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Edgar Snow told you so; why China's great leap backward should come as no surprise.

My friend Xu Wenli, a gentle, thoughtful electrician and former editor of an independent Chinese magazine, has been in prison in Beijing since 1981. His hair has turned white. His nerves are shot. He is unable to do much more than weep on those rare occasions he is allowed to see his wife and daughter, who is about the same age as my 16-year-old son.

I have thought about Xu often since I siad goodbye to him outside his dank apartment in southwest Beijing. Yet in the nine years since, I have also celebrated, in print and conversation, the growing prosperity and democratic aspirations of China in the 1980s. I assumed that the reformist government of Deng Xiaoping and Zhao Ziyang would eventually after a few bureaucratic bumps along the way, produce a much more flexible and responsive economic and political system, and that China would become, if not another Hungary or Yugoslavia, at least a country where reasonable men could catch the government's attention and change things for the better.

Now that I have returned from three weeks in China, where I saw the bodies and blood on Tiananmen Square and felt the terror that has closed minds all over the country, I wonder how I could have balanced such contradictory thoughts for so long. What is there about China that creates so much hope, among both Chinese and Westerners, in the face of so much readily acknowledged evidence to the contrary?

Edgar Snow, the premier China correspondent, perhaps the premier foreign correspondent, of this century, often found himself caught between two emotional Chinas, one dark, one light. That may explain the often schizophrenic nature of his dispatches, ably recounted by John Maxwell Hamilton in his thoughtful new biography of the first man to report on Mao Zedong and the Chinese revolution that would change much of the world. This tension between hope and despair, pessimism and optimism, has perhaps been the defining characteristic of China reporting ever since.

Assorted warlords

Snow was the son of a Kansas City, Missouri, commercial printer. He studied journalism at the University of Missouri and then at age 22 succumbed to a feverish wanderlust. He worked his way by ship to Asia, traveling as a stowaway

during one part of his voyage, and arrived in Shanghai in 1928 to begin more than a decade of work as freelance correspondent and editor. He had no special knowledge of China, but loved to ask questions and take meticulous notes - habits that would become the hallmarks of his career. Shanghai, largely ruled by Western imperial powers, served as China's largest port and had been a refuge for all kinds of movements and reformers seeking to change the country. A year before Snow's arrival, much of the urban Communist leadership had been decimated in a bloody Nationalist massacre there, and the Marxists seemed to be in eclipse while Chiang Kaishek and assorted warlords maneuvered for control of the country.

By 1936, Snow had moved to Beijing and had personal contacts in every one of the major Chinese political camps, but it was the Communists who most intrigued him. They had reportedly broken out of their enclave in Jiangsi province and gone on a colossal overland retreat that brought them safely to northwest China. This journey - the Long March - took them out of the Nationalist stronghold in the south and put them at a spot where opposition was weaker and where they could gain credibility as a patriotic movement by defending their turf against the invading Japanese. No foreign journalists had reached them. So little was known about them that some correspondents assumed Mao and his best general, Zhu De, were the same person.

After a spy-novel sequence of secret messages and rendezvous, Snow managed to reach the Communist base camp and fill notebook after notebook with the careful scrawl that became the 1938 bestseller, Red Star Over China, an account of a revolution in the making so original and absorbing it still sells well a half-century later.

Sewers and salons

But the contradictions in Snow's thinking were present from the start. The Chinese Communists Snow revealed to the world were using "the resources of energy, intelligence, patriotism, and economy latent in the masses . . . to the fullest" and had a system best described as "rural equalitarianism." Yet in contrast to what was often written by other admirers of Mao before 1949, Snow insisted that these same peasant reformers aimed to achieve "a true and complete Socialist, State of the Marx-Leninist conception."

Similarly, when Snow revisited China in 1960 he praised the mass work projects of the Great Leap Forward, yet acknowledged that many of the eager, bright students he had known in the 1930s had been rendered incommunicado by the antirightist purge of 1957. He celebrated the 250 miles of sewers dug in the old, putrid nationalist capital at Chongqing, while failing to see the devastating food shortages that followed the Great Leap Forward. Snow had returned to China after a decade in which his byline virtually disappeared from the American press. The McCarthy era had left few readers in the mood to learn about communist improvements in Chinese health care and food supply. That made Snow, stubbornly independent as always, even more determined to write about them, but his resulting book, Red China Today, was widely ridiculed, and his self-imposed exile in Switzerland became permanent.

