Totalitarianism, Part 2, Espionage

China was not a “free” country.

How did totalitarianism manifest itself in my world? Mostly in the pervasive sense of paranoia and stories about the Cultural Revolution I heard from the people around me who had experienced it. Everyone had an agenda and a backstory, most of which I never learned.

For my students, there was in the “Catch 22” reality of their lives. All of them had been assigned by the government to study English, BUT English — particularly American English — was mistrusted. Not many years before, effigies of Uncle Sam had been burned in protests against the “Paper Tiger.” In weekly Political Study meetings my students took the brunt of the abuse and criticism. There was really NO WAY they could win. For example, our college held a folk dancing competition for all the students of languages (French, German, Russian, English, and Chinese). My students worked hard, practicing nightly, to have the best possible performance. We were not invited to attend which, right there, was a message that this was not a simple folk dancing competition; this was political.

If they did not deliver a great performance it would be viewed as disrespect, and they would be criticized for being lazy. If they did an excellent performance, they would be criticized for preferring “foreign things.” It was a foregone conclusion that they would lose. My students, English students, lost every competition. It didn’t matter how well they did. The Party’s message was that English, and the cultures of which it was an expression, were clearly inferior to all others. The goal was to make sure that in spite of the comparative opening of China and the advent of American teachers, the United States was not the equal of China or any other country. 

The Chinese language students always won. 

“So what?” you might ask. Imagine growing up during the end of Mao’s reign and finding yourself in a classroom in which lessons were conducted by an American. When Mao died and the Gang of Four was deposed in 1976, my senior students were twelve years old. My graduate students were teenagers, and could have marched around our very campus with the Little Red Book. My colleagues, some of them, I knew were imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution and others? Had they been the persecutors of the imprisoned colleagues? 

This was the back-story of the world that fulfilled my dreams.

As foreigners, we were exempt from Political Study for obvious reasons. It was the meeting in which my students might be criticized — individually or collectively — for such things as being larger than average as in the case of one of my students who had been picked to become an Olympic swimmer, sent to a special school, fed a better diet than the average Chinese at the time, and trained. When her swimming didn’t turn out to be as great as expected, she was released from this special school and sent home. She was constantly accused of wanting to be American because she was different looking from the average Cantonese, and she had an aunt in Hong Kong who sometimes sent her clothes. Others were criticized for being pretty. Others for being outspoken. Others for their parentage. The list of possibilities is long and English language students took the brunt of it. 

While my students and colleagues sat in a room for several hours every Thursday hearing everything the “watchers” had seen during the week, being singled out and criticized, Jim and I explored Guangzhou.

Their problem was how to extend goodwill to the American teachers if doing so leaves you open for criticism and additional Political Study? How would you — as a Chinese at this moment in history — ever know you were safe enough to make friends with the American teachers?

If your family background were good enough, you had a safety net as did my friends, Zhu and Fu with whom I went to Hainan Island. I don’t know much about Zhu’s family. I suspect that somewhere back there was a successful bourgeoise shopkeeper or intellectual (read school teacher). Fu’s ancestry was perfect. He came from a poor peasant family in one of China’s most remote and impoverished provinces, Hainan Island. His mother had little or no education and had been a guerilla fighter in the anti-Japanese war against the Japanese. I don’t know what other things were involved in their being allowed to become our best friends, but I’m grateful. I loved Zhu like a sister and helped her come to America to study a couple years later. Her husband and son soon followed and, as far as I know, they didn’t return to China.

People without this kind of ancestry apparently had to be careful. That would include most of my colleagues all of whom spoke English. Some of my colleagues wanted to approach me, but didn’t dare. I was warned away from others. I was told that one woman, with whom I ended up working on a poetry translation project semi-secretly, was not to be trusted. What that actually meant to the people who warned me I have no idea. It could have meant that her background was full of intellectuals or it could have meant that she was very likely to point the finger at others in order to protect herself. 

