The Cleveland of Asia: A Journey Through China’s Rust Belt

For years I’ve been active in Freedom House, the oldest of the private organizations advocating for international freedom and democracy. We’ve seen progress, especially since 1989. We’ve seen backsliding. And we’ve seen stasis, notably 1.3-billion-persons’-worth of stasis in China. Freedom House rates China as “Not Free.” On a scale of 1 to 7—where 1 is as free as human nature allows and 7 is completely otherwise—China scores 6 on civil liberties and 7 on political rights.

Yet we at Freedom House cannot be exactly right. A mere increase in China’s prosperity must mean that more Chinese have greater wherewithal to exercise some aspects of free will. Certainly the Chinese are more free now than they were during the Great Leap Forward, when millions were constrained by starving to death. And the Chinese are freer to go about their business than they were during the Cultural Revolution, when there was no business to go about.

Freedom and democracy are abstract. Daily life is concrete. This is not to denigrate the importance of the abstract. God himself is abstract, until he strikes us with a bolt of lightning. The monks and nuns of political science may be overwhelmed by abstraction, as are the victims of such abstractions as Mao Thought. But, mercifully, quotidian existence is conducted mostly in the world of things and stuff.
I went to China for a month in 2006 and ended up taking a tour of the world of things and stuff. I didn’t mean to. I was just sightseeing. I’d only been to the mainland once and then only to Shanghai. I wanted to visit the Three Gorges before the new dam turned the Yangtze into a cesspool. I wanted a look at the Terracotta Warriors. And that sort of thing.

I was traveling with old friends from Hong Kong, whom I’ll call Tom and Mai. Tom has spent decades in the mining and metallurgy business. He was breaking ground on an ore-processing plant in Nanjing. He seems to know everyone in China who has anything to do with iron, steel, coal, or beer. And Mai and her brothers owned a company in Hong Kong that brokered textile machinery. When China initiated its “Open Door” economic policy, Mai would take mainland clients to Europe (where they’d encounter their first fork) and arrange for the purchase of used spinning and weaving equipment.

I took a lot of notes, with Mai doing most of the translating. But I didn’t know what to do with the notes when I came back. It took me almost two years to realize that what I have is a survey of “the tacit consent of the governed.” Not that the Chinese I talked to were taciturn. They were forthcoming enough about their government, but they didn’t care much about the political theory of it. Tom said, “Their attitude is, ‘Shhh, politics is sleeping, don’t wake it up.’”

I talked to people who worked in private enterprise and people who worked in government and people who worked on furthering cooperation between the two. That is, I talked to the kind of people who are necessary to the advocating of freedom and democracy but who, so far, aren’t advocating it. We need to listen to what they don’t say. Here is a record of what Chinese think of politics when politics isn’t what they’re thinking of.

I had been to Shanghai in 1997, and it looked like a knock-off of a great city, a sort of Made-in-Hong-Kong Hong Kong. Everything had been built yesterday. And they’d built a lot of it—more than they seemed to have any use for. There was a marsh called Pudong on the far side of the Huangpu River, where the ground was so low-lying the water and sewer pipes had to be laid above the pavement. Pudong was dotted with empty office complexes and buildings full of unrented apartments.

Now Pudong is some of the most expensive real estate on earth. Mai, Tom and I stopped at a condominium where the sale price was $10,000 per square meter. Despite arriving in a chauffeured car wearing our corporate boardroom clothes, we were turned away at the gate. An attractive but severe young lady in black Prada told us we’d need to make an appointment days in advance.

From Pudong, I took a train with Tom and Mai west a couple of hours to Wuxi, a city of five million people that I’d never heard of. It’s the size of ten Clevelands. And if you wonder what happened to Cleveland, Wuxi is where it went. Industrial parks spread for miles, with neat, sleek, enormous buildings set in swaths of lawn and landscaping—Volvo, GE, Panasonic, Sony, Westinghouse, Nikon, Bridgestone, Bosch, and The Nature Factory (I’d wondered where that was made).

We were given a tour by Mr. Chen, a manufacturer of fleece and plush fabrics. He was proud of Wuxi and so proud of his own fabrics that, although he’s the CEO of the company, he carries samples in the trunk of his Audi Quattro.

