By Ian Williams
As we approached the 60th anniversary on Thursday of Mao Zedong’s declaration that the “Chinese people have stood up,” I trawled through the memories of my time in China straddling 1970 and 1971, and found, with all the accuracy of retrospective prophesy, that there were more auguries of the current China than one might suspect.
Although my putative memoirs would be called “I was a Teenage Maoist”, by the time I landed in Beijing I was a callow 21-year-old, a month older than the People’s Republic. In fact, Zhou Enlai, the first premier, from 1949 until his death in 1976, repeated to us his dictum that it was too early to tell whether or not the French Revolution had been a success, let alone China’s. Forty years later, I wonder what Zhou, one of the more sophisticated and cosmopolitan of the Chinese leaders, but nonetheless a devoted communist, would have made of present-day China.
I was part of a delegation from an obscure British party that enjoyed unprecedented access to the Chinese leadership, including a drinking competition with Zhou – and a very risky argument about literature with Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, who had, after all, instituted the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) by demonizing all but a tiny group of writers and artists. It was so long ago that even the Chinese used the old Wade-Giles Romanization system for the Mandarin language. We were in Peking (Beijing), and read the Peking Review every week. In fact, our visit featured in it.
Our sessions with the Chinese cadres were often like negotiations, conducted over innumerable cigarettes and a constant flow of tea. The idea was that whoever called for a bathroom break was conceding the field of battle. Sadly for Chinese pride, our side had been brought up on a diet of gallons of tea and bitter beer and had formidable resistance to such diuretics.
Even at the time, I had a sense of bewilderment at the relative isolation from the world outside, of the top leadership. They provided us with a daily English press summary of world affairs and the difficulties of a binary view of the world became apparent. For example, Pakistan was an ally of China, therefore it was socialist and progressive – which the Pakistanis themselves would hardly claim, while social-democratic governments, like the British Labour Party, were reactionary and capitalist to the core.
As for our visit: I suspect that Zhou had hoped that it would provide information and encouragement for his planned opening to the West. We were there before British premier Edward Heath, or former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and president Richard Nixon from the United States. Indeed, as almost the only gweilos (foreigners) in town, we could attract crowds just by peering in a shop window. In those far-off days, my hair was red, which was almost like having eyes on green stalks for some people. However, enlisting us as a resource for global realpolitik confirms the naivety of their approach.
We were a sectarian groupuscule with fewer members nationally than the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee. Our contact with the working political system in Britain was minimal and our knowledge of other countries tended to be based on contacts with equally out-of-touch groups. It would be nice to think that we changed the course of history, but there is absolutely no basis for thinking so. Our input probably pointed in the opposite direction to what they did. When we asked why they did not walk in and take Hong Kong, which was then ruled by Britain, Zhou suggested it was better to lessen the economic disparities between the two sides first.
Despite their own sectarian squabbles, despite the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese were at least dealing with some aspects of the real world. For example, they had built a state-of-the-art metro system in Beijing. Even though it was as yet unopened, Zhou took us for a ride on it, which tangentially introduced yet another paradox.
They told us, with almost schoolboyish glee at their boldness, that they were calling the metro station for Tiananmen Square “Zhuxi [Chairman] Station.” It was a paradox even then, that in the midst of history’s biggest-ever personality cult, no physical location was named after Mao, let alone any of the other revolutionary personalities. I can only presume that it was intended as a gesture of superiority to the Soviet proclivity for churning out city names in honor of top people.
This saved a lot of sign-painting during the various rectification campaigns, the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. Not many of the leadership stayed in power throughout.
Apart from Zhou, we met the full Gang of Four – Jiang Qing and her close associates, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan and Wang Hongwen – but we noticed the omissions. Lin Biao, the powerful military commander who rose to political prominence in the Cultural Revolution and whose picture and introduction was at the front of hundreds of millions of Little Red Books, was absent in name and person. In a seamen’s club in Shanghai, I noticed a book on sale by Chen Boda, Mao’s personal secretary. Our minders immediately took it out the case and said it was too old and faded to sell.
Our party chairman, Reg Birch, an old communist trade unionist, asked to meet his old chum, Kang Sheng. They brought along his wife instead, explaining that the head of the security and intelligence apparatus was indisposed. In fact, along with Chen Boda, it now seems as if he, and indeed Lin Biao, were at that time in the process of being purged.
Lin shortly afterwards died in a plane crash. Kang resurfaced long enough to ensure that the People’s Republic put its weight behind Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. In retrospect, I am glad I never had to shake his hand. Kang was posthumously accused of sharing responsibility (with the Gang of Four) for the Cultural Revolution. The Gang of Four had effectively controlled the power organs of the Communist Party through the latter stages of the Cultural Revolution.
