issue 170 - April 1987
Illustration: Clive Offley
Ghettoblasters and foreign devils
Students recently took to the streets to demand more openness to the West
and were first encouraged, then attacked. This is nothing new. China has always
been confused about how much Western influence is healthy,
as Canadian teacher Jay Lawrence discovered.
In November 1983, I had been teaching English in Beijing for two months when we foreign teachers began to hear rumours about a Government campaign against something called 'cultural pollution'.
As I turned the corner in the chilly cement corridor of my office building, I saw my interpreter pacing up and down before my door. He looked nervous. 'There's a meeting this afternoon at two o'clock.' he said.
'But I have a class to teach then,' I protested.
'It doesn't matter.' he replied. 'All the foreign teachers will attend.'
At two o'clock 14 teachers from Britain, Canada, the US, France, West Germany, Peru and Japan were seated in the red-carpeted reception room. At the head of the table sat the Vice-President of the Institute, Mr Zhang. Before the Cultural Revolution he had been a member of China's UNESCO delegation in Paris. His English was impeccable. After a formal 'welcome to our foreign friends', he reviewed the notes in his hand and began a prepared talk.
'Students in institutes like ours learn foreign languages to help modernize our country. Recently our leadership has been considering how to keep unhealthy influences from coming into our country along with the foreign technology we import. The Government has issued a directive on this subject.'
But what constituted cultural pollution? And what did the Government intend to do about this pollution? In fact, though a Party member for 30 years, Mr Zhang told us that he didn't know. He and the other Party members at his level were still studying the Central Committee's directive in order to understand it better. Meanwhile, he told us not to teach anything pornographic, nor anything that advocated religion. Films we showed the students should not have content in conflict with the Chinese Government's policies. Literature we taught should not disregard class distinctions, he said; it should advocate proletarian humanism.
When there were no more questions, he concluded by saying that China was not going to close its door to foreign countries as part of the drive to eliminate unhealthy cultural influences. Most foreigners, he said, would agree with the objectives of this campaign. China was still ready to use anything good from the West, putting into practice Comrade Mao Zedong's saying, 'Make the past serve the present, make foreign things serve China.' To help build a strong China would benefit the whole world and so he was confident, he said, that we would all co-operate with the Party's efforts to sweep away cultural pollution.
At this point Mr Zhang said, 'I think you should relax and have some cakes and tea.' The cakes, for our meeting on cultural pollution, were French pastries.
I could easily imagine Mr Zhang in his Paris days, strolling the halls of the Louvre in the all-wool gaberdine Chairman Mao jacket he was wearing. How did he feel about telling us that our foreign culture was poison? I could not tell. Beneath glasses that flashed with the reflection of the ceiling lights and hid his eyes, his mouth wore a broad smile, stiff as a mask.
The next morning I took some stories to the English department secretary, Mr Zhou, to have them typed up and run off for my students. Mr Zhou was a gnarled little man of about 55 with a raspy, raucous voice and the only staff member I really trusted. He told me that I could not just have my teaching materials run off any more. There was a new regulation: any material I wanted to teach had to be approved first by Mr Wu, the teacher in charge of student affairs for my class.
It took Mr Wu two weeks to return the first set of material I gave him for approval. He refused to let me teach five pieces out of six. Three of the victims were stories by Alice Munro. This, he said, was because he had read that Alice Munro's writing resembled DH Lawrence's. The fourth story he censored was one by Canada's beloved humorist Stephen Leacock. When I asked Mr Wu to explain what he had found wrong with the story he leaned towards me, the smile gone from his face. He pointed to the page where the story's lovelorn hero Peter Pupkin contemplates throwing himself in front of an express train but gives up the idea because he can't tell an express train from a local. 'This story talks about suicide,' said Mr Wu earnestly. 'We don't want our students to read about things like that.' The students whom Mr Wu was protecting averaged 30 years of age; most of them had been sent to the countryside at the age of 15, during the Cultural Revolution, to be made into farm labourers.
The last piece Mr Wu wouldn't let me teach was John Kennedy's Inaugural Address. 'This is a problem,' he said, pointing to the passage where Kennedy talks about the 'iron tyranny of communism.'
'All right,' I said, 'let's cut that passage out.'
'Well, no. You see, Kennedy said in the speech he would help countries in Asia, but then he started the Vietnam War. So that wasn't what he really meant. I'm afraid we can't let the students study this.'
I told Mr Wu that I had left America because of the Vietnam War, that I planned to teach the speech as a document of US cultural imperialism, but he was unmoveable. I don't know what Mr Wu suffered during the Cultural Revolution, but he obviously did not intend to suffer it again for the sake of anything I wanted to teach his class.
