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An Australian Gets to Beijing, 1964

In the early 1960s, few Westerners set foot in the People’s Republic of China. Australians needed permission from their own government to go there. Some got a green light, but Beijing guarded visas for people from non-Communist countries like precious jewels. Australia, in step with the U.S.A., still had not recognized Mao Zedong’s government, which made getting a Beijing visa tougher.

During the summer of 1964, while hitchhiking through Europe after graduating from Melbourne University, I knocked hopefully on the tall carved wooden doors of Beijing’s embassies in East Europe (few existed in West Europe), saying I would like to see New China. I had previously obtained permission from the Australian government to travel to China. In Prague, Budapest, and Belgrade, I was told to wait a couple of weeks for an answer. Alas, I had to take the train on to the next capital, to protect my dwindling funds, before a reply came at the Chinese embassy of the previous one. I felt I was in a revolving door, with a Chinese visa always just out of my grasp. Warsaw was my last stop in East Europe. At the PRC embassy on Bonifraterska Street, feeling I now had nothing to lose, I boldly asked to see the ambassador to debate whether or not it was a good thing for the world to understand China. A senior diplomat emerged from an inner room, smiling slightly. Two cups of tea appeared before us; I made my case. Next day I was phoned at the Bristol Hotel and told my Chinese visa could be picked up that morning at Bonifraterska Street.

Visiting Moscow on my way to China, I wrote a wide-eyed letter to my parents: “You can imagine how excited I am to be having my first sight of the USSR. It is a long-standing dream come true.” I took a tour of the Lenin State Library with its 21 million volumes, conducted by a blond female librarian who said, when told I was heading for China: “Remember, the present government of China is just a dictatorship of one man, the chauvinist Mao Zedong. It is not a government of the people—and it is bent upon war.” The Soviet librarian’s words were a blunt introduction to the burgeoning Russia-China split. I tried to suggest the USSR and China were at different stages of development and it was inevitable that outlooks would vary. The librarian cut me off. How could a kid from a capitalist country understand the finer points of Marxism! Whether in connection with our conversation or not, a “Statement of the Soviet Government” was delivered to my room at the Ostankino Hotel next day. It was a 20,000-word refutation of the Chinese government’s statement opposing the treaty of 1963 banning nuclear tests in the atmosphere.

From Moscow I took a worn Aeroflot turboprop plane to Omsk. About half the passengers were Chinese. Two Hungarians struggled aboard with melons in string bags. A Finnish woman, on her sixth trip to China, was off to buy textiles at a trade fair in Shanghai. Albanian commerce officials were on their way to North Korea for a vacation. Omsk looked like a town in Alaska or the far north of Japan. In a terminal that was full of sleeping Russians and resembled a railroad station, we sipped sweet-scented Siberian lemonade. Another stop at Tomsk, and then after a night flight we reached Irkutsk. A Siberian tourist guide led me to a breakfast of buns, apricots and mineral water. As we ate, the Chinese (CCAC) airliner that was to take me to Beijing rolled up outside the window. I began to sense the enormousness of the co-habitation of the Soviet Union and China, the two leaning upon each other for 4300 miles, their bodies together like reclining dinosaurs, their minds far apart, one in Europe and the other in Asia.

Changing to CCAC, we began a four-hour flight to Beijing. During many months in Europe, this was the first flight I took with no Americans on board. The cultural transition to China was agreeable. The cabin smelled of bamboo fans and fragrant tea. Hostesses brought chewing-gum, cigarettes, and little plastic envelopes for the protection of fountain pens. We flew over Lake Baikal and the barren ginger waste of the Gobi Desert, and later over North China’s yellow streams and green velvety hills.

At Beijing airport, a customs officer sealed up my rolls of film exposed in East Europe, so that I would be able to take them out of China, and made me undertake to have any film used during my stay developed within China. A guide from the China International Travel Service awaited me. Even a wandering Australian student could not arrive in Mao’s China unmet; he had to have an escort to ensure an appropriate experience of New China.

A stubborn idealist, I wanted to see for myself the new China that had turned off the lights of Treaty Port China and excluded the West, throwing out the last American diplomats in 1950 and treating each succeeding American president as the world’s devil of the moment. The revolution that Mao clinched in 1949 was still a shimmering abstraction for most people around the world, the way the Russian Revolution was for Europeans through the 1920s and 1930s. I was too young to buy an abstraction, and energetic enough to hunt down a few realities.

