Monday, 1 November 2010

Book of the Month: Chinese Whispers (Jane Wong)

In 1972 Jan Wong, a third generation Chinese woman from Canada, enrolled into the historical Beijing University to study Mandarin. China was in the midst of Cultural Revolution, and its relation with the West was below freezing point. Jan Wong was one of the only two foreign students allowed to study in Beijing; the other, like her, was an ethnic Chinese from America. Their studies had been approved at the highest level of the Chinese government. As the first foreign student, Wong had her own teacher, cook and dormitory. Everyone who befriended Wong during her year long stay in Beijing, although she did not know it at the time, was carefully vetted by the Communist party—the Beijing University even selected hand-picked students to fill the dormitory in which Wong was staying. All of this was entirely in keeping with the monumental paranoia of the West reigning in Mao’s China, counterpoised by a desire to present a picture of harmonious, happy society to impressionable Westerners. The regime, like all totalitarian regimes, was petrified of knowledge and new ideas that would threaten the hegemony of the Communist Party. It encouraged ordinary citizens, even members of the same families in several instances, to spy on and denounce each other. In what would surely go down in the history of the twentieth century as an extreme example of thought control—much worse than what the Stasi did in the German Democratic Republic—steenth careers and lives were ruined for harbouring heretic and unpatriotic thoughts. Someone could be imprisoned or beaten to death for accidently ripping up a newspaper that happened to contain a photograph of Mao.

As a starry eyed socialist Wong was completely unaware of this (she was not alone; very few at the time were aware of what was going on in China; China’s human violations were not common knowledge then). China, for her, was a socialist paradise. She willingly worked in factories, volunteered to rub shoulders with the peasants in the paddy fields, and mixed cement when one of the buildings on the university campus was being built. She believed totally, unhesitatingly, unquestioningly in the lies spread by Mao and the Communist Party. China, she convinced herself, was a socialist heaven on earth where people lived in harmony, happiness, and cleanliness. She was therefore aghast when one of the Chinese students in the university, studying History (which in Mao’s time meant Modern Communist History), whom she barely knew, approached her and her American friend with a request to help her get out of China; the young woman wanted to go to America. To Wong and her Chinese-American friend, who was even more left-wing than Wong, this was a betrayal—of the workers and peasants who had paid for the young woman’s university education—on a mammoth scale. Anyone who accepted such help was duty-bound to stay in China. Helping the young woman was out of the question. However, Wong and her friend went a step further: they reported the woman to their respective teachers. The discomfort she felt at tattling on the woman, Wong convinced herself, was just a manifestation of the bourgeois Western sentimentality she was trying to overcome. Chairman Mao had exhorted to ‘let politics take command’; any other considerations were supererogatory. Wong made an entry into a diary she kept at that time, with the woman’s name, and forgot about the incident. A year later, Wong went back to her Capitalist country of birth. She graduated with a degree in journalism, and, over the next two decades spent considerable time in China as a correspondent of various newspapers. Then, in the 1990s, while moving her house, Wong came across the diaries of her youth. She read them for the first time in twenty years, and the enormity of what she had done to this young woman in 1972 sank in.

It took Wong another decade to take the decision that she was going to find this woman, if she could, and apologise for what she (Wong) had done to her. So, in 2007, when China and Beijing were gearing up for what the Communist Party had decided would be the greatest show on earth—the 2008 Olympics—Wong arrived in Beijing with her family—her Canadian husband who spoke Mandarin like a native, and two sons, who couldn’t. Chinese Whisper: A Journey Into Betrayal is the story of Wong’s quest to trace the woman she had so casually betrayed, in a country of 1.3 billion. However, it is not just that. It is a part travelogue, and gives a fascinating insight into how far China—at least Beijing— has come since the days of Chairman Mao, who lies embalmed in his mausoleum in the Tiananmen Square.

In Beijing Wong finds herself in the midst of a construction mania—wherever she goes, the roads are being expanded, old houses bulldozed in order to make way to giant skyscrapers—that would change the face of this city, which first emerged on the world podium almost 3000 years ago. Hutong, Beijing’s famed residential laneways, are disappearing fast, and are being replaced by wide roads, and for the expansion to happen, thousands of trees are being cut. China is no longer the ‘Sick Man of Asia’. After having invented the gunpowder (and a few other essentials) China is now gunning for economic engines. It is the world’s biggest consumer of steel and cement; it is the world’s largest market for computer, cameras, and cell phones; and the world’s second largest market (after the USA) for cars. Any day now, China will start exporting cars to America. Malls the size of several football stadiums are being erected, and the high earners live in condos that cost up to a million dollars (the State has long since given up its monopoly on the real estate, and the people are allowed to own their properties); and, if there is one thing that is emblematic of the Jettisoning of Maoist doctrine, it is the craze among the ‘nouveau riche’ to have dogs as pets—Mao hated dogs, and had decreed that having pet dogs was a bourgeois indulgence—which, in the time-honoured Chinese habit of weighing the worth of everything in monetary terms, are also regarded as commodities the value of which increase with time: more than one dog-owner proudly informs Wong that his pet dog which he bought for 5000 yuans, was worth 15,000 yuans. More than 40% of Chinese do more than 10 hours of overtime every week, and almost 10% work in excess of 60 hours every week.