Mr. Chen sent us on in his car to Nanjing, where Tom took me to a steel mill he used to run. The company that Tom used to work for bought the mill from the Chinese government for $1 on the understanding that it would be kept in operation. The mill was eventually sold, for considerably more than $1 to Mr. Liu and Mrs. Sung.

The mill’s 150-pound ex-PLA guard dog, Shasha (“Killer”), was extremely glad to see Tom. So were the employees. Although there were some steel mill employees who presumably wouldn’t have been so glad, such as the two or three hundred “ghost workers” who didn’t exist at all and were on the mill’s payroll when Tom took over. Plus the thousands of workers he’d fired because they didn’t do anything. Tom also needed to get rid of the local family that had the “theft rights” to the factory. They once stole an entire railroad train from the mill and would have gotten away with it if the train didn’t have a track that led directly to them.

“Here’s where one guy threw a wrench at me,” Tom said as we climbed the tower to the blast furnace.

“What’d you do?”

“I tossed him down the stairs,” Tom said. “Rule of law is the cornerstone of capitalism.”

Tom’s worst problem with the proletariat, however, involved one of his mill hands who was having an affair with a woman who worked at the chemical factory next door. They conducted their trysts in an electrical equipment closet. Amidst the throes of passion the mill hand backed into some high voltage circuitry and fried. (His paramour, with hair a bit frizzier than is usual in China, survived.) The man’s widow then brought her entire ancestral village to block the steel mill’s gates. As compensation for her husband’s death, she demanded his salary in perpetuity, a job for their retarded daughter, a new house, the payment of her husband’s gambling debts, and that her grandmother be flown to the United States to have her glaucoma treated.

“I had to call in the Communist Party officials,” Tom said.

“Did they ship everybody off to prison camp or something?” I asked.

“They didn’t do anything. They said it was my problem. I settled with the widow for a couple of hundred bucks.”

I interviewed a senior Party official responsible for planning and development in the region. He insisted on using his own translator instead of Mai, and I had to submit a list of questions beforehand. I made them as anodyne as possible. “What are the future plans for Nanjing’s deep water port facilities?” The politico-economic equivalent of “If you were a tree what kind of tree would you be?” I wanted people to babble away undefensively and without constraint. But I hadn’t counted on this fellow.

“With gross metropolitan product of 241.3 billion yuan and 14.2 percent per annum growth, versus provincial 13 percent and 9 percent national, we are seventh ranked city in economic status, 14th in revenue, having 5,000 U.S. dollars per capita income, versus provincial 3,380 and 1,600 national, resulting from Nanjing 9,000 different industrial products in utilization of 45 billion U.S. dollars capital investment from 90 countries and additional 26 billion U.S. dollars contracted,” he said, for a start.

I filled eight pages of my reporter’s notebook and he never consulted a note of his own. “We have 48 universities in Nanjing,” he said. I don’t doubt he attended them all. He concluded, at long last, by saying—though I don’t think his interpreter did him justice here—“We want to take this opportunity to make China the world’s manufacturing basement.”

He and I were escorted to a futuristic conference room with R2-D2 microphone modules in front of each high-backed leather and chrome executive swivel chair. There was an air of Intergalactic Command Council to the setting. Tom, his chief engineers, and, for some reason, myself were seated on one side. The senior Party official and a bunch of sophomore and junior Party officials were on the other. Everyone had to give a speech about iron ore and progress and friendship and such, including me. I was glad to take my seat at the global economic table, even if I (doubtless like many of globalization’s other guests) didn’t know what I was doing there.

Then we all went to the banquet hall and got drunk. There were more courses than you could shake a stick at, which, given China’s eating utensils, is an apt cliché. The Party officials laughed at my ineptitude. Then abalone was served with proper flatware, and I laughed at their knifing and forking.

You don’t sip your drink in China. And after six or eight rounds of ganbei (“bottoms up”), language barriers disappear. Mr. Feng, sitting next to me, spoke better English than I do anyway. He went to the London School of Economics. He was full of jokes about the government in Beijing, its muddles and its meddling. These sent the local Party functionaries into helpless laughter. Mr. Feng proposed ganbei after ganbei, pouring and emptying glasses of scotch. He had the kind of personality—both engaging and disarming—that could get you talking to him about anything, if you could get a word in edgewise.

