THE LIFE AND DEATH OF ISRAEL EPSTEIN
Israel Epstein, a famous apologist for the Chinese Communist regime, has died
in Beijing at age 90. Epstein, or "Epi" as he was known in Chinese, was brought to China in 1917 by his parents who were of Polish
Jewish origins. As a journalist in China during the 1930s and '40s he wrote articles for the foreign press that were sympathetic to the
Chinese Communists. In 1957 he became a Chinese citizen. He worked for the magazine, China Reconstructs, for many years.
Epstein was a communist sympathizer who wrote many articles and books justifying the Chinese Communists' policies. In 1983
Epstein published a book, Tibet Transformed, based upon his three visits to Tibet in 1955, 1965 and 1976, in which he attempted to
show that Tibet had been transformed for the better by the Chinese Communists. Although Epstein made every excuse for Chinese
Communist failures in Tibet and elsewhere, he could not avoid being persecuted for lack of adherence to Maoist policy during the
Cultural Revolution. He spent five years in prison during the Cultural Revolution.
Chinese Communist party leaders Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao paid tribute to Israel Epstein at his memorial service. Epstein
was described as someone who made great contributions to China through his journalism. He was responsible for the development of
Chinese publications meant for a non-Chinese audience. Although Chinese leaders described Epstein as a journalist who did much to
explain China to the outside world, many of those in the outside world who were familiar with his work knew him as an apologist for
the Chinese Communist regime.
Epstein lived in China almost all his life and was undoubtedly sympathetic to the Chinese people. He became sympathetic to the
Chinese Communists' ideals. However, he later had to obscure the reality of what was happening in China by pretending that the
ideals were actually being achieved. His book on Tibet, Tibet Transformed, is an example. He painted a picture of Tibet that was
what the Chinese Communists claimed was happening rather than the reality. His difficulty in satisfying the Chinese Communists
requirement for propaganda that was entirely divorced from reality is illustrated by his persecution during the Cultural Revolution.
Like many who were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, like Tibet's Panchen Lama, Epstein made the mistake of thinking that
the Chinese Communist leaders were open to criticism of their policies. However, Epstein, like the Panchen Lama, found that the
Communists had abandoned their ideals and that criticism was no longer allowed.
Epstein visited Tibet in 1955, 1965 and 1976 when almost no outsiders were allowed. He says in his book that he conveys
the view of Tibetans themselves. His book was published in 1983, at a time of relative liberalization in Chinese politics. Although
Epstein loyally follows the Chinese Communist Party propaganda line about Tibet, presumably he was not sufficiently conformist to
have his book published until seven years after his last trip. His Tibet book may even have had something to do with Epstein's
persecution during the Cultural Revolution. Nevertheless, it is difficult to see in his book what the Chinese Communists may have
objected to since it is entirely consistent with the Communist Party line.
Epstein portrays Tibetan history during the period under consideration as a time of great advancement in social and
economic development broken only by a few mistakes during the Cultural Revolution. He sees Tibet's fate as historically determined
by Marxist theory to be liberation of the Tibetan serfs generously supported by the Chinese Communists whose only motive was to
help the Tibetans. He sees the revolt of 1959 as simply an attempt by serf-owners to preserve their privileges and way of life. He sees
Tibet as undeniably a part of China. He admits that there were errors made during the Cultural Revolution not only in regard to Tibet
but in minority policy in general. This may be why his book could not be published until 1983. He says that all defects in China's
Tibet policy were being corrected in the 1980s. However, this did not mean that China's policy in Tibet had been wrong or that
Tibetans wished to return to the time before liberation. He, like the Chinese, imagined that Tibetans would like to return to the period
after the revolt but before the Cultural Revolution, a time, he says, that Tibetans remember as the golden age of democratic and
socialist reforms. He saw only the need to reform the Chinese Communists' essentially correct policies in Tibet, especially in regard
to the training of Tibetan cadres.
In the early 1980s Epstein may have reason to be optimistic about Tibet, especially in comparison to the past. However,
China's policy of allowing a small degree of Tibetan autonomy has since been reversed. Epstein prided himself in telling Tibet's story
as told to him by Tibetans themselves. However, what the outside world learned during the 1980s was that before that time Tibetans
were unable to speak freely. The Tibetans to whom Epstein spoke in all his trips to Tibet were practiced in repeating the party line
about Tibet. No one could tell the truth without fear of repression. Therefore, the accounts that Epstein received and that he related in
his book are hardly the truth about Tibet.
The truth about Tibet began to come out in the 1980s when foreigners were allowed to go to Tibet and many Tibetans went to India.
The period that Epstein says was the golden age in Tibet, just after the revolt, was actually the time of the greatest tragedy in Tibetan
history. Epstein's book of Chinese propaganda about Tibet had the misfortune to be published just when the truth about Tibet was
being revealed. If Epstein had been able to publish his book earlier he might have been believed, since no outsiders had access to
Tibet. As it happened, Epstein's book about Tibet appears as an attempt to justify China's policies in Tibet just when those policies
had been discredited. Epstein's book about Tibet, like his life spent trying to justify the Chinese Communist regime, was an attempt to
cover up the truth.
2005 Radio Free Asia