So much for the material wealth and progress. Has anything changed culturally? Wong finds that China is communist only in name. The party which still presides over what is effectively a police state does not make its presence conspicuous in the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. Many amongst the young Chinese are not overtly concerned about the (relative) lack of free speech and media control by the party. Upwardly mobile and ambitious young men join the party in order to go up the career ladder quickly, not because they believe in the dogma. There are certain ‘advantages’ of a Police State. For example, when Westerners began yapping about the high levels of pollution in Beijing, the dictatorship simply shifted—lock stock and barrels—several factories and a couple of industries out of Beijing, into the interiors. When large motorways are to be developed—as the party’s plans to improve the infrastructure—or dams are to be built, the houses and the villages that come in the way, are simply bulldozed. Someone higher up in the hierarchy of the dictatorship takes a decision, and it happens; the trifles such as public consultations, adequate compensations for those who have lost their homes and livelihoods are dispensed with. This is the paradox of the country, which may well be the next (and the first socialist) superpower: human lives come with different price-tags attached to them. The party still gives away official residential permits for each district and cities within the districts. You can buy properties, access health care etc. in a given city only if you have the official permit. Millions of rural Chinese, displaced by the government projects and the unequal developments, head for the cities and become second class citizens in their own country, living in shanties cheek by jowl with the opulent housing estates. The party still clings on to the one Maoist tactic, though: to limit and control the spread of knowledge. Because it knows that that is the ultimate threat to its existence. The media is state controlled, and subjects such as Tiananmen Square Massacre of the 1989 are not discussed. Indeed, Wong comes across many young Chinese who have not heard of—or say they have not heard of—the massacre; a number of them associate the historical square with the giant rally the party organized to celebrate Beijing’s selection as a venue for the 2008 Olympics. Those who are old enough to remember what happened, are reluctant to discuss it; and Wong gets the feeling that the reluctance is only partly down to their fear of reprisal by the Communist dictatorship; they do not want to talk about it because in their minds they—and the country with them—have moved on. This collective amnesia for the event in which, according to which Western Newspaper report you read, between 1000 to 3000 people died, might puzzle the Western minds, which, have the need for public soul searching—the only way to come to terms with a catastrophe; but for the Chinese this is par for the course. After all, this is a country which has not autopsied the ten years of Cultural Revolution in which reportedly 1 million Chinese died; and the man who unleashed this terror (and with it unspeakable miseries on his people) is still hailed as the Father of the Communist China. This is the Chinese way of doing things; they do things differently. Thus, when Deng Xiaoping became the Chinese Premiere after Mao’s death, he went about quietly burying Mao’s unworkable ideas, but stopped short of denouncing him, unlike Khrushchev who denounced Stalin. This is all the more interesting, as, during the Cultural Revolution—which Mao unleashed essentially to purge to Communist Party of his opposers, who, he was convinced, were plotting against him—, Deng was officially declared as Mao’s number two enemy and was subjected to extreme humiliation. His eldest son was thrown out of fourth floor window by the fanatical Maoist cadres, and became paraplegic. When interviewed in 2004, full 38 years after the accident, the son said that he did not feel the need to discuss it; it was all in the past.   

Does this story have a personal happy ending? Does Wong manage to trace the woman she betrayed all those years ago and to whom she now wants to apologise? With no clue other than the woman’s name—which turns out to be incorrect—Wong begins her search. She manages to contact some of her former fellow socialist students—all of whom are living in humongous condos equipped to keep the Beijing pollution at bay; own Porsches which they cannot drive faster than 15 mph because of gridlock; dine in restaurants and spending money in an evening many in the West don’t earn in a month; and—the supreme irony of a socialist state, this—have a bevy of maids, poor peasant girls from the interiors, to do the housework—and some of the former teachers. They either can’t remember or have only the vaguest idea of what might have happened to this woman, which, Wong reasons, is understandable seeing as the woman was one of the millions who were denounced and ruined during the Cultural Revolution. Wong traces several leads which, to her dismay, run cold. Just when she has all but given hope of finding the woman—she is eager to atone, but only if she can trace the woman within a month, which is the maximum time she can set aside from her busy schedule to expiate an old guilt—the woman phones her out of the blue. It turns out that the woman has a house on the Beijing University Campus. Wong meets with her and learns what happened to her after she was betrayed. As she listens to the story, Wong realises that all those former fellow students and friends who could not remember the woman or what had happened to her had not told her the truth.

Chinese Whispers: A Journey Into Betrayal is a gripping tale which hooks you within the first few pages. It gives you an insight into how China, the next superpower, is dealing with her past. It also makes you re-examine the world that we inhabit.