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by Melinda Liu
[COMMENT: An extraordinary piece of history...
China is thousands of years old but has been made anew in the last three decades, and my family with it.
By Melinda Liu | NEWSWEEK
Dec. 31, 2007 - Jan. 7, 2008 issue
My eldest brother was 7 years old when the Communists seized power in China. Our parents, who named him Guangyuan—"Distant Light"—had entrusted him to relatives in Suzhou while they visited America in the 1940s. Papa and Mama expected to be gone only long enough to complete their university degrees, and they didn't want to uproot him. Perhaps they also didn't fully appreciate what was happening to their homeland. Then Mao Zedong marched into Beijing in October 1949, and the world changed. Returning to China became too dangerous.
Guangyuan grew up in the care of our mother's parents in Suzhou, a city celebrated for its elegant gardens where emperors, courtesans and poets once dallied. I was born and raised in the American Midwest, along with two more brothers, and I dreamed of one day meeting the sibling the communists had stolen from our family.
My chance finally came on Jan. 1, 1979, the day Washington and Beijing restored full diplomatic relations after 30 years of hostility. No one could be sure the honeymoon would last, so I wasted no time in getting a visa. On the evening of Feb. 20, I lugged a heavy suitcase (filled with gifts for long-lost relatives) aboard Train 119, heading south from Beijing. Through the gloom and swirling cigarette smoke of a no-frills "hard sleeper" carriage, other passengers peered at me in wonderment. Many of them had never seen an American before. They carried their belongings in cheap travel bags and squares of worn, patched fabric. Some had only old-fashioned cloth slippers to protect their feet from the icy weather. A People's Liberation Army soldier lay snoring in a nearby berth, bundled up in a military greatcoat. It's funny, the things that stick with you; I remember he had sacked out without removing his mud-encrusted combat boots. "Maybe he just got back from Vietnam," someone joked. A border war had broken out less than a week earlier, and thousands of casualties were reported on both sides—tens of thousands would die before it was over—but no one in the carriage seemed to care. Everyone clamored to hear about life in America.
The train took more than 21 hours to cover the 700 miles from Beijing to Suzhou. My brother, then 37, lived on Jade Phoenix Lane with his wife, two daughters and mother-in-law. The 5-year-old began running in circles as soon as she saw me, whooping that Auntie was "a foreigner." Their home was a single rectangular room, divided by a massive wardrobe into two areas, each 12 feet square, and their toilet was a chamber pot. But Guangyuan, a bookish, soft-spoken optimist who worked the graveyard shift at a silk factory for the equivalent of $26 a month, considered himself lucky: his home had a wooden floor, a ceiling overhead and a small courtyard where he could keep a few chickens. His big regret was his loss of the family library during the anti-intellectual rampages of the Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution.
Now Mao was dead, and the strongman reformist Deng Xiaoping had unleashed forces of a different sort. The previous summer, party bosses had invited foreign reporters to a groundbreaking ceremony just across the border from Hong Kong, where I was working as a reporter. Shenzhen had been a tiny fishing village, home to only 17 original families. But Deng chose it to be his laboratory for a vast experiment: Shenzhen would become a quasi-capitalist, export-oriented "Special Economic Zone." Western journalists with me that day looked askance at the patch of mud that was supposed to be China's future. Many thought the idea was a joke. Thirty years later Shenzhen is a metropolis of 12 million people, and still growing fast. The huts have been replaced by rank upon rank of office blocks like the 69-story Shun Hing Plaza, currently the world's seventh tallest building at 1,260 feet. Townspeople say another high-rise is coming soon that will top it by more than 50 feet.
Now try to imagine such explosive transformations happening all across a country of 1.3 billion people. The China that will appear on the world's TV screens in 2008 may (as the Chinese never tire of telling you) be centuries old, but it's been made anew in just the last three decades. Thirty years ago China was an immense ruin of enforced ignorance and abject poverty, the psychic rubble that remained after Mao's misconceived attempts to reshape Chinese society. The distance from there to the present is even greater than it seems, since the trajectory has been anything but straight. That journey is usually described in hard figures: dollars and cents, millions of people, tons of concrete. But the changes are even more startling when you look at them in human terms.
