Pearls and Irritations has printed memoirs of mine to mark the 50th anniversary of two notable news assignments: one was the Six-Day War, the other was a trip across the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. This one marks the 40th anniversary of my first trip to China – to Peking, as Beijing was still known in 1977. It was a couple of years before the great transformation into modern China began.
It was a chilly Sunday night 40 years ago when I arrived by air in Peking, the heart of what then was like a forbidden country where life was hidden behind the much cliched bamboo curtain. I was greeted by an incongruous sight – possibly the city’s only neon sign. PEKING AIRPORT, it proclaimed in, of course, red. It sat under a lit-up portrait of Chairman Mao, who had died the year before, and a red and white banner with a revolutionary slogan.
The terminal was bare and austere with none of those constant noisy announcements. A six-metre high curtain blocked the view across the airport where it was said air force planes were based. Luggage was unloaded without a second to spare. Passport and customs were just formalities. Like all foreigners arriving in China, we were expected and had been vetted.
I was travelling with my colleague, Bob Kearsley, the editor-in-chief of Visnews (now Reuters TV), the world’s biggest tv news agency. We were there to discuss the contract with Peking Television. Waiting to greet us were two members of the station management. For all China’s talk of equality, the pecking order was still very much alive. Bob travelled with the senior of the duo in the bigger car and I followed in the smaller one with the monosyllabic Mr Weng.
The driver had his window down, giving us a whiff of manure and phosphate. The only sign of life in the darkened city was the occasional truck, cyclist or horse- or donkey-drawn cart. We saw another rare sight: the odd dog or cat. It was said that all the city’s pets had been eradicated as a health hazard when the Communists took over.
This was not a two-day visit you would expect for such contract talks, but a week-long one. China liked to show off its revolutionary deeds to visitors as a matter of pride. We were ensconced at the Min Zu Hotel on the western side of Tienanmen Square. It was built in the 1950s as one of the Ten Great Buildings to mark the new China. Min Zu means ‘ethnics’, referring to all the different peoples of China.
My room was like a studio flat at $12 a night. It had a thermos of hot water, a tin of jasmine tea and a buzzer to summon staff down the hallway if you wanted a beer. Almost certainly there was more to them than their role suggested. There was no need to lock the door. China prided itself on its honesty. Departing guests who left behind something as small as a nail file would be pursued to the airport to have it returned or find it arriving in the post back at their home address.
Like the Soviet Union I visited 10 years earlier, China was a place of mystery. Even international airlines were forced to overfly it at night time. No one was too sure what was happening there. It was commonly called Red China in those days. We all knew about the disastrous Great Leap Forward and the convulsive Cultural Revolution. But most of the what passed for news was from the tightly-controlled Radio Peking or the People’s Daily. My first taste of China news were copies of the New China News Agency reports mailed from the embassy in London. They carried blood-curdling tirades about Western imperialism, Soviet treachery, running dogs and paper tigers as well as astounding feats of medicine attributed to the thoughts of Chairman Mao. Singapore, where I was later based, banned tv news stories from China lest communism infect the new republic. In Hong Kong, where I was also based, you needed special permission and a good reason to get near the China border. In Taiwan, people were known to have been executed for communicating with the mainland by mail.
The first morning of our stay in China revealed Peking of 1977, a haze of smoke from home fires in the hutongs, the alleyways around which so many small tile-roofed houses were clustered. The streets swarmed with thousands and thousands of bicycles, the riders – men and women – dressed in identical baggy grey or blue clothing. The average worker might have one pen in the top pocket. A manager might have two. Local word was that people with four pockets in their jackets had done well for themselves.
Security was omnipresent, especially at major intersections. Men lurking in the shrubbery outside the hotel were clearly monitoring comings and goings. Loudspeaker announcements cautioned safety as the bike riders manoeuvred themselves among each other as well as pedestrians, trolley buses and the occasional Soviet-built limousines reserved for senior Party members. A clocktower above the main railway station played on the hour The East is Red, the Chinese patriotic song, followed by tinkling chimes.
Spitting was still common in those days. The Chinese claimed pollution was an imperialist problem and unknown in their country. The average wage was said to be $35 a month. We were informed with pride that the cost of living had not changed since the revolution just under 20 years earlier. It was not mentioned that wages hadn’t either. Electricity was said to be free – it was well before the era of electric products – though light wattage was severely restricted. Everyone seemed to smoke, a boon for the government coffers.
Credit cards in China were unknown then. You needed to carry a wad of cash. The highest denomination note was the equivalent of $5. Any financial transaction was scrutinised by never fewer than two people. Cashing American Express travellers’ cheques – a popular international currency – was officially banned, but they could be done discreetly provided you did not note where they were exchanged. No doubt they made their way to Hong Kong for final settlement. At the hotel, privileged staff had electronic calculators, but all transactions were double-checked using the time-honoured abacus.
