07 October 2021, The Tablet

The China watcher


László Ládányi

The China watcher

A Hong Kong street in the 1950s, left, and the cover of the first issue of China News Analysis
Photo: Alamy/Allan Cash Pcture Library

 

For three decades, every ‘China watcher’ pored over a newsletter bearing the unfashionable warning that the Communist Party was incapable of reform. Its unlikely author was a gaunt, grey-haired Hungarian Jesuit priest

There are many legends in the rich folklore of Hong Kong. Under its modern masters, however, myths are compulsory, the past is a trap and history is remade in the image of a new ­“patriotic” curriculum. Yet just as free ­scholarship falls into great peril, it is more important than ever to grasp why this ­happened, to face Hong Kong’s life as a British colony and to see its place in the Chinese ­psyche. Fortunately, we have a legend to guide us.

He is Fr László Ládányi (inset), a Hungarian Jesuit priest who in 1953 founded China News Analysis, a weekly printed newsletter which he produced from his small basement room in a student hostel at Hong Kong University until his retirement in 1982. Time and again in researching the story of Hong Kong I heard people mentioning him, usually with a shake of the head in tribute to his bleak wisdom.

The newsletter itself was renowned. It was considered so authoritative that the colony’s consulates, spies, traders, scholars and journalists subscribed to it. So did the Soviet bloc embassies in Beijing, where they languished in a fog of incomprehension. Fr Ládányi pierced through the mists of China watching to discern the big picture. A handful of Chinese assistants helped him read more than a dozen newspapers daily. They listened to scratchy broadcasts from Beijing Radio and collected provincial newspapers and pamphlets from travellers. They studied anything put out by the Communist Party in Hong Kong, which operated underground but was – in those days – a haven for liberals.

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