“Deng’s Heyday”

Journalist Ian Johnson has an amusing and interesting look back at his first visit to China in the mid-80s. Obviously, a place that seems only tangentially related to the China of today:

I ended up in a tiny language class of misfits. My most memorable classmate was Sasha, a burly middle-aged Russian who never mastered more than a handful of Chinese words. The rest of the time he smiled pleasantly and nodded his head. Word has it that he was the minder for the Russian students, the first group to study at Beida since the Sino-Soviet split of the early 1960s.

Beijing was a much smaller city then and it was a trip through North China’s hardscrabble countryside, where we caught glimpses of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms: free vegetable markets, small “getihu” businesses and snatches of colorful clothing that slowly were replacing the blue and green tunics of the Mao era. We ate in restaurants that required grain coupons and when one of my tires blew, Lao Zhang lashed my bike to his and the two of us rode on his several kilometers to the nearest village.

Lao Zhang also taught me lessons in how to skirt the military that still occupied most of western Beijing’s suburbs. One day in November, he and I rode out to the Eight Great Sites (八大處) along a country road and just before arriving at a corner, he pulled over, plunked his enormous fur hat on my head, pulled up my collar and said to ride with my head lowered. I did so and we passed the bored guards standing at the side of the road. Once past the guards he ordered me to look up — everyone would assume I was supposed to be there if I was there, he wisely said. Soon after we rode out of the military zone. I asked him why the area was restricted and he said that some military dormitories lay on that stretch of road, something of a disappointment as I’d assumed we’d slipped by a top-secret nuclear testing facility.

It wasn’t the greatest subterfuge but it taught me about the paranoia of the state. I learned that restricted sites in Chinese are often only out-of-bounds to people who look different. The people who devised these silly rules (some of which one still encounters in China) never seemed to consider that a blond-haired, blue-eyed person like me would be the last sort of person a foreign intelligence agency would employ to spy on the Chinese military. If you looked Chinese you were a “neiguoren” (內國人) and that meant you were okay. If you didn’t, you were a problem. On a practical level, it was a lesson I’d draw on many times in the future when slipping past guards — big hat or hood, look down, walk briskly and act like you belong.

One of our favorite games was to use an old copy of Nagel’s Encyclopedia, a Swiss guidebook written by French graduate students on the eve of the Cultural Revolution. It had essays on everything from Chinese chess to Daoism, but most importantly it offered interesting descriptions of sights that would later be attacked and destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. We ignored the local guidebooks or maps, which had only a handful of reopened sights, and used Nagel’s to find dozens of temples, halls and palaces that officially didn’t exist. Few were open to the public but we often could talk our way in — gatekeepers, we found, were happy to show off their grounds to earnest foreign students. It was a reminder of how weak China’s cultural and religious organizations are; even today many temples and mansions are occupied by government agencies. Many others have simply been torn down.

Occasionally, we caught glimpses of bigger events. We saw Beida students protest the administration’s decision to turn off their lights at 11 pm. It seemed like a minor issue but for them was symbolic of their poor living conditions and lack of independence. They threw bottles — a homonym for the given name of the country’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping — out of their dorm windows, a sign of the disgruntlement that would flare up five years later.

More memorable was the Oct. 1 parade on Tiananmen Square for the 35th anniversary of the People’s Republic. It featured the first military parade since 1960 and, despite some of the anger, students still called out “Xiaoping, ni hao!” (How are you, Xiaoping!) when he passed by in a limousine. Five years later, of course, the students and Deng collided and this almost naïve era ended in a bloodbath. But at this point Deng and the government were popular for having unshackled China and given people the first taste or prosperity in decades.

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