I'm lucky: starting with the ride on Train 119, China's journey has been mine as well. A year after my trip to Suzhou, Deng threw the floodgates wide open, and NEWSWEEK hired me to run the first American newsmagazine bureau in Beijing since the communists came to power. Since then, from vantage points in Beijing, Hong Kong and Washington, D.C., I've witnessed at firsthand what may well be the fastest, most far-reaching national metamorphosis in human history. There is no way one person could encapsulate the myriad forces that have driven China's blindingly fast rise. But you can judge their sweep and scale by how they've transformed individual lives—mine, Guangyuan's.
Flog the Cur!
Back in 1980, I thought I'd plunged headlong into the journalistic Dark Ages. My office was a bat-infested eighth-floor room at the Qianmen Hotel. Whenever I finished composing a new story on the typewriter, I hopped on a bicycle and pedaled like mad to the city's public Telegraph Building several miles away. There I retyped the copy on an antiquated telex machine before carrying the perforated paper tape across the cavernous room to a distant counter and pleading with the clerk (a state employee, of course) to do his job and send it out. To make sure it got done, I usually waited until the transmission ended. Sometimes I nodded off on a bench, listening to the chugging of the machine as it echoed through the freezing, lugubrious hall. The process took hours—and that doesn't count reporting time.
But Deng's priorities were to eliminate his rivals and to heal the wounds inflicted by Mao (in that order), not to unmuzzle the press. The top story of 1980 was the trial of the Gang of Four—Mao's imperious widow, Jiang Qing, and three male sycophants—on charges of instigating the Cultural Revolution's many crimes against the Chinese people in the decade before Mao's death in 1976. Everything about China's trial of the century was larger than life. The 69-page indictment listed 48 specific offenses and cited "all kinds of intrigue, legal or illegal, overt or covert, by pen or by gun." The defendants were accused of framing, purging and persecuting more than 700,000 Chinese, including 34,800 victims who died.
This was no sunlit South Africa-style "truth and reconciliation" process. No foreign media or independent monitors sat with the 900 carefully screened observers who were allowed into the courtroom. Indeed, the drama unfolding at No. 1 Justice Road was scripted with meticulous care: the process was all about assigning blame. The official version of events, faithfully put out by the state-run Xinhua news agency, cast the Gang as bloodthirsty and improbably eloquent villains. "Flog the cur that's fallen in the water!" Xinhua said one Gang member, Zhang Chunqiao, had ordered. "Make their very names stink!" Mao himself should have been put on trial, but that was impossible even posthumously. To debunk the Great Helmsman, after years of hysterical propaganda practically deifying him as China's "red sun," would have sundered the already strained fabric of Chinese society. Instead, Deng and his circle publicly rated Mao as "70 percent right, 30 percent wrong."
Signs of a new openness were far more evident outside the courtroom, in Deng's first tentative economic reforms. Within months of my arrival, public markets had sprung up all over, selling items ranging from pet mynahs to antique bronzes. I interviewed Chinese, regimented for years by Maoist diktats, who were downright giddy about changes like the dismantling of "people's communes" into family farms. At one Anhui collective the members had divvied up not only the land but also the commune's physical assets. "I got the wheel of a wheelbarrow!" one happy villager told me. "And my neighbor got the rest of it!"
Such opportunities filled many Chinese with unaccustomed hope, including my own family. After visiting Guangyuan, I stopped in Shanghai to meet my eldest uncle. He had once been a public-health official, but during the communists' first wave of witch hunts in the 1950s he was condemned as a "rightist" and banished to Xinjiang province, at the edge of the Gobi Desert. He returned home a broken man in 1964, only to have his old "crimes" trotted out again. Members of his family were forced to denounce him. My aunt, now in her 80s, still whispers of their "treachery" as if the intrigues had happened only yesterday.
By the time I met him, Uncle had been politically rehabilitated once again. The authorities had pasted a bright red certificate on his front door declaring that his pension had been reinstated. A neighborhood public-health center had even offered him a job teaching hygiene classes. Uncle was glad Deng's reforms had come soon enough for him to offer the country his own skills and knowledge—unlike in Russia, where communist orthodoxy outlasted everyone who had any experience living in a capitalist society. "For years we've taken the wrong path," Uncle told me. "Now we must catch up. If the young ones cannot learn and manage by themselves, then we old ones must come back to help."
