Keeping the Flies Out

The first time I rode a public bus in China, in 1985, a young woman came up to me and ran her hand up and down my arm to feel the body hair. Foreigners were like rare animals then: precious, strange, probably dangerous. Surveillance was constant and labor-intensive. At the Beijing Friendship Hotel, there were staff assigned to go through the trash, read any diaries or letters left in the apartment while the resident was out, check mail, and listen to phone calls. A Canadian friend who switched into French in the middle of a call home was interrupted by a secret listener who asked him please to stick with English. A phone call that a journalist friend made from my apartment to a writer named Liu Binyan—who was considered dangerous—earned me an investigation as a possible spy.

In the early days of Communist China, many foreigners who lived there had come for refuge, not for interest in China itself, and few wanted their lives to collide with those of average Chinese. China was an island of escapees from political persecution of the right or left. There was an embittered Spaniard who had fled Franco for the Soviet Union but had been expelled and could not return to Spain. There was a Shining Path guerrilla from Peru who had left North Korea after making the inexcusable mistake, while editing a Spanish edition of one of Kim Il-sung’s works, of drawing a line through the Great Leader’s name and writing “el” (he) in its place (the North Koreans required that a bubble be drawn around the name to maintain its sanctity). An elderly German-Jewish woman had fled the Nazis and stayed on in China when her whole family in Europe was murdered. A mysterious old man was said to be a Nazi who had left Germany when the Allies won. There were Argentian communists who had escaped the military junta, Filipinos who had left during Marcos’ reign, and refugees from the Ugandan civil war—many or most carrying their personal histories quietly and alone. China was where these people went when they had nowhere else to go.

Gradually, some adventurers came to China to understand the country and not just to escape home-country persecution. This is when Americans and Western Europeans arrived, often to seek and understand a better social system. These foreigners tried to integrate, after a fashion, into the Chinese community, but they remained separated from Chinese by a membrane of privilege and, on the Chinese side, fear of contamination or political persecution. Foreigners had their own currency—the Foreign Exchange Certificate. They could visit only “open areas” of the country, outside of which bus drivers, ticket vendors, and restaurateurs were forbidden to transact with any foreigner who might make it through. Foreigners lived in special, guarded compounds, and Chinese who came to visit had to register at the gate, after which compound guards would send a note to the visitor’s place of employment to make sure that the “leaders” there knew he or she was fraternizing with foreigners. Spending a night in a foreign compound was punishable by two years at hard labor—as a friend learned when he allowed a female friend to sleep over rather than bicycle home in the snow for over an hour. Both were detained the next day, and questions asked of the foreigner included precise details such as “when you went to the Sichuan Restaurant in Xidan at 7:05 on the evening of July 22, what did you discuss?”

China’s “opening” proceeded on two fronts. The domestic economy enjoyed a sort of Gandhian rural revolution, while chosen coastal cities invited foreign investment and set up as export bases, walled off from the interior.

The rural revolution meant that farmers were released from the requirement that they grow only staple crops and instead were issued quotas, after satisfaction of which they could grow what they pleased and sell the surplus in newly established “open markets.” These new entrepreneurs made money quickly and developed a thirst for consumer goods. With the new wealth, individuals and localities established small companies making things planners had not anticipated a need for—trash bags, collapsible umbrellas, colorful clothing, sunglasses. Availability bred desire, which bred availability, until the free markets teemed with goods that would have been considered frivolous only a year or two earlier.

As for the external economy, the export bases also thrived but amid great cultural anxiety, because they were designed to attract foreign investment, which inevitably meant foreigners and their foreign ideas. The central government walled off 13 “special economic zones” that were permitted to take in foreign investment on the condition that the foreign-made product would be exported. Shenzhen was the largest of these and eventually became the zone best integrated into China proper. But initially, anyone working in the zone required a special pass, with no dependents allowed.

The system of social controls relied heavily on grassroots organizations—communes in the countryside, “work units” (danwei) in the cities, street committees for families attached to neither one. Before the Labor Law was enacted in 1995, there was virtually no job mobility. Chinese were assigned to a work organization right out of school and were not free to leave. Work organizations provided housing, medical care, and education. Factories and other danwei were worlds unto themselves, with hair salons, movie theaters, restaurants, and kindergartens. Employees needed permission to marry, travel, or conceive a child. The leaders could sentence employees to up to two years in a labor camp. If an employee died, his or her position would be inherited by a child. In the 1990s, when the government was dissolving many state-owned enterprises, an employee of the Beijing Materials Bureau—which owned my brother-in-law’s apartment building—had been cast off from the bureau and employed as an elevator operator in the building. When he died, his daughter demanded his job as her right. When the Materials Bureau refused on the basis that it was being dissolved, the family propped up the old man’s body in the elevator and refused to move it until the job was assigned to her.

This obviously held back economic development, and China’s reformist leader Deng Xiaoping determined to change it. But he famously warned, “If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in.” The idea was that China needed to tolerate a certain amount of spiritual pollution but to be on guard lest the windows open too wide. Lots of flies started coming in.

At least since the time of Marco Polo, China has managed cultural diversity by ring fencing. Even the language draws bright lines between inside and out. Chinese designates China as “my country” and other countries as “outside countries.” China’s name in Chinese is “middle kingdom,” and common slang for non-Chinese is “overseas devils.” The Chinese assume that their language is impenetrable and acts as the first layer of encryption against foreign snooping. The country “conceded” to foreign countries a number of territories that were technically extraterritorial, like embassies, with separate laws and police forces. This spatial diversity in laws, regulations, and practices became part of the grammar of Chinese governance.

It was clearly understood in China that geographies were merely a convenient way to maintain the outside-inside distinction between Chinese and foreigners, because it was foreigners, with their unregulated ideas, who threatened the stability of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule.

In the 1980s, a broadening menu of cultural choices was offered to foreigners living in Beijing and to the privileged Chinese somehow attached to them. The Spanish embassy hosted concerts by China’s one and only rock star, Cui Jian, with his signature song, “Nothing to My Name.” Poets who wrote the fashionable “misty poetry” traveled to do readings. A teahouse opened in the west of the city, offering performances on traditional Chinese instruments such as the pipa and the horsehead fiddle and, during the day, selling books that were later defined as mildly seditious, about Buddhism and serenity, or translations of novels that had been banned in Russia. A small improv theater called the Busy Bee opened up. Chinese artists exhibited in private rooms at restaurants or in parks or in the apartments of sympathetic foreigners. Masters of qigong—a sort of mystical blend of fitness and meditation—developed followings and filled up stadiums for demonstrations of mass hypnosis.

The universities began to hold dances on Saturday nights—men with men and women with women performing a clopping foxtrot to any available music—unless a foreigner turned up, in which case everyone would pull back off the dance floor, start clapping, and yell “Disco! Disco!” to induce the foreigner to demonstrate dance moves. After all, every non-Chinese was assumed to be able to dance like John Travolta.

Liberalization pushed into economic thinking. A group of progressive intellectuals founded a magazine called Reform, which published articles critical of central planning and the state economy. Party officials openly described themselves as belonging to this or that “faction.”

Foreigners were assumed to be generally amiable but also intellectually dim and incapable of understanding Chinese social and political conflicts. As such, they were viewed as harmless and therefore to be humored to the extent possible. The father of a friend visiting from America once borrowed my bicycle and blew right past the guards of Zhongnanhai, the compound where China’s top leaders live and work, and rode around, as the guards called to him in Chinese and jogged after the bike. This would be the equivalent of walking into the president’s bedroom in the White House. And while domestic dissidents were treated with great harshness, there was a casualness that attended protection against foreign threats. One time, bicycling, I arrived late to the Great Hall of the People for a meeting with Li Lanqing, the vice premier. I had forgotten to bring the invitation card and my ID. Instead, I showed the guard a CCP membership card I had bought as a novelty at a market. He looked at the card, which I had filled in myself with my atrocious calligraphy, and said, “I didn’t know any foreigners were party members.” I told him, “I’m Number 66,” and he let me in.