* * *

My first vista of Beijing was of a huge mass of people in white shirts and blue pants assembled in Tiananmen Square. It was a rally of 800,000 Chinese protesting U.S. President Johnson’s attack on North Vietnamese vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin, just a few score miles from Chinese territory. Nearby, Chang’an Avenue, the spine of Beijing, swarmed with bicycles. Amidst them, occasional busses, like carp among minnows, made a sedate progress. Hooked together in pairs with a folding canvas connection, giving a caterpillar effect, the busses plowed forward packed to capacity. My taxi dashed at fifty miles an hour for half a mile, then coasted at fifteen miles an hour for a few hundred yards—a maddening way to drive, which I thought at the time meant engine trouble, but learned later was to save gasoline.

The only major new buildings in Beijing were Soviet-style government monoliths: the history museum, the Great Hall of the People, the central train station, all put up in the fevered years of the Great Leap Forward. They didn’t look very Chinese. A waiter at the Beijing Hotel said the train station went up from the moment of its design to the last coat of paint in ten months. I wrote in my diary: “The Chinese acknowledge no limitations, whether on the speed of putting up a building, set about with trees that arrive fully grown in boxes, or on controlling the historically uncontrollable waters of their great rivers.” No high rise or international chain hotels existed, nor did any foreign airline other than Aeroflot fly to China.

Some buildings were being spruced up for the fifteenth anniversary of the founding of the PRC a couple of months ahead. Little of the famous city walls of Beijing remained. I wondered in what way the destruction of city walls was intrinsic to the Communist revolution. Did aesthetics not count at all? I concluded that the rush to pull down city walls was in keeping with the Communist aspiration to make a new environment and a “new man.”

Drivers of the few cars, imports from Russia and Poland, with an occasional battered Morris or Chevrolet from “imperialist” days, made constant use of the horn, sending little boys scurrying and old men hauling wagons lurching to one side at the last moment. I wrote in my diary: “My guide said in the future there will be many more cars in China. If there are one tenth the cars in Beijing that there are in Melbourne, people will be deaf within a day from the noise of the tooting.”

As Chinese as many things were, from the curved tiles of the Forbidden City’s palaces in the hue of a goldfish’s skin, to the nasal cries of the hawkers and stone-grinders, and the smell of Chinese noodles and sauces and vegetables, Beijing nevertheless had the air of the Communist bloc. I stayed in the Russian-style Xin Qiao Hotel, a rectangular cement block which nestled against a remnant of the city wall in the old Legation Quarter. My room had no shades and sun streamed in upon the bed at 4.30 AM, as outside my window cicadas sang as if in millions. In the hotel courtyard, the bushes, although lush, exuded heat. Beside them, old Chinese men and women did rhythmic snakelike taijiquan exercises.

The Xin Qiao Hotel had large parties of Laotian dancers and Cambodian table tennis players. Many Africans were on visits of “Goodwill,” for in 1964 one-third of China’s forty-eight embassies were located in Africa. Except for three Western resident journalists, the main foreigners in the city were French visitors. They strode out into the terrible August heat in Parisian clothes, feeling proud that France, under de Gaulle, had led the way among Western powers in establishing full diplomatic ties with the PRC. Some East European technical residents of Beijing were becoming disgruntled as the Sino-Soviet quarrel made the atmosphere chilly. An engineer from Budapest carried in his wallet a piece of paper on which he crossed off one by one the days until his departure from China.

I had never seen a pedicab before. Patched up all over, perhaps they were being phased out as the government saw them as an imperialist relic? I liked them because of the open-air ride, the absence of a tooting horn, and the leisured pace that permitted real sight-seeing. The only drawback was the rather precarious seat and the feeling that it might be “unsocialist” to be pedaled by a Chinese worker.

To my room at the Xin Qiao each afternoon an attendant brought an English edition of a bulletin from the New China News Agency. The main theme of reports on world events was anti-colonialism. One morning during breakfast, four Africans with whom I had flown from Siberia to Beijing came into the restaurant. They approached my table and we shook hands and chatted. From the hotel staff there came a murmur of oohs and ahs. I did not understand why, but after further experiences at the opera and in museums of greeting Asians or Africans and evoking a buzz from Chinese by standers, I saw the point. To the Chinese, schooled in Marxist orthodoxy about imperialism and national liberation forces, human warmth across the chasm between a white person and Third World brothers seemed to come as a shock.

The end of colonialism was supposed almost automatically to solve the problems of the Afro Asian World. My bulletin from the Chinese news agency spoke of “old forces” of the West being swept aside by a tide of “new forces” of Afro Asian socialism. Many people, including to a degree myself, believed in this upward evolution of the oppressed. Of course it would be a long process.

* * *

No longer an abstraction, here was China as steel plants, crying babies, 3000 year old tombs, soldiers with fixed bayonets at the gates of unlabeled buildings, bookstores selling Albanian political pamphlets and the social realist works of Jack London, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens. Also a populace with a genius, often born of necessity, for deriving pleasure from simple things.

The hotel dining room staff used bread as a magic tool to keep Westerners content. These cheerful young men and women were convinced no European could eat a meal that did not include a pile of slices of dense, dry bread. A culture needs pigeon holes for dealing with other cultures, and for these Chinese bread was the key to our civilization (as, for many Westerners, rice was the essence of Eastern civilization). If I ordered a meal that did not include bread, the waitress would look at me as if to say, “Haven’t you forgotten something?” flash a knowing smile, and write the Chinese characters for bread on her docket book.

When I took a taxi to the Summer Palace, the driver, dropping me at the gate, said I would need sun glasses against the glare and lent me his own pair. After lingering longer than planned in the hillside pavilions, I could not find the taxi or the driver. I took another taxi back to the Xin Qiao Hotel and tried to ensure that the sun glasses were returned and full payment was made. I was not able to press upon the taxi cooperative the 60 yuan agreed upon originally for the round trip to the Summer Palace. They would accept only 40 yuan plus the return of the glasses. No tip, even if disguised as a rental fee for the sun glasses. “Let us shake hands instead!” said the staff man when I tried to tip. Tipping had been abolished as a relic of colonialism, and only twenty years later would it come back as a prized badge of competitiveness.

I knew little of China, nothing of its language, and my eyes were my only investigative tool. But I could see the CCP was keeping a tight rein on Buddhists and Christians. Religion seemed a test of China’s new society. I asked to see a Protestant pastor, Zhao Fusan, head of the Beijing Research Institute of Theology, and he received me at Beijing’s Rice Market Church. I knew of Zhao from church contacts in Europe, since he had represented China at international Christian gatherings in the years before the Cold War put an end to Chinese participation in world Christian activities.

Zhao wanted to talk about socialist China, not about theology. He put everything in a framework of imperialism, which my education made me inclined to accept. “There is little light for us in Western theology,” he complained. But I got little light from Zhao Fusan about Chinese theology. I asked him: “Which parts of the Bible do you turn to most often?” Looking impassive, he replied, “All parts of the Bible have appeared in a new light to us since 1949.”

I had a great time at the Beijing Library, which then had six million books and subscriptions to nine thousand periodicals. The head librarian, who had learned English and German in his spare time, led me through airy reading rooms and a rare book room. I asked him what sections of the library were the most popular. “The one on Marxism-Leninism,” he replied. “Next would come the fiction sections, both Chinese and literature from all over the world.” I looked up the English name C. Wright Mills, whose sociology books we read at Melbourne University, and found four of his works in English. Learning I had been in Moscow, the librarian inquired: “Is it also your impression that the Soviets are plain revisionists, and that a bourgeois strain has appeared in Soviet society?” I was startled when he answered my question about rules for borrowing: “Generally speaking, only organizations may borrow books, not individuals.”

The Chinese ultra-leftists, soon to jump to center stage, were quite right to say that a lot of “the old crap” still remained in the China of the early 1960s. The traditional Tian Qiao folk entertainment area, south of Qian Men gate, attracted happy crowds with its painted magicians, expressive story tellers, huge wrestlers, and double-jointed acrobats. It wasn’t forbidden to consult the writings of Confucius and the Taoist philosopher Lao Zi, to enjoy the symphonies of Mozart and Beethoven, or to go dressed in a colorful skirt to a dance on Saturday night and prepare with a session at a hair salon. Not everyone yet realized or could say that the new crap (much of it Soviet socialist realism) was not necessarily better than the old.

Rightly or wrongly, I sensed a slightly old fashioned world. My room at the Xin Qiao was equipped with a chamber pot and a steel nibbed pen beside a bottle of ink, and in a nearby park older Chinese men played tennis in long white flannels, gravely inching their way through a baseline game. Leading restaurants, hotels, and embassies were staffed by silver haired veterans with elegant manners owed to imperialist tutelage, and the boutiques of Wangfujing and the art shops of Liulichang offered lovely antiques from mansions recently turned into schools or offices or dormitories. When I bought an ice cream, the seller took the time to carefully unwrap it and put the paper in a trash can before handing me the ice with a smile. And there were the dilapidated Morrises and Chevrolets, like remnants from a junk yard.

* * *

Packed up to leave Beijing, I reported to the CCAC air terminal office that was then near the Beijing Hotel at the corner of Wangfujing. The little old colonial building was deserted. “There is a storm over south China,” an official said. “No flight to Guangzhou until it’s over. Try again in two hours.”

In Guangzhou, a sign in Chinese, English, and French rose opposite my hotel: “Welcome to the Businessmen for the Chinese Export Commodities Fair.” Even Australians came to the Canton Trade Fair, as foreigners called the event. Business folk were almost the only link with New China for many Western countries. Again in the south, the issue of the Soviet Union came up. My guide said crisply: “In Russia a new bourgeoisie has appeared, of which Khrushchev is the political spokesman. They are playing a ‘great power’ game. The sort of game that made them put missiles into Cuba. It’s national egoism, nothing to do with class struggle.” She told me: “Albania is the only socialist country left in Europe.”

The view of the Pearl River from the top of the Aiqun Hotel was wonderful. The yellow water was alive with boats of every shape and size. Some were sampans, with boxes of chickens affixed to the back that provided home for families who refused to live ashore, despite the government’s efforts to remove them as a pre-Liberation relic. The only cat I saw in China was on the deck of one of these sampans. On the roofs of buildings lower than the Aiqun Hotel, I looked down on small restaurants, people asleep, and little boys playing football.

The clip clop of wooden sandals on the crowded pavements had just about given way, with modest economic development, to the rustle of plastic shoes. “It makes Canton quieter than before Liberation,” a shop-keeper told me.

At the bus station the photos in a display sixty feet long were fiercely political. One showed a large crowd in Japan demonstrating against the United States. A grasping hand was superimposed over the crowd to represent Uncle Sam, and the chairman of the Japanese Communist Party was addressing the throng. I was shaken by a photo exhibition called “Four Wicked Men.” I saw Truman with a clenched fist, Eisenhower looking moronic, Kennedy as old and bewildered, and Johnson leering into microphones that resembled guns. I objected to an official. “These men are enemies of China,” he declared with a shrug. “Consider their deeds. Their deeds are a caption to the pictures.”

Flying home from Hong Kong to Melbourne, I wrote in my diary that China seemed to the left of the Soviet Union, just as Yugoslavia was to the right of the Soviet Union. China seemed more ideological than the Soviet Union, its citizens more swept up in public purposes. Fifteen years after Liberation, I found the snap and bustle of a confident new order. But in Moscow I had discerned more prudence about nuclear weapons than in Beijing.

I was left with the impression that the quarrel with the Soviet Union was not basically an ideological dispute, but one arising from the different stages of the Soviet and Chinese revolutions. Beijing’s focus, only fifteen years from beginning to unite and organize the country, had to be on feeding people, industrializing, and modernizing. Moscow’s talk of “goulash communism” was dangerous for the Chinese. So the battle with the Soviet Union was not an abstract dispute, but a matter of life and death.

I was wrong in thinking the Russia China split would likely have a negative impact on China’s cultural evolution. “Communism in Rome and Paris and London, as well as in East Europe,” I worried in my diary, “is a bridge between the Chinese Marxists and Western culture. By ‘going it alone’ the Chinese are cutting themselves off from all manifestations of European culture.” It did not turn out that way.

I saw China poised among Chinese tradition, Western culture, and the new Communist culture. These were similar to the three forces that had jostled together in the May Fourth Movement of 1919, a prelude to China’s later twentieth-century convulsions.

In Guangzhou I mentioned in my diary an appealing side of Chinese society: “The alleyways are crowded and they are poor, yet no one is in rags, no one is sitting or lying around in that state of hopeless looking poverty familiar in some Asian cities. The clothing is standardized to an extreme degree, but it is neat and adequate. Everyone seems to have a task, and consequently no one comes running after you, ingratiatingly, to beg something, or even to sell something. In the midst of poverty there is order and a certain dignity.”

* * *

Most of my teachers in Australia at the time saw the PRC as nationalistic, fairly successful in economic development, and bound for a large role in Asia. They did not yet see the full scope of the social engineering mistakes of the Great Leap Forward of 1958-59. The international comparison they made was always with the Soviet Union.

Disagreements between Moscow and Beijing were plain to Australian China Hands, but most thought they stopped well short of enmity. The older school of China Hands from the 1940s, including Professor Charles Patrick Fitzgerald in Canberra, who had seen the Communists in Yan’an as “agrarian democrats,” felt any split between Beijing and Moscow just proved the CCP had never really been Communist in the first place. In general, Mao’s communism was considered intriguing and probably more flexible than Moscow’s.

My teachers of China never mentioned India, just as India experts knew little of China. But I was interested in this comparison. India displayed pervasive religion, an accompanying fatalism, and British-flavored intellectuals. All were a contrast with China. The Chinese in their secularity seemed more rational, more modern than the Indians, and imbued with a Promethean spirit. China was less influenced by any part of the West (or East ) than India was by Britain. China was more insular yet more intellectually challenging. I was fueled in my desire to seriously study China by an impression that, virtually unknown as the condition of the PRC was, China was Asia’s center.

Such bald thoughts went into a six-part series I wrote in Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian a few months after my China trip. Murdoch had just founded this newspaper (four decades later it is one of the world’s best) and he was its editor. He pruned my articles with a blue pencil and wrote out the payment check with a fountain pen.

In one of my articles I criticized the American policy of non-recognition of the PRC. “One can only be astonished at the continued American policy of isolating China–to the extent of refusing citizens, including the late Eleanor Roosevelt and Averell Harriman, permission to go to China and cut through the cobwebs of myth with a bit of ordinary human communication. Can ignorance benefit anyone? Can it benefit us in the West whose cause is bound up with the irreducible nature of freedom?”

A tendency exists in some quarters, perhaps especially in Europe and the USA, to think international problems get steadily worse, but 1964 was a more troubled time than most later years. All of East Asia was immensely poorer than it is four decades later. Tumult beset the politics of the truculent Soviet Union, as Khrushchev was kicked out as Stalin’s successor. China exploded its first atomic weapon in 1964, rejecting the Test Ban Treaty signed by the three nuclear powers in 1963. In Beijing and Guangzhou, photos of Chinese children cheering at the news of President Kennedy’s assassination nine months before made me pessimistic about U.S.-China relations.

But I knew not all Chinese believed every word the party-state said. In Beijing, David Wilson, then a young British diplomat, later British Governor of Hong Kong, told me of a recent rally against the Vietnam War. “I happened to be minding a friend’s Dalmatian dog,” said Wilson, “and I arrived at the [British] office in my red sports car with the dog sitting beside me. The people assembled for the demonstration against us burst into fits of laughter. It opened the whole atmosphere up—they let me pass through the door.” Wilson said “a fascination with the West and its goods existed” even in the China of 1964, “but it was suppressed.” I suppose a red Alvis, a mountainous pet dog, and a Briton in a Scottish kilt were striking spectacles for the people of Beijing to behold.

A novice at age twenty-five, I did not realize in 1964 that “Liberation” was a facade behind which lay a mixture of social change, political control, and cultural continuity. Mao, it turned out, had more doubts about the results of the Liberation than we Westerners who saw China in the early 1960s detected. Nikita Khrushchev was more prescient about the excesses of the Great Leap Forward communes than China specialists in the West. He told Senator Hubert Humphrey, later U.S. vice-president, as early as December 1958 that they would certainly not succeed.

At the end of my last article for The Australian I wrote: “All around the world, from Singapore to San Francisco, you can see pockets of Chinese society. But only in China can you behold the vast and formidable civilization in its power and its old and beautiful setting. Only in China do you realize what the Chinese as a race and a nation must increasingly mean in the pattern of future decades. Just as once in the past, long before the present barren era of clashing ideologies and wrenching divisions, China was the greatest power on earth, so in the future she may become so again.”

I felt that observing this huge slice of humankind had launched me on a path that might hold my feet for many years.

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Ross Terrill is a China specialist and Research Associate at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for East Asian Research. He is the author of ten books, including The New Chinese Empire (2004), China In...
My First Trip to China

Hong Kong Economic Journal logoThis essay first appeared as part of the Hong Kong Economic Journal's "My First Trip To China" Series.

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