Promptly at ten, the Party members left. Tom and Mai and I saw them to the banquet hall door as their drivers, one after another, pulled up in black cars. “They used to have Mercedes-Benzes,” Tom said. “But then the Central Committee told them they had to use cars made in China.” There was a great deal of head-banging and knee-cracking as the Party members clambered into the back seats of locally-produced Volkswagens.

“Who is Mr. Feng?” I asked Tom. I examined the business card Mr. Feng had given me, printed with his vague title at a vaguely named trading firm.

“I don’t know,” Tom said. “But when there’s trouble with the government, with regulation, bureaucracy, or courts, you go to him. The problem disappears. I think he’s secret police.”

On Saturday we went to the Nanjing antiques market. “You just walk around,” Tom’s assistant, Lilly, told me. “Don’t look interested. Then come back and tell me what you want. I’ll get it—Chinese price.”

Mao posters and buttons were gathering dust along with Little Red Books and other Cultural Revolution memorabilia. These used to be popular with the generation of Chinese young enough to think of Mao as funny. But the enthusiasm for irony wore off with age (as enthusiasm for irony will). And the next generation doesn’t seem to think of Mao at all.

The next day Tom had to go back to work in Hong Kong. Mai and I went on to Huzhou, to the southeast, halfway between Nanjing and the sea. Mr. Wu, who runs a woolen mill there, sent a car 230 kilometers to pick us up. And a wonderful car it was, a perfectly restored old Cadillac limousine. We traveled on a new turnpike with rest stops indistinguishable from those in the U.S., except for the police walking around the parking lots writing down license plate numbers. At the border between Jiangsu and Jhejiang provinces there was a long line of trucks on the shoulder. “They are waiting for the weigh station officials to come back from break,” said our driver.

We toured Mr. Wu’s woolen mill, which looks like the nineteenth-century New England woolen mill in the photograph that’s always trotted out when the subject of child labor is mentioned—the picture of the thin, sad, patched little girl handling spindles. But in Mr. Wu’s mill the little girl is plump, smiling, neatly dressed, and a grown woman. Also, there’s fluorescent lighting.

Then we met with Mr. Wu, a formidably likable man who’s almost as voluble as the Nanjing senior Party official, though with ideas instead of numbers. He took us to his showroom, as modern and stark as any in Milan. The wool coats of the next season were on display. We promised secrecy, but now it can be told: The “must” color of 2007 was burnt ocher.

Then we went to Mr. Wu’s conference room, also as modern and stark as any in Milan. “China was very smart to follow Mr. Deng,” Mr. Wu said. I expected a paean to Deng Xiaoping’s combination of Marxist discipline and capitalist growth, but I’m not sure that’s what I got. “Because, now,” Mr. Wu continued, “whatever Italians can produce, we can produce. Please write that these products are not a threat to the U.S. They are a threat to Italians.”

Mr. Wu said he was glad to be talking to an author. He had wanted to be an author himself. But he didn’t get into the university because of the Cultural Revolution. He was sent to repair diesel engines on farm equipment instead. He said he believed a good author could be both a good entrepreneur and a good politician.

When the Open Door policy began, Mr. Wu landed a job as a worker in this very mill. He was promoted to supervisor, then to deputy manager, then general manager, deputy director, and now president and CEO. “My position in textiles is a bit like yours in writing,” Mr. Wu said. This was serious flattery, I think. “Yours is like a boutique product,” he continued.

Mr. Wu said he believed American authors write very fine articles. He’d read one article when he was young that quoted Richard Nixon. “Nixon said something that influenced me a lot. Nixon went to Moscow and gave a speech at the airport that was very good. Nixon said, ‘I understand the USSR is a very great country. I come to visit by means of peace. I understand that other means do not work.’”

Mr. Wu said that when he heard I was an author, he thought of how many things there are to tell the American people. “Tell them,” he said, “that of the whole world’s GDP, the U.S. has one-third.” (Well, not quite, but one takes Mr. Wu’s point.) “Send a message to Bush that China is not dumping things on people. America’s policy is leading China to follow the same path. U.S. is like a tour guide.”

