“Useful idiots”

Be sure to see Running Dog’s magnificent obituary of Israel Epstein and some of his friends. I used to watch Epstein on CCTV-9, wondering how on earth this old Jewish man came to be a walking, talking billboard for the CCP. An odd, antique monument to apologism.

It would have been interesting to know what Epstein actually thought about current economic and political realities in China, and about the inexorable withering-away of the revolutionary spirit that has taken place since the assumption of power by the pragmatist Deng Xiaoping. It would have been interesting to know what Epstein, who was presumably inspired by a sense of injustice at the systematic exploitation and subjugation of the masses, would have made of the current Communist Party, which has taken the capitalist road with unrivalled gusto.

There are other survivors of the idealistic exodus. The translator, Sidney Shapiro, arrived in China in 1947 and became a Chinese citizen in 1963, an undertaking he still seems to regard as an act of romanticism, intimately connected with the fact that he fell in love and married a beautiful and politically-sound Chinese actress.

Another figure, Sidney Rittenberg, was a member of the US Communist Party, and joined the Chinese version in 1948 before being arrested on suspicion of being a spy. Eventually, he found a position at Beijing Radio but failed to weather the storm of the Cultural Revolution and spent nine more years behind bars for his part in an alleged espionage ring centred on Wang Guangmei, the wife of the deposed and disgraced leader Liu Shaoqi. In his biography, he tells a story of ‘how I, and people like me, walked the Communist Road in the hope of creating a new and better world’ but then, somehow, found himself ‘participating’ in the ‘evils that ensued’. He talks about the exultation of his first visit to Yan’an, the revolutionary base of the Chinese Communists, a ‘pure’ world that was ‘far from the naked greed and corruption I had already seen too much of’. Even the Cultural Revolution, he wrote, ‘felt like the birth pangs of a new world’.

Well, whatever turns you on. Every time I visit Running Dog I am struck by just how great its writer(s) is (are?), and their panoramic knowledge of China. Blunt and merciless, yet poetic:

And so, all those idealistic days have presumably passed. In the 1930s, China had Shapiro, Bethune, Epstein and many more. Russia had the Cambridge ring of Philby, Blunt, Burgess and Maclean, among many others. By now, there are no such ideals to justify defection. The worthiest countries are all in the same compromising globalized mess, while the worst are run by corrupt brutes and self-aggrandizers who systematically impoverish their own people.

But hasn’t he heard? China’s reforming.

The Discussion: 23 Comments

Anyone read “Red China Blues” ? There’s a part in the book where the daughter of two of the idealist expats who defected to communist China makes her first trip to the U.S. – she couldn’t speak English very well, was totally natively fluent in Chinese, and was 6 foot, porcelain skinned and blonde, from the description.

Anyway, is this Epstein’s kid?

June 1, 2005 @ 3:44 pm | Comment

I don’t think Epstein’s daughter would be a blond, but you can never be sure.

I read Red China Blues and loved it (you’ll find a long post about it if you dig into this blog; it must have been early May 2003). Unfortunately, I hear Jan Wong has become a total bitch and is now one of the most disliked journlaists in all of Canada.

June 1, 2005 @ 3:53 pm | Comment

Why’s that? I liked it too. What’s she done since that?

June 1, 2005 @ 5:42 pm | Comment

She became a columnist for the Globe and Mail, where she is absolutely infamous for interviewing people and then showing them at their very worst. She is much hated by many celebrities in Canada who have accused her of blatant sadism and journalistic impropriety. That said, I still loved her book Red China Blues.

June 1, 2005 @ 5:50 pm | Comment

Like Ally G? Those kinds of interviews?

June 1, 2005 @ 6:19 pm | Comment

Go here to see what I mean. There are countless articles about how evil an interviewer she is.

June 1, 2005 @ 6:37 pm | Comment

And to take cheap shots at idealists past their death beds with no historical context is pretty crass in itself.

Think of the US in the 30s in a time before legalised labour unions, before The New Deal and Great Society and remember a time of reckless capitalism based upon false premises that led to a massive economic collapse that left workers, farmers, the elderly starving.

Think of the “moralism” that might not have been strong enough to keep Prohibition from being repealed, but was strong enough to get a Constitutional amendment passed in the first place.

To be idealistic and hope for a society that focused on the worker and spoke of eliminating poverty is hardly unexpected or IMHO to be condemned.

Have you read Hinton’s The Great Reversal? It clearly expresses the disappointments in the Dengist economics. And it was based upon the reappearance of things like prostitution and begging, not as a moral condemnation of prostitution and begging, but as an economic condemnation, because prostitution and begging once again became a preferable economic alternative to other employment opportunities.

Sorry, I watched the number of homeless, especially veterans, skyrocket under Reagan’s Presidency in the US in the 80s and successive Republican administrations spout anti-human service rhetoric wrapped in the flag of so-called “Free Market patois” that have done nothing to resolve the situation of homelessness or the blight of untreated veterans in the U.S.

June 1, 2005 @ 8:04 pm | Comment

Well, I don’t see it quite the same as you, Tom. I am not at all knocking Epstein for being an idealist. I am a huge idealist myself. There is a vast difference – to me, anyway- between idealism and the Edgar Snow-style sucking up naively to murderous tyrants and becoming their spokespeople and puppets. Which is exactly why Stalin called these people “useful idiots.” Epstein, I’m afraid, falls into this category and I find Running Dog’s comments totally fair. His death doesn’t mean that we should go easy on him.

