GRAHAM: China then and now

Beijingers line up at Democracy Wall to read posters of protest and calls for justice
Beijingers line up at Democracy Wall to read posters of protest and calls for justice

China Part 1

Editor’s Note: Star Training Editor Victoria Graham was one of the first Americans in China after Sino-US relations were re-established 40 years ago on January 1, 1979. She helped re-open the Beijing bureau for The Associated Press, which closed in 1949. Many years later, she returned to China to work on the Shanghai Daily until 2014. She shares her reflections in the first of two articles.

In a Beijing kindergarten skit in the late 1970s, a little boy comes upon a huge carrot, so big that the greens tower above him while the coveted vegetable is buried. He digs and pulls until he is exhausted and gives up. The carrot remains buried.

The child has failed miserably. The task is too great for one person and he calls on other boys and girls to help. Together they uproot the carrot. Then the charming rouge-cheeked children wearing red scarves (symbolising blood of the martyrs) dance and sing about the joy and success of the masses. The message: the individual is feeble, nothing; the group is all-powerful.

Back then, Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution was still fresh in everyone’s minds, the 'masses' were the propaganda pinnacle and praise for

merit of an individual (other than Mao of course) was a grave political mistake, often requiring ‘struggle sessions’ and demeaning self-criticism.

China has changed so much since then, and also not at all. You can still get in trouble for a political mistake ordered to make self-criticism. It is a mass of contradictions. In the 1990s, that little boy might conceivably have become an entrepreneur and a millionaire, but Mao remains above criticism, a saintly figure whose face graces all bank notes (though not

in the 1970s).

When I arrived in China in 1979, the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) was technically over, but its pernicious messages -- anti-individual, anti-intellectual, anti-private enterprise and anti-foreign -- remained pervasive. To this day they have not been eradicated, and behind the urban glitz and rampant consumerism, many see a resurgence of control.

Back then, most Chinese people had never seen a Caucasian person, or anyone other than Chinese. Some people ran from me, afraid to speak to me. Some had been told all Americans were CIA spies. But they were fascinated by my red hair and wanted to touch it.

China then was a highly controlled society, and despite the international trappings, it remains so today, though authoritarian not totalitarian. In December, human rights activist Wu Gan was jailed for eight years for treason.

Many topics are off-limits – the constitution, human rights and universal values are banned from discussion in university classrooms. All the Ts – Tiananmen, Tibet, Taiwan – and the deplorable situation of Muslim Uyghurs in strategically important and mineral-rich Xinjiang in China's far west. A blackout on the Jasmin Revolution not only meant it was blocked online but also florists and nurseries could not, or were afraid to sell the fragrant flower in 2011.

A friend told me he knew nothing of the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 until he went to a US university. He was abashed. The blackout had been total.

But the achievements of the past 40 years are also breathtaking. Since 1978, China has lifted 750 million rural people out of poverty. It is now the world's second-biggest economy and likely to become the biggest in decades ahead. Achievements in education, science and medicine are impressive.

Today there are gleaming skyscrapers designed by daring architects, awe-inspiring skylines, high-end nightclubs, trendy international coffee shops, a deluge of designer goods -- Dolce and Gabana had to grovel publicly after a tasteless advert about an inept Chinese girl trying to eat pizza with chopsticks. You can buy anything your heart desires. Perhaps an orange Lamborghini for your son or lover.

I remember long ago when Coca-Cola, McDonald's and a mud-walled private restaurant were big deals.

Today, while the global internet is tightly controlled and many foreign sites blocked, the Chinese internet and chat groups are surprisingly lively and exuberant, there’s even some criticism (but not of the party, the net is carefully filtered and 'curated').

When I worked at a Shanghai newspaper

people were afraid to speak aloud about 'forbidden' topics. We couldn't write about demonstrations against a planned chemical factory not far from us, among many other things.

You could be forgiven for thinking that in the cities at least, China is a robustly capitalist society. But it is not capitalists, it is state capitalist. The (Leninist) party-state controls all key levers. Finance, transport, energy, media, health, education — all

dominated by state-owned companies.

Society has become materialist and consumerist, and most people can live with that deal while life is prosperous. What happens if the economy should falter, however, is not known.

