The Class of ’77

A Q&A with Jaime FlorCruz

In August 1971, Jaime FlorCruz arrived in Beijing for a short trip to learn about Maoist China. Just days later, the Filipino college student learned he had been put on a blacklist by then President Ferdinand Marcos. Facing certain arrest and likely execution should he return, FlorCruz remained in China as an exile. He worked on a farm, learned Chinese, and was admitted to the prestigious Peking University as part of the first cohort accepted by nationwide exam in more than a decade. His classmates would go on to become the leaders of a transformed China, while FlorCruz parlayed his intimate knowledge of China into a career as one of the country’s preeminent foreign correspondents, serving as Beijing bureau chief for Time Magazine and CNN. Earlier this month, the veteran journalist was confirmed as the Philippines’ new ambassador to China. Before his appointment was announced, FlorCruz spoke with ChinaFile Editor Susan Jakes about his recent book, The Class of ’77: How My Classmates Changed China. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Susan Jakes: When you arrived in China in August 1971, what were the first few months like?

Jaime FlorCruz: Well, the first month or so we were all giddy and excited and everything was gee whiz. Even after we heard the news from the Philippines, we thought it wouldn’t last long. We were excited about the visit, about what we were learning. I was taking copious notes. I had thought I’d write about this for the college newspaper when I got home. So it was an exciting time. Around November, the first batch of eight students took the risk of going home. We heard later that they were questioned upon entrance. After we heard their stories, that made us feel like it was going to be very difficult to go home. And that’s when we started to ask our host, can we stay a little longer. We were thinking that Marcos couldn’t possibly make this last long, but we were wrong. In September 1972, a year later, he declared martial law. There were more arrests, more blacklists, which made it even more difficult. And that’s when it dawned on us that it was going to be a long, long wait.

Courtesy of Earnshaw Books

During that first year, you were kind of in suspended animation?

We thought, hey, we better do something useful. And we thought, oh, we want to go to school, we want to learn more about China, the New China. They said, well, the schools are still not enrolling foreign students. But if you really want to learn about China, why don’t you do what our Chinese youth are doing? Which is go down to the countryside, learn from the working people, learn the reality of China. And we said sure. It sounded like, oh, we can stay in this kibbutz. It was very romantic.

When did that romantic view start to get complicated?

On the farm. It wasn’t just the physical hardship that everyone goes through working on a farm wherever. But especially there, we thought, Hunan, the hometown of Mao Zedong, must be enjoying some preference. But the farm was really quite poor. Of course, our hosts tried to give us the best that they had. And I thought if this is the best that they have, it’s very poor and primitive.

Did you have a sense of how long you were going to be there?

That’s the other difficult part. It was sort of one month at a time. I suppose I didn’t believe I’d be there for a long, long time. But the prospect was just murky. It was unclear what we would do next.

What really turned that romantic notion for me was much later, in the mid-70s, when Deng Xiaoping was, again, criticized with Confucius. And I was wondering, what’s going on? I couldn’t understand. By then, I was already getting into the history and politics of things. I had a good friend who was quite a mature man, he was from the Academy of Sciences and was polishing his English before he would be sent overseas. One day, in the privacy of his dorm, he told me: Deng Xiaoping is a good man, I don’t understand why he’s being put through this again. I embraced and swallowed everything in the People’s Daily at that point. But I was thinking, I trust this guy. He was a Party member. From then on, I thought, I need to really be more critical, if not cynical, about what I hear and read. I would say that was a turning point for me in terms of looking at China.

You had been a student journalist. Were you thinking as an observer during that early time? Or were you . . .

A believer? Yeah, I would say I was a believer the first several months of my stay there. I thought socialism and this New China was a good thing. Especially hearing about before and after liberation. It seemed like people were happy—not rich, but seemingly content with what they had. This was partly because there was no marked difference in terms of rich and poor, everybody was almost the same. I embraced that concept, but in a very simplistic way. The Chinese media was full of it wherever you turned. And I thought they really adored Mao and followed his thoughts. But it was shallow, obviously. In the beginning, I really couldn’t follow all the gobbledygook kind of vocabulary. It was only much later when I tried to figure out what they were trying to do and what went wrong.

Talk a little bit about how you first started learning Chinese.

It was on the farm. Our Chinese host seconded a teacher who spoke English, who doubled as our interpreter while we were on the farm. We had very primitive textbooks—mimeograph type. Our teacher, Song Mingjiang, was very good because he drilled us in oral Mandarin. I also enjoyed his stories after class. He would talk to us in English about politics because his wife was in the Foreign Ministry. He eventually rose in the ranks of the Foreign Ministry and retired as the Chinese ambassador to the EU.

You had that treatment because of who you guys were?

I think so. The poor guy had already spent a few years in cadre school. So when he was assigned to us, he had to go back to the farm. I don’t think he was happy, doing this half a day of work with us. And he only stayed for two or three months, just to get us started. Then he was recalled back to Beijing and picked up his career as a diplomat. He also taught us Revolutionary Peking opera—he was a good singer. So that made learning Mandarin a bit more interesting. It was very difficult. As you know, it’s a difficult language to get started. But looking back, it was a blessing.

Did it feel safe to talk about your life in the Philippines?

In a way it was, and sometimes, in fact, it was an advantage. Because just telling classmates and teachers about this poor exile who couldn’t go home made us seem more sympathetic—or even attractive to girls. And of course our Chinese teachers were very solicitous of our needs and gave us special attention.

So ’77 comes along. And you thought you were going to have to take the college entrance exam, right?

Yes. I was out of Beiyu [the Beijing Language Institute]. My choice was to sign up for philosophy, or Chinese literature, or history. At that time, those were the only departments open to foreign students. I figured language or literature, I could do it myself. Philosophy, that means Marxist philosophy. So I thought, okay, I’ll study history. Then the gaokao [national college entrance exam] was restored and I worried that I’d have to sit through it. It turned out that I didn’t have to because they acknowledged my three years in Manila, in undergrad. And I already had done two years at Beiyu, so they thought I could be exempted from the gaokao. But I had to pass the Language Placement Exam. So that was a big relief.

That must have been the most competitive college examination in the history of the world, right?

I think so. 5.7 million for [fewer than] 400,000 slots? Yeah, it was. I could sense the excitement, but also concern, among some of my Chinese friends who thought of it as a last chance to change the course of their lives or careers. So many of them were kind of panicking. So I was fortunate.

Were you aware when you got there for the start of the school year that you were among such an extraordinary group of people?

No, it took a while. I knew that something special was going on with this restoration of the gaokao. But I didn’t know that I’d be joining this cohort of special people until I actually knew them, one by one. Then I realized that many of them had spent years on the farms, in factories, serving the army—had rich social experience—and had somehow managed to keep up their reading and writing. And that’s when it dawned on me that this was a special cohort of students. It also became obvious when we started to talk—not just in class, but outside of class. In fact, I must have learned much more outside the classroom than in class.

You were playing basketball and performing.

Yeah, and visiting each other in the dorms. Because most of the classes were still just coming out of the Cultural Revolution. The professors were still very cautious. but the students were not. And it inflected that period of time. China was in a state of flux, and looking back at the Mao period, and looking forward when Deng Xiaoping said, you know, Open Door reform. But what does it mean?

Other people who started college that year in China have talked about the excitement of that time, that when the library got a new book, everyone would race down to try to read it.

Exactly. It was like that—especially with foreign books. Any new kind of contraband edition of something, we all just batted it around. Everybody was excited. I think that that period was about curiosity and hunger for information. And then hunger for answers to questions that must have bothered them for years: What went wrong? Why? Where is China going? What does the reform mean? What are the risks? At that time, there was a debate about the “Two Whatevers,” Hua Guofeng. Whatever Mao said, whatever he decreed, we should follow. So that was an exciting time of debate, and that was reflected in the discussions that I had with my classmates.

Did you have a sense that people had just been through a terrible ordeal? Were professors or students processing what happened?

They were still processing it. It was like layers and layers unfolding among them in the discussions. Some of them really believed in the past, and yet they saw with their own eyes how much of it failed. The question then was more of, well, if that failed, what now? They were more unsure of what would be next rather than a willingness to negate the past. I could already sense that sense of angst. But it didn’t happen right away.

Did you go back and interview people when you were writing the book?

I did. That was what I had to do to recall some of it. I looked at old pictures and tried to reconstruct whatever I went through. I never really wrote diaries, except in the first few days when I thought I would be going back.

How often over the intervening years have you gone to reunions? Did you meet with your classmates every year or every so often?

Yeah, we met virtually—my classmates, my basketball teammates. They’re very active in gathering people. Or when somebody returned to China from overseas, we would get together, do karaoke, or have a meal. And we would really have fun, just bantering over a meal.

When you starting working for Time, how did your status as a journalist affect your interaction with all of these people, especially as some of them rose to power?

My background, my friendships with them, turned out to be a big plus, even as I became a Time Magazine correspondent. Why? Because they knew me already as a friend, as Jimi, their old classmate. And so even though I’d already evolved into a foreign correspondent, they still would talk to me. I mean, jokingly, sometimes they would say: you work for an imperialist media organization. They’d rib you. But in conversations, they would forget that, and it would still be just like when we were in Beida [Peking University]. A lot of these conversations were frank and spontaneous in many ways. I think it’s also because they knew they could trust me, and that I wouldn’t get them into trouble. I knew what to use and what not to use. I benefited more from their perspective, rather than from what specific information came out of it.

I wonder how having had that background shaped your view of foreign coverage of China during the time that you were also covering it.

Sometimes I felt like I was in between—especially with the editors in New York—because of my longer perspective. I’ve seen China in its dystopian state. As an observer, I could appreciate even the tiny changes that we all saw over the years. It was an evolution to me. Capturing that nuance of that story is what I bring to my reporting, which is not always appreciated or useful because sometimes we want to conflate things into simple black and white. So that sometimes was frustrating. But at the same time, there were still colleagues, peers, editors who appreciated that. It helped that we had ample time to research and write and were less driven by the headlines at that time. It helped that longer perspective, to view China and to tell the China story in in a more nuanced way. At least that was what we aspired for. We didn’t always succeed. But that was what we brought into the story, to the job.

Now there are just three of your classmates on the Standing Committee. How do you think about what the legacy is of having come of age in that time and place?

I think it shows the importance of education, of trying to change. That generation that I studied with benefited from education, but also from openness—from the exchanges that China had with the rest of the world. Academic exchanges, technological, diplomatic, political, tourism. I think the lesson is, if China is to grow further, if China is to become strong and prosperous, they need to keep their doors open. They need to educate more generations of people like the class of ’77, who could think outside the box, who had pioneered the open-door strategy. Otherwise, it will go back to its dystopian state. In my book, I hope that comes through. Education, openness, reform: China needs to keep reforming, changing, adapting, because that’s what this class showed. And in a way, that’s what turned China into what it is now. Turning back is not an option.

Planting the Flag in Mosques and Monasteries

Over the last few years, the Chinese Communist Party has physically remade places of religious worship in western China to its liking. This includes not only the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, but also other areas with mosques or Tibetan Buddhist temples and monasteries. Eight Chinese government procurement notices, issued between 2018 and 2021, show local officials seeking to sinify religious sites in Gansu, Qinghai, and Sichuan provinces, as well as in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.

In most cases, the notices cite the “four entrances” policy, which seeks to bring “the national flag, the constitution as well as laws and regulations, core socialist values, and China’s excellent traditional culture” into religious sites. Accordingly, several of the local government purchasers sought flags and 12-meter-high flagpoles for mosques or temples. One notice from a county in Ningxia listed the books authorities hoped to “enter” into “religious activity sites,” including Xi Jinping Talks about Governing the Country and An Explanation of Religious Affairs Regulations, among others.

In one instance, a town government in Sichuan province wanted to architecturally alter the local mosque. The procurement notice calls for purging “sanhua” (三化), or “the three -izations,” referring to “Saudi-ization,” “Arab-ization,” and “halal-ization.” Given government-imposed architectural changes elsewhere in the country, this likely means that the town wished to remove domes, minarets, or any other such features deemed insufficiently “Chinese.”

China’s Next Act

A Q&A with Scott Moore

While discussions of U.S.-China relations tend to revolve around trade and national security, more focus ought to be given to issues of environmental sustainability, including health, and to emerging technology, argues the University of Pennsylvania’s Scott Moore. Moore spoke with ChinaFile Editor Susan Jakes about his recent book, China’s Next Act: How Sustainability and Technology are Reshaping China’s Rise and the World’s Future. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

For Your Weekend, November 4, 2022

Asian Labour Review published a translated first-hand account of one of the many workers who fled a Foxconn factory in Henan this week due to COVID cases and the threat of lockdown. The worker recounts the sudden chaos of leaving, the kindness of strangers who helped her escape, and her feelings about going to back to work.

An animated video (in Chinese) making the rounds on Twitter last week highlights the bureaucratic absurdity of life in China after three years of the pandemic. The satirical video depicts a man applying for permission to drink alcohol.

For Your Weekend, October 28, 2022

For those interested in the nuts and bolts of Party priorities and self-representation, the Substack Ginger River has provided a line-by-line review of changes in the Party constitution following the recent Party Congress. It has also collected a downloadable range of other official documents from the congress, including the political report Xi delivered on October 16 and lists of membership in key Party bodies.

In a detailed account for London Review of Books, Long Ling, a government official based in Beijing, recounts the communications her local Party branch received and the laborious “Xi Jinping Thought” studies she was expected to complete in the lead-up to the Party Congress.

And Yangyang Cheng, writing in The Guardian, ponders the meanings of resistance and connection as politics in both her natal and adopted countries pull them further apart.

How to Become a Better Firefighter in Gansu? Read ‘1984,’ ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People,’ and ‘The Complete Book of Jewish Wisdom’

On April 23, 2022, the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) marked World Book Day with a meeting in Beijing to “study and implement the important instructions of Party General Secretary Xi Jinping and deepen the development of CPPCC member reading activities.” At the same time, fire departments across China observed the occasion with “study sessions” and reading activities designed to “keep the leaders’ instructions in mind and forever remain loyal guardians.”

Throughout his time as General Secretary, Xi Jinping has exhorted officials and Party members at all levels to read more and has emphasized the role of reading in strengthening the “people’s spirit” and shaping their “self-confidence.” Though reading and “reading activities” often connote studying Party-approved history and theory, a 2019 procurement notice posted by the Qingyang Fire Department, in Gansu province, reveals an eclectic list of book purchases for the brigade’s in-house library. In addition to treatises on Maoism, Chinese and world history, and revolutionary biographies, the inventory of more than 550 titles includes numerous self-help books, a how-to guide to understanding blockchain, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Svetlana Alexievich’s Boys in Zinc, and George Orwell’s 1984.

This year, on World Book Day, a news report showed images of firefighters in Qingyang “relaxing” with books, perhaps mulling over Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, savoring a book of Tang poetry, or contemplating Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.

Below is ChinaFile’s translation of selected entries from the full list of titles. We have added authors’ names where available. The complete original Chinese list follows.

For Your Weekend, October 7, 2022

An article from Emily Feng at NPR, “A public payphone in China began ringing and ringing. Who was calling?,” manages to be both inspiring and deflating. The story it tells brings together themes of environmental justice, public protest, art as a tool of advocacy, and the increasing difficulty of evading China’s pervasive surveillance regime.

The Economist has a great new podcast out about Xi Jinping. The Prince traces Xi’s life from his early career, through his posts in Fujian and Zhejiang, to his current seat at the apex of power in China.

Another piece of deeply researched multimedia reporting is this video on COVID whistleblower Li Wenliang from the Visual Investigations team at The New York Times.

Earlier this week, Asia Society launched its new Center for China Analysis (CCA) with a series of panels on China’s domestic politics in the run-up to the 20th Party Congress, “building guardrails” in U.S.-China relations, and prospects for U.S.-China collaboration. CCA also recently launched a new online feature, “Decoding the 20th Party Congress,” which includes an interactive tool for exploring the relationships among potential candidates for the Party’s Politburo, as well as analysis about how the composition of China’s new leadership may affect the policy landscape.

And finally, at a moment when the world seems to be pulling apart, our friends at The China Project (the publication formerly known as SupChina), have this gem on Peking University students learning Yiddish, and the ways it draws awareness to China’s own vanishing regional dialects.

For Your Weekend, September 9, 2022

Sixth Tone recently published a striking photo series featuring people in the city of Xi’an who have taken up residence in a half-finished apartment complex. In a story repeated throughout China right now, the developer ceased building due to financial difficulties, leaving those who have already fully paid for their new homes little recourse as rents rise and their savings remain depleted from their real estate purchase.

Online Posts Purport to Show Severe Lockdown Conditions in Xinjiang

Videos, voice messages, and WeChat posts purporting to show residents in the Ghulja (Yining), Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, area of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region crying out for food or medical attention have appeared online in recent days. As the Associated Press reported last week, governments in the region have imposed lengthy COVID lockdowns of sometimes more than 40 days. One video purports to show someone jumping off a building, presumably in despair about the situation.

ChinaFile cannot independently verify the authenticity of these social media posts. Babur Ilchi of the Campaign for Uyghurs (CFU), a U.S.-based advocacy group, said that his group had also been unable to independently corroborate the videos’ authenticity. “It’s hard to verify these kinds of videos, or reach out to people who film them,” he said. However, the sheer volume of videos coming out in recent days made CFU “feel very confident, unfortunately, that this is happening.”

Regardless of their authenticity, for the Uyghur community abroad, these videos represent yet another way in which the local population is at the whim of the Chinese government’s severe surveillance and social control measures. They also hint at the toll that the most extreme Zero-COVID policies can have on citizens who are stuck in quarantine for weeks on end, echoing the outpouring anger and frustration from residents of Shanghai earlier this year.

For Your Weekend, September 1, 2022

As we go into the last weekend of the summer, and a holiday weekend for those in the U.S., we recommend this New Yorker essay in which Han Zhang discusses the censorship of feminists and reporting on incidents of gender-based violence.

For Your Weekend, August 25, 2022

This weekend, we recommend this superb exploration of Chinese documentary film winning awards at fake documentary film festivals, from our friends at China Media Project.

In this short interview, climate expert (and our Asia Society colleague) Thom Woodroofe discusses how the cancellation of U.S.-China climate talks following Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan will affect global efforts to combat climate change.

China Digital Times offers a glimpse of the ways Chinese citizens are expressing their feelings about COVID and COVID-control policies. In this oblique commentary, an artist spray-painted one character on each of eight COVID testing stations, which reveal this message when viewed together on a map: “It’s been three years, I’m already numb.”

For Your Weekend, August 11, 2022

The most recent episode of the Sinica Podcast, with former U.S. intelligence officer John Culver, was recorded last week before Beijing’s military exercises in the wake of Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. But it’s an invaluable resource on both the historical context of the visit and on the range of possible directions its aftermath could take.

The Substack Ginger River has translated Xinhua’s readout of Xi Jinping’s recent inspection tour of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The translation gives a sense of how Chinese authorities are framing the trip, and the notes provided by the translator(s) help fill in any gaps for a reader not familiar with the CCP jargon related to the region.

Carnegie’s Indian Ocean Initiative recently released an interactive map, “The Strategic Importance of the Indian Ocean.” The map allows you to zoom in on chokepoints, disputed territories, and maritime boundaries, providing background information on key issues in the region.

For Your Weekend, August 5, 2022

Thanks to our colleagues at Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, we are reading this excellent investigation into the effects Chinese iron mining in Guinea, by Bloomberg’s Sheridan Prasso and featuring the work of our old friend, environmental lawyer Zhang Jingjing, and well summarized in this excellent video. It came out in June, but if we missed it, maybe you did too?

As we continue to follow the aftermath of Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan earlier this week, we recommend checking out the latest installment of the Lawfare Podcast with Julian Ku, Zach Cooper, and Sophia Yan joining Lawfare’s editor Benjamin Wittes, this op-ed by Yu-Jie Chen and this Isaac Chotiner interview with longtime American Taiwan expert, Shelly Rigger.

In happier news, last week, a ChinaFile essay by Shen Lu, “Scallion Dutch Baby: How I Revised My Recipe for Home,” won the Association of Asian American Journalists award for Excellence in Commentary. The essay is in part about cooking, and so to share our celebration of the prize with all of you, we invited Shen to share recipes for two of the dishes that appear in her essay.

For Your Weekend, July 28, 2022

For your weekend, we recommend Ian Johnson’s review of a new English language translation of Wang Xiaobo’s 1992 novella The Golden Age, released this week.

You can read more on Wang, his unique place among contemporary Chinese writers, and his wife, the influential sociologist of sexuality Li Yinhe, in this essay by Johnson for The New York Review of Books.

And for an additional look at Wang’s social and artistic mileu, watch this ChinaFile interview with filmmaker Zhang Yuan which touches on his collaboration with Wang and Li on his film East Palace, West Palace, one of mainland China’s first films about same-sex romance.

Confession and Reconciliation in the Cultural Revolution’s Aftermath

A Conversation with ChinaFile

Last week, frequent ChinaFile contributors Geremie Barmé and Zha Jianying joined editor Susan Jakes on Twitter Spaces to discus Zha’s recent short story for ChinaFile, “The Prize Student.” The story takes place in Nanjing in 1983, as a prominent writer pays a visit to a Middle School teacher he had denounced and persecuted at the start of the Cultural Revolution 17 years earlier. Barmé and Zha discussed the story’s origins, their own experience of the Cultural Revolution, and the vexed question of how it is and can be remembered in China today.

Arrests and Charges Related to Hong Kong's National Security Law

Since May 2021, Lydia Wong, Eric Yan-ho Lai, and Thomas Kellogg, from the Center for Asian Law at Georgetown University, have tracked the implementation of Hong Kong’s National Security Law, tallying up arrests and prosecutions as well as assessing larger trends in the nature of such cases. In addition to hosting the two articles they have written about their findings (“New Data Show Hong Kong’s National Security Arrests Follow a Pattern” and “Arrest Data Show National Security Law Has Dealt a Hard Blow to Free Expression in Hong Kong”), ChinaFile is providing regularly-updated data about these cases on a stand-alone page: “Tracking the Impact of Hong Kong’s National Security Law.” Check back here frequently for information about new arrests or updates to cases working their way through the legal system.

2021 (Most Recent) Official PRC Place Name Data Available for Download

For the last few years, ChinaFile has collected and hosted the list of official names of all the places (political units) in China. This information is openly available on the Chinese government’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) website, but not in an easily downloadable or searchable format. We have compiled these lists in CSV format in the hopes they may be of use to other researchers.

Participation in Xinjiang Surveillance Program Can Lead to Smoother Career Enhancement

Since 2014, authorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region have, as Human Rights Watch phrases it, sent “cadres from government agencies, state-owned enterprises, and public institutions to regularly visit and surveil people.” The program, known as “Visit the People, Benefit the People, Bring Together the Hearts of the People,” is one way the government keeps tabs on Uyghurs and other ethnic minority residents of the region.

A Note on Notes From ChinaFile

As ChinaFile approaches its 10th birthday, we find ourselves occasionally having something on the short side to say. Notes from ChinaFile will provide a dwelling place on our site for recommendations of books or articles, shrewd thoughts we overhear or that you send us, treasures from our archives, short chats with contributors, documents in search of a story, questions, partially formed ideas, clever uses for a scallion, and likely much else that hasn’t yet occurred to us. We’ll keep you posted.