|The night Zhou was drunk under the table
By Ian Williams
As we approached the 60th anniversary on Thursday of Mao Zedong's declaration
that the "Chinese people have stood up," I trawled through the memories of my
time in China straddling 1970 and 1971, and found, with all the accuracy of
retrospective prophesy, that there were more auguries of the current China than
one might suspect.
Although my putative memoirs would be called "I was a Teenage Maoist", by the
time I landed in Beijing I was a callow 21-year-old, a month older than the
People's Republic. In fact, Zhou Enlai, the first premier, from 1949 until his
death in 1976, repeated to us his dictum that it was too early to tell whether
or not the French Revolution had been a success, let alone China's. Forty years
later, I wonder what Zhou, one of the more sophisticated and cosmopolitan of
the Chinese leaders, but nonetheless a devoted communist, would have made of
I was part of a delegation from an obscure British party that enjoyed
unprecedented access to the Chinese leadership, including a drinking
competition with Zhou - and a very risky argument about literature with Mao's
wife, Jiang Qing, who had, after all, instituted the Cultural Revolution
(1966-1976) by demonizing all but a tiny group of writers and artists. It was
so long ago that even the Chinese used the old Wade-Giles Romanization system
for the Mandarin language. We were in Peking (Beijing), and read the Peking
Review every week. In fact, our visit featured in it.
Our sessions with the Chinese cadres were often like negotiations, conducted
over innumerable cigarettes and a constant flow of tea. The idea was that
whoever called for a bathroom break was conceding the field of battle. Sadly
for Chinese pride, our side had been brought up on a diet of gallons of tea and
bitter beer and had formidable resistance to such diuretics.
Even at the time, I had a sense of bewilderment at the relative isolation from
the world outside, of the top leadership. They provided us with a daily English
press summary of world affairs and the difficulties of a binary view of the
world became apparent. For example, Pakistan was an ally of China, therefore it
was socialist and progressive - which the Pakistanis themselves would hardly
claim, while social-democratic governments, like the British Labour Party, were
reactionary and capitalist to the core.
As for our visit: I suspect that Zhou had hoped that it would provide
information and encouragement for his planned opening to the West. We were
there before British premier Edward Heath, or former secretary of state Henry
Kissinger and president Richard Nixon from the United States. Indeed, as almost
the only gweilos (foreigners) in town, we could attract crowds just by
peering in a shop window. In those far-off days, my hair was red, which was
almost like having eyes on green stalks for some people. However, enlisting us
as a resource for global realpolitik confirms the naivety of their approach.
We were a sectarian groupuscule with fewer members nationally than the Chinese
Communist Party's Central Committee. Our contact with the working political
system in Britain was minimal and our knowledge of other countries tended to be
based on contacts with equally out-of-touch groups. It would be nice to think
that we changed the course of history, but there is absolutely no basis for
thinking so. Our input probably pointed in the opposite direction to what they
did. When we asked why they did not walk in and take Hong Kong, which was then
ruled by Britain, Zhou suggested it was better to lessen the economic
disparities between the two sides first.
Despite their own sectarian squabbles, despite the Cultural Revolution, the
Chinese were at least dealing with some aspects of the real world. For example,
they had built a state-of-the-art metro system in Beijing. Even though it was
as yet unopened, Zhou took us for a ride on it, which tangentially introduced
yet another paradox.
They told us, with almost schoolboyish glee at their boldness, that they were
calling the metro station for Tiananmen Square "Zhuxi [Chairman]
Station." It was a paradox even then, that in the midst of history's
biggest-ever personality cult, no physical location was named after Mao, let
alone any of the other revolutionary personalities. I can only presume that it
was intended as a gesture of superiority to the Soviet proclivity for churning
out city names in honor of top people.
This saved a lot of sign-painting during the various rectification campaigns,
the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. Not many of the leadership stayed in
Apart from Zhou, we met the full Gang of Four - Jiang Qing and her close
associates, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan and Wang Hongwen - but we noticed the
omissions. Lin Biao, the powerful military commander who rose to political
prominence in the Cultural Revolution and whose picture and introduction was at
the front of hundreds of millions of Little Red Books, was absent in name and
person. In a seamen's club in Shanghai, I noticed a book on sale by Chen Boda,
Mao's personal secretary. Our minders immediately took it out the case and said
it was too old and faded to sell.
Our party chairman, Reg Birch, an old communist trade unionist, asked to meet
his old chum, Kang Sheng. They brought along his wife instead, explaining that
the head of the security and intelligence apparatus was indisposed. In fact,
along with Chen Boda, it now seems as if he, and indeed Lin Biao, were at that
time in the process of being purged.
Lin shortly afterwards died in a plane crash. Kang resurfaced long enough to
ensure that the People's Republic put its weight behind Pol Pot and the Khmer
Rouge. In retrospect, I am glad I never had to shake his hand. Kang was
posthumously accused of sharing responsibility (with the Gang of Four) for the
Cultural Revolution. The Gang of Four had effectively controlled the power
organs of the Communist Party through the latter stages of the Cultural
In contrast with all the mass campaigns and circus antics of the Cultural
Revolution, which resulted in widespread social and political upheaval and and
economic disarray, these purges were being conducted in secrecy with no word of
them leaking out from the leadership.