All the same, no one in those days could be blamed for being skeptical. Earlier moments of hope had ended in sudden crackdowns. In July 1982, Guangyuan and his family got U.S. visas permitting them to move to California, where our parents were now living. I flew to America with them, translating and trying to explain all the unfamiliar travel procedures, particularly the Customs routine: Are you carrying fruits or vegetables? Any animal or insect products? Have you been on a farm recently? Every question elicited a no. But after we got to my parents' house in Huntington Beach, I heard a strange trilling sound coming from Guangyuan's room. I asked him about it, and he pulled a tiny container from his pocket. It held two "golden bell" crickets, prized by the Chinese for their clean, clear music. Guangyuan had no idea of the trouble they would have caused at the airport. In the California night, the little insects trilled the soft, sweet song of a distant home.
II. The Square
China in the 1980s was a place of excitement and possibility. Everyone there was looking for angles, opportunities, connections, especially Chinese entrepreneurs from Hong Kong and Taiwan. In fact, prosperity was blooming not only in Deng's China but all across East Asia; so were new demands for more political freedoms. I would spend much of the decade racing from one pro-democracy uprising to the next. Although I didn't know it at the time, I got an early glimpse of things to come while on a dream vacation in Tibet in 1985, organized by a good friend from Hong Kong nicknamed Fifth Dragon. His late father had once been a Yunnan warlord, and Beijing was wooing Dragon to repatriate some of the family's exiled wealth by investing it on the mainland. One boozy evening in Lhasa, a senior party official in our group opened his jacket and pulled out a Makarov pistol. "I carry this for protection," he told us. "Protection from whom?" I asked, suddenly sobered. He smiled sadly at my ignorance but didn't answer. The following summer, independence riots erupted in Lhasa, and unrest has continued there ever since.
Events outside China might have convinced you that the march of democracy was inexorable. Asia's middle classes were growing, and so were their expectations and clout. In Manila, Asia's first "people power" revolution forced dictator Ferdinand Marcos into exile in Hawaii in 1986. (I just missed his exit, having been shot in the knee by jittery soldiers in front of the palace, and ended up in a Manila emergency room.) A year later in Seoul, student demonstrators forced another heavy-handed military regime to back down. The generals, eager to showcase their country's economic progress, had won their bid to host the 1988 Summer Olympics. Rather than risk the international disgrace of spoiling the Games with a shroud of tear gas or a bloody crackdown, the junta cleared the way for civilian rule.
But that summer, rather than covering the Games, I had to fly to Rangoon, where I was reminded that the people didn't always win. Riding in the back of a rattletrap pickup truck en route to the Strand Hotel, jittery Burmese acquaintances told how amid the chaos of ongoing and massive pro-democracy protests, demonstrators had seized rifles and ammunition from soldiers. I felt sick, knowing the junta would react violently. In the morning my photographer and I dodged potholes and bullets to visit an ancient city hospital, whose wards were like something out of Hieronymus Bosch. Piles of feces lay in the hallways. The worst part was counting mangled bodies in the morgue, including the corpse of a young teenager missing most of his head.
I flew to Beijing the next year thinking the biggest trouble I'd encounter would be staying awake through Foreign Ministry briefings. Mikhail Gorbachev was due in town on May 15, 1989, after 30 years of Sino-Soviet hostility. But as I neared Tiananmen Square in a taxi on May 3, I was startled to see a human chain of four or five bicyclists, some with white headbands across their foreheads, pedaling side by side, their arms linked. Their rolling protest blocked an entire lane of traffic. I marveled at their audacity. Student activists were still mourning one of their biggest heroes, Politburo member Hu Yaobang, more than two weeks after his death from a heart attack. He had earned their loyalty two years earlier, when Deng forced him to step down as Communist Party chief for being too soft on campus unrest.
After his death, memorial wreaths and portraits of Hu began materializing in Tiananmen Square. A shrill editorial in the People's Daily accused the mourners of creating "social turmoil" and of plotting to overthrow the party leadership—but the day I got to town, the editorial was publicly criticized as "too strident" by the then party chief Zhao Ziyang. I asked a diplomat friend about the conflicting signals coming from the regime, and his answer chilled me: "There's an unholy power struggle going on."
