Source of quote: The Lincoln Project.
Source of quote: The Lincoln Project.
[Note: the “Explaining China” series began here, and the source for the map above is given there as well.]
A persistent worry in the Western world, particularly among the political right, concerns a supposedly-coming-soon war with China, as if China were harboring ambitions to take over the world. Evidence for this idea’s existence can be easily obtained; simply enter “coming war with” into Google; it will supply China as the top choice with which to end the phrase.
People should stop worrying about a war with China. It isn’t hard to avoid one, and we have nothing to gain from such a war, anyway.
First, as with other nations, China will defend itself if attacked. Therefore, to avoid being at war with China, the first step is to refrain from attacking China.
The next step is to realize that China has a long history with invasion, particularly from neighboring countries, and tries to maintain a “buffer zone” of controlled (or at least influenced) territory surrounding China — for defensive reasons, and with a rationale not unlike the one for the Monroe Doctrine in the Americas.
Since Deng Xiaoping changed the direction of China’s economy (“To be rich is glorious” is one of his famous quotations) from Maoist Communism to nominal-Communism, Chinese leaders have also become concerned about staying rich, and getting richer. To do this, they need markets to sell their stuff. Politically, what the Chinese want is simple: stability. Why? Also simple: China has had more than its share of instability, and this has often been fatal for millions of people. The Chinese have no desire for more instability. Therefore, they aren’t looking for a fight. They’ve let Hong Kong and Macau do pretty much what they want, relative t0 the rest of China, and they’ve tolerated their situation regarding Taiwan for decades.
The only place where there has been outright war between the People’s Republic of China and the West has been the Korean peninsula, which is, of course, still a global “hot spot.” At the beginning of the Cold War, Korea was partitioned between the victors of World War II, as the USA and USSR, each with their allies, squared off against each other. This brought American troops into Korea. China did not become involved at first — not until Western forces were nearing the Yalu River, which separates North Korea from China. At that point, hundreds of thousands of Chinese “volunteers” crossed that river, pushing American forces back. Ultimately, a stalemate similar to the war’s starting point was reached, and is still there today, DMZ and all.
North Korea is dangerous, but that doesn’t mean China is seeking war there. Since the death of Mao, China has moved ever closer to the goal of political stability. The government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (the DPRK, or North Korea’s absurd-but-official name) is a destabilizing force. If necessary, the governments in Beijing and Seoul can deal with Pyongyang. It would be best if the West did not get involved, unless (and this is unlikely) our assistance is requested.
It is a fact that we (the USA) have treaty obligations all over the place, and that is a problem we should fix. World War II is long over, as is the Cold War. Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea can now afford to pay for their own defenses. We should let them do this, and renegotiate the various treaties which would make it difficult for the United States to stay out of East Asian conflicts, on the grounds that these treaties (in present form) are no longer necessary.
The Chinese aren’t looking for a fight; they are quite busy, and have been for decades now, making lots of money by making things we need, and selling them to us. That might anger some people who bemoan the associated movement of jobs to China, but it is certainly no reason for war. The Chinese certainly won’t seek out war with us, for, without us, they can’t sell as much stuff, and would therefore make less money.
The people of China want stability, wealth, and more stability. They know, from their own history, that the opposite of these things often results in millions of deaths. Overt war is not on China’s agenda, nor should we put it there, by indulging in ill-considered American military (mis-)adventures in East Asia. There is no good reason for war with China to ever happen again. To avoid it, we must only do two things:
It would also help if the American political right would tone down the saber-rattling, but that’s probably not going to happen. On the other hand, as long as the rhetoric is not mixed with actual military actions, it can be safely tolerated. We have been doing that for decades, anyway, after all.
Multiple East Asian nations are discussed in this post, the third of a series which began here, and is usually focused only on China, and the Han Chinese. Those nations are The People’s Republic of China (the PRC); Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China (ROC); North Korea; South Korea; and Japan. Many Americans, when they see a person whom they think is from East Asia (based on appearance), will simply guess — and sometimes they go even further, and guess out loud. This is usually not intentional rudeness, but it is a socially-dangerous breach of etiquette, made all the more serious if a spoken guess is an incorrect one. The reasons for this are complex, involving such things as tense relationships between ethnic groups and historical atrocities. The etiquette-based solution to avoid walking into a metaphorical minefield, once understood, is a simple set of principles. If you simply want to look for the principles, and skip the explanation of how I learned these things, and why they make sense, simply look for the red, centered text.
1. Listen carefully, before and after talking.
2. Silence is seldom considered rude.
3. Every interaction (as might happen playing the game above) is an opportunity to learn.
The board and stones above will be recognized, as the game of go, by many people around the world. Go is the national game of Japan. Although I would never say this if I were in Japan, this game originated in China. The Chinese call it weiqi (pronounced “way-chee”), and the Japanese call it igo (this word sounds like the English word “ego”). Japan introduced this game to the Western world, which is why its English name is similar to the Japanese, rather than the Chinese, name. However, I did not learn this game from a Chinese nor a Japanese person, so, when in the presence of this teacher (who taught me taekwondo as well), I had to remember to call the game baduk, its name in Korean.
4. If you must guess about ethnicity, keep your guesses to yourself.
At the time I learned both go and taekwondo, I was a young teenager. The angriest I ever saw this teacher was an occasion where an American adult assumed, out loud, that he was Japanese. Being young, I didn’t put cause and effect together by myself, but it was later explained to me: during World War II, which had ended less than forty years ago at that time, atrocities had been committed by Japanese during World War II in South Korea. My teacher immigrated to the United States from South Korea a generation later, in 1977, and the angriest I ever saw him was in reaction to this blunder by the American who called him Japanese, because of what had happened to his nation during WWII.
There have been many other conflicts between East Asian nations, as well, including China, which was also invaded by Japan. Following WWII (which ended with the USA dropping two atomic bombs on Japanese cities), the Korean War started, which brought China into conflict with both Koreans and the USA. All these conflicts are within living memory, meaning that there are people still alive who remember these things happening. These international conflicts (and earlier ones, of course) are a major reason for inter-ethnic conflict, and few people want to be confused with their historical enemies.
5. An understanding of history can explain much basic etiquette.
Later still, I encountered other ways people can make social blunders of related types. For example, anyone born in the USA is an American citizen, and can be legitimately called an American — and that’s a term to which most American citizens do not object. If the person’s parents came from, say, Taiwan, and they are ethnically of the Han, this creates a situation few Americans understand, for the whole China/Taiwan thing is certainly complex. Under such circumstances, it’s perfectly understandable that one might prefer to be called “American,” rather than having to try to explain exactly which China one’s parents immigrated from. Many Americans, after all, do not even know that two Chinese governments (the PRC’s in Beijing, and the ROC’s in Taipei, both claiming for decades to be the government of all of Greater China) exist.
However, there is an even better way to refer to individual people — any people, anywhere.
6. When possible, use people’s names and/or titles, expressed politely, and pronounced correctly.
With my taekwondo and baduk teacher, for example, it was seldom necessary to call him anything other than “Mr. Lee,” or simply, “sir.” I knew he was Korean, and from South Korea, but that was seldom discussed. I learned much by simply paying attention to him, and he taught me a lot. Later, I learned things about Japan, mostly from exposure to, and conversation with, Japanese people. Still later, I began learning about China (both the PRC and the ROC) and the Han, and found that my best sources of information were — no surprise — people of the Han, themselves.
7. For more detailed advice on etiquette, seek insider sources.
This means that, if you’re preparing to visit mainland China (the PRC), and want advice to avoid social blunders there, you’ll get your best information from those who have lived in the PRC. Similar principles apply to other places, such as my learning elements of Korean etiquette from a Korean. With people who are currently located in the PRC, though, one must carefully stay on topic, and there is one topic which must be avoided.
8. To avoid putting them in danger from their own government, do not discuss political issues with anyone located in the People’s Republic of China.
This would also apply to North Korea (formally: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK), but that is far less likely to come up, simply because the PRC now encourages foreign tourism there, while the DPRK remains a closed society, as the PRC was during the reign of Chairman Mao. Both of these governments are totalitarian, are perfectly willing to kill their own citizens, and will not tolerate any propaganda (discussing, say, democracy, or human rights, would count as propaganda), except for their own.
Principle #9, below, is essential to understanding anything about these East Asian nations. When I studied East Asian history in graduate school, this was my starting point.
9. China ≠ Japan ≠ Korea.
10. Remember that these are basic principles only, and use #7 to learn more.
It would be a mistake for anyone to take this as a complete list, for it is not.
[Image credit: I found the image of a weiqi/baduk/igo/go set on eBay, right here. It is for sale for the next few weeks.]
