First Person

The Trials of a Junior Diplomat in 1970s Beijing

Can there be anything more exciting for a newly minted young diplomat than an invitation to a dinner at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People? We knew from news reports that such an invitation was sheer glamour: Nixon, Kissinger, Zhou Enlai, ground zero of world international high politics. And the food! Everybody from Nixon down had told us it was pure ambrosia, the chosen diet of the gods.

It was January 1975. The Cultural Revolution was drawing to an end but you still saw columns of people marching in the streets with red armbands announcing them as Red Guards. At regular intervals along the empty boulevards between the shabby buildings with dusty broken windows were great red billboards announcing ten thousand years to the “Great, Glorious and Correct” Chinese Communist Party. It was winter, and bleaker than the bleakest winter you could imagine. The bareness of the branches of the street trees was matched only by the bareness of the shelves of the occasional shops. Icy Siberian winds blew dust through every crack and cranny. And an invitation, headed by the red and gold emblem of the People’s Republic and marked as being from Zhou Enlai himself, had just landed on my desk. And being new and naive, I didn’t take the time to ask myself why such an honoured and exciting invitation had made its way down to my lowly position.

This memoir appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Clutching our invitation, my wife and I made our way through Tiananmen Square to the Great Hall. The armed People’s Liberation Army soldier at the top of the steps waved us through. Inside, the corps was a hum of chat in English, French and occasionally Russian. We fell into conversation with a German couple who, it appeared, were every bit as new as we were. Then a murmur ran through the crowd. Zhou Enlai would not be presiding—we later learned that he was under treatment for the cancer which a year later would cause his death. Instead the occasion would be presided over by the man of the moment, Deng Xiaoping, the target of the current leftist campaign against “the Right Deviationist Wind to Reverse Correct Verdicts”. The corps immediately formed itself into a reception line with nobody an inch out of plumb. Deng appeared at the end of it.

This was the first time we had seen Deng. We’d heard that he was a man of no great physical stature, but just how short he actually was came as something of a shock. He would have trouble surpassing five feet in height. But what a whirlwind!

Deng went along the reception line shaking each hand in turn. He was preceded by a Foreign Ministry official who briskly announced in Chinese the country of each attendee: “Bajisidan [Pakistan], Jiannada [Canada], Ruishi [Switzerland]”, the official strode down the line without missing a beat. Our new German friend whispered that he wouldn’t get his country because he’d only just arrived. But, the next instant, “Xi De [West Germany]” and then “Aodaliya [Australia]”. I nearly fell over with surprise as I bent low to shake the great man’s hand. I had been in the country less than a week, had never submitted any photo to any Chinese official and had only been given the nod to attend about three hours before. And yet in that time somebody in the Foreign Ministry had acquired a photo of me and committed my face to memory. Some of the mystery surrounding this was clarified several years later in less paranoid times when, while looking for a toilet at the old Hong Kong border station, I chanced upon the open door revealing the camera behind the one-way mirror as you entered the station.

We filed into the dining hall and soon I began to understand why the honour of a Great Hall invitation had trickled down to me. First, my table companions. This was done by the strictest of protocol; not a surprise, you might think, given the sensitivities of diplomacy. But protocol was applied by the Chinese Foreign Ministry in the most rigid way possible and no diversion from it was permitted, even to go and sit with a close friend for a few minutes chat. These people were to be my table companions at the Great Hall for the next two years. There was a Greek who heroically tried to keep conversation going. This could be difficult. Two of our dining companions were from an unknown African country. We say unknown because they did not appear to speak any known language—we tried, trust me, we tried. We could only speculate as to which feats of valour had been recorded in the tribal cicatrices on their faces.

The Foreign Ministry officials deputed to oversee our behaviour were the conversationalist Greek’s main bêtes noires. Their main function seemed to be to put a stop to any conversation which was getting interesting. Or was it just to sit there with blank faces? The range of approved conversations was very limited. “What country are you from?” (as if they didn’t know in deep detail). The invariable response to “Australia” was “Ao mao”, Australian wool. This was true the first time, the second time, and if there had been thirty occasions, the thirtieth time. They were also permitted to ask about the weather in our country. The answer that January was the hottest month was, on every occasion, greeted with a sucking of teeth and a gesture of the hands where the top became the bottom and vice versa, “Nan banqiu”, southern hemisphere. Their other function was to pocket the apples that came at the end of the dinner. Fruit was as rare as diamonds. One of the most pleasant surprises of the later liberalisations in China was when these automata morphed into witty and intelligent human beings.

