John Gittings

China through the Sliding Door: Chapter V
Photos from China
Peace writings
Journal articles
Newspaper articles
Family links
1984 - 1986
The World Discovers China

(a) A president meets the warriors

(b) Hong Kong hears its future

(c) The new democratic agenda

(d) A Queen walks on the Wall


Richard Nixon broke the mould when in February 1972 he stood on the Great Wall and proclaimed that it was truly great. US network commentators filmed live from department stores in Beijing, asking bemused shop assistants whether they were `dating' anyone. China, whose `foreign friends' had been restricted to Albania and a few others during the Cultural Revolution, was admitted to the UN and welcomed leaders from around the globe. More foreign correspondents were based in Beijing or visited regularly, although still subject to tight restriction. In 1979 Deng Xiaoping visited the US where he wore a Stetson at a Texas rodeo and completed the `normalization' of Sino-US relations. Five years later Ronald Reagan paid his presidential visit to China where he tried, too openly for Chinese liking, to present the two countries as allied partners against the Soviet Union.

As a British journalist, I was excluded from the events but found them more interesting watched from the Beijing street corner. The crowds were becoming irritated by a succession of international leaders who caused traffic jams. In the huge Soviet embassy, diplomats from Moscow talked hopefully about restoring historic relations, but China preferred to leave the `Soviet card' on the table. For all the stiffness towards Mr Reagan, it was Western technology and investment which it sought.

This was also the time of shuttle diplomacy over the future of Hong Kong. In September 1984, after two difficult years of negotiation, Britain concluded a deal to hand Hong Kong over when the lease expired in 1997. Margaret Thatcher's illusions that China could be browbeaten into extending the lease had been dashed. The Hong Kong people were told to make the best of it by the British Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe and Governor Edward Youde. The negotiations had been conducted in absolute secrecy broken only by the Chinese when they wished to remind Britain of the bottom line that, one way or another, they were going to take back Hong Kong. By procrastinating, Mrs Thatcher nurtured Chinese suspicions of duplicity - not forgotten in later years. Many Hong Kongers wept at the deal, which was confirmed after a bogus exercize in public consulation, and began making plans either to leave, or to come to terms with Beijing.

The pace of democratic reform quickly emerged as an issue. Senior Hong Kong officials who had scoffed at local pro-democracy voices (and kept them under surveillance by the Special Branch) now discussed plans for the election of some Legislative Councillors. At the New China News Agency, Chinese officials made quietly cautious noises.

Britain's diplomatic `success' too was sealed with a visit. The Queen had long wanted to visit China: in 1986 she seized her chance, with a less enthusiastic Duke of Edinburgh in tow. Popular Chinese magazines carried pictures of the royal family and translated chunks of biography by former royal nannies, but ordinary people were often confused, mistaking the Queen for Mrs Thatcher - much admired now that the Hong Kong deal had been signed as a qiang nuren or `strong woman' (the Chinese equivalent of Iron Lady). The visit will always be remembered for the Duke's casual question to a British student studying in Xian: how did he enjoy working alongside people with `slitty eyes'? Beijing pretended not to have heard, but the tabloid press back home did not let him forget it.





27 April 1984, Beijing

After only one full day of the Reagan visit to China, Sino-American differences in style and content on such an occasion have already become as plain as the difference between beancurd and pumpkin pie.

Mr Reagan is always smiling broadly, and seems slightly larger than life - though some American correspondents thought he might be wearing a bullet-proof jacket. The Chinese leaders are smaller in the flesh, a bit withdrawn and smile rather tightly. The Chinese convey a precise indication of how the visit rates in their larger political context by the speeches, the amount of press coverage, and even by the number of flags in the streets. The effect Mr Reagan intends to produce is much less clear. In a speech yesterday to Chinese community leaders he led his audience on a moralizing excursion from God to free enterprise by way of the founding fathers. The purpose was perhaps to congratulate the Chinese for becoming, in his eyes, so much more like the Americans. He said that `China's economy crackles with the dynamics of change.' The American people were not surprised to see `the fresh breezes of incentive sweeping.... across China.'

