Erwin Wickert

Overall Rating: 6
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Author: Erwin Wickert
Title: China Von Innen Gesehen [China Seen From Within]
Time: 1976-1980
Destination: China
Length: 4 years
Type: diplomatic mission

Diplomat or seer?

[Note: no English edition availabe.]

The story: In the mid-70s, German diplomat EW gets transferred from Romania to China. He has been there before (as a tourist in the 1930s), and he seems excited about it. He stays in Beijing for 4 years, lives through the Tangshan Earthquake and the time of Mao Zedong’s death, eventually bearing witness to the beginning of the reform policies under Deng Xiaoping.

Erwin Wickert, analyst of things

This book is EW’s account of what he saw in China, and what he thought about what he saw. Sometimes he writes in a personal manner, but mostly, his writing is that of a diplomat: it is wordy and full of detailed analyses. We are lucky that he intersperses his account with travel notes and with excerpts from his 1930s experiences in China. The latter are particularly interesting to read because not only Beijing, but China as a whole has just undergone a substantial transformation at the hands of a dictator, and EW can tell us a bit about what was before and what came after.

This basically means that this is not a bad book. But there is a bit too much emphasis on “analysis” in EW’s writing. He, much like his colleague Henry Kissinger, likes to look at China from the grand historical/cultural perspective. And while there is nothing wrong with this way of approaching a foreign civilization, it can still lead to a few pitfalls, especially if you are taking the scholarly approach:

– You could forget that dictators are not only forged by the history and the culture of their nation, but also by simple things like their own personal narcissism, and by ideologies that might not even be their own.

– You could overlook that a government which has not been elected by the population of its country may rightfully act on the international stage, but it does not necessarily represent the wishes or the “character” of this population in the domestic reality. The China that EW was dealing with diplomatically may have seemed unified, but the reality on the streets was a lot more fragmented.

EW falls into a few traps here. But some of the points he makes are very interesting.

unmasking and predicting

There are a few instances where he unmasks the ignorance and the conceit with which German politicians confront their Chinese hosts (or guests). I found these episodes very refreshing, even if they were sometimes tainted by EW’s personal political preferences.

But the surprising strength of this book lies in EW’s insightful predictions. When he muses about the possible emergence of “syncretistic cults” that might be able to attract more followers than the traditional churches, he is unknowingly talking about Falun Gong, which has been a massive pain in the neck of the Communist Party since the late 1990s. His thoughts about the possible impacts of the one-child-policy on the upbringing of Chinese children might be a little less astonishing, but they are interesting nonetheless.

All in all, this was a good book. Not great, but good. If you are considering reading Kissinger, I’d rather have you read this one instead.


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