I won’t dwell on the famous food of the Great Hall. Hadn’t Kissinger, Nixon and their entourage raved about the world’s best food? The problem is that they had cut their Chinese food teeth in the restaurants of San Francisco or New York’s Lower East Side where the restaurateurs had generally avoided wasting the good stuff on the palates of foreign devils. We had been schooled in the restaurants of Taipei, which was then and is still one of the great foodie capitals of the world, and the Great Hall didn’t rate. This was compounded by the fact that there was only one menu. If you found sea slugs slimy or didn’t like West Lake Water Shield Soup, you had a real problem because that was what you were going to get whenever you went to the Great Hall. Sometimes we pined for those wonderful days of the 1930s when fear of poisoning at dinner meant that it was quite acceptable to bring your own cook and meal to a banquet.

Now you could reasonably put all this down to the trivia of the job, things a professional just had to live with. However, as the real business of the evening commenced, we started to realise why nobody else had volunteered for this gig. The guest of honour was one Henri Lopes (right) who, as his Wikipedia entry tells us, was, between 1973 and 1975, Prime Minister of the People’s Republic of the Congo (Marxist Leninist). What his Wikipedia entry doesn’t tell us was that Henri Lopes was possibly one of the most tedious speakers in the history of the world, who spoke entirely in platitudes. So we endured half an hour of the “Red Flag flying over Africa” and heaved sighs of relief as he put his papers down on the rostrum and smiled at his comatose audience.

But gradually the horrifying realisation dawned upon us that this had been only the French version of his speech. There was an English version to follow. And a Chinese version.

We shuddered and looked round for a fortifying Five Stars beer, the only beer of the Great Hall, but no! Chinese etiquette didn’t mind at all if you made a complete pig of yourself by drinking yourself into a stupor. But it did worry about people who drank without first toasting somebody else on your table and that somebody just wasn’t available, so we sank back into our chairs and tried to think of something which might block out Lopes’s droning.

A positive thing about diplomatic life in Beijing in the 1970s was that everything started and finished early. It was a very heavy night when you got home later than 9 p.m., so by 9.30 we were safely tucked in our beds dreaming of the arrival of an omnipotent guardian angel who might have the key to turn down the tropical heating in our apartment. Yes, it was twenty below outside, yet we were lying under a single sheet sweating. Every attempt to bring a degree of sanity into the apartment heating policy was greeted with the response from the Diplomatic Service Bureau, “The Africans need the heat.”

An interlude. Yes, it was a busy week. A delegation of shearers from the Australian Workers Union had flown into town, led by Mick Young. Once again everybody else seemed too busy and the new boy carried the can. I followed them around. We went to the Temple of the Sun. The Temple of the Sun is a perfect circle with perfect acoustics. We were told that if you stood at one side of the circle, somebody directly opposite you could hear you if you whispered. One of the delegates stood on one side of the circle. Another stood directly opposite him and farted. The first delegate confirmed that he could hear him perfectly. We went to our next appointment.

Our next appointment was with the Chinese Association for Friendship with Foreign Peoples. We were greeted warmly by the deputy director and his interpreter. One of the anomalies of the time was that everybody in China had woken up to the fact that if they were to strike out on an independent path in the world, they would have to know not Russian but English. But there was a “contradiction”. English was the language of the American imperialists. You clearly couldn’t sound like an American imperialist. So all English speakers in the 1970s spoke not like the American imperialists, but like the British imperialists. The translator for the head of the Chinese Association for Friendship with Foreign Peoples’ could have voiced Queen Victoria in a film about her life. So in tones perfectly mimicking those of her late Imperial Majesty he translated:

“So I imagine you are the representatives of the working classes.”

“My f***in’ oath we are.”

The translator translated that badly back into Chinese. We moved on.

After the horrors of Henri Lopes’s address on African socialism, I came to the realisation that not only was I a fool and a stooge, but that I had committed myself to yet another diplomatic occasion two nights later and this time there was no escape.

