After Ping Pong, Before Kissinger

My first trip to China apparently began in Montreal.

It was April 1971, and the American ping-pong team had just been invited to China, opening the public part of the complex diplomacy that eventually brought Richard Nixon to Beijing and direct relations between the U.S. and the People’s Republic. I was then the Washington-based diplomatic correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, and had been trying for years to get a journalist’s visa from the Chinese government. That on-again, off-again effort started when I was based in Hong Kong just before and during the most violent days of the Cultural Revolution, including the “riots” on Hong Kong’s streets. Needless to say, I never received any official encouragement and in fact had never been allowed to meet directly with a Chinese government cadre, despite an occasional good word from a well-connected go-between. Various embassy doors remained firmly closed.

But the table tennis matches clearly meant that something new was under way, and I decided it was time to try again. Someone suggested that meeting a McGill University faculty member named Paul Lin might be useful; he reportedly had worked for Premier Zhou Enlai when he resided in Beijing and was said to retain links to Chinese authorities.

Lin kindly agreed to meet me on the Montreal campus. There, however, he cautioned that he doubted if Beijing was ready yet to issue the kind of visa I sought. But he did add this: when Chinese officials do welcome American journalists, they won’t want to waste time with the left-wing press. They’ll invite those from what they consider the establishment, and it seemed to me that nothing sounded more “establishment” than the Wall Street Journal.

I never knew for certain if Paul Lin helped my cause. But a follow-up call to the Chinese embassy in Ottawa brought permission to stop by and file a visa request—something previously impossible. During an hour’s talk with a second secretary, I explained why I wanted to visit his country, while he explained in detail why Taiwan is properly part of China. It all seemed a bit at cross purposes, but a month later a Mr. Yao called my Washington office to say: “I would like to inform you that your visa application has been approved. Are you happy?” I replied with an obvious yes, as this was the first single journalist visa issued to an American—the special case of Edgar Snow aside—since the Cultural Revolution had begun. (Later in Beijing, I was told that my attitude had seemed “friendly,” whatever that meant.) A trip back to Ottawa allowed me to collect the visa and meet Ambassador Huang Hua (later foreign minister) and in May—a date that could be termed after Ping-Pong, before Kissinger—I was off for China. The Wall Street Journal generously agreed to also send my then-wife, Anne, who earlier had studied Mandarin.

The route from there was the usual: the aging train from the Kowloon terminal to Lo Wu, crossing the bridge into China with bags in hand, and then a long wait for the train to Canton (Guangzhou). It was here that political education began; the waiting room featured non-stop recordings of China’s hit songs played loudly—“Sailing the Seas Depends Upon the Helmsman” and other enforced favorites of the day. It gave the first sight of the omnipresent baggy clothes known in the West as “Mao suits,” Little Red Books galore, and Mao badges everywhere. It also marked the first use of two instructions we heard again and again whenever our hosts weren’t sure what to do with us: “Have a rest. Drink some tea.”

... in flight she used the intercom to order passengers to take out their Little Red Books, turn to a designated page, and read along with her. Whether this was standard practice or something special for the foreigners’ benefit, I never knew. But everyone, including some senior-looking PLA men, joined in.
The slow train to Canton passed through villages and rice paddies, organized into collectives called communes, that matched an outsider’s concept of traditional China. Draft animals and human muscle, augmented by the occasional two-stroke-engine tractor, provided the power needed for agriculture. None of this gave the slightest hint of the industrial zones they were destined to become two or three decades later—let alone any sign that a city called Shenzhen would rise nearby. Met at the station, we were whisked to Dong Fang Hotel, known all too well to foreign traders who attended the semi-annual Canton Trade Fairs. China then was short on soaps and cleansing chemicals, leaving the hotel long on dirt and cockroaches that no amount of diligent sweeping could whisk away.

