Hope, despair, control: The 1950s China my father saw, echoed today
Alexandra Stevenson/The New York Times
The bridge was only 20 yards long, but it was the longest journey of my father’s life. Holding a flimsy piece of paper with a Swiss watermark and Chinese characters, he crossed the bridge from the British colony of Hong Kong into Mao’s China, one of the first foreign correspondents to report on a country largely unknown to the rest of the world in 1954. The paper was his golden ticket.
Some six decades later, I found myself staring out at the same footbridge from the other side.
In mainland China on my own coveted journalism visa, I peeked out through the metal bars separating me from Hong Kong, now a semiautonomous territory of China. The closest my father had previously come to China was approaching this bridge to meet missionaries who, he wrote, stumbled “out of the Chinese Revolution with tragic tales fully confirmed by their emaciated bodies and haggard eyes.”
As the bamboo gate swung closed behind him, my father put one foot down on Chinese soil and looked up to see a simple mud village at the precipice of a new era. Decades later, I looked back to see a different view altogether: a towering skyline of glass and metal with one of the world’s tallest buildings in a city going through its own dramatic transformation.
It was almost impossible to get to China from the West at the start of Mao’s rule. The country had declared itself the People’s Republic of China five years earlier, and it was the early days of the Cold War that divided communist countries from Western democracies.
My father had carved out an unusual beat, reporting for The Toronto Star and The Star Weekly from one newly communist country to another, chronicling the path of each. On his travels he searched for a Chinese diplomatic office where he could get a visa to visit.
If he could find a friendly Chinese official in Moscow or another Eastern Europe capital, he might have a chance to talk that person into giving him a visa. Yet in his early travels behind the Iron Curtain, China remained elusive. He persisted, propelled by an urgency to understand this huge nation.
Eventually, during a trip to Poland, his determination paid off.
In July 1954, he travelled to Bern, Switzerland, where he was told to pick up his visa.
My father left behind written notes and newspaper clippings, stacks of passports with visas, photos and transcripts from his first and subsequent trips to China. They have allowed me to imagine conversations that we might have had in the six years since he died. Conversations about how the country he saw back then — brimming with hope and enthusiasm yet also tightly controlled — is in some ways the same today. His first trip to China spanned two months and thousands of miles. He met Mao Zedong (whom he tapped on the shoulder from behind his camera, mistaking the chairman for a “humble courtier” blocking his shot) and Zhou Enlai, the premier and foreign minister at the time. But he also talked with factory workers, actors, newspaper editors and shop owners.
He described being filled with hope for the human spirit he witnessed. But he also felt despair because a government-provided handler was never too far away, ready to silence anyone who veered too far from the Communist Party line. China defied any broad-brush statement. “And yet,” he wrote in one notebook, “under the current leadership, the way in which the government silences alternative points of view makes it hard not to.”
A version of this exists today. I have a long list of names of people who wouldn’t talk to me because I work for The New York Times, portrayed in Chinese state media as the source of “smears and lies.” Sources I’ve interviewed privately are later threatened by the local police, while stridently nationalist rhetoric dominates the state media.
Several months after I returned to Hong Kong, the Chinese government in March expelled my American colleagues as part of a tit-for-tat diplomatic dispute with the US In the past month, Beijing has tightened its grip over Hong Kong with a new national security law, threatening free speech and other civil liberties in the city.
During his trip, my father travelled from Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Chongqing in the south, to cities farther north like Shenyang, Shanghai, Wuhan and Beijing. Some of the datelines in his dispatches were different from today — Canton, Hankow, Mukden, Peiping — yet much of his observations still rings true. In Beijing, he found more than just a city but also a way of life that defied the strictures of communism. “No rubber stamp yet dictates the passions and peculiarities of its people,” he wrote. It is the same today. In the summer heat, men roll up their shirts to expose their bellies, even though the government calls the act “uncivilised” and has tried to crack down. The unsuspecting bicycle rider is never too far from crashing into a manic delivery man zipping down narrow bike paths on the wrong side of the road. Smokers stub out their cigarettes on the No Smoking signs plastered everywhere.
In one of his notebooks, my father noted a seriousness to the people he met and interviewed. But, he added, it was hard to resist a smile, “and everyone seems to smile; surely not all by government order?”
