Beijing ConfidentialAuthor: Jan Wong
Featured in the March, 2010 magazine
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On the tarmac at Newark International Airport, a heat wave makes the August air dance. Inside our Boeing 777, a black flight attendant sings out the standard Chinese greeting. “Ni hao,” she chimes, mangling the tones. Nevertheless the passengers, mostly mainland Chinese, seem pleased. When even this American female is trying to speak their language, it reinforces their view that the Middle Kingdom is, once again, the center of the world.
My husband, Norman, and I lived in Beijing for years during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. On this trip back, we are bringing two reluctant fellow travelers, our teenaged sons, Ben, sixteen, and Sam, thirteen. As usual these days on flights to Beijing, every seat is taken. The Chinese passengers in their knock-off Burberry outfits are more self-assured than the handful who left the mainland during Chairman Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. In the 1970s, the Chinese who traveled abroad were members of official delegations, kept on short leashes, tight schedules and tiny cash allowances.
Foreigners heading to China faced obstacles, too. Beijing rarely issued visas to Americans, but Norman was deemed to be "friendly.” His father, Jack Shulman, had been an aide to William Z. Foster, longtime head of the Communist Party USA. In 1965, Jack had gone to Beijing to polish English-language propaganda at Xinhua, the state-run New China News Agency. To the Chinese, it was natural for a son to join his father. Filial piety, however, wasn’t Norman’s motivating factor. The Vietnam War was. At twenty-two, he was looking for an interesting place to dodge the draft.
In 1966, his journey from New York City to Beijing would take days. The United States had no diplomatic relations with China. To obtain a visa, Norman had to fly to London. From there, the only air route to mainland China was a twice-monthly Pakistan International Airlines flight to Canton, now known as Guangzhou. PIA normally refueled twice en route, in Karachi and Dhaka. At the time, India was at war with Pakistan, so Norman’s flight was rerouted through Colombo, Sri Lanka. When his flight finally landed in Canton, he was a jet-lagged wreck. But the arrival of a foreigner was a rare chance to feast at government expense. Hungry local officials insisted on feeding him a ten-course banquet, after which they bundled him aboard a three-hour flight to Beijing.
Forty years later, Continental Airlines flight 89 takes thirteen hours. With the Cold War over, it zips across the Arctic Circle and the former Soviet Union. Our tickets are a bargain, too, 80 percent less expensive in real terms than when I first went to China in 1972. The Middle Kingdom is still on the other side of the world, but it’s no longer far away.
Ben and Sam spent their earliest years in Beijing. They were born during my six-year posting as China correspondent for the Toronto Globe and Mail. Sam was one when we moved back to Canada in 1994. He remembers nothing. Ben, who was four, has fragmented memories. He recalls making little cakes from Play-Doh with Nanny Ma. He remembers wandering into the kitchen to sit on Cook Mu’s lap.
In 2003, the year severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, broke out in Beijing (and Toronto), Norman and I figured the Great Wall might not be too crowded. After the all-clear, we took the boys back for the grand tour. Along with the Wall, we visited the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the terra cotta warriors in Xi’an, the Shanghai Bund and the Yangtze River. We picked grapes in Kashgar and sledded down sand dunes in the Gobi Desert.
Now, when I propose a holiday in Beijing, my sons both groan. Ben would rather hang out in Toronto with his girlfriend, Tash, and go mountain biking with friends. Sam prefers to play road hockey and chat on MSN. The boys grow markedly unenthusiastic when I mention I also plan to hire a Chinese tutor in Beijing so they can start each day with private Mandarin lessons.
“Um, do I have to go?” Sam asks politely, hoping good manners will get him off the hook.
“Yes,” I say.
“Why do I have to go?” Ben asks belligerently, hoping attitude will get him off the hook.
“Because,” I reply enigmatically, “I need you.”