The Chinese like to be told that they are on the track, but not so fulsomely. The embarrassment could be political too, since Mr Reagan singled out Premier Zhao Ziyang for praise which might provide useful ammunition one day to his detractors. And who could have advised Mr Reagan to boast, in a land of scarcity, that the US is the leading economic nation and `the bread basket of the world'?

Mr Reagan got a 21-gun salute, just two more than Premier Nakasone, but the Chinese used the same rather tatty bunting down the main street that they would used for the President of the Seychelles. The People's Daily had Mr Reagan's arrival top-right on the front page, but definitely not the lead, which went to a report on party rectification in Hebei Province. However China's hopes for economic gains in access to US technology and investment have been well displayed for days.

The old myth that the Chinese are inscrutable is disproved once again. Yesterday they communicated very clear messages about where they disagreed on international affairs, in sentences which might have been carved on stone slabs in the Temple of Confucius. Here one should add that the temple in the north of Beijing has a gripping exhibition about US wartime support for the Kuomintang Secret Service, complete with instruments of torture. No one saw any reason to close it during the Reagan visit - the past is never entirely forgotten.

The diffuse image projected by the Americans hints at an ambiguity of content as well as a clumsy style. In the Kissinger days, and again with the normalization of relations under Mr Carter, effects were calculated more precisely because they were well-defined. Is the US still trying to nudge China into shared alignment against the Soviet Union? White House sources said defensively last night that they had no wish for `strategic cooperation' with China. Is the US really committed to maximize the China market? There is a surprising lack of agreement among Americans. Some businessmen already working in Beijing say that the potential is enormous. Others deride the doctrine of `lamps for China' and doubt whether China will ever absorb large quantities of US technology.

The Chinese style and strategy is clearer, although not necessarily bound to succeed. Zeng Guofan, the great advocate of `self-strengthening' in the 1860s, once wrote some advice on how to handle `barbarian affairs' which might still be the text today. `In your association with foreigners,' he observed, `your manner and deportment should not be too lofty, and you should have a slightly vague casual appearance.' He even counselled that if the barbarians were rude or tactless, the right response was `to look slightly stupid.' But the main thrust of self-strengthening was that China should `carefully watch and learn their superior techniques - but also observe their shortcomings.' China's strategy today still assumes that a modernizing country can absorb foreign techniques while maintaining the `Chinese essence', which is no longer Confucianism but socialism led by the Communist Party.

One of the nicest touches yesterday was a picture caption in the China Daily which identified Ronald Reagan as the man with a dark tie and his wife Nancy as the woman holding flowers, as if not everyone might recognize them. Chinese enthusiasm goes so far but no further. The modest crowd at the welcoming ceremony on Thursday surged forward at the end, much to the excitement of the White House pool of reporters. They reported that it was `a spectacular flood of humanity' hoping to see the president. Some may have so hoped. But I was there on the pavement with the impatient crowd and I know that many others wanted to catch a bus or just go shopping after waiting for ages to cross the road.

30 April , Xian

Today, Mr Reagan was finally allowed his triumph in China, after two days when things had not gone quite right. Arriving at China's most famous archaeological site, near the north-west city of Xian, he could forget about the long list of Chinese complaints on US foreign policy which had been voiced very publicly. Entering the great, roofed excavation, he could overlook the sharp words about Taiwan addressed to the Secretary of State, Mr Shultz, in the morning.

Accompanied by the provincial governor of Shaanxi province, he walked right down into the excavation vaults and among the terracotta army of life-sized horses and soldiers made in honour of China's first emperor over 2,000 years ago. `You are the first foreign head of state,' said Governor Li Qingwei, `who has been given the honour of going so close to them.' `Thank you so much,' replied Mr Reagan and, turning to a terracotta horse, he asked: `May I touch it? I know it can't kick me.' With a final gesture as he left the vault, Mr Reagan looked around and ordered the soldiers and horses to `disperse.'

But, back in Beijing, the People's Daily found space for less than a fifth of Mr Reagan's banquet speech on Saturday. It cut out with great care a line about cooperation against 'world aggressive forces', just as similar references to the Soviet Union were censored from Mr Reagan's speeches on television and radio. ...