The people my father met shared their aspirations, both personal and professional. One young factory worker told him she had no time to think about getting married. Knitting, cooking and doing domestic chores were a waste of time, she said. And anyway, once she did get around to having a baby she would keep working. “After 14 months a baby has to look out for itself,” she told him. So she would leave the baby at the factory nursery, taking the child home only once the workweek was over. I have interviewed women who felt that the Communist Party today had failed them when it comes to the family, leaving them with no support.
Mao told them they were equal to men in work and life. Yet policymakers have intervened again and again to dictate how women should govern their bodies. First, they could have only one child. Now, they are being told they should have two children if they want to be patriotic.
For many women, motherhood is a losing proposition. They need to keep their jobs but risk being demoted or fired when they get pregnant.
“Should a woman just go back to fulfilling her traditional role as a wife and be shut out of society after giving birth?” Li Xiaoping asked me. The 33-year-old said she was fired for being pregnant. After she left, the electronics company she worked for sent her a bill equivalent to five years of salary for the hassle. During his first trip, my father was pushed around by unfriendly officials. While visiting the Great Wall, he left his guide to chase two men over the other side of the wall with his camera. Two People’s Liberation Army soldiers were launched into action, he wrote, “before you could say ‘Chiang Kai-shek,’” referring to the Chinese Nationalist leader, who had fled to Taiwan after his defeat by the communists in 1949. He waved cheerily, and they retreated. It was over, he thought, until his guide told him that he had taken unauthorised photographs and that the military was waiting for him in Beijing, where he would be forced to give up his camera.
But the developed film was eventually returned, “with thanks by a grinning official who agreed the only military secret it recorded was this breathtaking and ageless barrier — the Great Wall of China.”
Today officials frequently demand journalists delete photos from their smartphones. Last summer, my colleague and I found ourselves in a small town in the heart of China’s coal country looking for empty stadiums and half-built government vanity projects. As we were preparing to leave, we were suddenly circled by more than a dozen police officers and government officials.
They scanned our IDs. They questioned our motives. They threatened our driver. They pleaded with us to write a positive story. They asked to see our phones, to delete our photos. We got a Beijing official on speakerphone to tell the police we were allowed to be there, to no avail.
The charade went on for two hours before another female cop inexplicably walked up to us, shook my colleague’s hand and said, “You’re welcome here, thanks for your cooperation.”
These interactions are not new. I experienced similar acts of intimidation when I was working in China a decade ago. But there is an undercurrent now that feels different, one that I recognise in some of my father’s writing.
He struggled to reconcile what he saw with what he believed to be true. The “sinister regime where jails and punishment cells awaited the unfaithful” was mostly invisible on his first trip. Yet, he later wondered, what had happened to those acquaintances who disappeared and then later reappeared with confessions in hand?
The government’s heavy-handedness would inevitably emerge. In Shanghai, he visited a theatre, elated because for the first time in weeks there appeared to be no political subtext to the visit. But when he sneaked backstage he bumped into a big blackboard.
On it was an essay written by one of the actors, he was told. “It is called: ‘Who are my friends and who are my enemies?’” It turned out, in fact, to be a confession written by someone who had complained, “This government gives me a pain.”
As my six-month assignment in China came to an end, the country was preparing to celebrate 70 years of Chinese Communist Party rule. Every corner of the country was whipped up into celebratory fervour. Huge billboards of a smiling Xi Jinping with proclamations about China lined the highways. When my husband and I travelled through the mountains on a rickety bus in the southwest, we started a new game to pass the time: Spot President Xi.
The day before the parade I found myself sharing a cab to the airport in Shenzhen with Walter Liu, a 37-year-old Beijing native who now lives in California. Liu and his high school had participated in the 50th anniversary parade in 1999 when he was 17. He and his classmates were given pink and yellow blocks of paper to hold in a formation on Tiananmen Square. From above the sign read “50.”
It was the culmination of two months of rehearsals, first at his high school and then later during midnight rehearsals on Tiananmen Square. What Liu remembered most vividly was the excitement of being able to see his girlfriend during those midnight sessions. “It is rare that you could see your girlfriend at night,” he said, smiling as he recalled it. “We could just look at each other from the crowd and wink wink. We couldn’t even talk.”
On the day of the parade, his parents squinted, trying to find him on their television. “I don’t think they could see me because I was so tiny,” said Liu, laughing. “I was one colour pixel on TV.”
On the day of the 70th anniversary parade I, too, was a pixel. I had managed to persuade the government to give me a highly prized ticket to watch the parade from the stands, just as my father had done at the end of his first China tour.