I promise the boys we won’t go sightseeing. I promise I won’t make them visit a single museum. I swear we will not re-climb the Great Wall. I bill the trip as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to live, briefly, in a crazy, amped-up city. Indeed, that’s why I’ve
persuaded myself to come back. I already know the city well, or at least I think I do. But the ancient capital I knew is disappearing fast. If I blink, it might vanish. So on this trip back I want to write about the city I loved and about the new, modern, shiny one that is obliterating the old. I figure it’s now or never.
We have exactly twenty-eight days in Beijing. August is brutally hot, but earlier in the summer the boys were busy with hockey camp, invitations to friends’ cottages and mountain biking at Whistler in British Columbia. In September they have to go back to school—and I have to go back to work.
Now, as we settle into our seats on the plane, Ben asks, grumpily, for the umpteenth time, “Why do I have to go?”
“Because I need you,” I reply, for the umpteenth time.
I need Norman, too. A software developer, he prefers to sit at home and read technical journals. He already lived in Beijing for twenty years, and unlike me, the journalist, he sees no need to spend yet another month there. But his deep experience is a big reason I want him with me there. He first arrived in China in 1966, on the eve of the Cultural Revolution. He saw the Ming-dynasty city walls come tumbling down. He cut ice from the lakes in winter to store for use in summer—before the advent of air-conditioning and refrigeration. He knows Beijing better than I do. And his spoken and written Chinese is excellent. Norman even has a real Chinese name: Yulu. Jack, as the patriarch, named him after Jiao Yulu, a rural official lionized as a model Communist. Like any good peasant’s name, Yulu combines the dual dream of wealth and job security. Yu means riches; lu means an official’s salary in ancient China. Norman has always objected to my translation: Fat Paycheck.
As the plane rumbles down the runway at Newark, I’m acutely aware that I still haven’t explained to my boys why I need them. The fact is I’m too afraid to go alone.
Being chicken isn’t characteristic of me. In 1972, the first time I went to China, I went by myself. I had just finished my third year at university, majoring in Asian history and student sit-ins. I was nineteen and believed I was invincible. Canada had diplomatic relations with China, but in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, Beijing was issuing few visas. It did, however, make exceptions for ethnic Chinese, most of whom were too scared to go. I wasn’t.
When I arrived in China, I confused everyone, including myself. I was a Montreal Maoist who looked Chinese but couldn’t speak Chinese. The authorities could not wrap their minds around the fact that I was a Canadian, and a third-generation one at that. My grandfather had arrived in Canada in 1881, one of thousands of coolies who built the Canadian Pacific Railroad. My other three grandparents had arrived at the turn of the last century, and had paid the discriminatory head tax on Chinese immigrants.
Miraculously, my solo jaunt through China ended with an invitation to study Mandarin at Beijing University. As part of the Maoist curriculum, I worked in a factory, dug ditches and hauled pig manure. Along the way, I narrowly avoided getting expelled—this is true—for contact with another foreigner. Looking back on the mystery of it all, I believe I was accepted at Beijing University because I was in the right place at the right time. After six years of Cult Rev xenophobia, Beijing was trying to thaw relations with the West. In 1971, it had invited the U.S. table-tennis team to Beijing. In 1972, I was the logical next step, the first Canadian to study there since the Cultural Revolution.
Later, as a reporter in Beijing, I hadn’t been afraid of much, either. Like lots of resident Western journalists, my phone had been tapped, my mail opened. The secret police tailed me, interrogated my sources and sometimes arrested them. In 1989, a few days after the massacre at Tiananmen Square, plainclothes police mistook me for a student and tried to kidnap me. I fought back, screaming—in English. The agents stopped trying to stuff me in the back of the unmarked car. Still shaking on the sidewalk, I belatedly realized that if only I had gone along with them, I would have had a great story.
About the same time, someone stole the Globe’s aging Toyota hatchback. Fat Paycheck discovered that the thieves were the Beijing police when, a year later, he caught them red-handed using it as a squad car. They had even strapped red flashing lights over the roof. I wasn’t afraid. I hustled right down to the station and made the police give me back my car. Now that was a great story.