But the Dong Fang was only a way-stop, and the next day’s flight to Beijing brought another reminder of the political atmosphere. A stewardess aboard the crowded prop plane paid no heed to safety measures, such as fastening seat belts, and no air conditioning was allowed before the plane had been airborne for twenty minutes or so. But in flight she used the intercom to order passengers to take out their Little Red Books, turn to a designated page, and read along with her. Whether this was standard practice or something special for the foreigners’ benefit, I never knew. But everyone, including some senior-looking PLA men, joined in. After all, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution still had five years to go and this was no time for ideological back-sliding. The worst of the violence had ended and the army was in control, but Chairman Mao was still at the helm, Lin Biao was his designated successor, and the Gang of Four contested (far more vigorously than we knew) for eventual power.

The next few weeks brought visits to Beijing, Shenyang, Shanghai, Anshan, Xi’an, and Yan’an, with side trips to assorted communes, factories, schools, and historical sites along the way. Despite the surface diversity, there was a sameness about them. At each stop, a vice chairman of the local revolutionary committee that governed the place (we never met a chairman) would explain how production and political enthusiasm had lagged; at times the presiding cadre would even concede there had been violence. Then new leadership had taken over the committee and propagated the wisdom of Chairman Mao’s many thoughts more intensely, leading to new highs of output and spirit and making everything (almost) wonderful.

Typical was the claim of Ong Ping-fong, a vice chairman of the governing committee at Ma Qiao (Horse Bridge) Commune near Shanghai. “It is because we apply the revolutionary ideology of Chairman Mao in a living way that we obtain high and stable yields.” We heard similar boasts about “worldly miracles” concerning almost everything, such as growing grain, brain surgery, locomotive maintenance, and collecting night soil. But it wasn’t complete nonsense. At Ma Qiao the paddies were dotted with signs containing Mao quotes, which the rice seedlings presumably ignored. But the workers also were told to use Mao’s guidance as an excuse for studying wiser application of water, for example, rather than the traditional flooding of fields to the maximum extent possible. And yields apparently did increase.

(Yet this applied wisdom wasn’t permanent. During a repeat visit to Ma Qiao ten years later, I found profit-seeking household industry was taking over; the Mao posters were mostly gone and peasant women were busily sewing Barbie doll clothing in their homes. A 1993 return found the former commune now had 150 small factories, many of them foreign joint ventures, with some onetime farmers living in modern two-story houses. A lone water buffalo plowed a single rice paddy close by—it seemed a Disney-like touch—while local bureaucrats planned a tennis stadium to host an East Asian tournament slated for nearby Shanghai.)

All these visits included a request that visitors offer suggestions about improvement. But I learned not to take this seriously. At the Anshan steel mill—then China’s best, with 1950s Soviet technology—I said more attention might be paid to worker safety. Huge fiery cinders seemed to be flying everywhere, often landing in workers’ hair or near their unshielded eyes. A cold front seemed to descend in the conference room, the presiding vice chairman responded stiffly, and the visit ended abruptly.

Overall, this trip basically served as another small sign that change was under way and China was beginning to open up to the world, something Henry Kissinger made obvious with his secret visit a bit later. I won’t pretend that I grasped the depth of change that the coming years would bring, for no one—with Mao still in charge and internal political divisions unresolved—really knew what would happen next. Nor, despite years of reading translations of official publications and Red Guard screeds, did I realize just how cruel life had been for so many or how acute were the internal tensions that remained (though the nervous chain-smoking of so many officials offered a clue).

However, a few items seem worth recounting.

It was clear that the Chairman’s anti-Soviet theme was more than convenient propaganda for “mobilizing the masses.” During our trip, Romanian President Nicolae Ceauşescu paid a visit and perhaps a million people were turned out to greet him. The roads from the old Beijing airport terminal all the way to the Great Hall of the People were lined with dancers, musicians, singers, soldiers, workers, and others, four or five deep on both sides of the official motorcade. Dressed in colorful costumes, waving flags of both nations, they performed on cue as the official entourage sped by—a glorious welcome for one of the world’s nastiest dictators who also, importantly, was resisting Moscow’s hegemony. (When I returned the next year with the Nixon party, the streets by contrast were nearly empty; no public celebrations marked the arrival, for neither side was quite certain what would result. But shared worries about the Soviets also made that visit possible.)