In contrast with all the mass campaigns and circus antics of the Cultural Revolution, which resulted in widespread social and political upheaval and and economic disarray, these purges were being conducted in secrecy with no word of them leaking out from the leadership.
A case in point was a bizarre Christmas feast with an elderly American couple, old-style communists who had moved to China and taken up citizenship and party membership. They were brought out because they knew several of the delegation, who had asked about them.
The turkey dinner was odd in several ways. The couple were Jewish for a start, and although our Chinese hosts were trying to be hospitable with the seasonal bird, they obviously found something alien about the idea of cooking an intact animal: it came as a sort of turkey construction kit, disassembled, cooked and then reassembled. As for the couple, it was only many years later that I heard that their goose had been well and truly cooked. They were languishing in prison, brought out and dusted off for us, and then returned afterwards. But nothing they said gave any of us any grounds for suspicion.
The full Gang of Four came along to join Zhou for talks and a banquet on New Year’s Eve. Jiang Qing stood out in a sea of nondescript cotton Mao suits. The still striking woman, who had reduced the repertoire of a huge nation to a handful of revolutionary Beijing operas, one ballet, the Red Detachment of Women, and pretty much one classical sonata, flounced in, every inch the imperial consort. The former actress’ cotton greatcoat was draped around her shoulders like a cape, and she carried herself like an imperial consort.
When she discovered that I had been studying English literature, she immediately pronounced that Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Charles Dickens’ Hard Times were the only two English proletarian novels. Even as I blurted out a negative, I was thinking hard. I saw the rest of the senior leadership of the party withdraw a little in expectation of the thunderbolt to come. Jane Eyre was clearly a bit too close to home. A governess who marries the boss had too much resonance with the career of a Shanghai starlet who married the chairman. I concentrated on Hard Times, pointing out that its hero was in fact a strikebreaker – a traitor to his class in Marxist terms.
Through narrowed eyes, Jiang delivered her ultimate riposte, “You have long hair. It makes you look like a girl.” There was a barely concealed sigh of relief around the table. At least it was not “Off with his head!” or “Counter-revolutionary scum”.
The evening, after a banquet fit for an emperor, ended with drinks for us and Zhou and his entourage. The Gang of Four did not, as I remember, hang around. It became a drinking match, with shots of mao tai, the ferocious-smelling sorghum-based overproof liquor that had become the official drink of the party.
As the youngest there, but already with a reputation as a determined drinker, I was moved forward as the champion on going glass-for-glass with Zhou, a man with an iron constitution. But I saw how he stayed ahead. He only drank half his, while I was drinking the lot. Even so, he gave up first, as I remember – allowing for the fact that after large amounts of the stuff, memories can be unreliable.
Despite the Moscow-style purges going on behind the wainscoting, economically, China’s development was more balanced than that of the Soviets. We could go on a pub crawl through the streets of Beijing, pijui – beer, being one of the early accessions to our Mandarin vocabulary and although, for example, cotton was rationed, consumer goods seemed in adequate supply. In the covered market, locals looked superior as Aeroflot pilots came rushing through stocking up on things from soap to razor blades to tomatoes that the Soviets’ heavy industrial base couldn’t provide.
The variety of cigarettes, from coffin nails to the crush-proof packs of the most expensive brands, has always made me wonder about the role of tobacco in industrialization – selling the peasants highly profitable cigarettes was a financially painless way of raising state funds compared with expropriation. The other aspect was the amount of collective entrepreneurial activity that was taking place, even after years of disruption from the Cultural Revolution, which had not officially finished by then.
For example, in the countryside, communes were making cement boats for sale, while in Shanghai we visited a back-street factory that was etching silicon chips – almost state-of-the-art at the time. Even then, I remember wondering about the flue that vented the hydrofluoric acid fumes from the process onto the street. In a microchip, it encapsulated the future environmental problems of reckless development, even as it demonstrated the entrepreneurial urges that Deng Xiaoping was later to unleash.
I returned to Britain puzzled. The Cultural Revolution had not visibly destroyed the economy, as was sometimes claimed. But it was difficult to know what it was all about. It was bad enough when party leaders were denounced for esoteric sins of culture and ideology during the Cultural Revolution, but these silent purges and behind-the-scenes disappearances reduced the struggles to personalities and power-plays. Mao himself seems to have been playing off the leaders against each other.
So perhaps that was the twin legacy of the first 20 years. It developed the ground for the upsurge of economic activity in which China seems not only to have stood up but appears to be racing ahead. But it also has left the Communist Party totally committed to clinging onto power, without much in the way of ideology, while its leadership changes behind closed doors, with only the faintest pretence of consulting the masses. And by all accounts, party leaders at every level are still fond of banquets and mao tai.
Ian Williams is the author of Deserter: Bush’s War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past, Nation Books, New York.
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