The Communist revolution had recently occurred in China. “People would need to know about that,” he said, “so I would learn about China.”
He never, he said, “had a misty feeling about Ming vases or anything like that.”
Professor MacFarquhar became affiliated with the Fairbank Center after its founder, Professor John K. Fairbank, had in 1955 started taking a handful of students to study Chinese language, history and politics.
After receiving his master’s degree in East Asian studies that year, Professor MacFarquhar went on to write his first book, on Mao’s Hundred Flowers Campaign of the mid-1950s, which had given intellectuals a brief period of greater freedom.
In 1960 he founded The China Quarterly, an academic journal on Chinese politics and economics published by the University of Cambridge. He briefly merged his two passions, politics and China, with a trip to China in 1972 as part of the entourage of the British foreign secretary, Alec Douglas-Home.
He was elected to Parliament as a Labour candidate in 1974 but was defeated in Margaret Thatcher’s conservative tide of 1979. He joined the Harvard faculty about five years later.
He died in a Cambridge hospital. In addition to his son, Rory, who is director of global economic policy at Google, Professor MacFarquhar is survived by his wife, Dalena Wright; a daughter, Larissa MacFarquhar, a writer for The New Yorker; and two granddaughters. His first wife, Emily Jane (Cohen) MacFarquhar, a journalist, died in 2001.
Professor MacFarquhar had in the last several years turned to writing a book on India. But he was always asked about China and its future. One thing seemed certain, he said: The Communist Party will not last forever.
“I do foresee the Communist Party fading,” he said in the 2017 interview. “How it will happen I’ve not got the slightest idea. The idea that the party knows best, and only the party can rule, I think it will disappear. Whether it will disappear by some kind of new revolution or just gradually fade away, I don’t know.”