Snow returned to China one last time in 1970, when again his writing reflected two states of mind. He applauded the Cultural Revolution's assault on bureaucratism, but noted his profound skepticism about the stories of old friends - intellectuals and scientists - happily going off to the countryside to plant rice and slop pigs.

Snow's intense emotional commitment to China took forms that would violate the canons of contemporary journalism. He and his first wife (her pen name was Nym Wales) helped found the industrial cooperative movement in China and turned their house at times into a salon for young Chinese revolutionaries. He was a midwestern liberal with a marked distrust of elites in any culture and a strong preference for the views of ordinary people in his writing and his politics. American journalists of the current generation have less of his faith in the common man. Employees of large corporations and intense advocates of balance and objectivity, they (like I) would cringe at the idea of involving themselves in their stories as much as Snow did. Few have the independence Snow enjoyed as a freelancer.

Nonetheless, the emotional commitment to China remains among today's correspondents, particularly for those of us who fell in love with the romance and intrigue of China's history, culture, and size when we were still in school. Chinese intellectuals in this century have been consumed by the tragic gap between Chinese potential and reality. Their concentration on ways to solve their country's political dilemmas has sidetracked a talent pool that might have produced more than just a handful of Nobel laureates. If Chinese themselves fell so easily into this trap, how could foreigners be expected to avoid it?

Thumb in Deng's eye

No matter how bitter I was about the way Xu Wenli had been treated, about the injustice of a lengthy prison term of someone who was less critical of the Communist Party in 1980 than some official commentators are today, I could not avoid staring wide-eyed at the fruits of Deng Xiaoping's new China - 40,000 students sent to the United States (an American record for a single foreign country), new hotels with Cable News Network piped in daily, public opinion surveys, female weight lifters, Coca Cola, joint business ventures of every size and description.

When I arrived in Beijing on May 24 to help cover the Tiananmen demonstrations, I was still full of this sense of new possibilities. Martial law, after all, seemed a bust. The troops were so friendly or inept or confused that they could not get past the first few student barricades on the outskirts of town. Here I was taking a large, intoxicating sip of the same potion that had affected Snow - the amazement over improvements that blots out much thought of what has not improved or has gotten worse.

Like Snow, I was returning to China reporting after a long absence, and despite the martial law declaration, it was difficult to ignore the changes that had occurred since the restrictive beginnings of American press coverage in 1979. I could not get over the freedom of moving about the country without escort - hopping on a plane without reservations, chatting with students, workers, and even soldiers without prior clearance, going just about as far as my Chinese and my traveler's checks could take me. I chose not to think much about the plainclothes police who tailed me in Wuhan or the reluctance of my university friends to talk freely anywhere but on a walk around campus.

Memories of what had happened to friends a decade before did, however, create concern about where the student protests were leading. I thought the Tiananmen Square encampment was too large, too public, too much of a thumb in the leadership's eye. What I said out loud was that I was amazed at how far things had gone. Then again, I thought: Why should I worry? If Deng Xiaoping seemed ready to tolerate Hong Kong, a capitalist poison pill of unequalled potency, why not this? Thoughts of Xu's imprisonment made silently applaud when some student leaders abandoned the square for quieter forms of protest. I thought the "Goddess of Democracy," the 33-foot statue erected across from Mao's portrait, was dangerously provocative, but how could anyone not admire such daring and cleverness, coming just at the moment when the Tiananmen encampment seemed ready to pack up and leave?

This was a revolution of rising expectations, an outpouring of protest occurring not because life in China was so bad but because it was so much better than before and gave protesters hope they might have some impact.

When the bloody weekend came, June 3 and 4, the sense of helplessness among foreign onlookers was overwhelming, even though we realized we were part of a long string of similarly gut-wrenching episodes. In 1935, when a student demonstrator tried to break through a line of troops with fixed bayonets and police armed with Mausers, the police, "began to beat her," Hamilton reports, and "Snow and Victor Keen, the New York Herald Tribune correspondent, rushed over hoping their presence would shame the police into stopping." The reporters in Tiananmen June 4 had even less effect. I ran in a panic from a volley of shots overhead Much of that day seemed spent avoiding gunfire, and one young American journalist found himself in police custody for several hours with all the standard psychological torture - blindfolds, threats of death, pistols held to forehead, hours left alone and unclothed.

