The first time I tried to go to China was in 1967, the year after I graduated from college. My father was a radical leftist professor who admired Mao Zedong. And that influence, along with the Vietnam War protests—a movement in which I was not only a participant but an activist—led me to look at socialist China with very high hopes.
I was living in Hong Kong and wrote a letter to Beijing. A few months later I received a charming reply on two sheets of paper that looked like they had been labored over for days by a Red Guard with little English and a faulty typewriter. The letter explained that the Chinese people had nothing against me, but that I was from a predatory imperialist country and could not visit the People’s Republic. Before I left Hong Kong I bought four volumes of “The Selected Works of Mao Zedong,” and, rather grandiosely, ripped the covers off of them so that I might carry them safely back to the imperialist US.
In May, 1973, however, I got another chance. A year earlier, in April 1972, the Chinese ping-pong team had visited the US to break a twenty-three year freeze in diplomatic relations, and I had served as an interpreter. I made a good impression on Chinese officials on that US tour, in part because I led four of the six American interpreters in a boycott of the teams’ meeting with President Richard Nixon at the White House. (Nixon had ordered the bombing of Haiphong just the day before; to me, small talk in the Rose Garden just didn’t seem right.)
A year later we US interpreters asked if we could visit China, and the answer was yes. Over a four-week itinerary we visited Guangzhou, Shanghai, Suzhou, Xi’an, Yan’an, Beijing, and Tangshan. The bill for the trip—room, board, airfare, rail, sightseeing, everything—was $550. It was a friendship rate.
But it was during that trip that cracks began to form in my image of the People’s Republic. I carried a small camera and took walks on my own, in search of “real life.” I had learned in graduate school that there were no flies in China after the “Four Pests” campaign of 1958—which in the name of public health was supposed to eradicate mosquitoes, rats, and sparrows as well. When I saw a fly on a white stone table in Suzhou, I photographed it. I thought I had something.
When four of us boarded a crowded bus in Yan’an, the town in central Shaanxi Province that had been the Communists’ base from 1936 to 1948, the driver shouted “waibin!” ( “foreign guests—make room!”). Immediately four seated passengers stood up, offering us their seats. The old man who stood up next to me did not, in my impression, seem to want to. I said, “Please, you sit,” but he said nothing and remained standing. Embarrassed, I remained standing, too, and for the rest of the ride the people on the bus endured the ludicrous spectacle of an empty seat on a crowded bus.
We foreigners always rode “soft sleeper” class on the railroad, while most people were riding “hard seat” class. I asked our guide about it. “Why is there a soft-sleeper class?” I said, my socialist principles in mind. “Who rides in it, besides us?”
“The leaders,” the guide replied.
“Why?” I asked, unaware that this was a stupid question.
“They are busy. They have many burdens. They need soft-sleeper.”
My image of a classless society had suffered a blow, and it suffered a few more before the tour was over. The example that sticks most in my mind happened in Tangshan, about a hundred miles east of Beijing, when we visited its huge coal mine. We descended in an elevator far below the earth’s surface. (This was three years before a magnitude 7.8 earthquake buried countless workers in that same mine.) Riding small railroad cars through a maze of tunnels deep underground, I noticed various signs: “slow!,” “sound horn!,” etc. The signs were in traditional Chinese characters, not simplified ones, and I also couldn’t help noticing that there were no political slogans among them. All the signs were strictly business. This contrasted sharply with the surface of the earth, where slogans and quotations from Chairman Mao, on splendid red-and-white banners, or giant red billboards with gold writing and trim, were everywhere.
After emerging, I asked our guide: “Why are there no quotations from Chairman Mao down there with the miners?”
Her immediate reply: “Oh, it’s too dirty!” She seemed a bit irritated at me for suggesting such an inappropriate location for the Chairman’s thoughts. To me, though, it was a hard fact to swallow: the dirt of the mines was okay for the working class but not for the thoughts of its leader.
