China Rising: Still Depressing

Republished from The China Story Journal online, Australian Centre on China in the World, 21 December 2013

In the stifling summer of 1983, when I first landed in Peking’s Capital Airport, it was near empty and made stark by the absence of bourgeois advertising. ABC driver Little Li, like his multitude of blue Mao-suited comrades, aspired to the four things that go round: a bicycle, a watch, a fan and a sewing machine. By the end of my three-year posting he, like ABC interpreter Old Fan, dreamt of the four big things: a cassette-recorder, a television set, a washing machine and a refrigerator. Now, when I return, they and their families either lust for or boast of the four luxuries: their own apartment, a car, private education and travel – within China or abroad. Others even have a pet pooch and perhaps a concubine too.

Click image to enlarge

Old Fan and Little Li, 1983, Helene Chung

Old Fan and Little Li, 1983, Helene Chung

On my first drive along the airport’s straight tree-lined road we passed fields of elderly shepherds tending herds of sheep or goats, donkey carts trundling along with small loads and an occasional truck with its cargo of workmen standing shoulder-to-shoulder. Our four-week old bronze Toyota, still wearing plastic seat covers, was one of Peking’s rare private cars: most cars were either taxis or gleaming black Red Flag limousines that chauffeured political leaders behind lace curtains.

When we reached the eastern extension of the Boulevard of Heavenly Peace, at the centre of which lies Tiananmen Square, and the thousands of cyclists pedalling Flying Pigeons or other brands, Li failed to slow down either for cyclists or the mass of pedestrians attempting to cross the wide road on clearly striped black and white crossing points. Instead, he honked his horn through the throng. As outgoing correspondent Richard Thwaites explained, ‘If he stopped we’d be stuck. There’s a never-ending flow.’

I was delivered to Bamboo Gardens Hotel with its hanging red lanterns and traditional tiled and pillared walkways. Although an enjoyable Sichuan dinner in its garden restaurant lay ahead, my room proved poky and dirty with filthy rags littering the bed and dresser. I’d previously worked and travelled in Singapore, Hong Kong, London and Cairo over three years when my accommodation had not been five-star but had always been clean. Now, I walked barefoot to the bathroom only to see the soles of my feet had turned black. I daren’t remove any of my few carefully packed belongings from my suitcase.

That night I closed my eyes wondering what the future held. In my ears rang the warning of the ABC Sydney News chief, nervous over the decision to appoint a female correspondent for the first time, ‘There’s a lot riding on your appointment.’ I resolved not to let the hotel colour my experience. I would make my posting work.


Shouting from China, 1st ed. Penguin, 1988

Shouting from China, 1sted. Penguin, 1988

How different it was in January 2013, descending into a winter sunrise at Pudong Airport after taking off from snow-clad Charles de Gaulle. My amazing first ride on the Maglev or magnetic levitation train – effortless whishing past green pastures, bridges, power installations and high-rise housing blocks – ended in central Pudong within minutes.

Excitement must have lowered my guard as I was then fleeced by an illegal taxi driver, who sped off when the hotel doorman approached, and I checked into the former Cathay.

I had last stayed there in 2002 when, free from the strictures of an ABC budget, I treated myself to a room on the Bund facing Pudong – a treat made possible by Chinese superstition. When I enquired about a room on the Bund, the clerk hesitated, ‘Well, we do have one but on the fourth floor.’ As the number ‘four’ in Chinese, si, sounds like the word ‘death’, Chinese try to avoid any association with the number. So I scored an excellent – though musty – room for a reasonable sum.

Pudong from M on the Bund, 2013, (Helene Chung)

Pudong from M on the Bund, 2013, (Helene Chung)

Eleven years on, the newly renovated Fairmont Peace Hotel has eliminated all ‘fours’: there is no fourth floor and no room numbered ‘four’.

Even room 314 where Noel Coward wrote Private Lives has been renumbered. Not prepared to pay an exorbitant fee for a Bund-facing suite, I settled into spacious room 331 on Nanjing Road. The art deco carpet left no grime on my feet. Yet I was more shocked than reassured by the latest provision for guests’ comfort: two tinned gas masks encased in burgundy velvet pouches to protect against the ghastly smog that blankets Shanghai.

In the 1980s the two most commonly heard words were xiuxi meaning ‘rest’, and meiyou meaning ‘haven’t got’ or ‘there isn’t any’. Everyone had to rest, almost constantly, including the umpteen staff behind the post office counter who ignored queues of would-be customers, choosing to chat among themselves than serve. At times nothing seemed to be available, least of all tea or rice in restaurants – certainly never in the desired order. At the Peking Hotel a waitress told us, ‘The chef is sleeping’; while in Xian, city of eternally sleeping clay warriors, a waiter curled up on a trolley let us help ourselves at the bar.


Fairmont Peace Hotel and Bank of China, 2013, Helene Chung

Fairmont Peace Hotel and Bank of China, 2013, Helene Chung

Behind this inertia simmered China’s big pot of socialist egalitarianism that doled out the same meagre amount to everyone whether he worked or not. Also, poverty and food rations meant that many simply lacked energy. (In three years I saw only one overweight Chinese, in my ancestral county, Taishan, in Guangdong Province.) However, pragmatic strongman Deng Xiaoping determined to smash China’s iron rice bowl that fed all urbanites from the cradle to the grave. He declared: ‘It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white so long as it catches mice.’

He presided over a grand military parade on National Day, 1 October, 1984 that marked China’s transition from old communism to new capitalism. He banned xiuxis and introduced a new incentive system to encourage hard work for higher pay. This followed his successful Special Economic Zones, most notably Shenzhen that bordered capitalist Hong Kong and whose motto proclaimed: ‘Time is money. Efficiency is life.’