But on this trip I’m nervous, because I’m returning to Beijing for another reason. I am not only planning to chronicle the future of this great city; I also need to come to terms with my own past. For this, I want moral support. I need my family to reassure me that I’m not a horrible human being. Or that, if I am, they love me anyway. Thirty-three years ago, in one thoughtless, misguided moment, I destroyed someone’s life. This is what I did: in 1973, I ratted out a stranger at Beijing University who wanted to get to America. At the time I did not give it much thought. I certainly did not understand the enormity of what I had done. I recorded the incident in my diary, and forgot about it. A month or two later, I left Beijing and shipped my diaries home, where they lay unread for years in my mom’s basement in Montreal.
In the ensuing years, I graduated from McGill University and returned to Beijing University for another degree in Chinese history. In 1979, I became the first news assistant in the Beijing bureau of the New York Times. After earning a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University, I worked as a business reporter for the Montreal Gazette, the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal and the Toronto Globe and Mail. In 1988 the Globe and Mail appointed me its thirteenth China correspondent.
Before I left Canada, I retrieved the dusty box from my mom’s basement. I wanted my diaries with me in Beijing—for what, I wasn’t sure. For six more years, I never looked at them. Then, in 1994, when I was ending my posting, I paged through the small three-ring binders. In 1973 my handwriting had been girlish and neat, each letter painstakingly formed with a fountain pen in blue ink. Some pages I’d typed, using a battered Hermes portable left behind by a British visitor. The paper was cheap and lined. I had hole-punched the sheets by hand.
After a day’s reporting and writing stories for my newspaper back in Toronto, and in between making arrangements to pack up our household, I would hole up alone with my old diaries in the Globe’s whitewashed office in Beijing. I read about my struggle to integrate into a hermetically sealed society, about wielding a pneumatic drill at the Number One Machine Tool Factory, about my ludicrous efforts to overcome my bourgeois affinity for rock and roll. I had been an enthusiastic participant in my own brainwashing. The Chinese used the term xi nao, “washing the brain,” approvingly. After all, you wash something to cleanse it of filth. Reading about my misguided youth, I occasionally smiled. More often I winced. Then I read an entry about a stranger who had invited me and Erica Jen for a stroll around No Name Lake. With a sinking heart, it all came back. How could I have ever forgotten?
In 1972, Erica and I were the only two Westerners studying at Beijing University. She was a pink-cheeked, extremely smart Chinese American my age from Yale. Our studies had been approved at the highest levels of the Chinese government. As the first foreign students, we had our own teachers, our own cook and our own dormitory. Everyone who befriended us had been carefully vetted by the Communist Party. Beijing University even moved in hand-picked female students to fill the emptiness of the foreign-student dormitory.
Erica and I had been there nearly a year without one spontaneous encounter. So we were delighted when someone new approached us. The young woman had no inkling Erica and I were both starry-eyed Maoists. As we walked around the campus lake, she peppered us with questions. How much money did a worker make in America? Did every American have a refrigerator? What kind of class background was required to attend university? When we told her how much workers earned, she gasped. We grudgingly acknowledged that everyone had a fridge. And we conceded that there were no class-based restrictions on university attendance.
Suddenly she said, “I want to go to America. Can you help me?”
We were shocked. Our roommates had never expressed the slightest interest in the West. For nearly a year, our teachers had taught that China was a proletarian paradise. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. Only a few months earlier, I had personally experienced the dark side of paradise. I had nearly been expelled from Beijing University for an innocent friendship with another foreigner, a young Swedish diplomat in Beijing. When the crisis was resolved, I had simply resumed classes. But it was my first experience with thought control. Everyone—my teachers, my classmates, the officials in the Foreign Students Office—all pretended it had never happened. Only Erica assured me I wasn’t delusional.
