Red China Blues (Jan Wong)

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  On our fiftieth and last day, the factory Communist Party secretary received us. Every Chinese workplace, school and government office had one, and the more important the organization, the more powerful its Party secretary. Like my bossy classmate, Luo Ning, Ye Xuanping was the child of one of China's ten marshals. He bore a striking resemblance to his powerful father, Ye Jianying, who was destined to change the course of Chinese history by arresting Madame Mao. Despite his simple cotton clothes, Party Secretary Ye's pedigree as a Red princeling gave him an unmistakable air of authority. An able administrator and an agile politico, he would later become a Central Committee member and governor of his native Guangdong, China's richest province. By the early 1990s, he would amass a personal fortune said to be in the millions of dollars. And when Beijing would try to clip his wings by "promoting" him to vice-chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative conference, a largely ceremonial post that required him to reside in the capital, he would resist for more than a year, refusing to vacate the governor's mansion.

In his presence, Teacher Dai was breathless. Fu the Enforcer kept giggling and saying the wrong thing. The rest of the workers present kept a respectful silence. We sat in a vast meeting room filled with rows of sofas covered with snowy antimacassars. As a young woman poured steaming tea into mugs, Party Secretary Ye, who was then forty-nine years old, said he would not make a speech.

"I'm more interested in what you have to say," he said. "You come from Canada and the U.S. You have known capitalism. Now you are seeing socialism. You must use a comparative perspective to view our factory. What are your impressions of China? How would you compare socialism to capitalism?"

All eyes turned toward Erica and me. I spoke up. "The Chinese proletariat has great class feeling," I began. "One day, during a sudden downpour, the incoming shift gave their raincoats and umbrellas to the departing shift. Then the next incoming shift gave their raingear to that shift. I doubt," I concluded, "that would have happened in a dog-eat-dog capitalist society." Party Secretary Ye seemed pleased. Fu the Enforcer beamed.

Encouraged, I embroidered my theme. "Workers at home are badly exploited. Workers in China are working for themselves, and for socialism. I only hope I can rid myself of my bourgeois leanings, and one day join the true proletariat."

In June 1973, Erica and I excitedly joined our classmates for the wheat harvest. We arose at 4:30 a.m., splashed water on our faces and stumbled over to the Big Canteen, where we bought double rations of tasteless steamed bread and extremely salty pickles. After lining up in military formation for a roll call, we climbed into the back of damp army trucks for the bumpy ride to the commune. My Classmates cut the wheat with small sickles. Since I was left-handed, my job was to bundle it, making "rope" by twisting shanks of freshly cut wheat.

Stupidly, I had forgotten my straw hat. By eight the sun had vaporized the clouds. Because of a storm the previous day, the ground was literally steaming. When I finally stopped to straighten my back, the wheatfields shimmered like a sea of molten gold and the sky was so brilliant my eyes hurt. I thought I was about to pass out when the class leader called a break. I checked my watch and was depressed to see it was only nine-thirty. At noon, I collapsed on a straw mat and dreamed of iced coffee. My hands were lacerated from the straw, my back hurt, and my throat and tongue were thick with thirst. I couldn't eat the steamed bread and salted pickles. Scarlet was ravenous, and ate her lunch and mine. We finally quit at five in the afternoon, after half a dozen classmates had fainted from heat exhaustion.

In July I prepared to leave China. For more than a year, I had been subjected to a relentless barrage of propaganda and had absorbed many of the values. Maoism suited the absoluteness of youth. I was so self-absorbed. I knew so little about human suffering. And I was always being judged myself. I wanted to prove that despite my "bad" background, I could be as "good" as the next person.

I also had studied Mao's famous essay On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People, in which he promised that only the worst class enemies would be treated harshly. Ordinary people who made mistakes would be encouraged to reform and clasped to the bosom of the motherland. Only class enemies would be sent off to the gulag. I did not know that the reason I enjoyed biking down the empty streets of Beijing was because so many of its seven million residents had been sent down to farms and communes for thought reform.

