As our train approached the Hong Kong–China border, a loudspeaker boomed out a warning. “Anyone without a permit must leave the train at the next stop. You are about to enter a restricted area.” John Penlington, the ABC’s Hong Kong correspondent and, until then, our China watcher, gave me a final handshake and climbed down on to the platform. He waved goodbye as the train pulled out again on the short run to the border at Lo Wu.
I was excited to become one of the rare foreign correspondents resident in the People’s Republic of China, and the first ever journalist from Australia based in Mao’s China. But I was apprehensive at being cut off in Peking (now Beijing) from the outside world. Until the COVID-19 crisis in 2020, China daily played host to thousands of tourists and businesspeople from around the world. But on that October day in 1973, only six of us had visas to enter. The other five were African diplomats.
At Lo Wu, I stepped down from the train, passed beneath a Union Jack flapping in the breeze, and by a stern-eyed British soldier on guard and cradling an assault rifle. There was no direct train link or air connection from Hong Kong to anywhere in China, just weekly flights to Peking from Tehran and Islamabad.
This memoir appears in the latest Quadrant.
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So, carrying my luggage, I began the hundred-step journey across the covered bridge into the Middle Kingdom. It felt like a John Le Carré spy novel. At the far end, a baggy-green-uniformed Chinese soldier hugged an AK-47 rifle to his chest. Above him loomed a huge red poster, emblazoned in gold with a revolutionary saying of the then demi-god, Mao Zedong: “We Have Friends All Over the World”. I wondered if that was a welcome, or a warning, or both.
As I reached the end of the bridge, the morning air was hushed. There were few people about. A polite but unsmiling immigration official noted the red-star visa in my passport and waved me through. Sham Chun, now Shenzhen, was then a sleepy fishing village of a few hundred people, plus the government officials manning the customs and immigration building. Today it is a city of twelve million including billionaires, a prosperous powerhouse of China’s astonishingly swift modernisation.
The three-hour train ride through rural China, complete with pagodas, peasants and paddy fields, showed a countryside hardly changed over the centuries. In drizzling rain, the ride ended at what was then Canton, now Guangzhou. It resembled a grimy nineteenth-century city. People’s Liberation Army soldiers gripping assault rifles lined the platform as we disembarked. From the White Cloud airport, we lifted off for Peking in a near-empty Ilyushin 62, a Soviet-built jet.
Thus began eighteen months of a Kafkaesque existence. We foreigners resident in Peking were forbidden to have Chinese friends or even acquaintances; forbidden to have Chinese visit us in our compounds which were surrounded by high walls and guarded by soldiers with pistols slung on their hips. Our phones were bugged and our letters opened and read before they were delivered. Suspicious cars sometimes followed our cars through the streets, especially at night.
We were discouraged from talking to any Chinese in the streets, not even a polite nihao, hello. British correspondent Claire Hollingworth once said an innocent hello to a Chinese passer-by in Wangfujing, the run-down premier shopping area. A stout, middle-aged lady with a red armband collared the person and led him away, almost certainly to the local police station. Those formidable, hard-eyed ladies could be seen, seated on stools, at street corners and outside apartment buildings, watching for and reporting suspicious activity to the police.
We were restricted to Peking’s city limits, forbidden from going beyond the pillboxes that ringed the city and were guarded by soldiers. They stood beside big signs warning that it was against the law for foreigners to proceed any further without permission. That permission was almost always refused, except for visits to the nearby, deserted Great Wall and Ming tombs.
There was no one to meet me at the small airport on that first, bitterly cold evening. Once the handful of passengers departed, the airport was deserted. For an hour I stood shivering beneath a giant portrait of Mao, hoping the promised foreign ministry greeter would turn up. Eventually, a caretaker emerged from the shadows to phone a taxi to come out to get me. I had no idea of my destination. We drove for several miles through the countryside, passing darkened villages, and then along dimly-lit city streets, completely empty of other cars, bicycles and pedestrians, and fringed by bleak, dark, dilapidated apartment buildings. It was ten at night and Peking slept, oblivious of the arrival of its newest resident.