That incident had shaken my faith. Yet I still stubbornly, desperately wanted to believe that socialism was superior to capitalism. I was still in love with China, and falling out of love would be a long, slow, painful process.
Erica was even more left-wing than I was. That night, we discussed what to do. Helping the young stranger leave was out of the question. We reasoned that the workers and peasants had paid for her university education. Anyone who accepted this privilege was duty-bound to stay in China and help develop the country. We could have done nothing. Certainly, we both felt squeamish about tattling. Then we decided our discomfort was just another manifestation of the bourgeois Western sentimentality we were trying to overcome. Chairman Mao had exhorted us to “let politics take command.” Any other considerations were superfluous.
“We didn’t do it to earn brownie points,” Erica, a research professor in mathematics at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, told me years later. But maybe I did. Having almost been cast out myself, I now wanted desperately to be accepted, to be part of what I then called “New China.” Perhaps this was an opportunity to prove my revolutionary fervor. A radical classmate back at McGill—now a family physician in Vancouver—recently told me that my letters to her at the time had sounded “ferocious.” She sent me a photocopy of a letter she’d saved from 1972. In it, I talk about the constant struggle to transform myself. I suggest, quite seriously, that “propaganda work really needs to be done.” I actually quote Mao. I write about “making revolution.”
I was that very dangerous combination: fanatic, ignorant and adolescent. In 1973 I thought I knew everything about China, but I actually knew very little. I knew that it was unacceptable to express a desire to leave the motherland, but I didn’t know there were labor camps for dissidents. I didn’t know that China during the Cultural Revolution was a crazy place where someone could be ruined, imprisoned or beaten simply for accidentally ripping up a newspaper that happened to contain a photo of Mao. China’s human rights violations weren’t common knowledge then. To outsiders, Beijing projected an image of harmony, happiness and clean living. Insiders knew it was a police state, but that same police state so tightly controlled access to the dark side that few outsiders got a glimpse. In 1973 China, reporting was so rudimentary that John Burns, one of my predecessors in the Globe’s Beijing bureau, would write about a simple train ride. Burns, who would later become one of the New York Times’s great foreign correspondents, even wrote glowingly about the Red Flag Canal, a showpiece Maoist project: “The work produced many heroes, paraded now before the constant stream of visitors to the canal. Their stories are too . . . long . . . , but there is enough substance in them to show that great courage and initiative were involved.”
Erica and I assumed that Communist Party officials would give the young woman a tongue-lashing. That was the system we’d been shown. I’d been criticized many times that year for reading old copies of Newsweek that my mother sent, for slacking off on homework, for leaving my dorm room unlocked (thereby tempting class enemies). I’d been scolded for tap dancing on the stone floor of a Ming tomb when the guide launched into a boring discourse on fifteenth-century class struggle. And yet, given my near expulsion, Erica and I should have been more cautious. We weren’t.
The next morning, we told our respective teachers about Yin’s American dream.
• • •
By 1994 I had lived in China, off and on, for a dozen years. I had covered Tiananmen Square. I had written about dissidents, human rights, labor camps, torture and secret execution grounds. Before that, I had witnessed the outpouring of bitterness after the Cultural Revolution ended upon Mao Zedong’s death in 1976. I learned how colleagues had turned on one another, how neighbors had ratted each other out, how children had snitched on their parents—all in the name of the Revolution.
By 1980, the Chinese began calling the 1966–1976 Cultural Revolution the “Decade of Disaster.” When I read my diary in 1994, of course I had no more illusions. I knew with blinding clarity what I had done. At the age of twenty, I had thoughtlessly destroyed a young woman I didn’t even know. In my diary I had recorded only her surname, Yin. Anxiously, I sought out my old roommate, Scarlet. She remembered. She said that Yin, a history major, had been expelled at a department-wide meeting. Scarlet said she wasn’t sure what had happened to her after that. Nor did she quite remember Yin’s full name. “I think it was Yin Luoyi,” she said.
At that point I stopped asking questions. There was no way to trace Yin, and no time. In a few weeks I would be leaving China. I didn’t have time to chase down my past. At least that’s what I told myself. Deep down I was afraid to look for Yin. What if I found her? Worse, what if I didn’t?
I spent my first year back in Toronto writing a memoir, Red China Blues. I considered omitting any mention of the young stranger. If I didn’t write about her, who would know? If I did write about her, I’d be pilloried for sure. Still, as a journalist, I’ve always demanded honesty in others. If I wanted to write truthfully about China, if I wanted to show the true face of Communism, it was essential to come clean myself. I had harbored no ill will toward Yin. I didn’t even know her. And yet I had betrayed her. Why? I wasn’t even sure myself.
I wrote about Yin in Red China Blues, and people have attacked me for it ever since. They often get the details wrong. They say that I turned in my roommate, or another classmate. Yin was not my classmate. I didn’t know her at all. And obviously she didn’t know me. If she had, she would have run screaming in the opposite direction. But writing about Yin did not lay my demons to rest. As the years passed, I tried to forget her. I couldn’t. I kept thinking about her. I wanted to know what had happened to her, and yet I was afraid to find out. I reasoned to myself that anyone who wanted to leave that badly must have gotten out. I comforted myself with the fantasy that she was alive and well and living in Las Vegas. Then doubts would set in. She must have suffered terribly. Perhaps she was dead. Then I hoped she might have had a child—a daughter, perhaps—whom I could help in some way. Perhaps that daughter might want to come to Canada.
There was only risk in finding out. It was easy to do nothing. In the ensuing twelve years, I returned to Beijing four times—twice on reporting stints for my newspaper, once on the grand tour with my family, and once to complete research on my second book, Jan Wong’s China, and to make a documentary film, Jan Wong’s Forbidden China. The documentary’s producer, Robin Benger, suggested I look for Yin during that trip. He thought it would make for gripping footage. I squirmed. I hung my head. I changed the subject. I was a coward. I told Robin it would be impossible to find her.
Still, Yin has haunted me for many years. I need to understand why I threw myself so enthusiastically into the Cultural Revolution. If I can figure that out, I might understand why so many Chinese did, too. At a moment in history when Beijing is emerging on the world stage and its stability remains uncertain, any clarity might help prevent a future convulsion. Of course, I am seeking answers from a relatively privileged position. My life is not here in Beijing. I am dropping in for twenty-eight days, and after that I can conveniently leave any messiness behind. Deep down, perhaps, I am praying that I won’t actually find Yin—but at least I can tell myself that I tried.
Aboard flight 89, the flight attendants serve a choice of New Jersey dim sum or overcooked chicken and mash. The in-flight entertainment includes She’s the Man, The Shoe
Fairy, Benchwarmers and Mission: Impossible III. I watch M: I III while chewing on dried-out chicken. Here’s the plot: the hero thwarts a plan to sell a destructive secret to an unnamed enemy nation where everyone speaks Chinese. It’s supposed to be a thriller, but I laugh out loud. The bloopers include the inability of Tom Cruise’s character to get a cellphone signal in downtown Shanghai. Anyone who’s been to China knows you can get a clear signal anywhere, including the Gobi Desert and the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. Then there’s the car chase through downtown Shanghai. Like Beijing, Shanghai is clogged with traffic night and day. No one gets anywhere fast. And finally, there’s the climactic shoot-out in a picturesque warren of Qing-dynasty homes. But Shanghai has razed everything old, except the riverside Bund and the hallowed spot where Mao and others founded the Chinese Communist Party in 1921.
When the movie ends, I contemplate my own mission impossible. How will I find a stranger in a country of 1.3 billion? I have four weeks and no plan of action. All I know is I’m fifty-three now and I am running out of excuses. It’s time to find Yin, apologize and try to make amends. The bittersweet irony is that, thirty-three years after I turned her in, I am on a planeload of mainland Chinese returning home of their own free will.