During one school break, I visited the aunt who had been so frightened of losing touch with her brother in Canada that she secretly jotted his address down in a textbook. Aunt Yuying was a chemistry professor in Tianjin, a two-hour train ride from Beijing She welcomed me to stay in her campus apartment even though it meant hassling with the university bureaucracy. Every morning she made me omelettes for breakfast, an unheard-of luxury that also used up her monthly ration of eggs. For lunch, she made spring rolls, which wiped out her meager cache of cooking oil. When I left, she gave me her vast collection of Mao buttons, including a hand-painted porcelain one and another made from the tip of a toothbrush.

But Aunt Yuying never talked frankly to me. More than twenty years later, when I was forty and she was seventy, I asked why she had never hinted at the problems in China back then. "You were so radical," she said gently. "You believed everything. We didn't dare tell you. It was too dangerous."

I am not blaming anyone but myself for what I did next. Just a few weeks before I was scheduled to leave Beijing University, a student I knew only slightly approached Erica and me. Yin Luoyi was in the year ahead of us, in the very first history class of worker-peasant-soldier students. She was pretty, with large, expressive eyes. "Let's go for a walk around No Name Lake, "Yin suggested. Since most people avoided us, Erica and I were pleased, and readily agreed. Yin seemed nervous. As we strolled around the lake, she peppered us with questions about the west.

"Do you have refrigerators?" she asked. "What kind of class background do you need to attend university?" Erica and I were annoyed. Why was she so fixated on the West? Didn't she understand it was capitalist? She did. Yin paused, and took a deep breath.

"I want to go to the United States," she said. "Can you help me?"

We decided Yin did need help. The Communist Party would save her from herself. After my experience with Chen the auto mechanic, I knew what would happen. Nothing permanently unpleasant. She would be reprimanded, and that would be the end of it. And this way she would be rescued from the dangers of the U.S.A. After all, Mao had said: "Persuasion, not compulsion, is the only way to convince people. To try to convince them by force simply won't work. This kind of method is permissible in dealing with the enemy, but absolutely impermissible in dealing with comrades or friends."

Although Erica and I still had misgivings about the ethics of snitching on people, we suppressed them. We were just twenty years old, with a quite undeveloped moral sense. Like millions of Red Guards our age, we were trying to do the right thing for the revolution. And we knew that Mao frowned on soft-hearted liberals. "Our aim in exposing errors and criticizing shortcomings, like that of a doctor curing a sickness, is solely to save the patient and not to doctor him to death ... In treating an ideological or a political malady, one must never be rough and rash but must adopt the approach of curing the sickness to save the patient,' which is the only correct and effective method."

After talking it over, we reported Yin to the Foreign Students Office. "I remember ratting. I really hate myself for that,' said Erica, when I asked her two decades later what she recalled. "We actually thought we were doing the right thing. It was for her sake. We weren't trying to get points for ourselves."

Unlike Aunt Yuying, who knew me better, Yin Luoyi never dreamed Erica and I were True Believers. Two decades later, I mentioned the incident to my classmate Forest, the one who had briefly roomed with Erica. "We all would have done the same," she said. "That's what was wrong with the Cultural Revolution. It didn't just ruin the economy and industry or keep us behind in scientific research. Look what it did to personal relationships. We were all reporting on each other and meddling in each other's affairs under the guise of being revolutionary and patriotic." She reminded me that I had been completely naive back in 1973. When I grimaced, Forest confessed that in 1966, when she was fourteen, she had denounced her own father, then the deputy minister of propaganda. "The Communist Party taught us, 'Love your dad and love your mom, but not as much as Chairman Mao.'"

Chen Kaige, whose evocative Farewell My Concubine won the 1993 Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, also betrayed his father, a successful movie director. At a mass rally during the Cultural Revolution, Chen denounced his father and shoved him around, then stood by as his Red Guard classmates ransacked the family home and burned their books. Chen's three-hour epic, about the tragic fate of three actors during the Cultural Revolution, was partly intended as a tribute--and an apology--to his father.