I approached the empty, unlit reception desk of the Xin Qiao hotel in the city centre and the taxi driver summoned the hotel manager. Bewildered and increasingly frantic, he explained, when a translator was summoned from his bed, that all visitors to China were tabulated, tagged and sorted into their respective slots, with welcoming officials, taxis and hotels allotted to greet them on arrival. Obviously, this had not occurred for me. Thus, obviously, I did not officially exist. However, since the evidence of the manager’s senses assured him that I was not a nightmare he was having, something had to be done.
A shadowy bureaucrat arrived by car to conduct an hour of voluble telephone conversations ensuring my official recognition. I finally clasped a key that gave me entry to small, spartan room 510, on an otherwise empty floor. The room was equipped with two hard, single beds, a crudely fashioned wardrobe, desk, chair and a basic bathroom. It looked like a prison cell. The hotel had been built to house Soviet experts two decades earlier, but they had long since departed. It was to be my home and office for the next eight months, until I was given an apartment. I didn’t mind the hardship. I was thrilled to take up residence in Peking, one of the most prestigious and interesting assignments at the time for a foreign correspondent. And the Xin Qiao restaurant, though with few guests, served excellent northern Chinese food, oily and overloaded with mouth-biting chilli. While I was resident there, my stomach expanded, month by succulent month. My wife, Cecilia, a Malaysian Chinese, arrived several weeks later. It took that long for the Malaysian government to approve her residing in Peking.
The morning after my arrival, I took a taxi to the foreign ministry. I was amazed by the lack of cars and the swarms of bicycles. I later learned that there were about 7000 bikes for each car in the capital. That statistic has long been reversed. The sky was a deep blue and the wooden buildings in the city centre, some painted in pastel colours, gave Peking a charming, antique look. It was far different from the brutal, and sometimes grotesque, modern architecture of Beijing today.
At the foreign ministry, I was greeted by Ma Yuzhen, head of the section handling the dozen Western foreign correspondents given the rare privilege to reside in and report from Peking. There were no Americans, no BBC or any other foreign broadcast reporter except me. Ma was to prove alternately the delight and the blight of my life for the next eighteen months. He was a brilliant, dedicated man, who eventually became China’s Ambassador to Great Britain for the four years leading up to 1997, and then China’s powerful grey eminence in Hong Kong until 2001.
On my first full day in Peking, and on every day that my despatches to the ABC and Radio Australia were positive, Ma was all smiles. But when I deviated from official truth, which was often, Ma changed to a scolding bully, determined to correct my errors despite knowing that I was reporting the truth.
The Chinese regarded us foreign correspondents as a novel kind of spy. They had no choice but to tolerate our unwelcome presence because it involved a trade. China wanted its journalists resident in our countries, and in return our governments wanted a similar number of journalists in Peking. I later learned that at least one of the first Chinese foreign correspondents based in Australia, from the official China newsagency, Xinhua, was indeed a spy. He was tasked with informing the Chinese government about prominent Australian Chinese who supported Taiwan.
I remember a conversation with Ma at his bully best during the row that erupted in mid-1974 over the ABC’s showing of Chung Kuo-China, the Italian film director Antonioni’s documentary of life in China. The Chinese government had been publicly attacking it for weeks in the media, warning its one billion people that they must have nothing to do with foreigners who were intent on telling harmful lies about them and their government.
Antonioni was an avowed leftist, and his documentary was a positive look at China since the communists seized power in 1949. Indeed, it was an admirer, Premier Zhou Enlai, who had arranged for Antonioni to film in China. But Zhou was locked in a power struggle with the Gang of Four, a radical faction that rose to national leadership during the Cultural Revolution. Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, was their leader. The Gang ran a nationwide campaign against the film to strike a powerful blow against the Premier.
I got caught up in the fight. Out of concern for my wellbeing in the face of China’s frenetic opposition, the ABC called to ask if I felt the documentary should be shown. I knew my phone was bugged, but I advised that it be judged solely on its worth. The broadcast of Chung Kuo-China prompted a torrent of anger from China’s foreign ministry. When I next visited Ma for his necessary permission to travel in the countryside, he looked at me, as much in fake sorrow as in anger, as he remarked in a posh English accent: “Mister Raffaele, how can I give you permission for such a journey when I can’t guarantee your safety from the anger of the masses? They know the Australian Broadcasting Commission has shown the Antonioni film against our express wish. If they were to catch you alone, the masses might even go so far as to stone you.”
