Jonathan Mirsky, Journalist and Historian of China, Dies at 88
He brought a historian’s expertise to many decades of writing about China for The Observer of London, The New York Review of Books and other outlets.,
Jonathan Mirsky, who brought a historian’s expertise to many decades of writing about China, notably as a correspondent for The Observer of London during the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 and as a longtime contributor to The New York Review of Books, died on Sept. 5 at his home in London. He was 88.
His death was confirmed by the former British diplomat Roger Garside, a close friend.
Dr. Mirsky was a professor of Chinese language and history at Dartmouth College when he visited China for the first time, in 1972. An ardent antiwar activist and a self-described “Mao fan,” he went as part of a group representing the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, a radical coalition dedicated to ending the war in Vietnam.
At the time, China was in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, but few outside the country knew the full scale of the upheaval that had been unleashed by Mao Zedong. Not long after arriving in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, the visiting group was whisked off to meet a “typical Chinese worker family.” Mr. Mirsky came away from the meeting impressed: The family seemed prosperous, with a nicely appointed home. Crime, the group was told, was nonexistent.
The next morning, while on a stroll around the neighborhood, Dr. Mirsky bumped into the father from the “typical” family. He invited Dr. Mirsky, who was fluent in Mandarin, into his real home — a shabby, worn-down apartment — and explained that they had in fact earlier been in a show apartment arranged by Chinese authorities for “foreign friends.” The man also explained that there was no shortage of crime.
“I returned to the hotel, stunned by what I had seen and heard,” Dr. Mirsky later recalled in an account of the trip that was published in the 2012 book “My First Trip to China: Scholars, Diplomats and Journalists Reflect on Their First Encounters With China.” Afterward, Dr. Mirsky wrote, he became “suspicious of every venue, every briefing, and every account of how everything should be understood.”
In just 48 hours, Dr. Mirsky went from being a “Mao fan” to a disillusioned skeptic, foreshadowing a similar shift in how left-leaning intellectuals in America would come to see the Communist government in China.
“He had a sharp eye for the abuses of totalitarian dictatorship,” said Mr. Garside, the author most recently of “China Coup: The Great Leap to Freedom” (2021). “He was early to denounce the evils of the Mao regime before it became fashionable to do so.”
Dr. Mirsky maintained that skeptical stance even as he made the transition from academia to journalism.
As China correspondent for The Observer, he was at Tiananmen Square early in the early morning on June 4, 1989, when the People’s Liberation Army, acting on government orders, launched a bloody crackdown on peaceful protesters. At around 3 a.m., Dr. Mirsky was leaving the scene to file a report on the crackdown when he came upon a group of armed police officers. When they found out he was a journalist, they beat him, fracturing his left arm and knocking out multiple teeth.
Dr. Mirsky managed to dictate his article by phone. The next morning he cycled back to Tiananmen, where he saw soldiers shoot parents who were trying to enter the square to look for children who had not returned home. He said he also saw soldiers shoot doctors and nurses who had come to the scene to help the injured. (Many China scholars still regard as unresolved how many people were killed in the crackdown and where they died; estimates range from the hundreds to the thousands.)
“Tiananmen Square became a place of horror,” Dr. Mirsky wrote in his front-page article on the day of the crackdown, “where tanks and troops fought with students and workers, where armored personnel carriers burned and blood lay in pools on the stones.”
Dr. Mirsky was named international reporter of the year at the 1989 British Press Awards for his Tiananmen coverage.
Jonathan Mirsky was born on Nov. 14, 1932, in Manhattan to Alfred E. Mirsky, a prominent biochemist, and Reba Paeff Mirsky, a musician and author of children’s books. He studied at the Fieldston School in New York and received a bachelor’s degree in history from Columbia University. He studied Mandarin at the University of Cambridge and in 1958 moved with his wife, Betsy, to Taiwan, where he studied Chinese and Tang Dynasty history for four years.
Dr. Mirsky’s first marriage ended in divorce, and in 1963 he married Rhona Pearson, a British neurobiologist. After he received a Ph.D. in Chinese history from the University of Pennsylvania in 1966, he began teaching at Dartmouth College, where he was the co-director of the East Asia Language and Area Studies Center.
As a professor, Dr. Mirsky was an active participant in the anti-Vietnam War protest movement. He traveled to Southeast Asia multiple times and conducted lengthy interviews with North Vietnamese government officials. He participated in meetings and sit-ins, and he was arrested in 1972, along with other Dartmouth faculty members and students, for blocking a bus carrying draftees.
Dr. Mirsky failed to receive tenure at Dartmouth. So in 1975 he and his wife moved to London, where he eventually became a journalist. In addition to working as a China correspondent for The Observer, he wrote over the decades for a range of publications, including The Independent and Literary Review.
He went on to report from around China, taking a particular interest in Tibet, which he visited six times. His interview subjects included the exiled Dalai Lama, with whom he later forged a friendship.
Dr. Mirsky was effectively expelled from China in 1991. Two years later, he took up a post in Hong Kong as East Asia editor for The Times of London. He resigned in 1998 because he believed the newspaper was scaling back its critical coverage of China to protect the commercial interests of Rupert Murdoch, its owner. (Peter Stothard, who was then the editor of The Times, rejected the allegations.)
Dr. Mirsky divorced his second wife in 1986 and married Deborah Glass, an Australian ombudsman, in 1997. The couple separated in 2014. Along with her, Dr. Mirsky is survived by his sister, Reba Goodman.
Dr. Mirsky was unsparing in his criticism of China’s Communist rulers and the Western leaders he believed were overlooking Beijing’s rights abuses to preserve economic ties. Throughout his career, he often wrote of the Communist Party’s insistence on controlling the narrative — and what he saw as the deleterious effects this had on Chinese society as a whole.
“For the Chinese, lying creates a universe of uncertainty in which one of the commonest answers to questions is ‘bu qingchu’ — ‘I’m not clear about that’,” he wrote in The Observer in 1993. “There is virtually no aspect of life outside the immediate family or close circle of friends where one can be certain about the truth.”