A lot of people think Tiananmen was all about democracy. They're wrong. Economics also had a big role. After a decade of impressive but halting economic reforms, inflation was running wild, and although farmers were making money for once, city dwellers were lagging—especially on university campuses, where labs and classrooms were as decrepit as the housing. Still, idealism was a driving force. Since long before the time of the communists, students have acted as society's conscience in China. My father taught me that. In the 1930s he led a student delegation to plead with China's then leader, Chiang Kai-shek, to take a tougher stand against Japanese aggression. Now I was watching a drama straight out of classical Beijing opera: righteous students, willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, were challenging an aging emperor who had become brutal and corrupt.
Gorbachev's impending visit scared me. I figured authorities had to clear out the protesters before the summit or lose huge face. On the eve of the Soviet leader's arrival, I stayed the night with hunger-strikers in the square. Moonlight illuminated a patchwork of multicolored protest flags and banners fluttering in the breeze. I NEED FOOD BUT I'D RATHER DIE FOR DEMOCRACY, read one in English. Another, in Cyrillic, read, WE NEED OPENNESS. IN the square that night, 21-year-old student Tian Hong began riffing on democracy: "Our country is opening up!" he told me. "We understand the failure of autocracy over the past few years." With memories of Burma still fresh, my eyes welled with tears. The next day Gorbachev's Chinese hosts had to sneak him into the Great Hall of the People through a back door.
Inspired by the students, people kept pouring into the streets all over the city even after martial law was declared on May 19. In many neighborhoods they built barricades, disrupting military traffic. I saw things I could scarcely have imagined possible. Fifty soldiers holding Kalashnikovs sat on the ground, listening intently as students with megaphones lectured them about democracy and fed them Popsicles. In another neighborhood a soldier emerged from his blocked convoy to shout: "We're soldiers of the people! We would never suppress you!" as the crowd roared its appreciation. One morning before dawn another convoy tried to cross the city secretly, transporting dozens of tarp-covered missiles—totally unrelated to the protests—and was trapped by a swarm of civilians. The crowd oohed and aahed over the weaponry while the helpless soldiers sulked.
Crackdowns follow a pattern, I've learned: the tipping point tends to come several weeks into a crisis, after the government and the international press are both exhausted. The phone woke me up at 2 a.m. on June 3. There was trouble near the square. Thousands of raw young soldiers—unarmed—had come marching down Beijing's main drag, Changan Avenue, only to be blocked by alert protesters. I arrived to find a scene of fear and confusion. Bewildered troops milled around aimlessly. The crowd had roughed up some soldiers, and others were bruised and scratched from being pelted with shoes and trash. A few of the troops wept in frustration.
But most of the interaction was peaceful, even cordial. "Think it over, get some rest," one man urged, patting a soldier on the shoulder and forcing cigarettes on him. "You're too tired." Another soldier seemed to be baffled by such friendliness: "We were told there were bad people here—hooligans." "Do we look like bad people to you?" a civilian replied. "Can there be that many bad people in Beijing?" "Which way is east, anyway?" a confused soldier pleaded. Although carrying no weapons, they were weighed down with all kinds of bulky gear: canteens, bulging knapsacks, even camp stoves. One soldier's rucksack had fallen to the ground, spilling a worn pair of plastic slippers and a flashlight. People tried not to disturb it, until one curious woman peeked inside to check out the PLA's field rations. "Instant noodles," she reported. "How pitiful."
This was a regime with few claims to the people's loyalty, and it was losing face. In similar confrontations that same morning, thousands of PLA troops were prevented from entering the square. A military jeep plowed into the barricades, killing three civilians. More ominously, as in Rangoon, unconfirmed reports said protesters had seized AK-47s from troops. I kept getting phone calls from friends and sources about tear gas near the square, or violence farther west. "There's fighting near the Telegraph Building," said one. "It's moving in your direction." The NEWSWEEK bureau and the hotel where I was staying were about a mile east of Tiananmen, though earlier I had booked a room at the Beijing Hotel, on the edge of the square, just in case.
