Hans Ulrich Kempski

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Author: Hans Ulrich Kempski
Title: Red Sun Over Yellow Earth (Rote Sonne über gelber Erde)
Time: 1956/57
Destination: China, Japan
Length: a few months
Type: journalism

an interesting failure

[Note: I think this book is only out in German.]

The story: We’re in the mid-1950s, and the world has just entered the Cold War. HUK is one of the best known journalists in West Germany. He visits Japan and China, both of which are on the periphery of the two main political blocks. He talks to politicians there, wanders about and comes up with a bunch of articles describing and analysing the things he has seen. This book is a collection of those articles.

Hans Ulrich Kempski, a good writer/observer

Unfortunately, there is only one way to put it: HUK failed. But his failure is an interesting one.

Let’s talk about some good things first though: HUK writes well, there’s no doubt about it. The whole book flows like a rivulet, easy and light. And he has a keen sense of observation: when he muses about the role of Shanghai in the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), when he talks about colored socks as an indicator of individuality, or when he tells us that Mao Zedong’s presence in his “palace” was usually indicated by a raised flag (I suppose on Tiananmen Square). These are all very interesting things to read about.

In fact, had HUK stuck to mere description and dropped the idea of analyzing things, the book would have probably stood the test of time. But he didn’t do that. And in retrospect, we know that a great part of his “insights” and “predictions” were just terribly wrong.

how to fail

I don’t know much about Japan, so I am only going to bash HUK on one account there, one that is just too obvious to miss: Japan, he says, will have reached the peak of its economic ascent soon. Soon? Remember, we are in the mid-1950s. I’m not sure what “soon” is supposed to mean: 10 years? 20? 30?

From what I know, the Japan of the mid-1950s is going to shift to a more liberal economy, and then, after finishing foreplay, it is going to slam the automotive and electronic industries of the United States and Europe for the next few decades.

Let’s get back to China though. HUK looks at Mao and thinks that he is the “heart and brains” of the Chinese empire. Now it might have looked like that to him, but it seems fairly obvious now that in pre-1958 China, it was actually the pragmatists around Zhou Enlai and Liu Shaoqi who were functioning as the administrating “brains” of China. Mao, at that time, was busy messing with the people he had identified as “opponents”. But HUK misses this point as well, claiming that Mao’s Hundred Flowers Campaign (百花运动) must have been a mere call for critique. This seems very unlikely now.

I am not going to list all the things that HUK got wrong. It’s his general attitude that makes him both likeable and tragic. At one point he says:

“…it is a relief, particularly for the foreign journalist, that both doublespeak and the inclination to show off Potemkin villages are unknown here. There hasn’t been another country in the world where I have been subjected to less propagandistic manipulation.”


You wish.

Anybody who has read Edgar Snow or paid attention to the level of security around main media outlets in China will understand the importance that propaganda plays in the political concept of the CCP. In fact, the word propaganda doesn’t even have the same negative connotation in Chinese that it has in the English-speaking world (where governments are obsessed with public relations instead).

the blinding effect of hope

I think that HUK’s failure is interesting for two reasons.

First of all, his almost naive optimism when looking at China is a good example of a popular European way of thinking of the 1950s to 1970s. In this view of the world, post-1949 China is a sort of social experiment that is somehow situated outside of the two blocks of the Cold War. It is a “third world”, so to speak, one upon which many Europeans looked with a strong sense of sympathy. Unfortunately, much of this sympathy later turned into disappointment when the truth about the suffering of the tens of millions of Mao’s victims had been exposed.

And secondly, HUK’s failure should serve as a reminder to us all: just how much faith can we put into the analyses of our journalists and “experts”?

In fact, he hints at it himself when he describes a meeting between the Indian embassador and Zhou Enlai:

“They [the embassadors from India and Birma] are talking with him [Zhou] in an unconventional, almost fraternal way, reminding me of good neighbors who don’t have a fence between their premises.”


And only a few lines down he adds: “…if I can trust my eyes”.

No, dude, you can’t. Only five years later (in 1962), those two neighbors will actually go to war over the fence between their premises.

This was an interesting book to read, even though it was essentially a failure.


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