The talks with Peking TV began at 1000 sharp on the Monday in a conference room at the hotel. Cigarettes and tea awaited us. There were no less than eight people on their side, including our ubiquitous interpreter, Mr Ma, who had moved into the hotel. There was one woman, the stern Madame Chiang, of the International Relations Section. Discussions were polite and restrained to avoid any loss of face. I cannot remember the exact outcome except it was business as usual. As per the custom, each side hosted what proved to be convivial banquets with much toasting to friendship.
Reluctantly they allowed us to visit the headquarters of Peking TV. It was in a gated compound with its own People’s Liberation Army unit to protect the wedding cake-shaped, Russian-style building which also housed Radio Peking. We were startled to find at the entrance dozens of papers with scrawled writing attached to a wall. Mr Ma dismissed these as of no consequence. But they were part of the wall poster campaign raging at the time following the ousting of the Gang of Four ‘revisionists’ a year earlier. The most prominent member was Mme. Mao, the Culture Minister who had taken a keen interest in the radio and television output.
We watched Peking TV one night. It began with coverage of the visit of the Maltese prime minister. He was feted as if he were a major international statesman. The report was interspersed with shots of cheering, smiling Chinese citizens all dressed in their Sunday best and waving ribbons. This was followed by a newsreel of international stories from Visnews several weeks old. After that came a prime time program on Lenin’s favourite songs. While at the tv studios, we saw pictures of a spectacular crash in a motor racing event somewhere. Mr Ma solemnly explained it was a report on the hazards of driving on imperialist roads.
At Visnews we had to grit our teeth and bear what Peking TV provided us. It was the only source of tv news from China. Its one condition was that Visnews – which prided itself on its impartiality – had to use only the information supplied by Peking TV and nothing else. The result was that all stories had the following preamble: ‘This information was provided by the television service of the People’s Republic of China’.
The rest of our stay in Peking consisted of obligatory visits to what were important attractions. Priority was the Mao mausoleum. We queued for 45 minutes and entered to be confronted by a six-metre-high white bust of Mao who had died 14 months earlier. ‘Our late beloved Chairman’, said the notice. His body lay in a glass-topped coffin. People filed past silently apart from the occasional cough or sniff. In contrast to his portraits which exuded health, strength and wisdom, here was a frail-looking, wizened old man with a pained, helpless look on his face and his wrinkled ears almost inlaid. At the time, there were whispers the Vietnamese embalmers could have done a better job.
Other visits included to the Great Wall, of course, buffeted by a wind off the Gobi desert. Mr Ma was relieved that we decided against tramping up the wall to one of the watchtowers which he had done scores of times before with other visitors. Then there were trips to the Ming tombs which had food and money for the afterlife, the summer and winter palaces with their exquisite jewellery displays, a commune where ducks were force-fed with molten bran as soon as they were born and ready for the table in two months and the zoo to admire the pandas.
We also were taken to an exhibition dedicated to the long-serving Premier, Chou En-lai, who died a few months before Mao. He was depicted as an austere man with a meagre wardrobe. A well-worn singlet and a pair of pyjamas were shown. Next was the Army Museum where a female guide with machine-gun-like delivery recounted the great deeds of the Red Army. She was able to state precisely how many Nationalists had been killed – it was more than two million – but the Red Army casualty figure was not available. One night was spent at the opera where a heavily made-up female singer with staring eyes and a piercing voice cursed the revolutionary villain, the evil landlord.
We were taken to the Friendship store and to a couple of shops selling antiques. A Frenchman said the prices were 40% more than they were worth. This may have been prompted by US newsmen accompanying President Nixon in 1972 raiding the shops and making an imperialist killing on their return home where anything to do with China was all the rage.
Apart from the Mao mausoleum, foreigners were always given priority which made me feel uncomfortable. The Chinese tended to stare and silently draw back to allow the foreigner through. But foreigners could not travel on the subway system then apart from two trains a day which had a special carriage reserved for them.
We were left to our own pursuits on two or three evenings. One was spent with a resident correspondent friend who had inherited a cat named Tsiaoping after the senior member of the Chinese Communist Party, Deng Tsiaoping, who was in political purgatory at the timer. But they were facing a sensitive dilemma: the cat would only answer to its name and now Deng was being rehabilitated. Indeed the following year he became the paramount leader and steered China into the all-powerful market economy it is today.
A week after we arrived, the following Sunday night, we left Peking. Mr Ma and two other hosts from Peking TV saw us off. But this was not before we motioned them to a discreet corner and slipped them a farewell gift each: a prized electronic calculator. They were made in the other China, Taiwan, but I am sure they didn’t mind.
Looking back, the 1949 revolution pales into insignificance compared with the breathtaking economic and political power of 21st century China.
FOOTNOTE. A Chinese former colleague whose father worked overseas for the Bank of China had the misfortune to visit Peking during the mayhem of the Cultural Revolution. He was immediately dragooned into translating bugged English language conversations. One involved a female American television producer. She got involved in a violent argument with a member of her team. Another translator was having trouble understanding the quarrel, particularly one word. Could my former colleague help? He listened. The baffling word was motherf…er.
John Tullloh had a 40-year career in foreign news, including three in Asia