You might remember that the trigger for China rejoining the world was “ping-pong diplomacy”. In 1971 the Chinese and American ping-pong teams participated in the World Table Tennis Championships. A member of the American team missed his bus to the stadium and was invited to use the Chinese team’s bus. Shortly after, an American ping-pong team visited China, which led to a visit by Kissinger and then Nixon’s historic visit. Suddenly sports diplomacy became the craze.

Australia was no exception. In 1975 an Australian women’s volleyball team was in town and we were invited. I arrived at the stadium and was astounded by all the tall people surrounding me. Traditionally northern Chinese were physically tall people but the ravages of the famines of the 1950s and early 1960s meant that most people in Beijing were stunted and unhealthy looking. The exceptions were athletes who, following rules established in Moscow for beating the capitalists at sport, got most of the protein produced in the country.

We moved into the stadium and took our seats. Suddenly I realised that it had been a mistake for others to let this invitation trickle down to me because one away from me was Jiang Qing (left), Chairman Mao’s wife. We exchanged pleasantries and expressed the wish that, in conformance with the current slogan, friendship would be first and competition second.

Now I’m no specialist in women’s volleyball, but I’d have to say that in 1975 it wasn’t one of the leading sports of Australia, and this was how the game played out. The Chinese women, six Amazons, were making short work of the Australian women.

But then the slogan would blast in Chinese from the loudspeakers: “Youyi di yi, bisai di er!” Friendship first, competition second. Immediately the Chinese women, who had previously been wiping the floor with the poor Australians, started to play the way I imagine I would play volleyball if I was even slightly interested. The Wagga Wagga seconds would have beaten them. But don’t think they were prepared to play that way if it would mean they were actually going to be beaten. After brief interludes of looking like rank amateurs, the Chinese got back into their stride. In the end it was a solid victory for them.

Meanwhile I had got into an unusually pleasant conversation with the man between me and Jiang Qing. It turned out that he was not only the Minister for Sport, Zhuang Zedong, but that he had been China’s number one ping-pong player, and in this capacity, had been the person who invited the American team to visit China in those first heady days of ping-pong diplomacy. In his Wikipedia entry he is described as a “favourite” of Jiang Qing. Beijing gossip went further. According to Beijing scandalmongers, despite being twenty years her junior, he was her lover. Yes, I was sitting next to the man with the most dangerous job in China, Chairman Mao’s wife’s lover.

Many years later we made an investment in Shanghai and hired a manager. This was a very competent man, a Manchu who turned out to have been China’s number two ping-pong player in the days when Zhuang Zedong was China’s number one, and they had been firm friends.

“Was it true about Zhuang Zedong and Jiang Qing?”


Ted Rule lives on the Central Coast of New South Wales. He contributed “The Soviet Union and the Chinese Civil War” to the June issue

2 thoughts on “The Trials of a Junior Diplomat in 1970s Beijing

  • Lewis P Buckingham says:

    One of the family friends was with Gough when Australia and the US played the China card.
    When the Tiananmen Square event occurred, I asked him if the reports were true. His answer was,to discover that, it was all about personal friendship. Chinese businessmen had to meet him personally before a contract and then befriend him before discussing such things.
    He advised that through one such contact, that there was no evidence that a massacre had occurred. His contact told him that it was just some unruly students who would be told off by their families.
    Gough made a great play of sending some superfine merino rams to the Chinese. As a result we lost part of our industry. China is now the second largest world producer of wool.
    After losing 65 million pigs in a swine flu cull they don’t need our barley.
    So they blame our political sins for breaking the contract for barley.
    We need to be careful.

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    That photo showing a round-up of the usual suspects nearly caused me a panic attack. These were the Enemy for a number of years. I marvel how our political system could select and endorse such a rag tag mob of losers – though they did believe in each other – and then comes the reality that it happens these days. A group shot of our Victorian government ministers and assorted would have the same ring about it, of people selected mainly because they have uncommon beliefs but often minimal skills useful for discharging the requirements of office. But, there must be sharp ideological skills involved (for instance) in stuffing up the volunteer fire fighting system, like the older Gough ideology that stuffed up the supply of federal funds.
    Weird are our systems of politics. Geoff S

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