That evening, Changan Avenue was scary and dark as I walked toward Tiananmen. I heard desperate, disembodied shouts. Howling protesters were throwing Molotov cocktails. And there was gunfire. I knew from Manila that a bullet coming close enough to kill makes a sibilant, zinging sound before the thud of impact. There was zinging and thudding all around me. Just ahead, a ragged crimson stain spread across a man's white shirt. I reached for his arm to try to help, but three men appeared, frantically tossed him onto a three-wheeled cart and wheeled it away. An armored personnel carrier was on fire, with civilians beating the flaming vehicle with sticks and metal rods as if it were a living beast.
June 4, 5:30 a.m. Grim gray dawn. I scribbled notes on a Beijing Hotel notepad, trying to record the horrific scene. A convoy of about 50 military vehicles came roaring down Changan Avenue, smashing through barricades while civilians shouted. For some exhausted reason I tried to count the number precisely, ticking off sets of four vertical lines traversed by a slanted one as the tanks and APCs passed. The tanks rumbled over everything: tents, corpses, debris from the 33-foot "Goddess of Democracy" statue the students had erected days earlier. Eventually loudspeakers began booming. All civilians were to remain in their homes: "The rebellion has been suppressed." The sound quality was so bad I could barely make out the garbled words. At the square's north end I saw a row of troops on their bellies, pointing machine guns toward the Beijing Hotel. I was sure they would never fire into a crowd of civilians. Then they did. I had to dive for cover in a pedestrian underpass to keep from getting hit.
The protests had been crushed by the time I returned to the Beijing Hotel with my colleague Carroll Bogert to settle the room bill. The area had been cordoned off for several days, I reminded the clerk, so he shouldn't bill me for the days when the hotel was inaccessible "due to the situation in Tiananmen Square." The man behind the counter stared at me and asked stonily, "What situation in Tiananmen Square?" This was too much. I yelled at him in fatigue and disgust: "What do you mean! Haven't you seen all the killing? It was right outside your hotel window! Tell the truth, damn it!" The hotel's security men edged toward me. "There's been no killing," the clerk said. "Nobody died in the square." Carroll dragged me out of there.
III. Time to Get
Until the Tiananmen bloodletting, I had been planning a big family reunion. My parents, my two U.S.-born brothers and I would meet in Beijing for a visit with my father's sister and other kin. (Guangyuan had to stay behind again, this time in the States; he couldn't get leave from his job at a Taiwanese-run factory near Los Angeles.) But my parents canceled Beijing, choosing instead to visit faraway Yunnan. The province's capital, Kunming—China's "City of Eternal Spring"—was where my father wooed my mother in the 1930s. After the massacre in the square, we expected Kunming's residents to be sullen and defensive. Instead, they acted as if Beijing—and what had taken place there—had had little impact on their lives.
Kunming bustled with commerce. Roads were lined with small-scale private entrepreneurs pumping up bike tires, mending shoes and cooking up local delicacies like fried cheese. At the Stone Forest tourist site, exotically dressed tribeswomen swarmed around my diminutive mother, trying to sell her bits of intricately stitched embroidery they'd sewn at home. She nearly fell off a chair trying to escape their clutches. Her main complaint was that Kunming's sky was not the brilliant blue she remembered from her youth. "The communists have ruined the weather," she said. I laughed.
Today, living in Beijing's perpetual haze, I see the truth in what she said. Tiananmen only sped up the process. Internationally ostracized and worried that his economic reforms might stall, Deng pushed industrial growth at any cost, short of giving up one-party rule. Investors kept pouring in from Hong Kong and Taiwan, unfazed by questions of human rights, to build factories and take advantage of cheap migrant labor from the hinterlands. In 1992 the "Paramount Leader" made a whistle-stop tour of Shenzhen and other economic zones to advertise the boom at home and in the world's financial capitals. His unspoken message: forget the past and concentrate on the future. As he said, "To get rich is glorious."
Millions of Chinese needed no urging. I visited Suzhou with Guangyuan and his wife in 1992, their first trip home since moving to California. For his friends—many of whom he'd known ever since they were all sent off to work on farms together during the Cultural Revolution—the hot topic was the trend they called "jumping into the sea": quitting cushy state-assigned jobs and taking the plunge into private business. His best friend was excited and busy, darting around the country selling wool material. By phone, I talked with a cousin who had found work with a foreign oil firm in Hainan. Watching my brother joke and chat with his friends, I was nagged by the suspicion that he had lost out twice: first by getting stuck in China during the hard years and second by immigrating to the United States in the '80s, just as his generation was starting to prosper at home.