Robert Keatley and Anne Solomon
Nicolae Ceauşescu, General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party, is greeted at the Beijing airport in June 1971. The official on the left is Han Xu, who later opened the first liaison office in Washington.

Thus when we were entertained by primary school students in Shenyang who sang and danced about fighting American imperialists in Vietnam—“kill, kill, kill”—it seemed almost jolly, as if their hearts and those of their mentors weren’t in it. America was still Meiguo, “beautiful country.” But the city’s huge posters warning against the “polar bear” to the north were another matter; many people remembered how Soviet troops had looted Manchurian factories in the 1940s at the end of a brief post-war occupation. Much more emotional, however, were recounted memories of the Japanese troops who had ruled there much longer. Beijing’s current use of anti-Japanese sentiment shows how strongly those old feelings linger.

The Ceauşescu visit also let me attend a “Sino-Romanian Friendship Rally” in a Great Hall auditorium. On stage were the complete Gang of Four, Ye Qun (wife of Lin Biao, who was absent perhaps because he was less keen about the Cultural Revolution), and others who denounced the Russians roundly and pledged eternal friendship. The gang that praised Ceauşescu so freely may not have known that Nixon had used him to send messages to Mao in search of better U.S.-China relations, which they strongly opposed.

Despite the repeated claims about “worldly miracles” due to Mao-thought, it was obvious that China was an extremely poor country. We didn’t see real poverty—foreigners weren’t wanted in those areas—and the system seemed to ration scarcity with considerable fairness. But scarcity was everywhere. At the Shenyang locomotive and rolling stock repair factory, for example, a “responsible person from the department concerned” (most specific titles had been revoked) claimed there was no shortage of wood for floorboards. Thanks to Mao-thought, a “technical innovation” had taught workers how to glue together fifty or so scraps to make a single eight-foot board. The reality, of course, was that China remained desperately short of wood and just about everything else needed for an industrial economy.

Likewise, city streets were nearly devoid of traffic—except for bikers who (to our surprise) basically ignored whistle-blowing traffic police who tried to make them mind the rules of the road. In Shanghai, for example, most of the few cars were 1930s and ’40s American and European models left over from pre-Communist days. Its Pudong area was little more than a mud flat. Barring socialist landmarks like the Great Hall of the People, it was hard to find any noteworthy building constructed after 1949. Shops offered only the most basic goods, though there was no shortage of Red badges, books, and posters.

And differences from the Cultural Revolution’s harsher days persisted. At a vegetable commune near Shenyang, the ruling cadre and workers appeared to have especially cordial and informal relations. The place seemed cheerful, production was rising, and it sent a wide variety of foodstuffs to the nearby city. But not far away, things were quite different at a rice-growing commune. Rather tough-looking PLA men were clearly in charge (at many sites, most troops had already been returned to barracks). The atmosphere was tense; speakers conceded there had been serious fighting for unexplained reasons and crop yields were not acceptable. Huge tracked tractors stood idle, and one wondered if devoting this cold, northern land entirely to rice was a wise choice in the first place—no matter what Mao had decreed.

By 1971, the rampaging Red Guards were long gone and PLA members remained important to most revolutionary committees. Governing “three-way alliances” no longer had to consist of workers, soldiers, and peasants but could simply be comprised of the young (not more than thirty-seven years old), middle-aged (thirty-eight to fifty-five) and old (fifty-six and above). This meant the soldiers and returning cadre could appoint anyone they wanted and be ideologically correct. Youthful Red Guards by then were under PLA control and were often seen being marched about in orderly fashion to teach them discipline. They had no discernible role in managing anything.