“You have a responsibility,” Mr. Wu said to me. “Not all of Americans can come to China to find out what China is all about. Edgar Snow was the first guy to tell the world about the Communist military and the U.S. help in the war against Japan. Maybe you can be the twenty-first century Edgar Snow and change the opinion of the American people about the Chinese.”

Mr. Wu had been to America some years before. “I had a very good impression,” he said, “especially the Twin Towers. When bin Laden hit the towers, I said, ‘He’s a bad guy.’”

Mr. Wu saw his first Cadillac in America and said to himself, “I want a car like that.” Then he was in Taiwan at the Chiang Kai-shek memorial, and the tour guide said Chiang loved to ride in Cadillacs.

“We are going for democracy,” Mr. Wu said. “Please send the message. Russia had to go through a revolution. We are moving gradually. The American people should take time to understand. On surface we are socialist. Underneath we are capitalist. During the Cold War there were lots of struggles, lots of revolutions. China’s was the only successful one. We accept America as a great country. President Washington was a great president and led the country to where it is today. The policy of America is correct. But every country has its own situation. You can’t use your country as a standard for other people. You love the people and peace. This is the right policy.” Mr. Wu summed up: “You have the patience. We have the confidence.”

I had a headache—Nixon, Deng, Edgar Snow, Chiang Kai-shek’s Cadillac, and I’m almost certain it’s supposed to be the Chinese who are patient and Americans who are confident. Mr. Wu did, however, have one clear piece of advice: “America shouldn’t have too many policies.”

Mr. Wu took us to dinner with his wife, eldest daughter, and son-in-law. As was the case with several other wealthy people I met in China, Mr. Wu seated his driver and his assistants at the table with his family and his guests. They seemed to be expected to join in the conversation and, except the driver, the toasts.

Mr. Wu’s son-in-law was an official in the state-run banking system. I asked him about the number of bad loans that Chinese banks are said to be carrying. “It’s not a problem now,” he said. “The bad loans were within international standards—only ten percent.” Of course, ten percent of loans gone bad would be more than enough to start the U.S. subprime mortgage meltdown a couple
years hence.

Mr. Wu sent Mai and me in his Cadillac to Hangzhou. It’s a famous beauty spot on West Lake and, as famous beauty spots go, it’s nice enough. Mr. Wu’s youngest daughter, Wu Lin, who goes by Linda, has a fashion design company there.

Linda’s showroom was quite a piece of design, with brutalist concrete stairs, a lit-glass disco floor, industrial chic wrought-iron tables, and neo-Deco porthole windows. The clothes were, Mai testified, fabulous. Linda gave me an apple-green coat to take home to my wife, who confirmed the fabulousness.

The designs are by Linda’s husband, Mike, the only beer-drinking regular-guy women’s fashion designer I’ve ever met. Mike wanted to be an industrial engineer and build textile machinery. But in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, China’s universities were so corrupt that you had to bribe the professors to get into your chosen field. “Nobody wanted to go into fashion design,” he said. Considering the Mao suits that everyone was wearing in those days, no wonder. “It was good luck for me,” Mike said.

We went to dinner at a pavilion on West Lake and talked about what Katie Holmes could possibly see in Tom Cruise. Katie is from my hometown, Toledo, Ohio. Linda and Mike were suitably impressed by the fact. “I don’t understand this Scientology,” Mike said.

I floundered around for an explanation. “It’s American Falun Gong,” said Mai.

I watched CNN on the hotel room television that night. There were brief, almost random-seeming blackouts of things the Chinese government didn’t want seen. A whole segment on U.S. criticism of Hu Jintao’s trade policies went missing. But I knew all about it because the government censors neglected to delete the captions crawling across the bottom of the screen.

Mai and I flew to Xi’an, deep in north-central China. Printed on the airplane’s seatback, in Chinese, was “Empty space for advertising awaiting you.” On our paper coffee cups was “Advertising space available.”

Two assistants to Mr. Tian, a manufacturer of coke fuel for blast furnaces, met us at the airport. He’d been the main supplier of the mill Tom had run. The assistants wore identical, perfectly tailored, banker-gray chalk-stripe suits. They took us to a long, large, and hilarious lunch that went on until there was only an hour’s respite before a long, large, and hilarious dinner. The Chinese like beer, wine, whiskey, and throat-searing maotai sorghum brandy. And they drink them all at once.