Given this traumatic blow to expectations of continuing reform in China, can we have any hope at all? We find it in bits and pieces. In Shanghai, where I traveled the day after the Tiananmen massacres, authorities reacted with more restraint. They had plenty to provoke them. Workers set fire to a train after it killed six protesters. But troops stayed away. Barricades that had paralyzed the bus system were removed in the middle of the night by large numbers of unarmed police and workers. In that case, some of the arsonists have been given death sentences, but at least unlike at Tiananmen no innocent bystanders were killed by troops.

The arrests sweeping the country are certain to bring hardship and pain to many Chinese, like Xu and others arrested during the earlier democracy movement a decade ago. There is little good news here. But some of those protesters from 1978-79, when Beijing's Democracy Wall and several independent journals briefly blossomed, were later released. And the line on dissent has shifted often enough in the past 10 years to indicate some softening is possible, though not within the near future.

The long delay that preceded the attack on Tiananmen Square suggests that important members of the leadership are reluctant to use much force against the Chinese people. The lies they are telling about the massacre now provide a measure of how sensitive the issue is to them.

Whatever can be said about the uncertain American response to the protests, the fact that the United States exists as a source of uncensored news from all over the World has crippled forever the Chinese government's ability to lie convincingly about what it has done to its own citizens. Cheap, compact short-wave radios have brought the Voice of America deep into Chinese daily life. I watched about 100 students stand in the mud outside dormitory room listening to a shortwave at 9:30 p.m. the night after the massacre, drinking in VOA's report on the Bush Administration's reaction. At the same time two dozen other students in a different room were watching "Falcon Crest," absorbing messages about the comforts of American life that may be as destructive to the Beijing government as any ban on sales of military equipment.

The rusty gates on China that were just being pried open when I arrived a decade ago have not closed in any significant way. No one seems to have the power or energy to keep foreigners out or to limit for long the influence of Chinese who, if they don't favor democracy, at least support more fang, the Chinese word for loosening up. While one set of troops on the square was murdering workers and students Sunday morning, another was stalled at a highway intersection just four miles away, chatting with bystanders and munching on snacks.

We are in for decades of mixed messages, and like Edgar Snow, we will probably focus again and again on those we find palatable, leaving the rest to surprise us, probably unpleasantly.

The last two years of Edgar Snow's life were spent once again immersed in China. After returning in 1970, ill but eager for one last book, he became a living symbol of Beijing's desire for talks with the United States when the People's Daily ran a picture of him and Mao on its front page. In making this gesture, Henry Kissinger later wrote in his memoirs, the Chinese "overestimated our subtlety, for what they conveyed was so oblique that our crude occidental minds completely missed the point." Just a few days before Richard Nixon arrived in Beijing in 1972, Snow died of pancreatic cancer, attended by Chinese doctors dispatched to Switzerland by Zhou Enlai.

In his last book, The Long Revolution, completed after his death, Snow tried to cast off once again his old, distorted image as an apologist for the Communist Chinese. The book ended with a thought that probably merited more emphasis in his writings, and in those of the reporters who have followed him to Beijing:

"The danger is that Americans may imagine that the Chinese are giving up communism - and Mao's world view - to become nice agrarian democrats. A more realistic world is indeed in sight. But popular illusions that it will consist of a sweet mix of ideologies, or an end to China's faith in revolutionary means, could only serve to deepen the abyss again when disillusionment strikes. . . . [A] world of relative peace between states is as necessary to China as to America. To hope for more is to court disenchantment."

Nor is such hope likely to let me see Xu Wenli, or any of the brave Chinese who have followed him, any sooner.

(*) Edgar Snow: A Biography. John Maxwell Hamilton. Indiana University Press, $25.00.

Jay Mathews, a reporter for The Washington Post, served as the paper's Beijing bureau chief in 1979 and 1980.
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Author:Mathews, Jay
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jul 1, 1989
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