And the changes kept accelerating. In 1995, passing through Chengdu, the capital of Deng's home province, I barely recognized the place. The gigantic white statue of Mao still stood in the central square, but it was now surrounded by multicolored hot-air balloons and billboards advertising Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, Fuji film and cigarettes. PERSIST IN REFORM AND OPEN POLICY, urged an English-language sign just under the Chairman's outstretched hand. Beijing was hopping, too. Friends dragged me off to a nightclub where a manager bragged of a new $2,000 lighting system, three foreign DJs and a cutting-edge Western feel, "like going to the U.S.A." (The club's owner had links to the PLA, natch.) I returned?to Lhasa on the same trip and found it transformed. The neighborhood below the Potala Palace teemed with hair salons, Chinese hookers and karaoke bars blaring tunes like "Material Girl." For the first time, I heard a Tibetan friend say he wanted his children to learn Mandarin so they could get better jobs. He hated himself for it.
Even some Tiananmen leaders went establishment—those who could flee into exile, anyway. Chai Ling, who in 1989 declared that "only when the square is washed in blood will the people of the country wake up," focused on her career, enrolling at Harvard Business School in 1996. I caught up with her that year while she was visiting Taiwan as a presidential-election monitor. More mature now, Chai even looked different. She had been criticized for taking some of the cash donated to student leaders in 1989 and spending it on plastic surgery to make her eyes "rounder"—and thus, she said, less recognizable during the 10 months she spent on the run in China before she escaped to the West. "I was too young back then," she told me, reflecting on the confrontation at Tiananmen. "What we really needed was dialogue." She now runs an Internet software company in Cambridge, Mass.
The people of Taiwan seemed keen to exploit all the bewildering economic changes on the mainland. That in itself was a huge change. I lived in Taipei in the mid-'70s, when Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek's paranoid martial-law regime kept the island in perpetual fear of being overrun. I remember an American friend who was hauled in and interrogated because his dry cleaner had found a mainland coin in his suit pocket and tried to turn him in for the $11,000 bounty on "Red Chinese spies." I got in trouble for writing an article on indirect trade with the mainland, mentioning that Chinese herbal medicines and a certain type of Shanghai freshwater crab could be bought in Taipei despite official enmity between the two governments. Taiwan government minders castigated me for daring to predict that Taiwan and the mainland might someday have commercial links, cross-strait tours and even occasional athletic and academic exchanges.
By 1996, Taiwanese investment on the mainland was at least $24 billion, and tens of thousands of Taiwanese were living in Shanghai alone. Some of my Taiwanese friends were sending their kids to university in Beijing. And Taipei's Di Hwa street market now specialized in mainland goods like live Shanghai crabs and fiery Mao-tai liquor. My timid suggestion from a decade before had become a fact of everyday life.
IV. The East Is
My father always amazed me with his evolving views on China. He was 80 and recovering from heart surgery in early 1997 when I mentioned that I'd be in Hong Kong on July 1 to cover the British crown colony's historic reversion to Chinese sovereignty. He immediately announced, "I'm going, too!" The plan sounded insane. The flight would be 18 hours, and why would he celebrate the handover? He'd never had any use for the communists in Beijing. But he insisted, saying he just wanted to be there—"one of only a few million Chinese to see the moment." He was eager for China to get back the land taken from the spineless Manchu dynasty more than half a century before Mao took power. "As a kid, I had the history of the Opium Wars drummed into me," he said. "It was the biggest humiliation in history. We hated the British for that." And for what came after. He recalled seeing burly cops—turbaned Sikhs from British India—beating Chinese beggars and prostitutes in Shanghai's International Concession in the 1930s.
Papa came to Hong Kong to watch the handover ceremonies in the company of old friends. I remember Prince Charles delivering a stiff-lipped farewell speech while a summer downpour dripped from his cheeks and chin. One flaglowering event featured a team of three motley Brits, mismatched in height and gait, and each in a different outfit. One wore a kilt. They made a sad contrast to China's towering honor guards, perfectly synchronized in their movements and wearing impeccably tailored uniforms. A PLA soldier unfurled a gigantic Chinese national flag with a single fluid motion and a snap so loud and clear you could practically feel it. A burst of pride and vindication swept through millions of Chinese—my father included.