Gas masks, 2013 Helene Chung

Gas masks, 2013 Helene Chung

My posting began with a massive anti-crime campaign: thirty criminals were executed after their parade through jeering crowds in the Workers’ Stadium. Posters naming criminals and their crimes appeared on billboards with blood-red tick marks suggesting ‘good work’ on the part of the Public Security Bureau. Then China launched the anti-spiritual pollution campaign designed to screen out ‘the flies and mosquitoes of western decadence’ that inevitably flew in through Deng’s open door.

China was so backward I couldn’t buy basics such as pantyhose, cling wrap or tampons and had to import from Hong Kong all the fixtures and fittings – from refrigerator, washing machine and air conditions to typewriter, carpet, batteries and telephones – to renovate the bureau that had fallen into disrepair since its founding by Paul Raffaele in 1973. The renovation fell to me as a new correspondent who had a brief window to avoid prohibitive import duties. Customs nonetheless fined me Y100 (A$50) for alleged pornography. The offensive texts, Tuppy Owen’s Love in the Open Air (from a radio interview I recorded in London) and The Joys of Sex (from a television interview on its Australian release), had been shipped with my effects.

As someone who had grown up feeling out of place in overwhelmingly white 1950s Hobart, I first arrived in China conscious of my heritage. Yet with every day that passed I felt less Chinese and more Australian. Housed in a foreign diplomatic compound, I was segregated from ordinary Chinese: should they dare try to visit me – and be polluted by my western ways – they faced a tough time registering with armed guards at the gate. Unlike locals and overseas Chinese, I was charged top foreigner prices in a three-tier price system that diminished any identity I may have felt for the home of my forebears. I felt an alien in the motherland.

Before Deng’s ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ transformed China into today’s powerhouse, the two locals I worked with were government employees assigned to the ABC. They received a pittance from the large sum exacted by the Diplomatic Services Bureau. They had to attend ideological sessions, make self-criticisms and report on my activities and associations. (The lift attendants always seemed to know where I’d been and where I was going.) So opaque was the system that both Li and Fan were forbidden to tell me where they lived or the telephone numbers of their apartment blocks. (Private phones didn’t exist, except in the homes of the elite.) To do so would have been to divulge a ‘state secret’, a crime that still keeps alleged dissidents behind bars. Despite the strain imposed on them, my staffers tried their upmost to please me within the official limits.

In May 1989 I flew from Melbourne to a Beijing that gripped the world’s attention with defiant students on hunger strike. It turned Tiananmen Square into squalor.

Tiananmen Square, May 1989, Helene Chung

Tiananmen Square, May 1989, Helene Chung

A scene of tents, fluttering red banners and debris greeted me as thousands protested against corruption and nepotism and demanded a more open and accountable system. In a peaceful, festive atmosphere, they ignored the official loudspeaker, ‘Students must leave the square’, to engage in animated debate, sit drinking fizzy orange juice or simply lie exhausted on their backs. Seeing my tape recorder and notebook, some rushed up to me. Unlike the docile Chinese who dared not challenge the government when I lived there, they clamoured ‘Write your name on my T-shirt. Tell our story to the world.’

By the time their story descended into massacre, I had been ordered back to Australia and was in Hong Kong when tanks smashed the Goddess of Democracy.

Goddess of Democracy, Helene Chung

Goddess of Democracy, Helene Chung

From the British colony I covered the horrified reaction of demonstrators who feared their fate when the territory would return to China in 1997.

On the thirteenth anniversary of the massacre, in 2002 I returned to Beijing and a Tiananmen Square eerily empty except for guards and a few tourists about to see the embalmed body of Mao in his mausoleum. Beijingers massed around the corner watching the World Cup on giant screens: China versus Costa Rica broadcast live from South Korea. Although individuals I approached proved far more receptive than in the early 1980s, and were prepared to discuss and, in some instances, show me their homes and how they lived, each stressed, ‘I’m not political.’

One exception, He Xitong, wife of then imprisoned co-founder of the China Democracy Party Xu Wenli, staged a lone hunger strike for her husband’s release. Its airing on CNN, though viewed only by foreigners and China’s elite, foreshadowed today’s much freer domestic press. He Xitong introduced me to Liu Xiaobo, whose demand for human rights and role as one of four intellectual hunger strikers in Tiananmen Square to witness the massacre had won him several prison terms. It was wonderful to see him relaxed, watching the World Cup in his modern book-lined apartment.

iu Xiaobo and He Xintong watching the World Cup, June 2002, Helene Chung

Liu Xiaobo and He Xintong watching the World Cup, June 2002, Helene Chung

Seven years later, on a visit during Beijing’s freezing Chinese New Year of the Ox, I experienced another form of tolerance. When I lived there, authorities denied the existence of homosexuality. By the beginning of the twenty-first century an area in Sanlitun showed a thriving gay community while an overseas Chinese friend of mine lived openly with his gay local Chinese partner. By 2009 they had married abroad and returned to Beijing, where they invited me to a gay dumpling-making party. Many of the young men who celebrated New Year with this piping hot feast were infected with HIV. Shunned by their families, they welcomed a blow-in from Down Under.

Although individuals are now free to live as they please, to speak their minds and even criticise the system, to travel and mix openly with non-Chinese, anyone who tries to form a group is still seen as a threat to China’s unelected leaders and remains subject to their rule by law. After his few years out of jail, Liu Xiaobo joined others to call for the human rights Charter 08, so landing himself a new, eleven-year sentence. Even when named Nobel Peace Laureate in 2010, he languished in prison where he still remains while his wife, Liu Xia, under house arrest, is believed to be suffering severe depression.

Forty years after the ABC opened its Peking bureau, such news is depressing.