I never knew whether Ma was having a quiet joke. This handsome man, with his keen insight into the workings of the Western media, could be charming. He could also haul a delinquent foreign journalist over very hot coals publicly if his political masters required it. Ma called me into the foreign ministry twice, where he warned me that my “hostile reporting” on China was putting me at serious risk of being expelled from the country. His attempts at intimidation failed.
In one ABC report, I stated that the difference in status between China’s leaders, national and provincial, and villagers was vastly bigger than that between an Australian billionaire and blue-collar workers. The Chinese leaders lived in palaces, waited on by servants, ate the best food including tiger shanks (believed to be an aphrodisiac), were driven around in huge limousines and, in the ultimate luxury, had the power to jail and even execute their opponents. Ma called me in to warn me that I was treading a fine line with my “false reporting”, and that I risked being expelled from China. The Australian ambassador, Stephen Fitzgerald, was also very unhappy with me and, in a meeting at the embassy, warned that I had “crossed the Rubicon” with my critical reporting of China. Fitzgerald had been called to the foreign ministry a number of times to hear complaints about my stories.
In mid-1974, with the foreign ministry, Fitzgerald attempted to arrange a dinner to effect a peace treaty. Margaret Jones of the Sydney Morning Herald and I would also attend. Ma and two colleagues agreed to come. The dinner was planned for seven o’clock, and at one minute past seven I suspected trouble when the Chinese had not arrived. They were always punctual to the minute.
Fitzgerald tried for an hour to contact Ma by phone, and when he finally reached him, Ma stated that he and his colleagues would not attend because of Margaret’s and my presence. That was a massive diplomatic snub, the foreign ministry standing up the Australian ambassador. Margaret was an innocent bystander because the snub was clearly prompted by my reporting.
Going home that night through the capital’s darkened, empty streets, it seemed clear the foreign ministry regarded me as an opponent of the government. That was not paranoia. China’s ally in Australia, Ted Bull, a communist trade union leader on the Australian waterfront, had labelled me in his union’s newsletter Vanguard as “an enemy of the Chinese people”. The newsletter was purchased in bulk by China to distribute among senior English-speaking officials in the capital, and elsewhere in China.
Yan’an, the northern mountain stronghold of the communist rebellion, where Mao lived in a cave for several years, was a sacred site of the revolution. There, my foreign ministry minder reverently gave accounts of Mao’s holiness at the well-furnished cave; a guard outside during winter had been shivering with cold, and so Mao had given him the overcoat he was wearing. I said that to form a full picture of a leader, we needed to weigh both their good and bad decisions. What were some of Mao’s bad decisions? The minder ignored the question, but as we walked out of the cave, he sidled up to me and snarled, “Mr Raffaele, only enemies of the Chinese people ask such a question.”
Despite the ABC’s concern for me, not once did I feel under physical threat while I was based in Peking. But their apprehension was not entirely misplaced. In 1967, during the Cultural Revolution, Reuters correspondent Anthony Grey was put under strict house arrest in his basement. Red Guards hanged his pet cat as a punishment and a warning. Grey spent twenty-seven months in the basement with very little contact with others but was never charged for his alleged crime of spying. The Chinese released him in 1969, just four years before I set up the ABC bureau there.
Despite the repeated warnings, I continued reporting the truth to Australia, and Ma continued to complain. At a banquet in the Great Hall of the People for a visiting head of state, he revealed in front of my foreign correspondent colleagues that the Chinese government was unhappy with my “hostile” reporting of the arcane “Pi Lin, Pi Kung” (“Criticise disgraced leader Lin Biao, criticise Confucius”) campaign. Senior Chinese politicians often used the example of centuries-old political battles to deliver messages in the media to the Chinese people about battles within the leadership. Everyone in the country knew to whom they were referring.
They played the Game of Thrones rough in China. Early in the Cultural Revolution, Mao had his chief rival, the country’s President, Liu Shaoqi, thrown into jail, where he died in 1969. Mao kept Liu’s stylish wife, Wang Guangmei, in prison in solitary confinement for a decade before she died there. Liu’s ally, Deng Xiaoping, was exiled to work as a machinist in a factory in southern China. While he was away, Red Guards threw his son out of a second-floor window after a struggle session, paralysing him from the waist down. Deng would later rise to become China’s supreme leader.