June 1, 2005 @ 8:11 pm | Comment

Which one of these guys wrote “I Chose China”? I forget.

June 1, 2005 @ 8:20 pm | Comment

Rittenberg’s “the Man Who Stayed Behind” is a really good read.

June 1, 2005 @ 9:34 pm | Comment

Excellent article. Just one distinction I might make, would be between the Cambridge Five and some Westerners who stayed behind or chose to live in Red China.
Yes maybe some of them were useful idiots – but Philby and the Cambridge Five were traitors.
I just think bald treason is worse than being an honest useful idiot.

June 1, 2005 @ 11:16 pm | Comment

I met Israel Epstein in the lobby of the Friendship Hotel in Beijing in 1992 [this was then the residence for China’s long standing foreign experts].

He talked for a long time about old China and how bad it all was, [the British police beating Chinese beggars in old Shanghai] and yet seemed completely oblivious to the recent massacre in Beijing. He had the very lofty air of a self pronounced “dignitary”, and yet tried to make me feel like I was some arrogant rich westerner [rather than a broke backpacker]. After 80 years in the rareified atmosphere of Beijing and being a Party favourite, he seemed to believe all the propaganda. It made me wonder at what point he crossed the line from his anger about injustice in the “old society” to turning a blind eye to the horrors of the “new China”.

June 2, 2005 @ 1:44 am | Comment


The Friendship Hotel was where I lived back in 79. It was quite an interesting community, where nearly every “foreign expert” (as teachers were known then) was required to live – people from all over the place, Albania, Ghana, Cuba… I met a bunch of those old revolutionaries but was too young and dumb at the time to remember who was who.

June 2, 2005 @ 12:49 pm | Comment

“Useful Idiots”; is that an attempt at self deprecation as well as summing up the more positive quality of most of the commentators to this here thread?

June 2, 2005 @ 10:58 pm | Comment

I think if I would have been in China at the same time as, say, Sidney Rittenberg, I would have been a CCP supporter too. Look at the alternatives. The Nationalists were hopelessly corrupt, and for a time it seemed as though the CCP truly represented the greater aspirations of the Chinese people.

June 3, 2005 @ 2:00 am | Comment

I can understand why people like Epstein supported the CCP in 1949. But what did intelligenmt people like him think in 1957 when millions were starving. Or in 1966 when even the most loyal revolutionaries were being beaten to death by young punks wearing Mao badges? Didn’t he ever think “this isn’t right, this isn’t what we fought the KMT for”?

Edgar Snow’s wife certainly saw the light. She told the CCP she didn’t want them commemorating him or using his name, because they’d betrayed everything he’d hoped for. She was banned from China.

June 3, 2005 @ 5:05 am | Comment

Lisa I woiuld probably agree with you. At the time Mao was making wonderful promises to the poor and the oppressed and to the minorities, in some cases promising to respect their independence, etc. Of course, we would have been hopelessly naive, but under the circumstances I probably would have joined Mao as well.

June 3, 2005 @ 7:37 am | Comment

Those foreigners, “useful idiots” who devoted themselves to China in their heydays, are friends of China forever, no matter how much difference there was between their ideal and what really happened.

June 4, 2005 @ 8:40 am | Comment

Bing, Edgar Snow was a “friend” to the USSR. That doesn’t make him a good person — he and Epstein essentially misrepresented the situation in the USSR and China and became stoodges for dictators who used them to put a rosy glow on their murderous exploits. For this, Epstein was discredited, and the world saw him as an idiotic lackey, which only hurt his cause just as Edgar Snow ultimately came to be seen as the poster child of political puppets. If Epstein is China’s friends, who needs enemies?

June 4, 2005 @ 11:35 am | Comment

I think you’re being a little hard on Snow, Richard. “Red Star Over China” was a good piece of reporting overall, certainly a more accurate portrayal of the revolutionaries than the “red bandit” characterizations coming out of the Nationalist government. I’ve read that for young Chinese people, “Red Star Over China,” written by a foreigner, was the first account they had of the movement that was somewhat free from bias. Okay, it was far from complete. I don’t recall much about the Comintern and fratricidal factional struggles making it in there. But still…

I think that someone like Epstein was always a propagandist, through and through, while Snow, despite his biases, tried to be a reporter. What makes “Red Star” so interesting is that he lets Mao tell his own story, in his own words. That kind of access and personal account was unheard of at the time.

His then wife, Helen Foster Snow (also known as Nym Wales) wrote some good books too.

June 4, 2005 @ 9:19 pm | Comment

I’ll buy that, Lisa. I only know Snow from all the articles I read from liberals and conservatives alike citing his misleading reports on life under Stalin. If he wrote some good books, it’s too bad because now he is mainly remembered as a USSR apologist, which apparently isn’t fair.

June 5, 2005 @ 9:44 am | Comment

hello, you guys.
One of the most striking Chinese comment made after the death of Hinton, i still remember, is that “he cannot keep pace with the times”.True, all the revolutionaries went to china in the early years in the 20th century were idealism related.
That is to say the more you asparate for, the easier you could be disappointed.
I think Hinton belongs to this case.

But for Epstein or Shapiro, I think they were milder, or even to say more rational. i don’t see they are used by the ccp.
on the countrary, the enjoyed their lives in China.

June 7, 2005 @ 2:56 am | Comment

It’s good that this motherf..ker did not go back to Poland. His colleagues were leading red gestapo in Poland in the 1950s and murdered thousands of people. We have long memory.

June 23, 2005 @ 10:52 am | Comment

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