On October 1, 1970, Edgar Snow sat on the balcony of Tiananmen Square alongside Mao Zedong and other prominent Chinese Communist leaders as tens of thousands of people paraded in front of the main gate to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Snow was the first foreign journalist to be allowed into China since the start of the Cultural Revolution. He had also been the very first foreign journalist to visit the Communist-occupied areas in Shaanxi province back in 1936.
Snow’s book Red Star Over China, published in 1937, became an international bestseller which shaped foreign perceptions of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for years. Among the people who were influenced by the book were the US Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, who stayed up all night reading it and brought it to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attention, China scholar John Fairbank, and journalist Theodore White (Hamilton, J. M. (1988). Edgar Snow. A Biography, pp. 85, 267).
It is therefore not surprising that the CCP views Snow as a prime example of how the party can use foreigners to spread its propaganda.
On June 20, Chinese Communist mouthpiece China Daily launched the Edgar Snow Newsroom (新时代斯诺工作室, literally “New Era [Edgar] Snow Workroom”) to “better tell the China story and the story of the Chinese Communist Party” (更好地对外讲述中国故事和中国共产党的故事).
“Better telling the China story” is a euphemism for CCP propaganda.
The announcement was made by China Daily chief editor Zhou Shuchun (周树春) at the Vision China event held in Jiaxing, Zhejiang province.
“80 years ago Edgar Snow visited Yan’an [Snow did not visit Yan’an, but Bao’an, then-temporary capital of the CCP-occupied territory], in the northern part of China’s Shaanxi province,” Zhou said. “He issued a large number of dispatches and reports, and he published Red Star Over China, explaining to the world faithfully what he saw, heard and thought, providing people abroad with a comprehensive understanding of the real China and Chinese Communist Party. Today, China needs to understand the world better, and the world also needs to understand China better” (80多年前，埃德加·斯诺来到中国陕北延安采访并发表了大量通讯报道，出版了《西行漫记》，将自己的所见所闻所思所想忠实介绍给世界，让海外人士全面了解真实的中国和中国共产党。今天的中国需要更好了解世界，世界也需要更好了解中国).
“The Edgar Snow Newsroom,” Zhou continued, “will give more platforms and opportunities to China Daily’s foreign journalists and our international friends for going to all parts of the country to more deeply understand the development and changes of China in the new era, for recording the wonderful China story and revealing a rich and varied, vivid and multidimensional image of China” (新时代斯诺工作室”将为中国日报外籍记者和国际友人提供更多平台和机会到各地深入了解新时代中国的发展变化，记录精彩的中国故事，展示丰富多彩、生动立体的中国形象).
Edgar Snow was a partisan sympathizer of the CCP. With his book, he helped spread party propaganda through interviews with and quotes from Communist leaders, chiefly Mao Zedong.
After moving to China in 1928, he soon developed pro-Communist views, while he opposed the then-ruling Guomindang government led by Chiang Kai-shek. In a 1935 letter to his brother, Snow wrote:
Remember that real revolution in China, just as anywhere else in the world, is tried only when every other means of resolving intolerable situations has been exhausted … You would not, if you came here, see much resemblance between the Red Army and an American election, and in appearance there is none. But when you had been here as long as I have you would begin to see that this revolution is merely an expression of a historic need of the masses, too long suppressed, too long denied, and now become volcanic and catastrophic in its manifestations. It is the people’s thumbs down on the rulers of the realm (Hamilton, 1988, p. 63).
In Red Star Over China, and later in the Epilogue to the 1944 edition of the book, Snow depicted the events in China from a CCP point of view, repeating arguments and talking points of the Communist leadership:
And the Communists intended that the workers and peasants should not turn over the fruits of that victory [over the Japanese during World War II] to the neo-capitalists whom they were thus to release, as had happened in France, Germany, Italy, everywhere, in fact, except in Russia. Instead, they should retain power throughout a kind of “NEP” period, a brief epoch of “controlled capitalism,” and then a period of state capitalism, followed at last by a speedy transition into Socialist construction, with the help of the U.S.S.R. …
The movement for social revolution in China might suffer defeats, might temporarily retreat, might for a time seem to languish, might make wide changes in tactics to fit immediate necessities and aims, might even for a period be submerged, be forced underground, but it would not only continue to mature; in one mutation or another it would eventually win, simply because (as this book proves, if it proves anything) the basic conditions which had given it birth carried within themselves the dynamic necessity for its triumph …
However they might feel about the Communists and what they now represented, most Chinese would admit that Mao Tse-tung accurately analyzed the internal and international forces involved, and correctly depicted the general shape of events to come …
By the summer of 1944 it had thus become manifest that the tiny band of youths who raised the Red flag on the lonely mountain of Chingkangshan far back in 1928 had launched a demonstration which evolved into a crusade which finally rose to the stature of a national movement of such scope that no arbiters of China’s destiny could much longer deny its claims to speak for vast multitudes of people (Snow, E. (1968). Red Star Over China, chapter 6, epilogue 1944).
Snow admitted himself that his book was partisan and written from a CCP perspective:
Much of this work is history seen from a partisan point of view, of course, but it is history as lived by the men and women who made it. It provided not only for non-Chinese readers, but also for the entire Chinese people including all but the Communist leaders themselves-the first authentic account of the Chinese Communist Party and the first connected story of their long struggle to carry through the most thoroughgoing social revolution in China’s three millenniums of history …
For many pages I simply wrote down what I was told by the extraordinary young men and women with whom it was my privilege to live at age thirty, and from whom I learned (or had the chance to learn) a great deal (ibid., preface to the revised edition).
Snow’s propaganda was extremely useful to the CCP. At a time when the world knew little about China’s Communists and viewed them as little more than a small group of bandits, Snow provided a first-hand, adventurous, entertaining and positive account that changed Western public perception on the CCP. As Kenneth Shewmaker explained:
[T]he significance of Red Star over China cannot be adequately measured by the number of copies sold. Harold R. Isaacs’ study indicates that it was second only to Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth as a major source of American impressions of the Chinese. Even as The Good Earth provided Americans with their first real understanding of ordinary Chinese people, Red Star over China gave Westerners their first authentic look into the lives of Chinese Communists. In a sense, Snow created the Chinese Communists for a generation of Americans. His was an image-making and an image-breaking book. Snow utterly demolished the notion that Chinese Communists were bandits and promoted them to the status of dynamic Marxist revolutionary reformers. He also contested the idea that the CCP was simply a subservient puppet of Moscow. Rather, he asserted, the CCP had developed a unique and indigenous brand of communism.
As they emerged from the pages of Red Star over China, China’s Communists were an engaging composite of positive adjectives. They were young, democratic, popular, patriotic, progressive, and orderly. This “incredible brotherhood” was dissimilar to anything the American had seen during his seven years in the Far East (Shewmaker, K. E. (2020). Americans and Chinese Communists,1927–1945. A Persuading Encounter, p. 58).
Enlisting foreigners and, as we would call them today, “influencers”, is part of the CCP’s united front policy. And cultivating people with the talent, influence and ideological alignment of an Edgar Snow, someone capable of shaping Western public opinion’s views on the CCP, would be as beneficial to China’s regime today as it was to Mao.
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- The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State, by Elizabeth C. Economy.