Many diplomats in Peking believed, or hoped, that despite the clear animosity, once Mao died the Gang of Four would form a coalition with Zhou and Deng to rule China. Stephen Fitzgerald even advised Margaret Jones and me that such a post-Mao coalition was most likely. That seemed like nonsense. I reported that the “Pi Lin, Pi Kung” campaign was, in reality, an attack on Zhou and Deng by Madame Mao, and that there would be no coalition after Mao’s death. It would be a fight to the political death.
My reporting on this issue seemed to have a high-level supporter in the Chinese leadership. In 1974, visiting presidents and prime ministers were treated to elaborate banquets at the Great Hall of the People, and invited by Madame Mao to witness with her a performance of one of her eight revolutionary model opera/ballets. Only the media from the foreign leader’s country were invited to the theatrical performance. So it was most unusual when I was the only Peking-based correspondent invited to The White Haired Girl, put on for the visiting Algerian President, Houari Boumediene. Baffled, I turned up at the Great Hall and found Ma there, waiting for me. During the interval he took me outside, sat with me on a marble bench, and warned me yet again that I risked being expelled for my reporting about the current political battle. Later, on a trip to Hong Kong, a respected China watcher had an explanation for this strange event. He speculated that the invitation was a thank you from Madame Mao for being the only correspondent based in Peking to report that she and her Gang were battling Zhou and Deng for control of China. Maybe. I’ll never know.
I continued to report on the immensely important political power struggle. Had the Gang of Four won, we might still have millions of Red Guards running around the country waving Mao’s Little Red Book, taunting, torturing, jailing and killing their opponents, and ensuring China had little contact with the outside world. China would be a very different place if Deng, allied with powerful generals and provincial warlords, had not managed to overthrow the Gang of Four and jail them just a month after Mao’s death.
There were many good moments with Ma. We enjoyed jousting verbally about our very different political and social systems at the frequent Great Hall of the People banquets where he sat at our foreign correspondents’ table. Once, I put it to him that in the West, political parties usually fashioned their ideology to fit their view of human nature. In China, I added, Maoism reversed that, starting off with a rigid ideology and attempting to fashion human nature to suit it. He countered that Marxist/Leninist/Mao thought was the culmination of thousands of years of political and social evolution that had resulted in the perfect system for achieving human happiness.
It was most likely Ma who arranged another memorable treat for me. In 1920, Deng had sailed to France at the age of sixteen as part of a work-study project for eighty Chinese students. He stayed there for several years, working in a factory as a machinist, and met Zhou. Now Deng, as First Deputy Premier, was returning to France for the first time, and, along with just one other correspondent, Rene Flipo from Agence France Presse, I was invited to the airport to witness his 4 a.m. departure. Ma took us onto the darkened tarmac where a Boeing 707 was waiting with its interior lights ablaze. Four big, black Hongqi (Red Flag) limousines drove onto the tarmac and their occupants, four senior leaders, lined up at the foot of the stairs to farewell Deng. I was surprised to see Zhang Chunqiao, the brains of the Gang of Four, among them. Rene and I stood a couple of paces behind.
Soon after, Deng arrived, also in a Hongqi. He walked along the short line shaking hands. He stopped opposite Zhang and gave him just a wry smile. From two steps away I called out, zhu hao yun—good luck. Deng looked at me, raised his hand in thanks, then climbed the steps to the 707. It was a very moving moment to witness up close. Deng, who had gone to Paris in his mid-teens half a century before, was returning as one of the world’s most powerful people. I could only guess at his emotions as the plane took off.
Despite such exhilarating experiences, for most of the time I spent as a resident foreign correspondent in China there was more frustration than glamour. Our movement around the country and coverage of day-to-day events were both heavily restricted. We were denied access to key Chinese sources of information, such as the leadership and the bureaucracy.
It was frustrating never to be allowed to visit ordinary Chinese people in their homes to get some idea of how they really lived and thought, as opposed to the “model” homes and families we were shown. Ma and his Information Department acolytes refused to accept that this might result in our greater understanding of China and its people. This firm insertion of a “bamboo curtain” between correspondents and the people and rulers of China was regrettable. We all took our task of reporting on China seriously and ignored the many diplomats from dozens of countries spouting wild and improbable rumours that were swiftly replaced with others as soon they were cast aside.