The next morning, a little shaky, we went to see the Terracotta Warriors guarding the tomb of Emperor Qin. Seven or eight thousand of them have been discovered so far. It’s said that no two of them are alike, but I wouldn’t swear to that. What these clay soldiers were all supposed to be doing there makes the tomb one of the world’s great monuments to “Huh?” Less mysterious was the peasant who stumbled into the tomb chamber while digging a well in 1974. He was sitting in the gift shop signing copies of the book written about his find—a quite prosperous-looking old man.

From Xi’an, Mai and I flew south to Yichang on the Yangtze. A friend of Mai’s, Mrs. Han, drove us an hour upriver in her Mitsubishi SUV to the Three Gorges Dam. From here, Mai and I took a four day boat ride to Chongqing. “Mainlanders always take the boat from Chongqing to Yichang,” Mai said, “because it’s downstream and only takes three days. Mainlanders want to do everything fast, even take vacations fast.”
Mrs. Han was an executive at the government-owned electric company. She said she didn’t want to take a chance on working for a private firm. Government jobs are more stable, though the wages are lower. But her young son was lonely, and if she had another kid, she’d lose her job because of the government’s one-child policy.

Mr. Tian has several children and five siblings, and Lilly is one of four. I’d asked Lilly if her parents had gotten in trouble for violating the birth control laws. She giggled and said, “Oh, you know…”

“Oh, you know” in China means “who you know.”

I asked Mrs. Han if the Three Gorges Dam was the ecological disaster that the Green Peace-types say it is. Especially since the dam’s hydro–electric turbines are expected to provide 50 percent of China’s electricity.

Mrs. Han said, “The economy is helped a lot by the dam’s infrastructure. But one million people had to move. The farmers are reassigned to be factory workers, and it is not their background. They are living worse than before. But the flooding used to be terrible. There are advantages and disadvantages. It is changing animal life. A lot of historical sites are gone. The farmers are losing good soil by the river.”

Mrs. Han was not exactly giving an endorsement to central planning.

Nor was the Three Gorges Dam itself. To avoid congestion at the dam’s multiple series of locks, a 16,000-ton cable hoist ship elevator had been built. Afterward it was discovered that no cable ever made can hoist 16,000 tons.

The enormous dam was enormous. The scenic Three Gorges were scenic. And the mucky-looking reservoir that’s filling the gorges looked mucky. The government guide who gave us a tour of the dam was frank, after her fashion. “The Three Gorges are beautiful,” she said, “but I do not think that living your whole life in a gorge is a beautiful thing.”

The privately hired guide on our riverboat, David, was franker. “You’ll notice there are no tall trees along the Yangtze,” he said. “They were all cut down during the Great Leap Forward in Mao’s attempt to match U.S. steel production with wood-fueled backyard steel mills.”

We stopped at a 3,000-year-old town that was being slowly inundated. Another government guide took us ashore. We encountered a parade of townspeople beating drums and waving banners and red flags.

“It’s a promotional event for a furniture store sale,” said the government guide.

“It’s the local Communist Party gathering support for Labor Day demonstrations,” said Mai.

The government guide took us to a new town that had been constructed to house the residents of the drowning town. The buildings were made of concrete and topped with fiberglass panels imitating roof tiles. There was an industrial area to provide jobs for displaced farmers. Nothing was in it except stacks of waste paper. “The industry is recycling,” said the government guide.

On the day before our boat reached Chongqing, David gave a talk for the passengers, titled “Modern China.” But what he told was the story of his family.

During the Cultural Revolution his parents had made, between them, 50 yuan a month. There was rationing until 1990. David was born in 1977, and the most expensive item in his house was a radio.

After the Open Door, farmers were able to lease their land from the government in return for 15 to 20 percent of their harvest. David’s father was a truck driver. He leased his truck from the government trucking company for 10 percent of his profits. David’s father was scolded by his mother for leasing the truck. But in five years his father had made 80,000 yuan (about $10,000), which in those days was enough to buy a house. The largest banknote then in circulation was the 10 yuan bill. So his father brought his earnings home in a huge bundle. David’s mother thought he’d stolen the money. They had the first refrigerator in their neighborhood. David went away to boarding school. He came home to Chongqing after a year, and so much building had been done that he couldn’t find his house.