Tonight, Mr Reagan returned from Xian, and Mrs Reagan came back with five little handmade toys from a free market near the tomb of the first Chinese emperor. Mr Reagan himself had paid five yuan (one pound) for the toys - a lot of money in China, and perhaps a comforting proof of the entrepreneurial ethic. Speeding back along the Avenue of Everlasting Peace, with the traffic as before bottled up and every sidestreet blocked off, he passed through Tiananmen Square. While he was away visiting, four enormous portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin had gone up. It is all part of the refurbishing for May Day, but it may have provoked some thought in the presidential mind.



26 September 1984

The Governor of Hong Kong gave a schoolmasterly look at the assembled Legislative Council last night and explained in a precise voice why the agreement initialled earlier in the day is an offer they cannot refuse.

Behind him was the familiar royal coat of arms, on which the motto Honi Soit Qui Mal y Pense might on this occasion be translated as `We did our best - and you'd better believe it.'

Sir Edward Youde made up for the omission of the negotiators at their ceremony in Beijing, who in their mutual congratulations had ignored the role of the people of Hong Kong. He paid tribute instead to the `resilience and forbearance' which they had shown during two years of being kept mostly in the dark.

The governor softened a little the blunt message of the White Paper as conveyed in paragraph 29. ` ..there is no possibility of an amended agreement' says Her Majesty's Government. `The alternative to acceptance of the present agreement is to have no agreement.'

Down past the old colonial cathedral, with its enormous electric fans hanging from the ceiling, at the foot of Battery Path, young Hong Kong Chinese on their way home lined up to collect copies of the text. It was a mild rush but not a stampede, and it prompted the thought that in Beijing a much smaller number would never have formed such an orderly queue. How much the Brits have achieved!

Getting home, they could watch a Sino-British joint declaration special on television unless they chose a Cantonese pop opera on the other Chinese channel. But in a devastating display of over-kill Sir Geoffrey Howe's press conference in New York was shown on all four channels simultaneously.

An enterprising manufacturer of fancy neon signs has captured the mood of Hong Kong at its most determinedly optimistic by a well-timed display in the glass-domed Landmark Centre. First, we see two stars - one larger than the other (surely it must be Beijing) - behind the green peaks of Victoria Island, and then the office tower blocks of Central District light up. The harbour comes alive and a junk sails past. But next there is a flash of lightning (last year's collapse of the dollar?). Fortunately, the storm is soon followed by a rainbow and the rising red sun.

This is probably the most widespread view. It is not a bad document, so why not make the best of it? After HMG's warning that disagreement can harm Hong Kong's health, people do not expect a great rush of contrary opinions to be delivered to the Assessment Office which is going to report on the territory's state of mind.

There is also, quite reasonably, a move by people in public life - those who do not intend to buy a Fiji passport or to avail themselves of the notorious 'OBE clause' in the British Nationalities Act [which granted citizenship to those who had performed good works for the Crown]- to soften any critical remarks they may have.

After the Chinese liberation of the mainland Mao Zedong welcomed with open arms anyone describing himself as a patriotic capitalist. It prompted the saying, `Better a late revolutionary than an early one, and best of all someone who is not a revolutionary at all.' The same remark is being applied to some new friends of Beijing in Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, the rain starts as Sir Edward continues his lecture. He has always seemed to chafe a bit, ever since the Chinese slapped him down for claiming to represent the people of Hong Kong on the negotiations.

Sir Edward says, in a slightly waspish phrase, that it is a fact of geography that Hong Kong needs `a sound relationship with its great mainland neighbour.' Neighbour? In less happy times Beijing would be protesting against that, too.

For a moment it seems as if the Legislative Council is going to discuss the Marine Fish Culture Ordinance and the Fixed Penalty (Traffic Contravention) Amendment as well as the Hong Kong agreement.

But they are only tabled to remind us that the Hong Kong Government still has to go on running the territory in every detail. The unelected Legislative Council members who protested so loudly not many months ago now sit silently as they are praised for the sincere way in which they have expressed their views. Then they bow and follow Sir Edward out of the chamber, looking slightly diminished.

Over at the New China News Agency, the unofficial diplomatic headquarters of Beijing, there were soft drinks only at a briefing for the Western journalists, which must be a good sign for the future. The men from Beijing are easy to spot in the shopping arcades of Central District, with their white shirts and short back and sides and slightly hesitant air. But people feel that it is soon they who will be walking taller.

