When Western Journalists Loved China's Communists

A Shanghai exhibit on the 1930s commemorates an almost-forgotten era of foreign reporting on China, but what it leaves out is more significant.

Definitely not the way the Chinese government commemorates foreign coverage of Mao Zedong (Cea/flickr/Zhang Hongtu)

On the third floor of an unremarkable building on Shanghai’s waterfront, an elaborate exhibit sits nearly empty of visitors. Hung on crimson walls, “Red Star Over China: Chinese Communists in the Eyes of Foreign Journalists” celebrates close to a dozen foreign journalists who wrote about the Communist Party’s rise to power in China in the 1930s. During part of the Red Army's strategic retreat from central China, known as the “Long March,” the writers interviewed Communist leaders like Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, and several joined the troops when they eventually set up camp in the northwestern city of Yan’an.

The exhibit is named in honor of a book of a similar title by Edgar Snow, a journalist who covered China for The New York Sun and London’s Daily Herald. Many of the other featured reporters also worked for mainstream media outlets, including Britain’s Daily Telegraph and United Press International (UPI), then a major news wire service. According to the exhibit, most of these writers had sympathy for the Communist cause, and the curators at the archives trumpeted this proudly.

“With their pens and their cameras, they presented to the world a fair and true image of the Chinese Communists."

“With their pens and their cameras,” the introductory note read, these journalists “presented to the world a fair and true image of the Chinese Communists and the People’s Army, who, though equipped with inferior arms, were fighting heroically at the forefront in the struggle for national liberation.”

This kind of language continued throughout the exhibit. Placards extolled the “epic deeds of the Chinese army” and assured that “in this new century of glory and prosperity, the red star is shining brighter.” The journalists themselves were no less effusive.

“Communist success was founded on empirical psychology and not on any pretentious political philosophy,” wrote Jack Belden, an American correspondent for UPI. “The Celestial Reds won the people to their cause not by any process of reasoning, but by arousing the hope, trust, and affection of the people.” According to a New York Times reporter embedded in China at that time, many members of the foreign press corps relied on Belden for information from the front lines of the Red Army. Belden later went on to report for Time and Life magazines.

Another writer, Agnes Smedly, was a known Communist sympathizer and served as a spy for China and the Soviet Union, according to PBS. During the Japanese invasion of China in the late 1930s, she reported for left-leaning publications like Germany’s Frankfurter Zeitung and Britain’s The Manchester Guardian, known today as The Guardian. Smedly's support for the Red Army was even more pronounced than Belden’s. “The Chinese Communist Party is great,” she wrote, “The Chinese people are great. What I have done is just, as a correspondent, to convey to the people of the world the righteous war, waged by the Chinese people under the leadership of the great Chinese Communist Party, in a truthful way, without exaggeration or deprecation.”

The display visitors see as they enter the exhibit.

Today, this kind of enthusiasm about Chinese communism would seem out of place in a Western publication. But in the pre-Cold War era, many saw the Communist Party as a worthy alternative to the ruling Nationalists, who were criticized for their corruption and brutality. Starting in the 1920s, Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek launched a series of “extermination campaigns” against Communist rebels, forcing them to abandon their stronghold in Jiangxi Province and march to the loess plateaus of northwest China's Shaanxi. Following eight years of brutal Japanese occupation and a destructive four-year civil war, the Communists finally gained control of mainland China in 1949. But by then, Western media outlets had adopted a more adversarial attitude, framed by the onset of the Cold War.

Even today, as the once-dominant fear of the spread of communism has been extinguished, Western media treats China with a mix of awe and anxiety. Now, the Communist Party is portrayed as a vast, corrupt bureaucracy—a far cry from the scrappy underdogs of the 1930s.

Journalists from democratic countries tended to over-report rebel uprisings and atrocities committed by the government.

75 years from now, will this kind of coverage seem as dated as the reporting on China from the 1930s? Even though globalization has led to greater coverage of events in remote parts of the world, the media still struggles with accusations of ideological bias and incomplete coverage—and not just with China. For example, Al-Jazeera has been widely criticized for its portrayal of the Arab Spring, and this summer as many as 22 journalists quit the organization in protest of its perceived bias toward the Muslim Brotherhood.

Other organizations face subtler challenges. An internal report released by the BBC last year admitted that, during the Arab Spring, the organization focused too narrowly on uprisings in certain countries and ignored smaller stories about events elsewhere in the region. In a recent working paper, Harvard professors Matthew Baum and Yuri Zhukov argued that this tendency to over-report certain stories and under-report others might be tied to the strength of democracy in a media outlet’s home country. Using data from the 2011 Libyan civil war, they found that journalists from democratic countries tended to over-report rebel uprisings and atrocities committed by the government, while journalists from non-democratic countries tended to emphasize the resilience of the status quo.

Perhaps the writers chosen for this exhibit were guilty of some of the same biases. But although the exhibit's introduction claimed that these dozen or so reporters presented a “fair and true image of the Chinese Communists,” their work was clearly selected carefully to represent only positive portrayals of the Communist rise. And even though the exhibit appeared to be targeted at foreign visitors, its historical value got lost amid the propaganda.

And that's a shame. Western affection for China's Communists during the 1930s is so interesting precisely because it requires no embellishment; the reporting by Snow and others reflect a time before perceptions turned decisively against Mao Zedong's Communists. Unfortunately, visitors seeking to broaden their understanding of how the world sees China—ostensibly the point of the exhibit—are left with more questions than answers.