Clearly, we didn’t socialize much with our colleagues. At first we made gestures in that direction but was usually met with, “I’m sorry, I’m too busy.” 

At first I thought, “Seriously? You teach two classes. I teach six. If I’m not too busy how are you?” but soon I learned that it meant, “No.” Socializing with them was limited to formal occasions such as my welcome dinner at the Pan Xi restaurant, my goodby dinner at the Guangzhou Restaurant, a couple of banquets held by the provincial government, a trip downtown to watch the Royal Ballet perform Sleeping Beauty, a concert in which the conductor — a man from Germany — yelled at his audience ahead of time, telling them to stay quiet while his orchestra played. I did not then understand why he felt he had to do that, but when I saw the Chines opera later, on Hainan, I understood. A performance was a social event for the Chinese, not something to watch in reverential silence.

Essentially, everyone could be or was a spy. Maybe they were a spy to protect themselves from criticism. Maybe they were a spy because they were legitimately a spy for the Party or the Wai Shi Ban (Foreigner’s Office) of the Province or the university. Maybe they were a spy because they hoped to get a good appointment when they graduated. Maybe they were a spy because they had a bad background. There were manifold reasons for spying. 

There was always the fear of talented Chinese defecting to that vague and amorphous promised land of “The West.” My students were taught in Political Study that “The West” was not all that great. They were told that many Chinese who went there ended up killing themselves in disappointment. Lonely for mythical places like their “hometown,” alienated in the great, cold, ruthless capitalist, imperialist world, they surrendered to despair. If appeals to their patriotism or fear were not enough, they knew that their family at home could suffer retribution. 

The first post-Nixon Sino/American diplomatic crisis occurred while I was in China. The Chinese tennis player, Hu Na, defected to the United States in 1982 when she came in the Federation Cup. She sought asylum in 1983 saying that if she returned to China, she would be persecuted for not joining the Chinese Communist Party. When the US granted Hu Na asylum, my students were instructed to shun me. 

I knew about Hu Na, but not how the story ended. I couldn’t read the Chinese newspapers or understand the news commentary, and no one was eager to tell me about it. I learned the story when I went to class after the all-China afternoon nap. I found my students outside the classroom batting a badminton birdie back and forth. I made a joke, “You might want to stay out here and practice.” None of my students expected that. I knew that, secretly, most of them wanted to go to America to study. I knew some of them had family in places like New York and San Francisco. All this was a shadowy undercurrent that was not brought up into daylight. They stopped, looked at me, and suddenly burst into laughter. It was real laughter. 

We went in the classroom and I said, “What happened?”

This led to a discussion about safety in America. My students had learned from Chinese newspapers that America was a very dangerous place. Chinese newspapers had learned this from American newspapers which tend to publish mostly BAD news. Chinese newspapers mostly published good news, happy stories and tales that reinforced the greatness of the Chinese model of communism. My students were worried about Hu Na, that she would leave her apartment and be murdered.

“Aren’t you afraid in America, teacher?”

“No. Why?”

“So many rapes and murders.”

I tried explaining that American newspapers published stories that were exceptional, that normal, ordinary life wasn’t interesting to their readers. I even thought — but did not say — that maybe Chinese papers did the same and good, happy stories were out of the norm, but I didn’t say it. I knew the Chinese propaganda machine well enough by then. 

Because of the ubiquity of spying, private conversations were carried out on the street. Most of the time I was completely unaware what was going on, for example when Mr. Fu — Zhu and Fu’s middle school teacher friend and our friend — wanted a Bible, Zhu negotiated the deal with me as we wandered the levees between the crops of the agriculture college. Such a conversation took place between me and Zhou, my Chinese teacher, when school was out and we visited Beijing.

10 thoughts on “Totalitarianism, Part 2, Espionage

    • It may have been. I just accepted all of it when I chose to go to China. And when I arrived, that was easy. But it definitely was an experience that made it difficult to return home emotionally and mentally.

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