Tallest of all will be the new building to replace the present Bank of China, for which plans were recently announced. Designed by the patriotic Chinese-American, Mr IM Pei, it will have 70 storeys and, says Mr Pei `the best view in Hong Kong.'



3 October 1984, Hong Kong

The Chinese posters in the Hong Kong metro urge people to register as voters so that they can express `the voice from your hearts.' Suddenly, after 140 years, democracy is a public issue and will become more so in the build-up to 1997.

Could it lead to heart-to-heart speeches from election platforms in Statue Square, which would surely disturb the colonial spirits of long dead judges of the Supreme Court and directors of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank?

Or in spite of the growing call for untrammelled direct elections and full democracy by 1997 from articulate pressure groups - taking Beijing's slogan of Hong Kongers ruling Hong Kong at face value - will it be a rather more subtle process?

`Whatever you call the new system,' says someone who may become active in it, `the Chinese will be the elders. You can't get too far out of line. But it's up to the people of Hong Kong to arrange things intelligently so that they don't have to go up to the New China News Agency for everything.'

The Sino-British agreement states simply that `the legislatures of the Hong Kong special administrative region shall be constituted by elections,' which is a good deal clearer than many had expected. But the route to this destination still has to be worked out.

In July this year the Hong Kong government, which for years had claimed that its consultative processes were the summit of democracy, produced a Green Paper on representative reform. It was largely a holding operation, which helped ensure that the government will have a stake in the necessary process of change towards 1997. It proposes a cautious shift to indirect elections for part of the at present wholly appointed Legislative Council, with a review of the political system fixed for 1989. A White Paper on the same subject, promised for mid November, is unlikely to yield much to the growing demand for an element of direct elections, but may hint at greater post-1989 change.

The Governor of Hong Kong, Sir Edward Youde, said yesterday that changes to the system of government should not be introduced too hastily so as to `endanger Hong Kong's stability at this crucial time.' He gave no support to public calls, expressed since the Green Paper on representative government was published in July, for direct elections, In his speech to the new session of the Legislative Council he did hold out the possibility of advancing the date for a review of the process by two years to 1987.

Zhao Ziyang, the Chinese premier, has publicly supported the principle of democratization in Hong Kong. Chinese officials are avoiding comment on the Green Paper, saying that they do not intend to interfere, but they appear to share Sir Edward's insistence on the need to proceed cautiously.

Yet the real constitutional authority for the administrative structure after 1997 must derive from the Basic Law to be drawn up over the next few years in Beijing. Interim reforms in Hone Kong may be discussed by the joint Sino-British Liaison Group which is empowered to consider all matters `relating to the smooth transfer of government in 1977.' It is not clear how these different strands of decision-making will mesh together.

District Board elections next March will help pave the way for an electoral college to choose the first non-appointed Legislative Council members. The registration campaign for it has been quite successful - with the left-wing trade unions for the first time encouraging their members to sign up. Over 600,000 new voters are enrolled, making a total of about one and a half million, or 50 per cent of the number of eligible voters.

Young Hong Kong professionals - doctors, academics, lawyers and business people - are begining to weigh their careers against a political plunge. Many of them first found their voice when the Sino-British negotiations began two years ago, with the Hong Kong Observers Group in the lead.

A number of the younger and more recently appointed members of the Legislative Council may also submit to the democratic test, and a shake-out of the council could occur in September next year when the two-year appointed terms of all its members expire. But the lawyers and other professionals who are often cynical about China and the agreement, and the `Legco' members who praise Beijing's sincerity and the `fine print' in the agreement agree on one thing.

`We just don't know what they really want,' said one of the latter group, `but we somehow have to evolve a system of administration which will dovetail into Chinese strategy.' At the moment Hong Kong's democratic reforms are in a holding pattern, circling until the pilot gets the right signals from Beijing airport.

The pressure groups who are calling for direct elections, with their broader social base among church and welfare organizations, are more optimistic about Chinese tolerance or are more determined to preempt any objections at the New China News Agency.