In the map above, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is shown in red, while the Republic of China (ROC) is shown in yellow. “Barbarian” nations (from the point of view of the Han, or the ethnic group we call “Chinese” in English) are shown in orange, and both oceans and large lakes are shown in blue. The third (and only other) majority-Han nation, the island city-state called Singapore, is not shown on this map, as it is too far to the South to be seen here. From the point of view of the Han, “barbarians” have been, historically, those humans who were not Han, while “the Han” can be translated as “the people.”
This historical xenophobia I just described among the Han is hardly unique; it is, in my opinion, simply human nature. The British rock band Pink Floyd explained this, quite well, in the following song, “Us and Them,” from 1973’s classic Dark Side of the Moon. This album, in the form of a cassette tape which had to be purchased by my parents (for I would not let go of it in the store we were in), happens to be the first musical album I actually owned, back when it was newly-released (I was born in 1968). If you choose to listen to this song, please consider this idea of xenophobia, as simply being a human characteristic, while it plays.
Ancient Greeks had the same “us and them” attitude about those who did not speak Greek, and the English word “barbarian” is derived from Greek, with a meaning which parallels what I have described in China. Eurocentrism, in general, in the study of “world history,” is well-known. Moving to another continent, the people where I live, the USA, are famous for learning geography one nation at a time . . . as we go to war with them, of course. Only a tiny percentage of Americans knew where either Korea was located until we went to war there, and we (as a people) did not know where Vietnam was until we went to war there. More recently, Americans learned — twice! — where Iraq is, though many of us still, inexplicably, confuse it with Iran. This list of xenophobic nations is far from complete, but these examples are sufficient to make the point.
When, in 1939, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill uttered the famous phrase, “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” he was referring to the Soviet Union (or USSR), although the proper noun he actually used was “Russia.” However, this quotation applies equally well to the PRC, which has one indisputable advantage over the USSR: the People’s Republic of China still exists, while the Soviet Union does not. In the last post here, I began an ambitious series, with the goal of explaining China. I promised, then, that my next post in the series would explain my qualifications to write on the subject of the PRC, the ROC, Greater China, and the Han — so that’s what I need to do now.
I am currently working on my second master’s degree, in an unrelated field (gifted, talented, and creative education). However, my first master’s degree was obtained in 1996, when Deng Xiaoping, while no longer the PRC’s “paramount leader,” was still seen as its most prominent retired elder statesman. It was Deng Xiaoping, primarily, who made (and defended) the decision to send the tanks in, and crush the pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, in June of 1989, which I watched as they happened, on live TV. I was horrified by those events, and this has not changed.
During the early 1990s, I began studying the economic reforms which made the era of Deng Xiaoping so different from Chairman Mao’s China, trying to figure out the solution to a big puzzle: how so much economic growth could be coming from an area dominated by a huge, totalitarian, country which, at that time and now, was one of the few remaining nations on Earth which still claimed to be Communist. This study was done during the time of the “New Asia” investment bubble, as it was called after it “popped” (as all investment bubbles do, sooner or later). New Asia’s economic growth was led by the “Four Tigers” of Hong Kong (still a British colony, at that time), Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea. South Korea is, of course, Korean, but the other three “tigers,” all had, and still have, majority-Han populations. What money I had, I invested in the Four Tigers, and I made significant profits doing so, which, in turn, led to a general interest in East Asia.
Motivated by simple human avarice, I studied the Four Tigers intensely, leading me to focus (to the extent made possible by the course offerings) on 20th Century East Asian history, during the coursework for my first master’s degree. There was a problem with this, though, and I was unaware of it at the time. My university (a different one than the one I attend now) had only one East Asian history professor, and he was very much a Sinophile. Sinophiles love China uncritically, or with the minimal amount of criticism they can get away with. When we studied the rise to power of Mao Zedong, and the PRC under the thumb of Chairman Mao, I heard it explained by a man who viewed China, and Chairman Mao, through rose-colored glasses, even while teaching about others who made the same error, to an even greater degree. I had already read one book about the Cultural Revolution, earlier in the 1980s, so I was skeptical, but he was also my only professor. The result was confusion. This was the book I had already read, along with a link to a page on Amazon where you can purchase it, and easily find and purchase the Pink Floyd music posted earlier, if you wish to do so. This is Son of the Revolution, by Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro, and you can buy it at https://www.amazon.com/Son-Revolution-Liang-Heng/dp/0394722744/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1468869380&sr=8-1&keywords=son+of+the+revolution.
This book was read for an undergraduate sociology course, at my first college, during the Reagan years. The important thing to know about Liang Heng, the book’s primary author, is that he was, himself, of the Han, as well as being from the PRC itself. The professor for this course wanted us to see the horror of a mass movement gone horribly wrong, and she chose this insider’s view of the Cultural Revolution, during which I was born, to do that. What I heard from my East Asian history professor did not mesh well with what I was taught by my East Asian history professor, and so I left that degree program confused. This professor’s argument, in a nutshell, was Chairman Mao was a figure of tremendous importance (true) who had good intentions (false), and tried to do amazing things (half-true, and half-false by omission, for these were amazing and horribly evil things), but had them turn out wrong (true), with many millions of his own people dying as a result, over and over (definitely true; Mao’s total death total exceeds that of Hitler or Stalin, either one). The “good intentions” part was what confused me, of course, for Mao was a monster, yet, from my later professor, I was hearing him described as a Great and Important Man.
I would have remained in this confused state, has I not also read this book, also written, primarily, by a person of the Han: the amazing Jung Chang, who has her own page on Amazon, at http://www.amazon.com/Jung-Chang/e/B00N3U50ZO/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1468870698&sr=8-2-ent. (On that page, I notice she has a newer book out, which I have not read, and she is such a fantastic author that I am buying it now.) This, by contrast, was her first well-known book, and the one I read as an undergraduate:
Wild Swans tells the story of three generations of Han women: Jung Chang’s maternal grandmother (who had bound feet, and could barely walk, for that reason), then the author’s mother, and then finally Jung Chang herself, who found herself a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution at the age of 14. This book tells their story, and is riveting. It has nothing nice to say about Chairman Mao, and contains much criticism of “The Great Helmsman,” as his cult of personality enthusiastically called him, yet he is not the focus of Wild Swans. The author’s family, over three generations, is.
I did my master’s degree work from the Sinophile professor described earlier, and then, later on still, I encountered Sinophobes. The opposite of Sinophiles, people who have Sinophobia have nothing nice to say about China, nor the Han. They hate and fear things Chinese because they fear the unknown — in other words, Sinophobia is a more specific form of xenophobia.
So, first, I read Liang Heng, and then, later, I started reading Jung Chang. Next, I heard the Maoist viewpoint explained quite thoroughly by my Sinophile professor, while my reading of Liang Heng and Jung Chang had exposed me to an anti-Mao, but non-Sinophobic, point of view, which is a direct consequence of the fact that both authors were actually of the Han, and had direct exposure to Maoism. Later came the Sinophobes, and their written and spoken, anti-Chinese, case for . . . whatever. (Actually, the Sinophobes never make a case for anything, unless one counts hating and fearing China and the Han as being “for” something. I do not.) Later still, one of my close friends studied ancient Chinese history and philosophy extensively, and we had (and still have) many talks about both ancient and modern China, including Chairman Mao, and the silliness of the Sinophobes, but this friend is more interested in talking about, say, Confucianism, rather than Maoism, or Mao himself. I was primed to learn the truth about Mao, but had to wait for the right opportunity.
Think about this, please. How many books have been written that accurately describe Stalin as a monster? How many exist about Hitler? I should not have had to wait so long to find out something about Mao I felt I could believe, and that described him as the monster he was, but wait I did, for no such book existed . . . until Jung Chang came to my rescue, with her next book, after 1991’s Wild Swans. All 800+ pages of it.
It took her many years to write this tome, and it was published in 2005. She grew up under Mao, having been born in 1952, not long after the revolution of 1949, which established the People’s Republic of China. Chairman Mao finally died in 1976. Two years after that, Jung Chang was sent to Great Britain as a college student, on a government scholarship. Being highly intelligent, and not wanting to return to China, she went on to become the first of the Han to receive a Ph.D. at any British university. This book, focused on Mao’s formative years, rise to power, and tyrannical rule, all the way to his death, is, as its subtitle states, “The Unknown Story” of this historical period. Jung Chang was uniquely qualified to write this story, having lived through so much of the events described in her book. She knew how expendable people were to Mao, having witnessed it, and survived. To the extent possible (and she was quite resourceful on this point) she used primary sources. This is why I give her much credibility.
These are the ways I have learned about China: from three books by two of the Han, long talks with a personal friend, and two college professors with different points of view on China, and Mao in particular. I have rejected the points of view of both the Sinophiles and the Sinophobes, and now I try to learn what I can from other sources, especially sources who are, themselves, of the Han — although I am weakened in this respect by the fact that I am only bilingual, with my two languages being mathematics and English, in that order. If you think this approach makes sense, I hope you will read my other posts, past and future, about China and the Han.