All of us did the best we could, knowing that many of our stories were necessarily compounded of educated guesswork and half-truths, based on Western political logic that was often inappropriate. Some of our time was spent sharpening our tennis skills or ballooning our physical shape with the aid of the wonderful variety of Chinese provincial food with the best chefs brought to Peking from the north, south, east and west of the country.
Resident correspondents were among the best journalists in their country, such as the UK’s Claire Hollingworth, Germany’s Gerd Ruge and Canada’s John Burns. Scoops were their bread and butter at home. Yet I can’t recall anyone filing a single scoop while I was in Peking. But we never missed the dozens of state banquets in the Great Hall of the People. We went, not for the excellent food, but to see if we could detect any change in the leadership by their presence or absence, and the content of their speeches.
I also remember with fondness the long, stimulating conversations on Chinese life, morals and philosophy with my translator, the studious and pleasant Mr Wang, and roaming Peking with my driver, also named Wang.
My wife and I often visited the tumbledown antique shops in the ancient Liulichang Lane, sometimes purchasing a rare scroll and often admiring the Ming and Qing bric-a-brac. We still have a large scroll by the great painter Tang Yun, showing an exquisitely beautiful small bird perched on a lotus flower. I went into an antique shop one day just to look around, saw it on the wall, was entranced by its power and beauty, and, despite its high price, bought it. We also bought a scroll of a robust Manchurian horse and rider painted by the Last Emperor’s brother; and another depicting my favourite poet, Li Bai, being poled across a lake in a canoe. He was accompanied by a big clay pot of wine as he headed for an island to compose poetry in an alcoholic reverie. He was a notorious drunkard who wrote heavenly verse. Legend had it that Li Bai drowned while drunk, staring lovingly into the lake water at a reflection of the moon and attempting to embrace it. I once recited one of his poems by the scroll in my apartment with Gerd Ruge, correspondent for Die Welt, when he and I were very merry on German beer:
Amongst the flowers I am alone with my pot of wine
drinking by myself,
then lifting my cup, I asked the moon to drink with me,
its reflection and mine in the wine cup,
just the three of us;
then I sigh for the moon cannot drink
and my shadow goes emptily along with me, never saying a word.
With Madame Mao in total charge of all art, the great beloved Chinese poets were banished, replaced by turgid paeans to the holy trinity of heroic workers, peasants and soldiers. Happily, the great poets were returned to the Chinese after the Gang of Four were overthrown. Madame Mao banned all recitals and broadcast of Western music, even Beethoven and Mozart, and of course Elvis. She even frowned on the great architecture of imperial China. We foreigners were allowed to wander through the Forbidden City, the centuries-old home of the emperors. I was often the only person inside there besides the guards stationed at the entrances to turn away locals, who were forbidden to enter. We picnicked amid the ruins of the ancient Ming tombs, again forbidden to locals. I went frequently to the incomparable Temple of Heaven, always admiring the perfect harmony of its shape and colour set against the backdrop of an unpolluted, cadmium sky. And we resident correspondents were in Tiananmen Square to witness the incredible sight of what was claimed to be a million Chinese cheering themselves hoarse as they greeted Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s ruthless dictator, on a state visit. At the welcoming banquet that night in the Great Hall of the People, dog meat, a Korean specialty, was served. I passed.
Twice a year, Ma and his foreign ministry colleagues took the resident correspondents on a tour to some interesting place in China. We were like kids on a school excursion with our teachers. On one trip, to the Manchurian steppes, we stopped for two days at Harbin, once a stronghold of White Russians. The city was in the midst of a vicious fight between political factions, and the streets were plastered with thousands of large, hand-written wall posters attacking the grandees on each side. The chairman of the city’s revolutionary committee, the real power, met us in our hotel lounge. When I asked him to explain the posters and the factional fight, in a perfectly Orwellian moment he denied there were any posters. I invited him to come with me to the window where we could look out and see them, but he declined.