In the more optimistic view, the Chinese are playing it by ear. `How much they allow,' says a leading pressure group figure, `depends on how much the Hong Kong people want to get.'

It would be nice to believe that China supports an untrammelled system of a directly-elected legislature and government. But its reservation about the number one job is already written into the joint agreement. The post-1997 Chief Executive will be `selected by election or through consultations held locally' - a distinct echo of China's own consultative process.

Some local politicians claiming to be in tune with Beijing are more in favour of indirect elections and the `functional constituencies' (business and other professional bodies) proposed by the Green Paper for the Legislative Council.

Britain's motives for encouraging democracy in Hong Kong after so many years are not very flattering to China, nor to the people of Hong Kong who have no illusions about it. We had a good system going, say the British, with Hong Kong ruled by Letters Patent from the Crown, and by the `constraint of custom.' But one cannot transfer unwritten rules to China, and so one encourages reforms some of which were spoken of not so long ago with amused contempt by Hong Kong government officials.

If in the next few years Beijing leans too heavily on Hong Kong's hesitant democrats, or the British behave too cynically, it would be a fatal start. It will be hard enough anyhow to find real potential leaders for the future in sufficient number. `We have to look for people,' says one pressure group leader, `who have retained an independent way of thinking under a colonial administration which has so often repressed ability.'

Business leaders and Government supporters look warily on the whole prospect, in some cases fearing the emergence of radical ideas with a primitive horror. In fact there is no chance of it. Those who are concerned about the polarization of wealth, the gaping holes in Hong Kong's social security net, the high rents and sometimes dreadful working conditions, know that they must put their case with care.

No one wants to give the impression of advocating what is often called a `free lunch' society. It is noted by Hong Kong visitors to China that some welfare provisons - particularly pensions in the large state sector of industry and commerce - are way ahead of Hong Kong. Chinese wages may be low, but so are rents and medical fees. Beijing's own visitors to Hong Kong have endorsed the need for reform but cautiously. Perhaps it is balanced by their concern for the continued health of entrepreneurial capitalism.



12 October 1986, Beijing

The Queen arrived in Beijing yesterday at the start of her seven-day visit to China to an airport reception committee including the Chinese Foreign Minister, Mr Wu Xueqian, a beaming Chinese ambassador from London, and a little boy who gave her a stiff Young Pioneer's salute. Then, like every other first-time visitor to Beijing, it was down the road into town, trying to glimpse something with a Chinese flavour out of the window.

It is not so easy these days. The route to the Diaoyutai guest house goes through the city's north-east district of multi-storey blocks and embassies, before taking the Avenue of Everlasting Peace, which runs for nine miles. Marco Polo wrote that Beijing's `wide and straight streets' were laid out `in a manner so perfect and masterly that it is impossible to do it justice.' The Avenue of Everlasting Peace is certainly wide and straight, but the old network of courtyards and lanes on both sides has mostly been replaced by government offices and foreigners' flats.

Racing down the centre lane - where the old French-run trams used to go - the Queen could at least see some of the cycling masses held up by police. She passed six giant billboards still bearing politically appropriate slogans - the only ones left in Beijing. `Persist in internationalism, support all oppressed peoples and nationalities to oppose imperialism, colonialism and hegemonism.' the one just before Tiananmen Square declares. Did she ask Mr Wu for a translation, and how would he explain this fossilized survival from the age of big-character posters?

Turning right through the western district, the motorcade of twenty-eight Mercedes came to the gate of the Diaoyutai Guesthouse, where a second reception committee was waiting. It included 11-year-old boys from the Hepingmen primary school, waving paper flowers, whose last public appearance on the same spot had been to warmly welcome Prince Norodom Sihanouk of the rebel Kampuchean government. It also included a hundred or so local people waving British and Chinese flags. They had been drawn from the Xuanwu District Services Company, which provides the community with miscellaneous services such as house-cleaning, removals, haircuts at home and maids. It is a product of Mr Deng Xiaoping's reforms. The Queen swept by in about six and a half seconds. Again, like most visitors being warmly welcomed, she gave a wave and a slightly tentative smile, and disappeared. The real China, she may be hoping, starts tomorrow.