Gradually, the membrane between foreign and Chinese thinned and became more porous. There were too many loopholes: Sometimes, Chinese married foreigners, then what were they? Sometimes, people with foreign passports looked Chinese. Sometimes, foreigners had been born in China—should they be restricted?

The government tried to expand the system of controls over foreigners to be less reliant on people and more reliant on technology, such as listening devices and surveillance cameras. But the exceptions started to break that down. Ultimately, the circle of Chinese who participated in foreign privileges got wider and wider, and it became clear that the privileges extended to foreigners would bleed into Chinese life and become a liberalizing influence.

Then came Tiananmen.

* * *

The protest marches began in 1987. Students would march from the universities in the northwest part of the city all the way downtown, quietly, with plainclothes police threaded through the ranks taking video of the marchers. There were ebbs and flows in the activism, as the bureaucracy careened between tolerance and repression, but the death of the popular leader Hu Yaobang in April 1989 swelled the ranks from just students to, ultimately, every school, factory, and government office in the country.

When the army opened fire, my husband and I were at a friend’s 30th birthday party in Brooklyn. I had stayed up all night sitting on the stoop and talking with the host, and at about 5:00 a.m., a deliveryman drove by slowly in a station wagon and lobbed a copy of the Sunday New York Times onto the sidewalk in front of me. It landed face down. I saw that Ayatollah Khomeini had died but was puzzled to see that news this momentous had been relegated to below the fold. So I turned over the newspaper. Soldiers had opened fire on the students.

My stepson, then 17, was in Beijing, but in those days, no one but public officials had telephones at home, and we did not know where he was. My husband and I jumped into our Honda Civic and drove back home to Washington, where we called everyone we could think of. One friend said he had heard that a soldier had shot at Fan. Another said he had no news but that there were tanks rolling through the streets. A friend committed to finding Fan and getting him to the airport but said that he was having trouble buying petrol for the car. It took a week of worried waiting before I was called out of a meeting at my office. Yang Fan was on the phone. “Anne!” he said. “I’m in Los Angeles! Is that near D.C.?”

For about two years after the massacre, China was closed off, and “dissidents” were hunted and jailed. Seeing the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1990, China’s central government embarked on a huge effort to tie the provinces more closely to itself. They took control of official appointments, centralized taxes, invested in all-seeing technology systems, and sold off many of the companies belonging to provincial and local governments. Then, to hold control during the period of convulsive transition, they ploughed investment capital into the economy. After 2001, when China entered the World Trade Organization, the country amassed even more capital, invested more, and grew more. A post-Tiananmen compact allowed individuals to pursue wealth as long as they stayed out of politics and did not challenge the ruling party. Cultural controls tightened.

The SARS epidemic in 2003 revealed how local mechanisms of control remained in place although they had gone dormant. With business at a standstill, I used to take long bike rides around my neighborhood near the Capital Airport in Beijing. Streets I had previously ridden down suddenly were blockaded, and elderly people wearing red armbands sat at makeshift gates refusing passage to anyone who did not live there. Banners across these streets identified their governing village committees, though the areas had long before been incorporated into the city. These village committees, magically resurrected, took it upon themselves to check IDs for anyone passing through. Ostensibly, this was a health measure. Clearly, it was a half-turn away from social control for its own sake.

The run-up to the Olympics represented the second wave of post-reform social controls. Every bureaucracy was warned there could be no mistakes, and the best way to avoid them was to limit activity. Hotels that had renovated in anticipation of visitors for the games found they were not allowed to take foreign guests. Applicants for visas were rejected. Internet controls were stepped up to an operatic level, such that events like the death of babies from drinking contaminated milk powder were suppressed, with the milk remaining available—better that babies should die than that China’s reputation should be sullied. Hundreds of thousands of people were deputized to monitor speech and gatherings.

China is a sprawling place with weak vertical authority, and it often relies on quotas to achieve targets. This is true in law enforcement as well as the economy. In the run-up to the Olympics, police had such high arrest quotas that they relied on third-party agents to help them find people to arrest. This arrangement quickly morphed into a business involving what really amounted to extralegal kidnapping and a ransom process involving payments for release that started at about $50,000. I personally knew three or four people arrested under this regime. One couple sold their house to pay the fees, then quickly emigrated to the United States.

The global financial crisis starting in late 2008 added to China’s sense that it could and in fact needed to manage without the interference of foreigners. The country embarked on a massive, almost panicked stimulus program many times the size of the Obama administration’s rescue package. The resulting surge in real estate prices and consequently sales and construction activity led policymakers to believe that they no longer needed foreign investment or trade as the primary motors of economic growth and that, therefore, they did not need foreigners and their cultures.

The cultural environment became choked. After 2008, art events became high-priced performances by visiting artists whose concerts had to be approved at a high level and for very short runs. The constricted availability of foreign films contrasted with the wide distribution of pirated DVDs.

Before the Olympics and the global financial crisis, China cared deeply about its international image, because investment and trade flows depended on it. Foreigners, especially from Western countries, were treated with kid gloves. This meant that crises could be averted by making political appeals. A typical example was a crisis faced by the small newspaper I published in Beijing back in 1999. A photo we had published of a beggar served as the excuse for a business competitor to argue that we were “counter-revolutionary.” A local bureaucratic agency sent a notice to advertisers that we were operating illegally. In one week, we lost about $80,000 in advertising bookings. Worse, a report was written on me, claiming that I was “reactionary.”

I set to work calling everyone I knew and trying to lodge an appeal. After about two weeks of frantic pleas, I finagled a meeting with a highly connected former minister of public security. I made my appeal as he sat backlit by the afternoon sun and wreathed in smoke from the cigarette he held between his third and fourth fingers, Soviet-style. After listening to my explanation, he exhaled, paused, and then announced, “I’ll telephone Little Zhao,” using a diminutive for a high government official. Within the week, the notice was retracted, and we had our business back.

Back then, getting out of a dangerous situation took pulling political strings. A few years later, it was still possible, but it took large payments. Now, I know at least a half dozen foreigners who have been jailed in China without committing an offence. After the arrests of “the two Michaels”—the Canadians who were detained for almost two years as hostages for the release from house arrest of Meng Wangzhou, the Huawei vice president—it feels like there are no reliable strings to pull. Going to China would be a roll of the dice.

The European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, in a recent position paper, observed that there were more foreigners in Luxembourg than in China. The number is diminishing. COVID-19 in some ways has come as a boon to Chinese leaders who tend towards xenophobia: It provides an excuse to keep foreigners out and, to a large extent, to keep Chinese in.

And so China has come full circle, from the bewildered sleeper that emerged from the Cultural Revolution rubbing its collective eyes to the isolated Middle Kingdom it has historically preferred to be, from the Open Door to the nearly closed.

* * *

In 2014, we moved back to the States, as our youngest child graduated high school and, like the other two, moved to America. But before coronavirus descended, I returned monthly for business.

One warm spring afternoon in 2019, I was going to be early for drinks with a friend at a tiny bar in Beijing that serves exclusively mojitos.

I decided to walk the four miles or so from my hotel to Havana Café. I was staying at the Jianguo, a state-owned hotel that occupies a perversely nostalgic emotional nook for me.

The Havana Café nestles in an alley in “Dongsi Shitiao”—the 10th street north of the intersection called Dongsi or “East Intersection,” where once stood four arches with painted gables, one for each direction. On the way, I passed by Goldfish Alley, which once housed a theater playing Peking operas. I remember sitting in that little theatre wearing a heavy coat—public places were seldom heated in the 1980s—and holding a wood-handled mop upright. On my long, cold bicycle ride downtown from where I lived, at the Friendship Hotel, I had come across a small stand selling the mops, and the opportunity was too rare to pass up. I bought one and carried it like a lance on my bike, then brought it into the theater lest someone steal this precious item while I watched the opera.

I passed the old Dahua movie theater, where you could pay extra to sit in a deep-red velveteen “love seat,” a double couch with wings on either side to shield a couple from scrutiny. I never bought the premium tickets: I feared an unknown sticky substance on the upholstery. I remember the last film I saw there, on a rare evening out when the children were small: an American disaster film called Twister, in which the monstrous tornadoes drill into farmland like giant moles. I passed courtyards, the ramshackle restaurants, the crowded bicycle parking lots. This part of the city, east of the palace moat, once housed imperial granaries, and the alleys bear the names of their function: Green Pea Storehouse, Dry Flour Alley, where husks of wheat from the local mill drifted through the air, or the alley next to it where we once lived, Western Grinding Stone, where merchants must have milled their grain.

Now, the alleys have been widened into avenues big enough to accommodate four tanks abreast. Stiff, bright flowers nod their heads on oval islands that separate eastbound from westbound lanes of traffic. Intimidating office towers and residences create wind tunnels on the well-swept, triumphant avenues. Goldfish Alley, still so named to recall a certain quaintness that has vanished, now boasts a Waldorf Astoria that has a gabled courtyard hung with red lanterns in imitation of the classic style. There is a large stone and glass subway station, and the courtyard houses that remain have been painted a uniform stately gray, a legacy of the 2008 Olympics, when the city required neighborhood committees to repaint with one of four approved colors.

But despite the physical change, nothing felt very different on my walk. The same people as in the 1990s, albeit older, were sitting out on fancier stoops. Men still cooled themselves by rolling their undershirts up over their stomachs, and women wore loose shorts and T-shirts with slogans they likely could not read, such as “Friends with Benefits.” On one man, I recognized an obviously bootlegged pair of shorts that must have come from 1997, when Hong Kong “reverted” to mainland sovereignty. One leg sported a British flag over a red bull’s head and read, “The Chicago Bulls Welcome the Hong Kong Reversion!”

The gleaming new buildings did not seem to bear any connection to the people on the street. I thought about how Communist China treats the general public as an inert entity to live quietly in the heroic landscapes the government builds. The Party has always defined prosperity as a set of specific material goods: a bicycle, a sewing machine, and a radio under Mao Zedong; later on, a small car and an apartment. The Party’s goal is to pacify people by delivering these material goods.

No one, not the Communists, not the Nationalists, and certainly not the emperors, ever considered the “masses” partners in the construction of a better China. Once power has been obtained, the masses are treated as so many sacks of grain, to be moved around at will.

No one expects a sack of grain to express an opinion. Lao Tze wrote,

In governing, the sage empties [the people’s] minds, fills their bellies, weakens their wills, and strengthens their bones. He constantly causes them to be without knowledge and without desires and makes those who in fact do have understanding not dare act on it. Achieving passivity [of the people], then there will be none who are ungovernable.

The walk to the Havana Café along the newly broadened avenues of my old neighborhood brought me past luxurious stores selling $30,000 watches and fountain pens that cost thousands. The prosperity here belongs to those connected to the government, just as in imperial times, for China has never had and does not now have a class of citizens who can be secure in their property rights and wield a degree of political power without great wealth. The dream of education, health, and security that my husband once had, and the dream of travel and choice his father nursed, remain a chimera for most. Because of the visible infrastructure and triumphant announcements of fast economic growth, hope has continued, though it now flickers.

I reached the Havana Café and sat outside on a tiny folding stool at a table roughly the size of a dinner napkin, avoiding the dank interior, with its strange odor of damp wood and stale rum. My friend Deb, another visiting American, met me, and we sat through the darkening evening as a chill descended, sipping our mojitos and exchanging gossip.

* * *

I cancelled plans to travel to China in 2020, when COVID was blossoming, and lengthy quarantines began to be imposed. Over the following year, the government relied on draconian measures, such as sealing people into their apartments and arresting those who made a public record of the pandemic, to keep the country’s headline case numbers down. Ironically, the mismanagement in the U.S. legitimated the lockdowns and boosted popular support for Xi Jinping.

The lockdowns also restarted the machinery of repression and its partner, corruption, which always thrives when power operates in the shadows. All foreign visas were cancelled and flights in and out curtailed. Two-week quarantines were required in designated hotels—chosen by the government and paid for by the traveler—for arrivals, with an extra week to enter the capital. Travel between cities became fraught, as each locality faced severe penalties for an outbreak.

The COVID controls dovetail with China’s long-term policy of “detention at a designated location” for people it considers dangerous. Those who have famously been confined to their homes and subjected to 24-hour harassment as part of China’s system of “residential confinement in a designated place” include lawyers and activists such as Chen Guangcheng, who has now escaped to the U.S., Tang Jitian, who represented him, the wife of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died in prison, and many more. Even Jack Ma, the Alibaba founder, among the wealthiest people in the world, appears to have been detained for nearly a year, until Alibaba fortuitously pledged $15.5 billion in “donations” to government programs.

The first thing Xi did when he claimed his position as Party chairman in 2012 was to resurrect the Communist Party saint Lei Feng, a soldier killed by a backing truck in the 1960s, around whom was built a broad hagiography. The appearance of Lei Feng posters on city streets and in airports was surprising, because pretty much everyone knows that the Party invented his story. Reviving the myth had the feeling of spitting in the eye of people who are better educated and more sophisticated than they were in the 1960s.

For nearly a decade under Xi, China has been inching back to the isolation that has characterized its history, from the time the Qin emperor built the Great Wall—as much to keep Chinese in as to keep invaders out—through Marco Polo’s stay in the imperial compounds in the 14th century, to the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, when foreigners throughout the country were attacked as spiritual pollutants, the 1949 revolution, after which China broke relations with foreign countries and refused exit to most Chinese, and the Olympics period, when it was judged best to keep people from coming to see the games. Under Xi, criticism from within and without has been controlled by refusal of visas to foreigners and exit permits to Chinese, banishing populations considered dissident from Han bastion cities along the eastern coast and using the “social credit” system to restrict the activities of people deemed to be unreliable due to debt. Foreigners are leaving China, and very few get back in. Investment flows are declining, as mutual hostility and mistrust rise between China and other nations.

The political excuse for China’s increasing isolation comes from Marx: capitalism, largely ported into China by foreigners, is a transitional stage to socialism. Now, with capital highly concentrated in the hands of private entrepreneurs—many of whom have claimed a political voice—capitalism has gone far enough.

The CCP’s Sixth Plenum in Beijing in November promulgated a lengthy resolution on history that portrays Xi as the inevitable and necessary culmination of one continuous revolutionary movement in China from the Opium War of 1840 to today. The resolution breezes over the death of at least 30 million under Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the totalitarianism of the Cultural Revolution, calling Maoism “a creative application and advancement of Marxism-Leninism in China” and proclaiming that the Communist Party under the unerring leadership of Xi has “fully foreseen new challenges.”

In the U.S. and many other nations, money generates power and power money. In China, the flow is unidirectional: You get rich when you have government position, but not the other way around. The opening to private capital and foreign influences created a class of people who expect more of a say in how the country is run. Ma, who once had a popular blog in China that touched on political topics, is one example. External power, of course, is threatening to the CCP. The principal assertion of the “historical resolution” is that the CCP must remain in power to guide China into the future. To do that, Xi has made clear, China must close its window and get rid of the flies.