His parents lost everything in the market crash of 1989. “They moved to a small village,” David said, “and worked all day and all night to start a tourist resort. Now they are prosperous again.”

China’s economic and social progress had been very fast, David said. He said that in the 1980s if a family had a watch, a bicycle, and a sewing machine they were considered rich. In the 1990s, it was a color TV, a refrigerator, and air conditioning. Now it’s a car, a computer, and a mobile phone.

David explained that “the Chinese constitution is somewhat similar to that in the United States. The highest authority is the Party.”

He then offered to take questions.

Among the tourists was a British woman who looked as though she cut her own hair. “But who’s been hurt by all this economic development?” she asked.

David was puzzled. At a loss for an answer, he said, “Even ten years ago we had spy machines in all four-star hotels.”

“If the old days were so terrible,” said the British woman, “why the long queue at Mao’s tomb?”

I resisted the temptation to say, “They’re making sure he’s dead.”

“Some older people,” David said, “are nostalgic for the Mao era. They have the grudge in their hearts about the big differences of income. And about the insecurity. Old people say, ‘You cannot use the money of tomorrow.’”

“What are the main problems facing China over the next ten years?” asked another, less aggravating tourist.

“The income gap,” David said. “The next five-year plan has to increase the living standards of farmers, eliminate the agricultural tax, and provide incentives for people to stay in the countryside.”

“What about all those rich farmers on their private plots?” said the woman who cut her own hair.

“The outsides of the houses may be nice,” David said, “but insides are empty.”

“And what about all these beggars we see?” said the woman.

“We used to arrest them,” David said. “But Western countries criticized China’s human rights.”

“What will China’s geopolitical role be in the future?” asked a third tourist, who looked smug about coming up with such a BBC interview of a question, albeit posed to a 29-year-old chemical engineer.

“In the long run, a very neutral role,” David said. “China tries to be as humble as possible. There is the Taiwan issue and the Tibet issue, both handled very well by the government. But all these issues are basically economic concerns. If China’s economy climbs, all these problems will disappear.”

“I was thinking,” said the DIY haircut woman to a stateroom of people who wished she’d quit, “that there are some world problems that need handling by China, such as global warming.”

“We want to have more friend,” David said.

“But what about global warming?” the woman said.

“We just want to be loved,” David said and looked at his watch and announced with relief that time was up.

Between the monument and the Big Hall in Chongqing was a square almost as expansive as Tiananmen in Beijing. When Mai and I were back in Hong Kong, I mentioned to Tom that the whole time we’d been on the mainland I’d hardly heard the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 mentioned.

“That’s no surprise,” Tom said. “Tiananmen Square is where the abdication of the last emperor was proclaimed in 1912. It’s where the student demonstrations, which led to the formation of the Chinese Communist Party, were held in 1919. It’s where the Japanese occupation government announced its East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, where Mao declared victory over the Kuomintang in 1949, and where a million Red Guards swore loyalty to Mao during the Cultural Revolution. When the Chinese see a bunch of people gathering in Tiananmen Square, they don’t go all warm and fuzzy the way we do. The Chinese think, ‘Here we go again.’”

From Chongqing, Mai and I flew to Guangzhou (Canton, as it was called for centuries). We stayed with Mai’s friend, Qing, and her husband, Phillip. Phillip had been a museum curator in the United States. He moved to China to restore antique furniture that had been wrecked and neglected by the Communists and to build reproductions using the original types of wood and finishes. He showed me through his workshop, where he also runs a training program for young Chinese cabinet makers.

“After a couple of generations when no one cared about craftsmanship,” Phillip said, “the craftsmanship is stunning.” I watched a young man making an intricate dovetail with a hatchet—the kind of hatchet that was featured in 1940s movie serials about Tong Wars. Phillip said, “There is, however, a Chinese tendency to do things the hard way.”

Qing’s father is one of the last surviving veterans of the Long March of 1934–1935, when the Communists escaped encirclement by Kuomintang forces and regrouped to fight both Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese.

Mr. and Mrs. Zhao came to lunch at their daughter’s house. They were full of the particular good cheer of old age, a quality I wonder how many of my fellow baby boomers will possess. Mr. Zhao went right to the point about one member of the baby boom. When Qing introduced me as an American, Mr. Zhao cheerfully said, “Bush is thinking too much—about Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea. He should think less! And make the lives of American people better!”