Last night Chinese television showed a special film on the life of the Queen, including shots of Speakers' Corner, where, it said, even the Queen could be criticized. The film, interrupted by a US soap commercial, was followed by a programme about a visit of President Li Xiannian to North Korea, where they stage much more lavish receptions. She meets him tomorrow in the Great Hall of the People.

14 October 1986, Beijing

The Queen spent a happy afternoon yesterday on the Great Wall of China, climbing almost twice as far as planned. It was the sort of occasion when one escapes from one's Mercedes and breathes fresh air. The Queen probably did not notice the horde of Chinese security men climbing after her, far less the carefully arranged presence of a `representative' crowd. Chinese onlookers - and they were not just being polite - said that the Queen looked much younger and `more beautiful' than she had appeared on television. By doubling the distance she climbed - from tower No. 2 to tower No. 3 - the Queen covered, according to a careful calculation, about one 17,000th of the wall's entire length.

But for her press secretary, Mr Michael Shea, life was not so easy - and not for the first time either. A rather slovenly gang of plain clothes Chinese security men flocked up the wall behind her, and then swarmed down it in front of her. It was intrusive and unnecessary, as well as getting in the way of the British photographers. `Can't you control these people?' Mr Shea called despairingly as a Chinese official who should have been responsible walked straight past him.

The palace had been led to understand that, subject to security considerations, the Chinese public would be allowed free access to the wall. But in the hour be fore the Queen's arrival, the very large throng which is habitually on the wall was carefully thinned out. Those left were mostly employees of the state-run danwei or `unit' which looks after the wall. They included several employees of the environmental section, ordinary workers, office staff and the two charming girls who run their internal broadcasting network. With a nice sense of historical timing, the authorities had also ensured that although virtually all the foreign tourists had left the wall, there was a cheerful party of Hong Kongers to greet the Queen. Mr Shea had already been in difficulties on Monday when some Chinese journalists infiltrated the hall where the Queen was resting in the Imperial Palace while he was outside looking for someone in authority.

Never mind. It was a lovely day on the wall. And the satellite dish, lowered at great personal risk and installed by a Chinese helicopter pilot and ITN technicians, on to a tower on the other side, seemed to work perfectly. I don't know whether any of the royal party are steam engine buffs, but there was a very fine one on the line to the Badaling Pass. There were also several authentic country sights, including a large flock of donkeys and a man with a dead pig on his bicycle.

17 October, Xian

If the Duke of Edinburgh does not realize that the term `slitty eyes' is offensive to the Chinese (and neither, apparently, does the Queen's press secretary) one can only wonder what other gaffes may have been committed by His Royal Highness. Did he perhaps lean across the lunch table towards Mr Deng Xiaoping, and tell some cheerful anecdote about a little chink?

The serious background to this storm which has blown across the Queen's visit to China is that in several important areas Buckingham Palace appears either not to have been sufficiently briefed or not to have accepted advice on how best to deal with the Chinese. One important omission is the lack of a personal interpreter for the Queen, although it was at one stage proposed that she should have one. Instead she relied on the interpreter provided by the Chinese who in formal meetings with the top leaders translated both ways. This places the Queen, who seems ill at ease anyhow in these armchair situations, at an extra disadvantage. However good the interpreter, the conversation was bound to be dominated by the Chinese side.

Nor is there any evidence that the Queen was ever briefed on what to say. She is not here to negotiate about anything, but the Chinese do expect heads of state to make a few serious remarks. Even a brief polite reference to the `four modernizations' would have carried her banal exchange with party Secretary-General Mr Hu Yaobang to a different level. When Premier Zhao Ziyang was greeted by the Queen in her guest-house in Beijing, she shook hands and there was then an awkward silence. There were many things she could have been coached to say. Instead she simply murmured `please come this way.`

The Palace's response to criticisms of this kind is to say that it is all beside the point. What the Press should really be doing, it argues, is to acknowledge the tremendous reception which the Queen and the Duke have received and the historically significant nature of the visit. It is certainly true that the Chinese leadership places a very high value on this visit seeing it as setting the seal on relations which have peaked on the Hong Kong agreement. But it remains a visit which somehow feels the lack of a central message - and it remains to be seen if the Queen will be able to speak more clearly to the people of Hong Kong, who certainly need one.

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