In fact, the biggest change in all these decades is a greater sense of independence of mind among Chinese people. Acquiescent they may be, but on some level, they are thinking things through. The strong desire of Chinese people who achieve a certain level of prosperity to diversify their assets out of China is worth pondering.

I am dismayed by the US-China trade war and rapidly deteriorating relations in critical areas, including technology transfer, military-to-military ties, Taiwan and the South China Sea. But I also remember when Sino-US relations were re-established 40 years ago. The

future was bright.

It was a period of optimism, mutual goodwill and friendship based on geo-strategic interests. Both sides pragmatically agreed to put aside fundamental disagreements and focus on the many areas where they could cooperate. The American position was one of appeasement, promoted by Henry Kissinger. Let the Chinese into our system and they will see it is superior and change. It did not happen, but the beginning of the process was exhilarating.

Everyone wanted in. To see, to learn, to share, to sell, to buy. There were government officials, business people, scholars, scientists, teachers, students, doctors, artists, musicians, ballerinas, film directors, the Harlem Boys Choir, Big Bird, Muhammad Ali, comedian Bob Hope, former US President Richard Nixon. John Denver sang Country Roads.

I arrived in April 1979 as a young reporter for The Associated Press to help reopen The AP bureau. It had been one of the last foreign news bureaus closed in 1949 as the communists were winning the civil war. I didn’t speak Chinese but The AP needed a feature writer, not a Sinologist

I was welcomed by the Foreign Ministry officials with an intimate, lavish dinner at the Old Summer Place, with its ornate, colourful and gilded painting on beams. We looked out on the lake with the extravagant marble boat pavilion. Our host was Yao Wei, the American missionary-educated chief of the Press Division of the Foreign Ministry, interpreter for then-Party Chief Hua Guofeng and the resurgent Deng Xiaoping.

Once I even danced with Foreign Minister Huang Hua at a party thrown by Cambodian Prince Norodom Sihanouk.

As China and the US moved closer together, the Soviet Union was sidelined, but continued to try to improve relations with China. I closely followed visits of Soviet Sinologist Mikhail Kapitsa, religiously going to the airport to see him arrive and see him off. I only got a few words, not a real story, but once he gave me a big non-Platonic kiss.

Such dinners and warmth are rare today.. But back then it was possible to attend a national day and find a Chinese official smoking in a corner. And he’d be willing to chat. He might have gone to a missionary school. Today there’s no upside for off-the-cuff chatting with foreigners, especially Americans.

if it's too long, you could cut here and I'll work into part II

At our apartment — home and office — in one of the foreigner compounds in Beijing, we occasionally invited Foreign Ministry officials of the North America/US division for dinner. They came in a group, maybe six gentlemen, all wearing well-tailored dark blue ‘Mao’ suits (actually Sun Yat-sen jackets). Conversation was polite, friendly, a little stilted and non-political, until the end when we knew we could ask a political question and get a story. They gave us a bit of news, analysis, often cryptic. Then they rose at once, thanked us graciously and took their leave.

All Chinese visitors to those compounds had to register with a soldier at the gate. The Foreign Ministry provided us a driver, a cleaner, a cook, an interpreter — all extremely nice and obliging, all required to report

on us. Sad that decent people were forced to spy.

When foreign diplomats visited, we went outside to speak privately. Today, of course, there's advanced electronic surveillance.

The cleaner Mr Li loved to vacuum my fluffy white cat Scoop rescued. I rescued him from an ancient rooftop decorated with mythical animal figures in old Beijing, before they zealously flattened that part of splendid history.

End part 1/part 2 next week


China Part 2

Editor’s Note: Star Training Editor Victoria Graham was one of the first Americans in China after Sino-US relations were re-established 40 years ago on January 1, 1979. She helped re-open the Beijing bureau for The Associated Press, which closed in 1949, and many years later returned to China to work on the Shanghai Daily until 2014. She shares her reflections in the second and final part.

Part 2

The early 1980s were times of dizzying changes. Chinese people were still uncertain of the future because they had lived through so much tumult in the Mao years (he died in 1976), and feared it would happen again. We followed on the Xinhua news agency and television (reporters were banned) the trial of the Gang of Four, including Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, and watched her dragged screaming from the courtroom after being convicted of treason and jailed for life. She taunted the court and refused to repent.

We watched the dismantling of communes, the tentative emergence of private enterprises.

But the past was ever-present. Every day, we went to read the ‘big character posters’ on what was called Democracy Wall. Writers lamented their suffering during the Cultural Revolution. Beggars brought petitions to Beijing in hopes of getting justice. just as poor people had sought justice from the emperors.

That outpouring of misery and rage was useful to Deng who was making his comeback as paramount leader and sought to vanquish his critics. But when the criticism became too pointed and people demanded a more open political system, the Wall was shut down. I was there the night they scrubbed it down.

To be a foreign journalist in China then was exhilarating. For most foreign readers, it was all new and exciting; the competition was ferocious. My editors said, “Tell us all about China, what’s it like? Does everyone ride bicycles? (yes) Do they all wear Mao suits? (pretty much) What do they eat? (cabbages, dumplings) What are their houses like? (crowded, run-down, cold, dingy, frozen cabbages stored on concrete staircases) What do they do for fun? (stroll in the park) Can they speak freely? (no).

Everything was fascinating. We wrote a lot of ‘ghee whiz’ stories. I got sick of accompanying trade delegations from dozens of US states, visiting the Great Wall and handing out balloons to children.

We took a photo of a beautiful young woman leaning rather seductively against an ancient stone bridge. Her hair was permed, she was wearing slacks, a snug white sweater and flowered scarf. Worth a million words.

We did a lot of ‘the first’–type stories. The first hair salon — women didn’t have to wear short-cropped hair. The first dating service, the first foreign fashion show, this one by Yves Saint Laurent. There was Malcolm Forbes and his hot-air balloon. I watched Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman' in Beijing in Chinese. It resonated as the dark side of the American Dream, a tragedy about American capitalism performed in a communist country.

We found one of the first hangouts for young people relaxing, laughing, drinking orange soda, some mixed with beer. Not long before, this would have been forbidden.

Sometimes we did 'the last'- type stories. The last (maybe) old lady with bound feet. The brother of the last emperor whom we posed in a chair in the Forbidden City at sunset.

It was hard to find out what was really happening, China watching was a like Kremlin watching. We talked to some intellectuals, some diplomats, especially those from Eastern Europe with communist parties. Once we took a social scientist to dinner at a famous dog-meat restaurant. It was crowded and noisy, the windows were steaming in winter.

He asked that we drop him a few blocks from his apartment block so neighbours wouldn't gossip and the neighbourhood party committee wouldn't question him.

We looked for signals, one of them at the Beijing Airport restaurant was a masterpiece mural of the Dai minority Water Festival in southern China. Women were semi-nude, their breasts exposed. One nearly life-size woman seemed to ready to step out and interact. From time to time, a white curtain was drawn over the mural. We correctly took that as a sign that the puritans and conservatives were resurgent in ongoing power struggles. The mural was a barometer.

We wrote about the magnificent red-walled compound Zhongnanhai, the former home of the emperors and now of China’s communist leaders. Behind crimson gates leaders could enjoy all the forbidden fruits — uncensored foreign newspapers, foreign novels, single-malt whiskey, caviar, beautifully tailored suits.

Nearby in the warm evenings, we could hear women rehearsing Peking Opera from shabby apartments, the notes wafting through willow branches bending over a rippling canal.

We bought a Chinese version of an old Soviet Red Army motorbike — a copy of a BMW — army green with a sidecar. I usually sat in the sidecar. We would roar up to the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square and heads would turn.

But the best part for me was taking motorbike driving lessons from a middle-aged gentleman (he spoke a little English) early in the morning, several times a week. He rode in the sidecar and corrected me. We drove to the outskirts of the city, watched the city come alive as cooking smoke filled the air, women made congee (porridge), and roosters crowed, ducks waddled around. As we rode, we talked a little about his family, about the weather, about the sights around us. It was a genuine and relaxed. Human contact away from prying eyes. Precious and rare in China in those days for an outsider.

The story continues. China changes and at the same time stays the same. But one thing is certain: its role in the world has shifted fundamentally from being isolated, anonymous and irrelevant to being highly visible and hugely important. I am honoured to have seen the beginning of that process four decades ago. All-in-all, they were some of the best times a journalist could hope for.