I’m bringing a new topic to my blog. I’m going to attempt to explain things about China, the largest nation in which the Han (that’s the way to write, in English, the Chinese name for the Chinese people, as an ethnic group) form the majority, as well as the largest nation on Earth, by population. The map above comes from this website. If you’re wondering why, in the map above, Taiwan is the same color as the People’s Republic of China, this series of blog-posts is definitely for you. In a future post, I will deal with the historical reasons for the China/Taiwan puzzle, and the current state of that interesting situation. (“May you live in interesting times” is not a nice thing to say directly to any of the Han, by the way, no matter where they live. It is considered by many people to be part of an ancient Chinese curse, although the veracity of this claim is disputed — a topic for another post, later in this series.)
If you find China, Taiwan, puzzles in general, mysteries which are not fictional, history, current events, and/or the Han to be interesting topics, then this irregularly-published series of blog-posts is for you. If you aren’t interested in any of those topics, my assumption is that you wouldn’t have read this far, anyway. To those who miss the other topics about which I blog, don’t worry: posts in this series will not be the only topic I blog about, by any means, for the fact that I am interested in many things, and blog on many topics, is not going to change.
The People’s Republic of China is also known as mainland China, Red China, the PRC, Communist China, or simply “China.” The government of the PRC is often referred to simply as “Beijing,” the city which is the capital of the PRC. Taiwan, by contrast, is officially known as the Republic of China, or the ROC, or even, by some people, “Taiwan, China” (a term I tend not to use). The ROC’s government can be referred to as “Taipei,” the ROC’s capital, to distinguish it from the government in Beijing. My preferred way to refer to the nation-state which is actually under the control of the Beijing government is to call it the PRC, and I use ROC, often, to refer to the nation-state actually under the control of the Taipei government, which most people call Taiwan, a term I also use. When I only write “China,” I mean the PRC. I also use the term “Greater China,” which is explained below.
The Han are in the majority in both the PRC and the ROC, and these two regions are collectively known as “Greater China,” which sounds like, and in some ways actually is, one nation with two governments, since both governments claim to be the only legitimate government of the nation which is all of Greater China (and, yes, that is confusing, along with “China Proper” on the map above). All of these topics: the nations, governments, regions, and people, are mysteries for most people on Earth — and topics for future posts in this series.
I am not of the Han. I do not speak, read, nor write any variety of the Chinese language. Also, I have yet to visit any part of Greater China. By contrast, I am known as a teacher of both science and mathematics, as someone who does “math problems for fun” (as my blog’s heading-cartoon, which I did not write, puts it), as well as a blogger on many topics that have previously had little to do with China, until this post, from yesterday, which analyzed current events worldwide, starting with recent developments in China. I do not want anyone to think I just started studying China yesterday, for that would not be correct. I do feel that I owe anyone who has read this far an explanation for exactly one thing: why should anyone care what I have to say on these subjects? I will explain that in Part II of this ongoing series . . . and tackling the PRC/ROC puzzle will be coming later, as will other topics.
If you’re old enough, you remember this iconic image, from June 4, 1989 — twenty-six years ago today.
If you don’t know what happened 26 years ago in Tiananmen Square, here’s a link to Wikipedia’s article describing the vicious crackdown there, on peaceful pro-democracy protesters in Beijing, China, on June 4, 1989: twenty-six years ago today. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiananmen_Square_protests_of_1989
I was in college, as an undergraduate. So were many of the protesters. I watched the tanks roll in and murder them on live TV. This man, through an a amazing display of courage, held off a row of tanks alone, and unarmed, and delayed those tanks’ arrival at the massacre — but he couldn’t block every street to Tiananmen Square, and the Red Army was free to attack from any direction. This tense, but quiet, scene was not all I saw and heard those dark June days. When Deng Xiaoping gave the order, the Red Army came in, and took the college kids out. And thus, for decades, the hopeful light of freedom has dimmed almost to nothingness. People in college right now in China are quite likely not to even know about what happened in 1989. That’s forbidden information, so it isn’t freely shared, and much time has passed.
Think about that, please: “forbidden information.” The group that can hide the past can do anything they want in secret, and no one will ever know. That’s the position in which recline the decadent neo-“Communists” now in control of China. There, “to be rich is glorious,” as Deng rewrote Mao (who had rewritten Marx), and they fully intend to stretch the current period out for as long as they can.