The inner insecurity of the guides became apparent to me in something that happened in Shanghai, when I bought a souvenir for my mother. She was born on a farm in Nebraska and was a salt-of-the-earth type. Her name was Beulah, she ate wheat germ, and brown was her favorite color. In a small shop I found hand-brooms I knew she would like. They were crafted of sorghum stalks, light brown with dark flecks. Lovely. And symbols of the dignity of labor—which I knew she also would like. I imagined that she might hang it on a wall in her house, so I bought one.
Afterwards one of our guides, very nervous, accosted me. He seemed torn between handling an emergency and trying to maintain politeness.
“Why did you buy this?!” he asked.
I explained about my mother.
“Let me get you a better one!” He took the broom back to the shop and returned with another—not much better or worse, to my eye, but in his view more nearly perfect. Then, sitting next to me on the mini-bus ride back to the hotel, he began to interrogate me.
“Doesn’t your mother like silk? …China has silk. China has jade carvings, China has cloisonné. Why do you buy a farmer’s broom to represent China to your mother?” I began to realize that the guide saw what I had done as “unfriendly.” My mother and I were looking down on China.
And this started me wondering: did this guide, deep inside, respect China’s working people, the wielders of brooms—and want my mother to have the impression that “China is silk” only because he guessed that she, from a bourgeois society, would respect silk but not brooms? Or was it maybe worse than that? Was he participating in the larger hypocrisy of a society that pretended to value brooms over silk but in reality did not?
From time to time I tried to strike up conversations with ordinary citizens, people with whom meetings had not been arranged. This was not easy. People constantly formed crowds to look at us, but kept their distance and stayed quiet. I have a vivid memory of one man—I would guess he was about thirty—who was part of a crowd but made eye contact with me. When I tried to address him personally—“What’s your name?”, “How are you?”—his lips and eyebrows contorted wildly, from what seemed to me like severe pain, so I stopped.
Children were a bit less inhibited, and plainly curious about us. On any walk of ten minutes or more on a city street we attracted a long train of them, as if we were pied pipers. I was amused to note, one day as we were walking past the gates of the Beijing Zoo, that some children who already held tickets to go see hippos and giraffes chose instead to follow us.
During one meeting with children—this was in Xi’an—a number of them gathered around us and seemed willing to talk. I asked a boy what he wanted to be when he grew up.
“I want to go to the toughest place and serve the people!” He pronounced the words in a sharp, confident, high-pitched voice.
“And you?” I asked another.
“I want to go to the toughest place and serve the people!” A sharp, confident, high-pitched voice—and exactly the same words.
I asked three or four more, of slightly different ages and of both sexes. All the answers were identical. I do not believe our handlers had prepared this scene for us; it had come about in too casual a manner. And I don’t know how much of the conformity resulted from training in how to answer this question and how much may have come just from others seeing that the first boy had produced a good answer and wanting to play things safe by doing the same. In any case, it left me with a deep impression.
In the years since 1973 I have learned much, much more about how wrong I was to take Mao Zedong’s “socialism” at face value. I lived in China for a full year, from 1979-80, studying post-Mao “scar literature” and coming to realize, by talking with Chinese writers and readers, that even the denunciations that could be published in that era showed only the surface of the disastrous cruelties that had befallen China. The honesty and shrewd analysis in the writings of the journalist and dissident Liu Binyan had a tremendous influence on me.
Still, though, I remained somehow reluctant to conclude that the Communist Party of China would flat-out lie. It seems that only personal experience could teach me this lesson. In February 1989 my friend Fang Lizhi and I, and our spouses, were blocked by police on the streets of Beijing as we were headed to attend a large banquet at the invitation of US President George H.W. Bush. The Chinese leaders did not want Fang at the banquet, and ordered police to monitor and channel us through the streets long enough to make sure it did not happen. This experience surprised me, but is not what changed me. What changed me was the report on the incident that appeared a few days later from the official Xinhua News Agency and was broadcast across China. It told, in detail, a fabricated story that departed in major ways from what my own eyes had seen. Agitated, I brought the report to Fang and asked him, “How can they do this?” Fang is a kind man. He did not want to embarrass me for my naivete. He just chuckled.
A version of this essay originally appeared in The Hong Kong Economic Journal.