It didn't begin very well, my relationship with this publication. I was very young at the time and knew nothing about China except what I had read, and not very carefully at that, in the Western news media.
I happened to be in Hong Kong late in 1966. I was there for no particular reason. Since I knew nothing about China, my knowledge of the dramatic events unfolding just a few kilometers across the border was limited to glances at the headlines of the newspapers on the ubiquitous newsstands of the city.
It did arouse some curiosity, however, and I reckoned there was no better way to find out what was happening than going straight to the source: a periodical published in China. By chance someone staying in the same hostel as I had a copy of Peking Review, as it was then known.
My anticipation that I would soon understand the "cultural revolution" was quickly dashed when I tried to read the articles. I didn't understand a thing. It was not that I didn't understand the words--they were straightforward enough--but I couldn't comprehend what most of the stories were all about. I shrugged the incident off, content in the knowledge that it had nothing to do with me anyway.
In fact I was wrong. My years in East Asia had generated in me a lifelong interest in the region and especially in the history of China. As I went through the process of studying Chinese history I returned to Peking Review often and discovered that my previous difficulty was a direct result of my lack of knowledge about contemporary Chinese political affairs. Peking Review (certainly in those years) was not intended for a general audience. A reader had to have a considerable background in Chinese affairs in order to find it useful.
Once I became conversant with the culture, history and politics of China, Peking Review became more comprehensible to me. I found that my thirst for information about events in China grew in direct proportion to how much I was learning. However, there was a paucity of information because of restrictions on the exportation of published materials and the limited number of both foreigners going to China and Chinese visiting outside. In that circumstance Peking Review came to be an important trough from which to quench my thirst being there in the library (and later in my mailbox when I began subscribing in January 1974) every week.
It was not a forum for open discussion nor did it become (until quite recently) a general-purpose periodical. Extensive knowledge about China was always a prerequisite for reading it. Yet, every week, it gave its readers access to the official Chinese position on both domestic and foreign events. Reading between the lines allowed me to make some educated guesses as to what the nature of the political debates was. And the publication of complete texts of speeches, government pronouncements, treaties, etc., let me quickly get at the original documents which I needed for my research and teaching.
In the course of my research endeavors I had the opportunity to go through back issues of Peking Review and even its predecessor journal People's China. This opportunity gave me a good overview of the journal throughout its history.
The latest incarnation, Beijing Review, is quite different from its earlier siblings because the political situation in China is different. Beijing Review has become more accessible to a wider audience. Should someone uninformed about China encounter it now they would have no difficulties in understanding it. The writing is clearer. It is more explanatory. It reads more like a newspaper than a polemical broadside. It covers a wider range of topics. It takes note of foreign opinions of Chinese affairs and responds to them.
This is not to say it cannot improve but to say that it has improved a great deal already.
It remains a valuable source of information on China. The weekly nature makes it topical; its continued policy of publishing original documents in full makes it still an invaluable resource; and its new willingness to take on "hot" issues by arguing China's position (take, for example, the recent riots in Lhasa) adds to its value. Its willingness to change itself in search of a better product is commendable.
I wouldn't know how to begin to add up all that I have learned about China from this periodical in the two decades that I have been a regular reader. So I am pleased to be able repay some of that debt by being part of Beijing Review's 30th anniversary commemoration. I hope the process of improvement and change continue. I will be watching; for I intend to remain a regular reader.
The author teaches history at the State University of New York/Empire State College and is the author of The Making of Modern Tibet
(This article appears on page 20, VOL.31 NO. 11, MARCH 14-20, 1988)