China never gets in a hurry. Get things done, yes, but not on anyone else’s schedule.
Beijing still denies there was a large massacre in 1989, and still punishes anyone there who dares to discuss the topic, publicly, in any way that doesn’t “properly” defer to the regime. If you are ever in communication with anyone inside China, it’s important to avoid this topic — for the safety of that person, as well as his or her family.
When I was a little kid, my sister and I dug a big hole, in our front yard, and simply called it “the digging-hole.” It looked a lot like the hole shown above, except for the fact that, during daylight hours, our digging-hole usually included two small, dirt-covered, determined children, armed with plastic shovels. We tried, for years, to dig that hole as deep as possible. My personal goal, of course, was the Earth’s molten core, not India, and certainly not China.
Why do Americans so often talk about digging a hole straight down to China, anyway? Even if the Earth were solid all the way through its interior, digging straight down, from almost anywhere in the contiguous 48 states of the USA, would not put you in China, nor even India (which is, at least, closer to being correct than is China), but at the bottom of the Southern Indian Ocean. Salty water would suddenly rush into your newly-dug tunnel, killing you instantly, as soon as you got close to enough to the other side for the extreme water-pressure there to finish your digging project for you. The only exceptions to this watery doom would be coming out of the tunnel on one of the islands in that ocean, which would require great precision to hit deliberately.
Also, the fact that China and the USA are both Northern-hemisphere nations easily rules China out as the hypothetical “solid-earth” destination for Americans who dig straight down, and all the way through. If you could go through the center of the earth from North of the equator, you’d have to end up South of the equator. Isn’t that obvious? Don’t people look at globes?
Whenever people ask me to name my favorite author, I always have to ask them to be more specific, for I cannot bring myself to choose just one. If gender is specified, and either fiction or non-fiction is, as well, then I am able to choose a favorite author in each of the resulting four categories.
My two favorite writers of fiction, Flannery O’Connor and Robert A. Heinlein, are shown at the top. Flannery O’Connor was often described as a Southern gothic writer with an excellent ability to describe the grotesque, mostly with short stories, while Robert Heinlein was often called the greatest of all writers in the genre of science fiction. I wish it were possible for them to write even more, but, unlike the two authors described next, they are no longer living.
Shown below O’Connor and Heinlein are my two favorite authors of non-fiction, Jung Chang and Sam Harris. Jung Chang writes about Chinese history, eloquently, from the perspective of someone who actually was a Red Guard during the utterly insane period known as the Chinese Cultural Revolution, as a teenager, but later managed to get out of the People’s Republic — and, crucially, she was also able to mentally escape the powerful cult of personality which surrounded that nation’s leader for over two decades, Chairman Mao Zedong. She has gone on to become one of Mao’s harshest critics.
Sam Harris, a neuroscientist, began his career as an author by writing books criticizing religion, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001. He has since moved on to other topics (and writing better books than his earlier work, in my opinion), such as the corrosive effects of lying, the question of the existence or non-existence of free will, and a scientific approach to dealing with issues involving good and evil. He also has a new book coming out in September.
Other than their amazing skill at the difficult craft of writing, these four have little in common . . . but who wants to read the same sort of books all the time? If you aren’t familiar with their work already, I recommend giving each of them a read, and seeing what you think of their books. For one of them, Sam Harris, you can even give some of his writing a try for free, for he maintains a blog you can check out for yourself, at http://www.samharris.org.
For the other three, it isn’t quite that easy to get started, but their books may still be found in any decent public library, or, of course, websites such as Amazon. For O’Connor, the best place to start is with her collected short stories (Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/The-Complete-Stories-Flannery-OConnor/dp/0374515360/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1405366654&sr=8-2&keywords=collected+short+stories+of+flannery+o%27connor). For Jung Chang, I recommend starting with the story of what happened, against the tumultuous backdrop of Chinese history, to her grandmother, mother, and finally herself, in Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (see http://www.amazon.com/Wild-Swans-Three-Daughters-China/dp/0743246985/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1405366792&sr=1-1&keywords=wild+swans). Heinlein’s works are numerous, and there are many good starting places to be found. Among the best books with which to start reading Heinlein are Stranger in a Strange Land (his most famous work), Friday, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, and Job: A Comedy of Justice. Amazon’s Robert Heinlein page may be found at http://www.amazon.com/Robert-Heinlein/e/B005GDIOHM/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1405367065&sr=1-2-ent.
Enjoy, and, if you have book recommendations of your own, I invite you to leave them in a comment to this post.