Luckily for my father, he was safe in Montreal, because Yin wasn't the only person I betrayed. During my last week at Beijing University, a woman named Liu Yimei showed up at my dormitory.

Granny, our normally pleasant housekeeper-guard, brought her to my room, then walked out, slamming the door behind her. Liu giggled nervously Her eyes darted around my room, taking in the precious armoire, the bookcase, the desks. She was short and thin, with Old-fashioned rimless glasses and hair prematurely streaked with gray. She explained that her husband, Zhao Lihai, a law professor at Beijing University, was a friend of my McGill professor Paul Lin. She insisted I dine out with her family that night.

They took me to the Moscow Restaurant, which had real tablecloths, thirty-foot-high ceilings and a Western menu that offered borscht, bread and jam and Chicken Kiev. Their shy fifteen-year-old daughter never said a word and could scarcely bring herself to look at me all evening. Professor Zhao seemed neurotically insecure, and reminded me of a Chinese Woody Allen. He ordered shrimp and duck, the two most expensive dishes. When the waiter brought the food, Zhao clucked his tongue and apologized for the poor quality. I bristled; it was far better than most ordinary people ever ate.

During dinner, he and his wife kept their voices pitched at a conspiratorial whisper. They both talked a steady stream of counterrevolutionary thoughts. Nothing in China was as good as in the West; the education system was in a shambles; people didn't have enough to eat or wear. I was shocked and disgusted. In an entire year of living in China, they were the first people I met who disagreed with almost everything the government was doing.

"Why on earth does the Foreign Students Office make you take part in physical labor?" Professor Zhao asked sympathetically.

"I want to," I replied stiffly.

"What does your father do?" said his wife, changing the subject. When I told her he owned several restaurants, she uttered a small cry of approval, the first person in China to admire my blood-sucking background. She asked how much money he had. I was deeply offended, but she didn't seem to notice.

"I was an accountant at the Beijing Library," she said. "But I don't work now because of my health." She laughed unnaturally. "Why don't I go to Canada and work in your father's restaurant as an accountant?"

I was stunned. I couldn't believe that a person who lived in paradise would forsake it all to be exploited by a capitalist.

"How long has it been since you worked?" I asked her coldly.

"Since my daughter was born," she said.

A parasite for fifteen years, I thought with self-righteous revulsion. Had I had any brains, I would have figured out that she had stopped working around 1957, the time of the Anti-Rightist Campaign, when 55,000 people, mostly intellectuals, were labeled rightists and fired. But even if I had, it wouldn't have changed my low opinion of her. At that point, I had no inkling that China's rightists were almost all honorable men and women.

Professor Zhao got to the point. "We want to send our daughter abroad to study. She has zero chance here. Can you help us?" His wife began to beg me to help, flattering me and groveling. So that was why they had spent a month's wages on dinner. I felt sick. I muttered something non-committal. Back in the dormitory, I told Erica all of my doubts and suspicions. The next morning at class I asked my teacher about the Zhaos.

"They're evil people," Fu said instantly. "Zhao Lihai sold secrets to the Guomindang and the Americans. He's famous for his crime." I She added that he hadn't dared contact me directly because he was on lifelong parole and had to report all his actions to the Communist Party Committee. So he sent his wife. She had come over many times in the past year, and the Foreign Students Office had always turned her away. No one had ever told me. Now that I was leaving, Fu said, they agreed to let the couple see me once, but only because they knew my professor at McGill. Without another moment's hesitation, I reported to Fu the Enforcer that Professor Zhao and his wife had asked me to get their daughter out.

Many years later, I learned that Yin Luoyi was hauled before her classmates and denounced for her "traitorous" thoughts. Scarlet, who had introduced Yin to Erica, was asked to make a speech attacking Yin. To her credit, she refused. Yin was expelled from Beijing University and sent in disgrace back to her home in north-east China. I have no idea what happened to her. Nor do I know what befell Professor Zhao and his family. I only hope that eventually they were all able to join the exodus to the West. May God forgive me; I don't think they ever will.
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    Excerpted from Red China Blues by Jan Wong. Copyright © 1996 by Jan Wong. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.