Chinese students were free to mingle with us but we were aware of being watched all the time. We suspected, albeit without any proof, this was the job of Wang Yi at the reception desk of our dorms. American students gave him the nickname of Pee-Wee, after the comedian P.W. Herman. We often imagined our Chinese Pee-Wee filling reams of forms every night to report on us. Foreigners were noticeable for obvious reasons and, since we weren't in large numbers, his job must have been easy.
Quite early on, during my stay in Beijing, I met an interesting character called Liang, a student at my college, surprisingly very outspoken about the Communist Party. He believed there should be radical changes otherwise China would be in turmoil again. "People will be out in the streets rioting" he said one day. "We can't go on like this, the Party must change." Liang told me his father once played a key role during the Cultural Revolution but never revealed who he was or what he did. One day he brought a large box of memorabilia left from the Cultural Revolution. They included Mao badges, the famous little Red Book and other propaganda items. "I can bring more, my parents still have many boxes at home," he said with a strained smile. It was clear that he strongly disapproved of his parents' role during the Cultural Revolution.
There was no History class for us, at our college , a sensitive subject with the Communists. I had read a lot on China at university in France but, my classmates, all Americans, were much younger and unprepared. One day, I ventured "Is it fair to say that, after 1949, when the Communists took over, things got better here?". I found it hard to convince my young friends that the early 50's were some of the best years China had, in recent history. "How can you say that?" said Richard. "Communism is wrong by definition" Being older and wiser, I managed to convince Richard that the early Communists were not such bad people. After all, they eradicated the evils of the time such as opium smoking, prostitution and gambling. Unfortunately the good things didn't last long.
During our many discussions about China, I once told Richard "After the initial good years, one big mistake was Mao's appointment as President" "not too loud", said Richard with a smirk, "Pee-Wee is behind the door..." We both laughed with Richard betting on the date of my arrest. At the end of our discussion, we both agreed that Mao had played a crucial role in unifying China. However, his focus was the Russian model and that's where he failed. The worst part of that period was the Great Leap Forward, in the late fifties. Mao wanted China to catch up with the British industry and, to that effect, the government ordered its people to make bars of iron. I remember documentaries of that period, watching in disbelief a woman throw all her kitchen utensils into a big fire. The Great Leap Forward led to famines throughout the country and turned the economy into chaos. When Richard heard the word "famine", he promised never to complain again about the college cafeteria. Dissent grew among Mao's close allies who learnt at their expense how dangerous it was to oppose him. Many were arrested, thrown in jail and tortured until they died. The early part of the 60's saw a definite improvement in living conditions thanks to the efforts of Deng Xiaoping, then Secretary General of the party. His famous line "It doesn't matter if the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice" was first pronounced during that period. Regretfully, this didn't last long and, as Mao felt isolated, he became increasingly paranoid. In the mid 60's, he came back to the front line with the full support of his wife Jiang Qing and subsequently Deng and his reforms were dismissed.
Within no time the Cultural Revolution was "launched" and orchestrated by the Gang of Four that included Mao's wife. Hordes of young fanatics, the Red Guards, were out to erase the past. They arrested, tortured and imprisoned anybody who didn't conform. People denounced their friends for being well educated or connected to foreigners. "I wonder who betrayed their friends, among the Chinese we know", Richard once ventured.
1976 was a crucial year for China as it led to the arrest of the Gang of Four and Mao died in September of that same year. Fortunately for China, Deng Xiao Ping survived those difficult years and resurfaced in the late 70's. Richard agreed that these were better times for China even if discos were few and far between by his standards. However, the 6 o'clock broadcast of communist propaganda, each morning, was there to remind us that the Cultural Revolution was not that far away.
- Creator: Depaulis, Anne
- When: The Eighties
- Where: Asia-Pacific
- Category of People: AFSer