Mr. Zhao was familiar with the costs of excess theory. He and his wife had been upper-level Party officials in Guangzhou. When Qing was a girl the Cultural Revolution had come. She told me how everything had gone away—her parents’ jobs, the family’s house, their food, clothes, and privileges. Mr. and Mrs. Zhao had been subjected to “criticism,” as it was so coyly called. “But,” Qing had said, “like a kid, I kind of enjoyed the excitement—all of us living in one room and the fighting in the streets.”

Mr. Zhao had joined the revolution in 1932, when he was twelve. He belonged to the Communist Party’s Boy Scout-like organization. He was sixteen when the Long March began. He was one of the “Little Red Devils” who accompanied the troops. He was with the 4th Red Army led by Zhang Guotao, Mao’s more sensible rival for Party leadership. Mr. Zhao did not seem bitter that Mao had won out, or about the Red Guards, or even at Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang troops. “We tried to go to Yunan to fight the Japanese,” he said, “but had to fight the Kuomintang first to get there.” Then the Kuomintang sent them material for the war against Japan. “And,” Mr. Zhao laughed, “we used it to fight the
Kuomintang later.”

He was, however, still mad at the Japanese. “They had the ‘Three Policies,’” he said. “Burn everything. Rob everything. Kill everything. Totally unhuman.”

“The Japanese people are good people, but the leaders are not,” said Mrs. Zhao, soothingly.

Mr. Zhao started out with the 4th Army taking care of the horses, but was promoted to radio operator. He fought the Japanese for eight years. The 4th Army crossed the measureless grasslands of west Szechwan three times. The plateau is so full of mire and free of landmarks that the only way they could keep their units together was to spread sideways from horizon to horizon and go forward in a single rank. Even mounted soldiers sank, sometimes horse and all. They starved until they ate their leather belts. When they finally found some potatoes, one potato filled them so much they were sick.

The 4th Army started the Long March 100,000 strong. Only 25,000 were left at the end. And when they’d reached a mountain pass—not far from where Mr. Tian’s coke furnace is today—they were surrounded by the Japanese.

They escaped thanks to the leadership of Peng Dehuai, the best of the Long March military commanders. Some of the women cadres were pregnant and made it down the mountain holding on to the tails of horses. Other women crawled into baskets and rolled down. Mr. Zhao was assigned to take care of Peng’s wife. He was given two bullets, one for himself because he knew the radio codes, and one for Mrs. Peng. “People like us could not be caught,” Mr. Zhao said.

Peng Dehuai would lead the Chinese troops in the Korean War and then be purged by Mao and beaten by the Red Guards, 130 times until he died.

“Dad,” said Qing, “A lot of this stuff I’ve never heard you talk about before.”

Mr. Zhao smiled with the pleasure of being an octogenarian and still able to surprise.

Deng Xiaoping had restored Mr. and Mrs. Zhao to their Party posts, but they’d retired in the mid-1980s. “I consider myself very lucky to have survived,” Mr. Zhao said. “After the fight with the Kuomintang, when the Communist Party was in charge, I got a lot of benefits from the Communist Party, the opportunity to study.” He met Mrs. Zhao at the Party School in Beijing in 1950.

Mr. Zhao was not quite sure what he thought about all the economic development. “He has opened his mind a little bit about money,” said Mrs. Zhao. “This is good for his physical and mental health. He’s not sure if things are good or bad, but he doesn’t talk too much—doesn’t argue or criticize.”

“I get good Party benefits,’ Mr. Zhao said. “The organization gives me care and concern. The family is more or less not a big problem.” He winked at Phillip. “I feel I have accomplished my wishes. All the children are fifty years old, so I don’t have to worry. Now I’m 86. It’s wonderful. After that it doesn’t matter how long I live. There is a government resort we go to every year. We’ve built strong relationships there. Right now I have no other wish. If I want to have another meal, I go ahead and have it. My only worry is if my wife falls or gets ill. Then she can’t take care of me! I am slightly selfish!”

P. J. O’Rourke is a political satirist, author, and a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly.

OG Image: