Our Man in Beijing

Edwin Moise

  • Breakfast with Mao: Memoirs of a Foreign Correspondent by Alan Winnington
    Lawrence and Wishart, 255 pp, £12.50, March 1986, ISBN 0 85315 652 2
  • Behind the Forbidden Door: Travels in China by Tiziano Terzani
    Allen and Unwin, 270 pp, £11.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 04 951025 8

Alan Winnington, a member of the British Communist Party from the early Thirties, went to China in 1948 as a correspondent for the Daily Worker, and lived there for most of the next 12 years. His autobiography runs from his childhood up to his departure from China in 1960. He comes across as a likeable man, and he has written a marvellously readable memoir, but it has the failings one would expect of a book written twenty to thirty years after the events it describes, by a man of passionate political loyalties, who died before he could finish the manuscript or check the accuracy of the parts written from memory.

Winnington makes absolutely no apology for the consistency with which he supported the Soviet Union throughout his adult life. The only issue on which he questions Harry Pollitt’s wisdom was Pollitt’s proposal in September 1939, after the German attack on Poland, that the British Communist Party defy directives from Moscow by supporting the British war effort against Hitler. When Khrushchev’s 1956 denunciation of Stalin comes up much later in the book, and Winnington is arguing that Stalin’s achievements outweighed his defects, he cites the pact with Hitler, signed just before the German attack on Poland, as one of the things for which the world should be grateful to Stalin.

Winnington went to China early in 1948 with a dual assignment – as foreign correspondent for the Daily Worker and as an adviser to the Xinhua (New China) News Agency, the press service of the Chinese Communist Party. He worked at first in northern Manchuria, then travelled southward with the Communist armies and was with them when they entered Beijing. It is a pity that his closest contact with top levels of the Chinese Communist Party occurred at this time, when he was just getting to know the country. The chapters dealing with this period contain a number of factual errors.

The Korean War began in June 1950. Winnington covered it almost from beginning to end, from the northern side of the battle line. The task of sorting out what one should believe in his account from what one should not is by no means easy. North Korea smashed through South Korean lines in the first days of the war, and by the time Winnington arrived, the Northern forces were deep in South Korea and still advancing. He is perhaps entitled to argue that this North Korean drive was only a response to a South Korean attack on the North. But when he claims that the initiator of the war must have been the South, because the North lacked air power and therefore would not have dared launch a war, one thinks of the battlefield situation and wonders what degree of military superiority he considers necessary to constitute a temptation to aggression. His discussion of American bacteriological warfare in Korea (he was among those who first made this charge public in 1952) is similarly unconvincing, partly because of the omission of crucial details.

Sometimes he seems convincing, but further research reveals him to be wrong. He states that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, after defeating the American forces near the Yalu River at the end of 1950, did not really force the Americans back into South Korea: the Americans, he says, retreated for no military reason, falsely claiming to be under Chinese pressure. Here he is clearly exaggerating: during the period when he gives the impression the US was not engaged in combat at all, the American casualty lists showed an average of slightly more than two hundred dead per week.

Peace talks began in July 1951, between officers of the US (nominally UN) Forces and those of the North Korean Army (with Chinese advisers). Winnington had good access to the talks through the Chinese and North Koreans, while the US delegation kept its own reporters at arm’s length: in fact, he and his friend Wilfred Burchett frequently passed to American and British correspondents information which the US delegation had refused to release. Winnington says that the US delegation at first misled the Western press about the Communist negotiating position, successfully concealing the fact that the Communists had proposed an armistice line along the 38th parallel. He makes this charge so plausible that it is rather shocking to dig through back files of the Times and read the accounts based on US briefings, which report day after day that the Communist negotiators have once again repeated their demand for an armistice line along the 38th parallel.

In the same chapter, however, one finds the charge that the US delegation also misrepresented its own negotiating stand to the press, giving the impression that it was offering an armistice line corresponding to the actual battle-line, when in fact it was demanding a line considerably further north. Comparison of contemporary press accounts with internal documentation later published by the US Government makes it clear that Winnington is telling the truth here. Given this mixed record, it is hard to decide how to treat sections of Winnington’s account that seem plausible but cannot easily be checked, the most important of which deal with Chinese and North Korean treatment of British prisoners of war, and with the charges of treason made against Winnington himself, which for many years made it impossible for him to return to England.

When the war ended in 1953, Winnington returned to China. He was based in Beijing but was able to travel widely, even to remote areas like Tibet. He was a far more informed and perceptive observer than he had been with Mao’s army in 1948 and 1949. At first he liked what he saw, despite a lack of affection for the ideologically rigid and often oppressive cadres of the Chinese Communist Party. Later, he was increasingly outraged by China’s growing hostility to the Soviet Union, by the campaign against intellectuals in 1957 after the brief period of a ‘Hundred Flowers’, and by the abandonment of rational economic planning during the Great Leap Forward.

By 1957 Winnington had become openly critical of current policies. When asked, he said that Chairman Mao’s essay ‘On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People’ seemed to be ‘a hastily knocked-together hotch-potch of Marxist-sounding hedgerow philosophy’ which was no doubt at that moment ‘causing Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin considerable discomfort in the shades’. Sometimes he even went so far as visibly to sabotage government decisions: he offered sanctuary in his home not only to large numbers of birds during an ecologically disastrous campaign to kill them as pests, but also to a British friend whom the Government was trying to expel from Beijing. Given this pattern of behaviour, and his failure to show any sign of repentance when called in, as he repeatedly was, for rebuke, it is astonishing that he was able to carry on working on the staff of the Xinhua News Agency until late 1958, and that he did not decide until the second half of 1959 that it would be necessary for him to leave China. The problem of getting his family out delayed his departure until mid-1960.

Tiziano Terzani arrived in China in 1980, 20 years after Winnington had had to leave. An Italian with years of journalistic experience in Asia, mostly as a correspondent for Der Spiegel, he had admired the idealism of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution from afar, and had studied the Chinese language. Once in China, he quickly concluded that Mao’s rule had been a nightmare, but he also decided that the supposedly liberal regime of Deng Xiaoping was not much better.

His long and anguished description of the destruction of China’s architectural and artistic heritage is horrifying. The Red Guards of the late Sixties represented an extreme in their passionate hatred of all traditional art and architecture, but for many years before this the Communist Party had been rather careless in their attitude to the country’s cultural relics, and in the case of the temples, actively hostile. Even today, when some of the surviving temples and statues have been recognised as valuable attractions for China’s tourist trade, few of the bureaucrats attempting to exploit them either respect or understand them: ‘Wherever one goes, the repair work is rough, the colours flashy, the details offensive, and neither the religious nor the artistic arrangement of buildings and statues is respected.’ Some temples have been relocated to make them more accessible to foreign tourists.

Terzani is at his best dealing with things he himself saw, especially in out-of-the-way areas. Old customs are remarkably strong in Tibet, where temples are openly used for worship, and where the portrait of the exiled Dalai Lama (in exile since the 1959 revolt) is widely displayed. In areas of Manchuria close to the Soviet border, hostility to the Soviet Union is much less conspicuous than in the rest of China – and monuments commemorating Soviet aid to China in the Forties can still be seen. He is unreliable when he discusses things that happened before his arrival in China. For example, he gives the highly erroneous impression that the Chinese Communist Party was unable to take measures to limit population growth before Mao’s death. In other respects he tends to exaggerate the degree of continuity between the political leadership of the Sixties and that of the Eighties. In discussing the more distant past, he is heavily influenced by the old notion that China was stable and unchanging for two thousand years before the European impact was felt. Sometimes he contradicts himself. He says, for instance, that for people caught up in the anti-crime campaign which began in the second half of 1983, the penalty was usually death. Shortly afterwards, he gives figures indicating that of the first 700,000 arrested, the number executed was between four and ten thousand. Some of the contradictions may arise from the fact that most of this book consists of articles which he published in Der Spiegel during the four years he was in China. Certainly little effort seems to have been made to reconcile pieces written at different dates.

Terzani deals well with those aspects of the Chinese economy which remained relatively constant during the four years he was in China – the poverty, the massive unemployment (much of it disguised by enterprises which continued to pay wages to workers for whom there was no work), the pollution, the outdated machinery, and the still-visible remains of large and expensive projects which had been abandoned half-built a few years before when the Government decided that the resources to complete them were not available. He is much weaker on Deng Xioping’s economic reforms, for which questions of timing are crucial.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry naturally objected to the way Terzani criticised government policies in his articles for Der Spiegel, but decided as late as the beginning of 1984 to allow him to remain in China for another year. At this point, however, the Ministry of Public Security stepped in: Terzani was arrested on trumped-up charges of illegally buying Chinese cultural relics. (Several of the ‘relics’ had not even been made in China; one was a poster, clearly labelled ‘Printed in London’, of a Tibetan tanka.) Terzani remarks that the experience of being arrested and questioned, by policemen who clearly did not intend to allow the preposterousness of the evidence to stand in their way, gave him more understanding than he could otherwise have had of the relationship of the ordinary Chinese to their government. However, he was fortunate enough to be expelled from the country less than four weeks after his arrest.