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Farewell to a China expert

Roderick MacFarquhar passed away at 88

Roderick MacFarquhar with Mei in Hong Kong

When I got the news that Roderick MacFarquhar, Professor of History and Political Science, and formerly Director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University, had passed away at 88 during the Lunar New Year holiday, my first reaction was: “Oh no, not so soon!”

In the following days I read obituaries penned by friends, who eulogised the former soldier, journalist and member of parliament, who went on to become a leading authority on China’s politics. They wrote that the Briton was a great scholar and an extraordinary man, and I very much agree.

I had heard about MacFarquhar long before I first met him in October 2012. As somebody who devoted 30 years to writing revelatory books about the Cultural Revolution – a topic that still borders on the taboo among China’s officialdom – the professor was an intellectual rock star in my mind. But at our first meeting at a Harvard Club dinner in Hong Kong we hit it off instantly and I felt that I had known him for decades. I told him how much I appreciated his contribution and how much we Chinese were grateful for his remarkable and weighty scholarly works.

In the following years I met MacFarquhar and his wife Dalena Wright, another academic, many times and helped to arrange seminars and talks for him to share his insights on China’s political powerplays.

He would describe China’s political system as “an iron triangle” with the supreme leader at the top of the triangle, the Party bureaucracy and ideology as the two sides, and the masses as the base.

But in the decades before Xi Jinping’s ascent to the top MacFarquhar had been following two key trends: the bureaucracy had been weakened by Mao and special interest groups, while its communist ideology had been eroded by the commercialism and crony capitalism in the era launched by Deng Xiaoping, leaving the foundations of the system more exposed.

“I am not saying the Chinese political system is going to collapse tomorrow. What I am saying is that it’s fragile. The people at the top know that, much better than I do. They have to rule 1.3 billion people each day in a fragile system. It’s a frightening prospect,” he said at one of the talks in 2012.

His prediction in the early days of the Xi administration was that the Chinese Communist Party was more likely to “muddle on” than carry out major political and economic reforms. And when he was asked whether the Chinese would ever experience the rule of law in its truest sense, he replied “impossible!” because “Party supremacy depends on the ability of the Party to know what justice is going to be delivered” (see WiC174).

In 2015, Professor MacFarquhar invited me to join him and Dalena on a trip to Yan’an, where he had been invited by the Communist Party School to speak. I wasn’t able to make it and I never got to visit China with him. Looking back now, I regret I didn’t seize the opportunity to go and get to know him better.

When I hosted him and Dalena for dinners in Hong Kong I realised we had become friends when he suggested we “go Dutch, with you choosing the place” so he could pay his share. “We are almost old Hongkongers now and there’s no reason why friends should host us all the time. It will just make us shy about calling people up,” he told me.

While scrolling through the email exchanges with the professor over the past six years, I couldn’t help but feel that a powerful thinker had left us. One of the consolations is that he leaves behind a series of brilliant works, including Mao’s Last Revolution and his three-volume The Origins of the Cultural Revolution.


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