China's rulers needed Hong Kong, and not just for its money-spinning stock exchange. With little trace of communism remaining beyond the name of their monolithic party, they had to find another "ism" to justify their continued hold on power. The answer: nationalism. Party leaders recast themselves as the country's great defenders, who would avenge past injuries and restore national pride. Hong Kong was only the first step. Macau would soon follow. And the big prize would be Taiwan. America, the policeman of the Pacific, watched nervously. A year earlier Beijing had staged a massive missile-firing exercise in the Taiwan Strait, attempting to tilt the island's presidential vote. Now the Chinese Navy was vigorously asserting claims to specks of sand and coral in the South China Sea. At times the territorial grabs seemed laughable, like the giant raft of mainland topsoil they anchored at a spot called Mischief Reef. The Chinese planted a floating vegetable garden on it under a sign declaring LONG LIVE THE MOTHERLAND. Still, Washington couldn't help wondering if a new cold war was brewing.
The party's new rallying cry was a resounding hit with the Chinese people. When I returned to Beijing in 1998 for another tour of duty at the bureau, I got to know China's first teenage female punk-rock group, Hang on the Box. With her spiky red hair and studded dog collar, 19-year-old singer-guitarist Wang Yue was a chain-smoking, foulmouthed rebel. But she didn't have a bad word to say about Tiananmen. "The Army did the right thing," she told me. "It could have been worse—outsiders might have exploited the chaos to occupy and harm China."
If rock and roll wasn't going to overturn the status quo, Westerners were sure the Internet would. For at least a year or two, the regime's neophyte computer cops were overwhelmed by the new technology, blocking some Web sites and arresting a few cyber-dissidents while missing countless others. But the Great Firewall of China gradually cut off access to more and more pro-democracy sites; left alone were those promoting pro-Beijing, anti-Western positions. Popular sentiment—especially among the young—echoed the vitriol posted there. "There's a genuine rise in nationalism," another diplomat friend remarked. "These are twentysomethings who see their country being put upon, especially by the big, bad U.S.A."
The new attitude was made brutally plain in May 1999, during the war in the former Yugoslavia, when a NATO jet mistakenly targeted the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese and injuring dozens of others. Back home in China, the streets erupted as they hadn't since 1989. This time, however, riot cops in Beijing directed traffic and authorities gave out bottled water as thousands of protesters swarmed around the U.S. and British embassies, pelting the buildings with bricks and garbage. Later, U.S. Ambassador James Sasser spoke sadly to me of watching through an embassy window as a Chinese security guard picked up a rock and lobbed it straight toward him. After order was restored, I visited the scene with an American military attaché. He seemed in shock as we walked past the U.S. Embassy's paint-spattered entrance, shattered windows and debris. Understandably so: it had been only 10 years since young Chinese had erected their Goddess of Democracy, modeled after the Statue of Liberty, just down the road at Tiananmen.
China's hong ke—"red hackers"—had been equally busy. In Beijing and Shenzhen they proudly showed me their handiwork. One of them had vandalized the White House Web site, putting a Hitler mustache on the then President Bill Clinton. Another bragged of posting photos of the Belgrade bombing victims on the U.S. Interior Department's site. After former Tiananmen student leader Wang Dan dared to suggest publicly that the bombing had been an accident, he received anonymous death threats via e-mail, and someone vandalized his pro-democracy june4.org Web site with a big F––– WANG DAN.
In some ways the hackers reminded me of the young naifs like Wang I'd met in Tiananmen Square: idealistic mavericks challenging the official line. There was one big difference. The rebels of 1989 wanted China's leaders to adopt the West's ideals. The rebels of 1999 increasingly viewed the West as their enemy and thought Beijing was, if anything, too soft. China was stronger, more confident and more active on the international stage than it had been for centuries. But nationalism was running wild, and party leaders could only try not to be thrown by the beast they had created.
V. Sea Turtles
The next time thousands took to the streets of Beijing was the night of July 14, 2001. The crowds, though, were purely festive. Fireworks and lasers lit the sky above as 200,000 revelers flocked into Tiananmen Square. Cars instead of tanks rolled down Changan Avenue, full of exuberant young Chinese waving huge red silk flags. China had just been chosen to host the 2008 Olympics, and the people were truly, viscerally ecstatic: at last their country had been recognized as a full-fledged member of the global community.
