Report from the China Sea
Report from the China Sea
- Jonathan Mirsky
- August 21, 1969
Since the Communist victory in 1949 there has been very little contact between Americans and Chinese. Although a tiny community of aging Americans continues to live in Peking, no American, except for Edgar Snow, has traveled widely in the People’s Republic and written about it. Peking and Washington are both responsible for keeping almost a billion people apart—the Chinese by turning down all American offers to visit (although other foreigners are allowed), the Americans chiefly by maintaining their occupation of Taiwan, thereby making plain to the Chinese that friendly contact remains low on Washington’s list of priorities.
Hoping to try to break this impasse, on June 11 I and five other Americans set sail in the ketch Phoenix bound from Nagasaki for Shanghai. In a press release we described the voyage as one of “friendship and goodwill. This is an individual effort, a person-to-person venture…not supported by any single organization or group.”
The skipper and owner of the Phoenix is a fifty-eight-year-old physical anthropologist, Earle Reynolds, who has been living in Japan for eighteen years. In addition to sailing around the world, he has taken his boat into both the American and Russian atomic drop zones to protest nuclear testing. An authority on the effects of radiation—he first came to Japan for the AEC twenty years ago—he was detained by the Russians and arrested by the Americans. Reynolds is a hero to many Japanese. His reputation grew after he sailed the Phoenix to North Vietnam in 1966 with a load of medicines. But doubtless because of Tokyo’s ties with Washington and Taipei, official reaction was hostile to Reynold’s announcement of his plan to visit China. Last year when he and his Japanese wife attempted a voyage to Shanghai they were apprehended on the high seas by the Japanese Coast Guard and indicted for violating immigration procedures. This year all six of us were detained upon our return by the Japanese authorities and ten days later Reynolds and two others were still confined to the Phoenix and to the area around Nagasaki.
The rest of the crew included Brian Victoria, an American Buddhist priest who has been in Japan for nine years; Rodger Scott, who teaches English in Tokyo; Michael Stafford, a student of Japanese at the University of California, whose brother was recently killed in Vietnam; Sharon Willoughby, from the Quaker study center at Pendle Hill; and me, whose main qualification was an ability to speak Chinese.
Reynolds began preparations for this voyage of the Phoenix more than a year ago, sending letters to Peking, contacting friends of the Chinese in Japan, and refitting and stocking the boat. When we set off we carried with us two large red flags from the Chinese Students Association of Japan, which we intended to present to the Chinese in Shanghai.
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Four days out of Nagasaki and seventeen miles from China we were intercepted by a Chinese Coast Guard vessel. After five days of discussion and entreaties we finally got the point: no Americans can visit China, no matter how friendly they seem. On the third day, the Chinese supplied us with oil for our auxiliary engine and, although we never left the Phoenix, we spoke for more than nine hours with them. Samples of these shouted conversations (in Chinese), which took place between boats twenty to fifty feet apart, reveal some of the problems which Americans encounter in a world in which, to use Mao’s phrase, politics has taken command.
Phoenix: We do not represent our government. We are private citizens who oppose American foreign policy regarding China. Chairman Mao says the people of the United States and China should be friends.
Chinese: Chairman Mao does not agree to your coming. He wishes you to go away. He opposes the imperialist policy of your government.
Phoenix: We want to show we are friends.
Chinese: You have crossed our borders. You are an illegal boat. Get out.
Phoenix: Two years ago this little boat went to North Vietnam with medicine for the people of Vietnam. It was there nine days and the crew was received by Vietnamese officials.
Chinese: You foreigners go away. We do not agree to your coming.
Phoenix: Two members of this crew live in Japan. They have lived there many years. Now the Japanese government has told them they cannot go to China and that if they do they will not be able to return to Japan. The captain’s wife, who is in Japan, knows this but supports his trip.
Chinese: We are acting in accordance with the thoughts of Chairman Mao, who opposes American imperialism.
Phoenix: Can we get in our dinghy and row over to present these flags from the Chinese Students Association in Japan? Our boat will stay here.
Chinese: Chairman Mao has said many times that the people of the United States and China are friends. You should return and resolutely struggle with the American people against the imperialists. Also, Chairman Mao wants you to leave these waters.
Phoenix: If we leave it will be a great victory for China’s enemies and a blow to the American peace movement.
Chinese: You are imperialists from an imperialist country. Down with imperialism! (Shouted in unison by perhaps fifty sailors)
Phoenix: Now I am speaking for myself. I teach in an American university, where I try to tell my students the truth about Chinese history. Most of us believe that the present bad relationship between our two peoples is due to American policies. What will I say to my students when I return and they ask why I wasn’t able to visit your country?
Chinese: Tell them the present bad situation is due to American occupation of Taiwan province. Until you get out of Taiwan everyone will see the situation for what it is and until then no Americans will come to China.
Phoenix: We don’t understand why ordinary people like ourselves can’t get together for a talk. You others on the boat! Sailors! Comrades! Do you agree with the speaker? He does all the talking. But we are all ordinary people. Do you really believe we are here as representatives of our government?
Chinese: You don’t need to tell us this. We understand. Go back to the United States and struggle there.
Phoenix: (during refueling, the Chinese almost near enough to touch) Comrades. Friends. We are ordinary Americans. The United States government sends its representatives to sea in large engines of war. But look at us, at our weak little boat. We are here as friends as Chairman Mao has encouraged. Look at us. Decide by what you see, not in accordance with some general idea. Please see us as people, not as representatives of a government whose policies we oppose.
Chinese: You are in our seas. Your government is at fault.
Phoenix: Please stop saying that. It’s useless.
(At this point, desperate to make some kind of contact, I sprang into the ocean and swam toward the Chinese vessel, which presented its stern and pulled away.)
These excerpts from nine hours of “exchanges” (taken down verbatim) may arouse in Americans seeking to understand China a desperation similar to that which propelled me into the East China Sea. All of us on the Phoenix sensed that the Chinese grew increasingly touchy. At first the sailors crowded the rails, smiling and curious. But as the conversations progressed, they markedly withdrew. First they formed disciplined little study circles, displaying quotations from Mao; finally they went below deck, out of sight of our banners which exhorted them to follow Mao’s teachings and learn by experience.
At the same time the Chinese did not arrest us, although they claimed we were intruding in their home waters. Other American yachtsmen straying accidentally into the same situation have been detained by the Chinese authorities, some very recently. On the other hand, we were offered food, water, and oil. Various motives suggest themselves: to avoid a scandal, to get rid of us, to appear “correct” in handling “distressed seamen” (we flew a flag requesting supplies). On the final day the Chinese boat performed intricate twists and turns while edging us out to the open sea. We felt again their aversion to any sort of physical contact, including the possibility of arresting us.
Now if the Chinese officers radioed a description of the Phoenix and its harmless crew (Peking had been alerted by Reynolds, and the Coast Guard claimed their Foreign Office knew all about us) and the orders continued to state in effect: don’t touch them, get rid of them, then…it may mean very little. If they had admitted us, the Chinese may well have feared they would have a succession of little boats on their hands.
Still, it seemed that the Chinese we talked to were anxious to make it clear that Taiwan remains a central foreign policy issue. They mentioned it every day from our first encounter—Vietnam never. For American policy-makers, however, Taiwan seems now only an annoyance. Two American Foreign Service Officers, specialists on China, scoffed when I repeated to them what the Chinese had said. They claimed that the Taiwan issue was merely an excuse for Peking’s continued belligerence, and that American policy was to maintain the protection of the Taiwanese, who want no mainland rule of any sort. When I asked them why then we support mainland (Nationalist) control in Taiwan, one of them described the present situation as “an accident…the working out of the impersonal forces of history,” adding that Peking should blame the Russians, who had started the Korean war just as Taiwan was about to drop into the Chinese lap.
Another explanation for the Chinese reaction to the encounter with the Phoenix may be the negotiations in Paris, which the Chinese are known not to favor. Since 1959 at least, limited American gestures of conciliation have carried little weight with Peking, which insists that America “cross the bridge first” and settle the Taiwan problem. Similarly Chinese diplomats insist that only when the Americans leave Vietnam can the war truly end. Anything less than solving basic issues, they say, leads to the degradation which distinguishes the Russians.
When we told the Chinese (whose overtures to America in the early Fifties, after all, were rebuffed) that the North Vietnamese had welcomed the Phoenix, they may have been confirmed in their view that even their staunchest allies cannot stand a tough struggle. It made little difference when we reminded the Chinese of Mao’s famous dictum that one should first distinguish one’s friends from one’s enemies. In previous discussions with the Chinese in Paris, Vientiane, and Katmandu they exhibited to me the same dogged insistence on not dropping their guard in the midst of international conflict.
At one point I read to the Chinese a long passage by Mao praising Norman Bethune, a Canadian physician who died more than thirty years ago serving with the Peoples Liberation Army: “What kind of a spirit is this which makes a foreigner selflessly adopt the cause of the Chinese people’s liberation as his own? It is the spirit of internationalism…with which we oppose narrow nationalism and narrow patriotism.” To these sentiments the Chinese answered dozens of times: “Go away. Go home. Join the struggle in your own country.” Brian Victoria, the Buddhist priest in our crew, observed that “At least in regard to certain foreign friends the Cultural Revolution is far from complete.”
The Chinese, however, have always treated foreigners with reserve and sometimes with contempt. When this attitude is stiffened by twenty years of American hostility, it is not astonishing that, in Peking, stubborness and pride take precedence over that official rhetoric which restates the ancient adage, “Within the Four Seas all men are brothers.”
A small battle flared fitfully on the Phoenix over just how hard to push the Chinese once they said no. Should we keep going back to argue? Should we sneak in by night? Should we force an arrest? Some of us sounded like “adventurist” Red Guards, well-meaning but awkward militants; in this sort of confrontation politics we probably struck the Chinese as infantile and unstable egotists. Certainly the Phoenix with its assorted crew must have looked suspicious. The Japanese thought so, too.
“There’s probably not much point in trying to be decent until the Old Man dies,” mused my friend in the State Department. “The Chinese are their own worst enemies.” He blew up when I introduced Vietnam as an example of American blindness. “I don’t give a fuck for Vietnam. We’re talking about China.”
In Paris I told an acquaintance at the Chinese Embassy, who had just finished telling me that the Chinese regarded the American people as friendly, that the Phoenix intended to try again next year. He took my arm and said, “I urge you to abandon this plan.”