My agenda included a trip to Xi’an and Yan’an with the entire foreign press corps of the day; we all fit easily into a two-engine prop plane. But not all foreigners were equal. At each stop, strict protocol insisted that the Albanian always had the place of honor—after all, as the Peking Review reminded constantly, the Chinese and Albanian peoples were “701 million people together resisting Soviet revisionism.” Then came the North Korean, the Vietcong (Communist South Vietnamese), the North Vietnamese, and a recently-promoted Cuban. After that, all were lumped together—East and West German, Russian, Yugoslav, Canadian, French, this American, Bulgarian, and others.

In Yan’an, where Mao had regrouped his forces after the historic Long March, some signs of China’s own revisionism—of history—were on display. We were shown the cave house where Mao had lived, and were told the one next door belonged to his anonymous “secretary.” But one visitor produced a guidebook that clearly labeled that cave as belonging to Liu Shaoqi, the deposed president whom Mao had hounded to a grisly death. A minder dismissed that claim as mere “foreign propaganda,” ignoring the fact that the guidebook had been published by Beijing’s own Foreign Language Press only a few years earlier.

We also visited the Lin Biao Museum, presumably long since closed for repairs. It featured numerous large photos of Lin heroically at work and—other than the Chairman—of nearly no one else noteworthy. Did Zhu De command the PLA at that time? I asked. After a long pause, a guide conceded reluctantly that he did. Why then aren’t any pictures of him on display? Another long pause. “Because this is a museum dedicated to Lin Biao.” Later, an official escort congratulated me for my “interesting” questions, one of the few direct hints that political divisions lurked beneath the surface.

The museum did include a glass case holding Mao Zedong’s stuffed pony. With a vision in mind of the Chairman riding across the plains, perhaps shouting—Lone Ranger-style—“Hi, Ho, Red Flag, Away!” I asked for its name. The puzzled response: “It has no name. It’s just a horse.”

Occasionally, the signs of change were tangible. At the Summer Palace, Red Guards were known years earlier to be en route to deface old paintings of gods and demons, dragons and emperors, on the ceilings of covered walkways. But clever custodians got there first and covered the offending works with whitewash. When we visited some five years later, the whitewash was flaking away slowly, as the curators well knew it would, and the forbidden paintings were emerging once more.

The China trip’s highlight was dinner with Premier Zhou on June 21 in the Great Hall’s Fujian Room. By then, two other U.S. journalists had arrived and, with wives, that gave the premier six guests—the most Americans he had at table for decades, he said. The three writers among us had drafted key questions to ask over the many courses, but the plan collapsed. One had also submitted similar questions earlier in writing and was told—as we entered the room—that he would get his written replies at the end. So he filibustered, presumably sensing a scoop, and the others of us failed to pick up the slack effectively. However, as we left the writer was told by Ma Yuzhen, the foreign ministry spokesman (later ambassador to the U.K. and the ministry’s first representative in Hong Kong after the 1997 handover) that Premier Zhou felt he had in fact dealt with the questions adequately and there would be no written comments—though some of the questions hadn’t been asked. All in all, it was not one of journalism’s finer moments.

But whether it really mattered in the end is another matter. The main message was clear; China was changing and was ready to deal with Americans on different terms. Our presence (reported briefly in the next day’s People’s Daily) was merely another small proof, but no Chinese officials, including Premier Zhou, were ready to discuss the matter publicly in detail. In fact, some of what he did say proved to be wrong. For example, he ruled out diplomatic relations between our two countries before the Taiwan issue was resolved; Deng Xiaoping went ahead in 1979 without such an agreement.

However, the premier did say, correctly, that trade with United States companies could begin soon. But the experience of a Canadian businessman indicated how much had to change before anything significant would result. He had searched vendors at the Canton Trade Fair for a certain quality of cloth for import, and had finally found it. But it was blue and he wanted green. Sorry, said the Chinese official, you must take blue. “We don’t do green.”

The trip home was again by train to the border and a connection at Lo Wu. En route to Kowloon, an attractive young woman got aboard, her extremely short shorts designed from a Union Jack. It was a reminder that that although the People’s Republic was right next door, it was also still very far away.