforwardness had left a deep impression.

“When I first arrived in the West, in 1998, I was a celebrity, not many people would challenge me in my face, but Mr. Mirsky was different. He did praise me, too, but thought nothing of challenging me the next second,” said Wei, who described his encounter with Mirsky as being “as refreshing as taking a bite of ice cream.”

Perry Link, a well-known specialist of contemporary Chinese language and culture, met Mirsky in 1971 at Middlebury College in Vermont, where he was teaching when Mirsky came to visit a friend. “He was drawn to the pretty ideals that the CCP was touting in the 1960s and early 1970s, but when he could see, on closer inspection, that the words were a fraud, he changed his views,” he said in an email exchange with VOA.

Link considers Mirsky “one of those extraordinary human beings” who place moral values above material ones and are ready to act on their conviction. “Jimmy Lai in Hong Kong, recently, comes to mind as well,” he added. Lai is a media tycoon and the jailed publisher of Apple Daily, a pro-democracy newspaper that closed following police raids and the arrests of several executives. He is awaiting trial on national security charges.

Steven I. Levine, who taught Chinese history and politics at the University of Montana, had read Mirsky’s reviews of books on China in The New York Review of Books for decades before meeting him in person about 10 years ago. He says the two formed a “late in life friendship” cherished by both. 

Among the qualities that made Mirsky special, Levine told VOA in a phone interview, was that “he not only saw imperfections in his own government, he also didn’t, just because of that, idealize other governments.”

Mirsky initially had that tendency, “but quickly became disabused of that false notion” and turned his sympathy toward the Chinese people, especially those who dared to insist on a vision for a democratic China, and never looked back, Levine said.

After the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to jailed human rights activist Liu Xiaobo in November 2010, Mirsky explained his support for dissidents like Liu in an interview with VOA. Liu later died of cancer while under Chinese custody, his request to seek treatment abroad was denied.

“I mean how do they do it, guys like that? And keep doing it? It’s amazing.” He said. “You can’t have inspiring people like these Chinese and not have a response to that.” 

Mirsky was concerned that Western governments were settling into a position of accepting China as is and avoid any moral concerns.

He pointed out that some politicians were getting into a habit of saying, “We’ve got to start by understanding that China is an ancient civilization with a long and proud history.

“That the Chinese Communist Party has turned its back on that ancient culture appears unknown” to the politicians who make such statements, he wrote in an essay published in 2013.

“In any event, Syria and Iran, with equally long histories,” but are not treated with equal respect, he noted.

Deborah Glass, who met Mirsky in Hong Kong soon after he arrived to take up the post as The Times’ East Asia editor in 1993 and later married him, said Mirsky always loved swimming and was particularly fond of cold water, “Maine and the north of Scotland being two of his favorite swimming spots.”

In 1969, when the Chinese coast guard refused to allow his group’s boat to enter Chinese waters, Mirsky jumped into the China Sea in an attempt to reach those he had envisioned to be bosom friends. He was quickly turned away.

In the years since, one could say he kept swimming, valiantly, in search of what lies behind the ancient Chinese saying, “Within the Four Seas, all men are brothers.”

On October 1st 2014, a month before his 82nd birthday, Mirsky stepped out of his home in London’s Holland Park, a neighborhood adjacent to the better-known Notting Hill, to join demonstrators in front of the Chinese embassy in support of Hong Kong’s voting rights protests known as the Umbrella Movement.

“I want to tell you that I am fully supportive of what you do, and there are many others like me all over the world!” he told the crowd of about 3,000 people, according to a report by The Epoch Times newspaper.

“I feel sad Jonathan is no longer with us. He had a long life, was widely respected, had contacts all over the world, and he had the right friends and the right enemies as well. So, I think that was a life well lived, well spent.”

Mirsky, Levine said, was “crystal clear in what he wrote and thought.” Underneath that clarity was “an unmatched perceptiveness and acuity on the subjects he wrote about,” and a dedication to his trade.

“As long as I’m around, I’ll remember him and cherish his memory, and think how lucky I was to know him.”

Levine said there has been “an enormous outpouring of appreciation” from the community of China watchers, journalists and academics alike, serving as a testament to the positive impact Mirsky had on others.

“In certain African cultures, they say that the passing of an old and wise person is like a library burning down,” Robert Thomson said in a phone interview with VOA from his office in New York.

Thomson, now the chief executive at News Corp., the parent company to Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal, among others, was the Financial Times correspondent in Beijing whom Mirsky credited with coming to his rescue and leading him off the square “at great risk to himself” in 1989.

“Losing someone with Jonathan’s expertise and understanding – it really is a library burning down,” he said.

Mirsky’s funeral Wednesday happens to fall on the eve of a Chinese folk festival known as the Double Ninth, i.e., the ninth day of the ninth month on the lunar calendar. In the 8th century at the height of the Tang Dynasty, one of the most celebrated poet-painters composed a verse marking the day as an occasion for remembrances:

Alone in foreign land a foreign guest I am 

Memories of loved ones rise on days of festivities 

Far away, brothers of old are set to climb the mountain again

In their midst is one missing

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