Six Years That Shook the World
One of the best foreign reporters in China says goodbye.
BEIJING — My mind was clear, despite the wine and the wistful mood of a farewell dinner, my reflexes honed by six years on the China beat. So when a cadre friend handed me a gift of a leather satchel, I immediately reached inside and pulled out a hidden envelope.
It was red and thin, and addressed to my youngest son. "How can it be a bribe when we know you are leaving China?" he protested, as I tried to force him to take it back, on the footpath of a busy tree-lined street outside my hotel in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. When that didn’t work, I ran to his black Audi sedan and tossed the envelope inside. I headed back to the hotel as a colleague of my friend dived into the car and sprinted after me, red envelope in hand.
I bowled through a set of revolving doors, careered around a corner, and slid across the polished marble floor into an open elevator. He was fast, however, and his aim was good. He lunged towards me — sending hotel guests scurrying — and hurled the envelope through the closing elevator doors.
I banged the open button, just in time, and threw it back after him. It skidded Frisbee-style along the marble, directly through his legs. Success! I slumped against the wall of the elevator as it rose to the 18th floor.
But then I thought of my two other children, and reached back into the bag. Sure enough, there were two more red envelopes. When I returned to the ground floor, the Audi was gone. But the original red envelope was still there, its ten crisp $100 bills untouched in the middle of the hotel lobby — a silent, red memento of how much I still had left to learn.
I came to China thinking I knew something about the place. I had spent two years here as a child, during my father’s tenure as Australian ambassador from 1985 to 1987. After working as an economics reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald in the mid-2000s, I told my editor I was going to join Bloomberg in China, the world’s great untold story. He responded by doubling the size of the paper’s Beijing bureau to two.
Before moving, I warmed up by reviewing The Writing on the Wall, by economics writer Will Hutton, which argued that China would face more difficulties as the contradictions between dictatorship and market economics grew more acute. I dismissed his thesis — that the China model could not survive without the values and institutions of the European enlightenment — with the kind of certainty that comes from being young and not in China.
I was 31-years-old when my wife Tara, my children, and I touched down at the Beijing airport in July 2007. I was struck by how the air had changed. The fragrance of cooking oil and coal-fired kitchen stoves had been supplanted by a photochemical pall. We sped down the 10-lane airport expressway that had replaced the bumpy concrete road, on which old men in faded Mao jackets had once brought watermelon-laden donkeys to market. The wheat fields around my childhood apartment at the Lido Hotel in northeast Beijing, where my brother and I had caught frogs and tadpoles in the ditches after the summer rains, was sprouting high-rise apartments as far as the smog enabled us to see.
I tried to stick to my Chinese lessons in those early weeks, but there was too much to explore. Beneath Beijing’s shiny new façade, it seemed the idealism, spirit of inquiry, and sense of inexorable progress of the 1980s had been overshadowed by something bigger, heavier, and more cynical.
My notebook contained the names of several terrific Chinese scholars who had worked closely with my economist father since the 1980s. One had been quietly uncovering an unchartered universe of bribery and inequality, which he politely termed "the grey economy." Another was researching how the labor market was tightening, wages were rising, and, for the first time in 5,000 years ordinary citizens were in the process of "making themselves rich."
To chronicle the story of China’s rise in the months leading up to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, I began looking for a news assistant. These young men and women are the unsung heroes of the foreign press corps: they find stories, fix meetings, conduct interviews, and organize our lives — while being harassed by Chinese national security officers and banned by law from receiving bylines crediting them as reporters.
I met Maya Li (the pen name she later settled on), in August 2007 at the Stone Boat Café, on the edge of a pond at Ritan Park in central Beijing. In a pork-loving patriarchal world where connections reign supreme, an overweight Muslim woman from a poor family in western China faces significant disadvantages. And she had no facility for numbers, business, not even the names of high-ranking officials. But, by the age of 29, she had already fought harder for our profession than any other journalist I knew.
Li worked for a magazine in the Southern Media Group, which was owned by the Communist Party but based in Guangzhou, one of China’s most open cities. Their popular formula was both simple and subversive: to portray people as individuals, not props on a political stage. Li said her hero was the U.S. World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle, who cared not for generals and their strategies, or facts and names, but for the souls of the people he sketched beside him in the trenches.
And that’s what Li did. She sketched the people in the trenches of China’s industrial revolution, along with those who were left behind. When I met her, she had just published an astonishingly gutsy story about parents who roamed the countryside in search of their children who had been kidnapped and sold to work as slaves in brick kilns. (She survived in the industry as long as she did by focusing on individuals, rather than on how poor governance led to their predicaments.) Why would she leave that noble project to work anonymously for a newspaper she had never heard of, I asked her? She mimed a vacuum pump sucking oxygen out of a room. Some of her editors had been sidelined, sacked, and even jailed. She would be my eyes, she said, as I navigated the new terrain.
In those days, I had a simple aspiration: to tell Chinese stories through Chinese voices. I thought Western media focused on the negative, ignoring the progress being made. When Li spotted a small story about two cousins who had survived a coal mine collapse in September 2007, I thought it was just the kind of uplifting adventure story I was seeking. Instead, it proved to be my first lesson in the brutality of power without accountability.
The Meng cousins worked for a small illegal offshoot of a state-owned mine, in the hills outside of Beijing. I learned that the miners had spent six days underground because the local Party chiefs had imprisoned their fellow workers in order to prevent them from rescuing the Mengs. The Meng’s survival would mean the illegal mine would need to be reported, which would benefit no one. Just a few dead miners, on the other hand, would be easier to cover up. The cousins dug through 40 feet of collapsed tunnel and emerged, half dead — only to have officials chase them out of town.
Li was determined to restore them some dignity. She jumped on an overnight train to the miners’ hometown in Inner Mongolia, in north China. What had been a wake had morphed into a week-long homecoming celebration. Readers of my newspaper sent a considerable sum of money after learning that one of the miners named his son Tsinghua, to symbolize his dream of affording the kind of education that might gain his offspring entry to one of China’s most prestigious universities.
Meanwhile, in our cozy diplomatic compound near the center of Beijing, a Pakistani neighbor, Shahid, introduced us to a warm and bright lady from the province of Shandong to help look after our kids. Our three-year old boy entered a bilingual pre-school, developed asthma from the smog and fell in love with Shahid’s daughter. Our one-year-old daughter modeled herself on Dora the Explorer and followed her brother into his new school and refused to leave. Tara immersed herself in the world of Chinese film, writing scripts and studying what makes Chinese audiences laugh. When the kids got home she would take them to catch frogs and tadpoles at the beautiful lotus ponds of Ritan Park, a short walk up the road from our apartment. Our bathtub filled with amphibians and our balcony with assorted mammals, just as my parent’s Beijing apartment had 20 years before.
I closed out 2007 getting detained while reporting on a land dispute on the frozen black-soil plains near the Russian border. The local city government had appropriated nearly 100,000 hectares of land belonging to more than 15,000 farmers — for a phantom investment project. Over time the officials had transferred the land titles into their own names and rented it straight back to the peasants, effectively recreating the feudal arrangements that the communist revolution was dedicated to destroying. To make matters worse, the officials had brought in armed mafia-like groups from southern China to pacify the angry peasants and to prevent them from filing their complaints with higher levels of government. I hadn’t yet learned how to communicate secretly, or to meet in safe houses under the cover of darkness. I’d hardly opened my notebook when six police cars pulled up.
My heart beat like a sparrow’s until I learned to follow the lead of my colleague Mary-Anne Toy’s news assistant Sanghee Liu. Squashed in the back of the police car, Liu sat serenely beside me. An island of integrity and good judgment in a nation traveling at hyperspeed, Liu had been in this position many times before.
Chinese history is often seen to move in 30- and 60-year cycles, in line with the contours of the zodiac calendar. After the communist revolution of 1949 and the post-Mao decisions to reform in 1978-1979, the year 2008 arrived with momentous expectations and a tinge of dread. My focus began to shift from economic progress and grassroots struggle to the mysterious workings of the Party machine.
In March, deadly riots exploded in urban centers of the Tibetan plateau. The Party-state’s immediate response was restrained, but at a deeper, more primordial level, it kicked into a more unforgiving mode of self-preservation. The Propaganda Department helped transform the ethnic catastrophe into a nationalistic triumph for the Communist Party, defending ethnic Han pride and national honor against "hostile forces" conspiring with the Dalai Lama to dismember China. The Beijing Olympics, just months away, morphed from a celebration of China’s arrival on the global stage to something harder and more defiant.
On May 12, the hanging lights at our Beijing office began to tremble. After turning on the TV news, we bolted toward the southwest province of Sichuan, where the carnage had struck. In the town of Beichuan, near the epicenter of the 8.0 magnitude earthquake, we learned to tread carefully over bodies camouflaged by dust. Some were well-dressed and still intact. Others were torn and smashed like insects. One man was hanging upside down; his pelvis squashed between two boulders. Yet he was alive and had the strength to speak. I told him that if he was brave enough to hang on, the rescue team would come for him. That proved to be a lie. On the highway above, battalions of People’s Liberation Army soldiers sat in trucks, eating watermelons and occasionally staging mock-rescues for the benefit of the camera teams that were beaming propaganda footage across the country.
A week later, I returned back home to Tara, who was pregnant with our third child; she took me that same day to a resort at Yalong Bay, in south China’s Hanian Island. I couldn’t bring myself to talk, or look at the kids, but I could swim — and I did, as far out as I could physically go. I cried like I’ve never cried before, or since.
In August 2008, as world leaders arrived to applaud the Beijing Olympics, the price of iron ore collapsed and financial crisis struck. I paused, as Tara gave birth to our third child.
Australia felt the force of China’s rise earlier and harder than most other rich nations, thanks to high levels of Chinese immigration, geographical proximity and China’s voracious appetite for its resources. In 2009, the Communist Party awed the world by reflating the Chinese economy, and Australia’s too. China’s top aluminum producer Chinalco made a $19 billion bid to invest in the British-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto, while Canberra infuriated Beijing by calling on it to be more transparent about its military. The investment deal failed, a Chinese admiral blasted Australia’s Mandarin-speaking Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and relations plunged to their lowest point since the Tiananmen massacres of 1989.
In July, I found myself in the northwest region of Xinjiang, covering an even bloodier round of race riots than Tibet, when a contact rang to ask what had happened to a friend of mine, the Australian-Chinese Rio Tinto iron ore executive Stern Hu. I learned he had been arrested, and that disagreements over iron ore had been elevated to a matter of Chinese national security. Each night my head reeled with the implications of information absorbed, but not fully digested. Where was China going? Was I doing justice to the story and getting the balance right? Gray hairs appeared, the skin under my eyes grew darker, and I would often find myself jolted wide awake, bathed in sweat, in the pre-dawn hours. With every road trip and each deep interview, I discovered afresh how little I’d known before.
I had seriously underestimated how much the Communist Party had inoculated itself against the values and institutions of the European Enlightenment that underpin capitalism in the West. Webs of patronage, bribery, and thuggery extended deep into the political machine. The tools of coercion, cooption, and censorship — so effective in revolution and keeping the Party in power — were being deployed for the benefit of individuals within the elite.
Following the money in just the coal sector led to the mistress of China’s minister of labor, a provincial governor, and relatives of more senior officials, including the son of a former vice president. From 2010, I was drawn to the Yangtze River metropolis of Chongqing, whose maverick party boss Bo Xilai was using mafia-like tactics to clear the mafia from the streets and consolidate his power. "Is China Becoming a Mafia State?" I asked in a mini-lecture tour in the United States, which triggered some feisty banter at the Beijing Public Security Bureau when it came time to discuss my annual visa renewal at the end of 2011.
When Chinese-Australians had their assets stripped and were imprisoned, I did my best to make it harder for Canberra to pretend these were mere "consular matters." Yang Hengjun, a former Chinese diplomat whose charisma and flair for words had earned him millions of fans on the Chinese Internet, told me that if foreign governments could not protect their own citizens in China, then what hope could Chinese citizens have?
Yang lived with his family in Sydney but worked at the center of a vast Chinese network of extraordinary journalists, intellectuals, and activists, who were challenging the Party’s monopoly on truth by broadcasting the reality of events and highlighting the absurdity of official pronouncements. He was renowned for having powerful government protectors which enabled him to work and publish in China when others were banned, harassed or worse.
I experienced my own mini-earthquake in March 2011, at the height of Beijing’s fears that the struggle of the Arab Spring would spread to China, when Yang himself "was disappeared" — to use the passive phrasing that has evolved to evade censors on the Chinese Internet. I worked furiously, desperately, and found it difficult to look my own children in the eye. Tara was relieved, for our family’s sake, when he re-emerged a few days later.
China had arrived in the age of Sina Weibo. Despite severe restrictions, a virtual civil society was constructing itself where physical networks could not. My earlier grassroots explorations were now being made by hundreds of capable Chinese including Maya Li, who had rejoined the Southern Media Group. I moved my tools to the virgin country of elite politics, where a foreign passport gave me cover to investigate. The battle for China’s future was rapidly spreading from the industrial trenches to the founding families of Chinese communism. For me, the venues shifted from frozen black-soil fields and coal-mines to tea houses, cadre apartments, and, occasionally, the grand, imperial courtyard houses of inner Beijing. It took years, but gradually the princelings — a term that refers to the sons and daughters of high ranking leaders — shared their histories, aspirations and, increasingly, their anger. Individually, they shared a sense of crisis and a conviction that the system needed to change. Collectively, however, they were trapped in a cage of money, brutality, privilege, and insecurity that offered no clear way out. Could they reform the regime their parents had founded without causing its collapse?
Bo Xilai was the first powerful princeling to publically articulate the growing sense of crisis, but his Mao-flavored cure was deemed more dangerous than the disease. In early 2012, the great challenger was vanquished, in sordid and sensational style; Beijing later jailed his police chief for attempting to defect to the United States, and convicted his wife of murder. Bo’s family rival Xi Jinping emerged victorious, united the princelings, and took his place as president of China in November. And the stakes kept growing higher.
These past six years have been a privilege, but this year it felt like time to go. The kids were getting older, the contradictions were getting harder to explain, and the smog was getting worse. In May, I stopped in Guangzhou to thank my cadre friend for sharing his knowledge and being a potential backstop if anything went wrong. The dinner was long and wine flowed freely. We were genuinely close — red envelopes notwithstanding — and his princeling status gave him license to speak freely, but his particular official position meant we were actors in a bigger game.
After losing the battle of the red envelopes, I carefully documented to headquarters the 30 crisp $100 bills. But Tara laughed when she saw the black leather satchel I had unthinkingly accepted was actually a Swiss beauty, worth perhaps a thousand dollars.
The cash went to charity. And the Bally bag, courtesy of the Chinese Communist Party, went up for auction at an illegal and lightly persecuted organization: the Foreign Correspondents Club of China.