A case in point was a bizarre Christmas feast with an elderly American couple,
old-style communists who had moved to China and taken up citizenship and party
membership. They were brought out because they knew several of the delegation,
who had asked about them.
The turkey dinner was odd in several ways. The couple were Jewish for a start,
and although our Chinese hosts were trying to be hospitable with the seasonal
bird, they obviously found something alien about the idea of cooking an intact
animal: it came as a sort of turkey construction kit, disassembled, cooked and
then reassembled. As for the couple, it was only many years later that I heard
that their goose had been well and truly cooked. They were languishing in
prison, brought out and dusted off for us, and then returned afterwards. But
nothing they said gave any of us any grounds for suspicion.
The full Gang of Four came along to join Zhou for talks and a banquet on New
Year's Eve. Jiang Qing stood out in a sea of nondescript cotton Mao suits. The
still striking woman, who had reduced the repertoire of a huge nation to a
handful of revolutionary Beijing operas, one ballet, the Red Detachment of
Women, and pretty much one classical sonata, flounced in, every inch the
imperial consort. The former actress' cotton greatcoat was draped around her
shoulders like a cape, and she carried herself like an imperial consort.
When she discovered that I had been studying English literature, she
immediately pronounced that Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and Charles
Dickens' Hard Times were the only two English proletarian novels. Even
as I blurted out a negative, I was thinking hard. I saw the rest of the senior
leadership of the party withdraw a little in expectation of the thunderbolt to
come. Jane Eyre was clearly a bit too close to home. A governess who
marries the boss had too much resonance with the career of a Shanghai starlet
who married the chairman. I concentrated on Hard Times, pointing out
that its hero was in fact a strikebreaker - a traitor to his class in Marxist
Through narrowed eyes, Jiang delivered her ultimate riposte, "You have long
hair. It makes you look like a girl." There was a barely concealed sigh of
relief around the table. At least it was not "Off with his head!" or
The evening, after a banquet fit for an emperor, ended with drinks for us and
Zhou and his entourage. The Gang of Four did not, as I remember, hang around.
It became a drinking match, with shots of mao tai, the
ferocious-smelling sorghum-based overproof liquor that had become the official
drink of the party.
As the youngest there, but already with a reputation as a determined drinker, I
was moved forward as the champion on going glass-for-glass with Zhou, a man
with an iron constitution. But I saw how he stayed ahead. He only drank half
his, while I was drinking the lot. Even so, he gave up first, as I remember -
allowing for the fact that after large amounts of the stuff, memories can be
Despite the Moscow-style purges going on behind the wainscoting, economically,
China's development was more balanced than that of the Soviets. We could go on
a pub crawl through the streets of Beijing, pijui - beer, being one of
the early accessions to our Mandarin vocabulary and although, for example,
cotton was rationed, consumer goods seemed in adequate supply. In the covered
market, locals looked superior as Aeroflot pilots came rushing through stocking
up on things from soap to razor blades to tomatoes that the Soviets' heavy
industrial base couldn't provide.
The variety of cigarettes, from coffin nails to the crush-proof packs of the
most expensive brands, has always made me wonder about the role of tobacco in
industrialization - selling the peasants highly profitable cigarettes was a
financially painless way of raising state funds compared with expropriation.
The other aspect was the amount of collective entrepreneurial activity that was
taking place, even after years of disruption from the Cultural Revolution,
which had not officially finished by then.
For example, in the countryside, communes were making cement boats for sale,
while in Shanghai we visited a back-street factory that was etching silicon
chips - almost state-of-the-art at the time. Even then, I remember wondering
about the flue that vented the hydrofluoric acid fumes from the process onto
the street. In a microchip, it encapsulated the future environmental problems
of reckless development, even as it demonstrated the entrepreneurial urges that
Deng Xiaoping was later to unleash.
I returned to Britain puzzled. The Cultural Revolution had not visibly
destroyed the economy, as was sometimes claimed. But it was difficult to know
what it was all about. It was bad enough when party leaders were denounced for
esoteric sins of culture and ideology during the Cultural Revolution, but these
silent purges and behind-the-scenes disappearances reduced the struggles to
personalities and power-plays. Mao himself seems to have been playing off the
leaders against each other.
So perhaps that was the twin legacy of the first 20 years. It developed the
ground for the upsurge of economic activity in which China seems not only to
have stood up but appears to be racing ahead. But it also has left the
Communist Party totally committed to clinging onto power, without much in the
way of ideology, while its leadership changes behind closed doors, with only
the faintest pretence of consulting the masses. And by all accounts, party
leaders at every level are still fond of banquets and mao tai.
Ian Williams is the author of Deserter: Bush's War on Military
Families, Veterans and His Past, Nation Books, New York.
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