A few days after I’d set up the bureau in Peking in late 1973, Gough Whitlam, the first Australian Prime Minister to officially visit China, emerged from his 707 to a Chinese military band playing “Click Go the Shears” and a rapturous welcome. Thousands of colourfully dressed girls screamed carefully rehearsed greeting phrases and performed welcome dances amid the blare of many bands. Many scarlet and gold welcoming banners fluttered in the wind. As Whitlam descended onto the tarmac ahead of his many gifts, including a prize stud bull, we were almost floating on the euphoric atmosphere. From the airport, the parade of limousines moved through Peking’s streets, down the broad Chang’an Avenue and past the Forbidden City, cheered on by thousands more Chinese. That night, in the cavernous Great Hall of the People, the Prime Minister and his party, together with the accompanying journalists, were met by Zhou Enlai, the most charismatic person I’ve ever encountered. His eyes gripped mine like the talons of an eagle. We raised glasses of fiery Maotai to toast Chairman Mao, later revealed as one of history’s worst mass murderers. Then, as we ate a meal of several courses, we listened in delight as the Great Hall of the People resounded to the stentorian strains of “On the Road to Gundagai”, played by the People’s Liberation Army band. Within days of Whitlam’s departure (below), I witnessed the same tightly choreographed, effusive welcome turned on for an African dictator whose amusements included feeding his enemies to his pet crocodiles.
There was just one night free of official engagements during that historic visit by Whitlam. We took over a famous Sichuan restaurant and, as the Prime Minister sat at the head table, gazing tolerantly like some fond father, his young aides, fired up by repeated toasting with Maotai, stood precariously on their chairs as they bawled out the socialist anthem “The Internationale” across an otherwise peaceful Peking night. One of the loudest revellers was eventually appointed Chief Justice of New South Wales, and then Chairman of the ABC.
I later travelled to Peking with Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser in 1976. It was a much quieter affair. By then the Chinese had done away with gaudy welcomes to foreign leaders. Yet, I sensed that China’s leaders were more sincere in their protestations of friendship for the Rightist Fraser than for the Leftist Whitlam. Fraser preached a strong anti-Soviet line that brought an enthusiastic response from the Chinese political hierarchy. This prompted a rare invitation for us to fly on from Peking to Xinjiang, the sensitive province bordering the Soviet Union. The province was still dominated by the indigenous Muslim Uighurs. Many of the performers at the airport welcome and in the streets had fair hair and blue eyes. The Chinese were only then beginning to pour Han settlers into the province in what eventually was a successful effort to outnumber and dominate the Uighurs.
During my eighteen months in Peking I tried hard to give Australians an accurate glimpse of the politics and society in China. Conflict with Ma and his colleagues at the foreign ministry was inevitable because I was reporting on an evil regime that held its billion people in brutal bondage, permitting no dissent from its undemocratic, ruthless, communist principles of society and politics. Even the most basic of human rights, the right to breathe, was always under threat. The regime controlled all thought and all actions, from birth to the grave, and even the slightest dissent was crushed. Opponents were jailed for decades and even executed when they called for freedom of thought and democracy. China, under the communists, was ruled by a merciless, totalitarian regime. That was the reality, and so that is what I reported.
I was based there during the final stages of the Cultural Revolution and was saddened by the many horror stories I heard. I was wandering along a Canton street early in 1975 when I came across an open lorry surrounded by people silently staring at four men standing in the back with their shaven heads bowed. They had their names written with black paint on narrow boards strapped to the backs of their necks, and with crosses cancelling out the names. I knew what it meant. They had been condemned to be shot to death, and were being displayed around the streets as a warning before their execution the same day. The boards did not list their crimes.
In mid-1975, when I was offered the post of ABC South-East Asia correspondent based in Bangkok to cover the aftermath of the Indochina wars, I accepted. My wife and I took the two-day train journey from Peking to Canton on our way to Hong Kong to catch a jet to the Thai capital. We were saying a lingering farewell to a country and people we both loved very much, unsure if the Chinese government would ever allow us to return.
Paul Raffaele was a co-founder of the ABC Radio current affairs programs AM in September 1967 and PM in July 1969. After leaving the ABC he reported from Asia for US publications until 1988. He then became a foreign correspondent with Reader’s Digest, and in 2004 he joined the Smithsonian magazine, where he worked as a feature writer for five years. This article is his contribution to the book The Beijing Bureau (published by Hardie Grant in April) in which twenty-five Australian foreign correspondents recount their experiences in China