China's leaders needed the Games the same way they needed Hong Kong. They had to keep earning the public's confidence—what used to be called the Mandate of Heaven—with ever bigger and better achievements: joining the World Trade Organization, putting their own man in space, building the world's biggest dam, the highest railway, even the tal lest Ferris wheel. At some level all Chinese are driven by the dream of reclaiming their ancient imperial glory. At the same time, the country's leaders recognize that the giant's sudden awakening is scary for the rest of the world. With the clock ticking down to 2008—and with China's white-hot economy desperate for energy, raw materials and new markets—the regime quickly launched an international "charm offensive" to befriend longtime U.S. allies and international pariahs alike.
America, frantically dealing with a cascade of international crises, scarcely noticed how Chinese influence was spreading. Chinese diplomats insisted the idea wasn't to elbow the United States aside. "It's not possible for China to be a superpower—a power, maybe, but not a superpower," a relaxed Chinese official told me during a long background chat at a Beijing Starbucks in 2005. "We don't talk about empire." (Yes, China's bureaucrats talk on background now.)
At home, too, a new sense of concern about the country's image began to push the leadership to be more responsive to people's complaints about pollution and labor abuses—and especially, the demolition of people's homes as bulldozers and construction cranes rampaged through Chinese cities. In 2003 one man set himself on fire to protest the razing of his house by an unscrupulous developer; when a photographer and I went to the hospital, his furious relatives held administrators at bay so we could sneak into his room. As I was writing this chapter, a contact phoned, out of breath, to say: "Thugs are evicting someone in Fengtai district. Please tell the foreign media to go and report on it."
People are speaking out now. A year ago the regime suspended its old rules for foreign journalists. Until October 2008, we can talk to anyone willing to be interviewed, without seeking permission from local authorities. As soon as the new rules took effect in January 2007, my phone rang. It was an activist named Liu Anjun, who had spent two years in jail for "disturbing public order," inviting me to visit him and do a story. "Everyone else is being interviewed," he urged. "Why don't you come and talk with me, too?" I still recall the Gang's show trial, and I worry about what will happen after October. But senior Beijing Olympics official Tu Mingde told me he has faith: "China can only continue to open up. There's no going back."
Perhaps he's right. Outside my kitchen window the country's future is under construction. Each morning as I sip my coffee I watch the steady rise of Beijing's tallest building, the China World Trade Center Phase 3. Next to it stands the crazy, angular CCTV tower designed by Rem Koolhaas. Many Chinese still can't believe it's a stable structure. From my western balcony I see parks, subway stations and luxury apartments where people once struggled for a living in squalid low-rise hovels. At night, decorative lights trace fanciful shapes—palm trees, rainbows, you name it—above the intersection where the PLA massed its tanks in 1989.
And society has changed as radically as the skyline. Footloose expatriates like me once seemed like creatures from space, even when ethnically Chinese. Now Westerners can find all sorts of niche jobs, like an American in Shanghai who plays the role of an ordained Christian minister at splashy weddings for Chinese couples acting out a church ceremony as part of their celebration. But the real proof of how things have changed is the rising flood of Chinese returning home from life in the West. People here call them "sea turtles" because of their migrations back and forth across the ocean. Many fear missing out on the newest developments if they stay away too long. My niece's husband, who grew up in Beijing but met his bride-to-be in California, still marvels at the pace of things in China. "I came back from the States after a couple years and didn't even know what my friends were talking about," he says. "What did they mean by business 'platforms'?"
My father, turning 91 this Christmas, insists he'll be in Beijing for the Games. He can expect to find much of our clan waiting for him. Guangyuan's daughter Joyce, her husband and their two kids are among the "sea turtles" who live here now. Guangyuan, now retired, spends much of his time in Suzhou, his old hometown. After years of work in the States, he and his wife live comfortably in a 3,000-square-foot penthouse apartment there; it has a rooftop terrace where they like to watch night fall in the charmed city below. Their old hovel on Jade Phoenix Lane was torn down years ago to make way for a shopping mall. But it is good, they say, to be home.
© 2007 Newsweek, Inc.
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