Just after this our students were to be directed in a Western play - Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth. At the end the cast was to come downstage singing Silent Night. But the day after he viewed rehearsals Mr Zhang sent the message 'Change the song to Jingle Bells.' He evidently feared the ramifications of his students singing Christian hymns in public.
For a time it seemed that the campaign was aimed not merely at certain foreign ideas and values, but at anything foreign. I took a trip one weekend to Luoyang, in Henan Province, 400 miles south of Beijing. On the train, loudspeakers in each car blared, 'Everyone hates cultural pollution!' When I arrived in the city, I found it alive with demonstrations and posters. Up and down the main streets drove trucks with loudspeakers playing traditional Chinese music. On street corners were billboards and chalk drawings denouncing and ridiculing the craze for Western music and fashion. The biggest displays were mounted in the places where foreigners would be the most numerous, the tourist attractions.
On the road along the banks of the Yi River, beneath the gaze of the 56-foot Tang Dynasty Buddha, where French tourists were snapping pictures, there suddenly appeared a quarter-mile long parade of school children, marching in brigades. Each brigade had a nine-year-old leader who every 50 feet would raise a coloured banner and shout 'Sweep away cultural pollution!' Then all the other children would raise their banners in unison and shout 'Sweep away cultural pollution!'
At the White Horse Temple, beside Buddhist monks irrigating their fields, stood pastel chalkboard posters. These showed young men in bell-bottomed trousers (the latest Western fashion to hit China) and snakes around their necks in a parody of Western neckties. In one hand they held books entitled Garbage while the other held ghettoblasters to their ears. Riding on a crowded bus past another such display, a little girl in the seat in front of me, not more than five years old, turned from the posters to her mother and sang 'cultural pollution, cultural pollution!'
What made the campaign so frightening was that nobody knew just what it condemned. No one knew which of their works, which of their thoughts might bring criticism, arrest, jail. Mr Zhang himself didn't know at the start of the campaign, and as time went on the Party's announcements became more and more confusing. Mr Zhang had warned us not to teach books about religion. A week later Premier Zhao Ziyang, welcoming the Archbishop of Canterbury to Beijing, stated that the cultural pollution campaign had nothing to do with religion. Mr Zhang had said the campaign opposed obscene, superstitious theatricals among the peasants. Two weeks later the Party announced that the campaign would be confined to the cities, since the peasants had no contact with foreigners.
Were so many contradictory announcements part of the Party's strategy to keep the people confused and easier to manipulate? They must know what their campaign is about, I said to myself. But then why didn't they spell out what they wanted people to stop doing? The rulers of one quarter of the world's population would not begin a campaign without knowing what they were starting it for, would they?
Of the Chinese people I knew best, my students, many reacted with fear. One was telling me one afternoon of the breakup of her marriage. 'No one knows what I have suffered,' she said. 'But God sees everything.' She stopped. 'Maybe religion is cultural pollution,' she said. 'If they knew what I just said, they might punish me. My father was in prison during the anti-rightist campaign because he was a businessman. I must be careful.'
I hated Vice-President Zhang. In my mind he stood for the whole campaign. I despised him for his underhanded censorship of our work, giving us cakes and tea and asking for our co-operation, then setting people to inspect every book we used. This was the real China, I thought. This is what the students live through every day: someone looking over their shoulders at everything they do. I assumed Mr Zhang and the other Party members like him were all keen about the campaign. They were acting the way right wingers say communists act.
Then one day I came to Mr Zhou the secretary's office to reschedule a class. I began to complain about all the censorship the administration had put on me.
'A foreigner cannot understand what is happening in China now. We all hate this campaign,' Mr. Zhou said emphatically.
'You mean you hate it,' I said.
'No, all! Chairman Du, Vice-President Zhang, all! They fear this campaign!'
'You mean they're afraid they'll get into trouble?' I asked, remembering how nervous they had been about our showing plays.
'You don't understand,' Mr Zhou snapped. 'They fear what it means for the future.'
'Maybe some ordinary teachers hate the campaign. But how can you say the Party members here at this Institute hate it? They censor the books I teach, they censor the films I show. What more could they do to make it work?'
'They hate it, I tell you,' he shouted at me. 'You don't know. I know. This campaign would take away from them all the new things they prize so highly. Zhang, Du, they love talking to foreigners, sending their children to study in America - this campaign would take all that away!'
A week after this conversation the cultural pollution campaign was dead. Deng Xiaoping said in the Chinese press that cultural pollution was a subject that need no longer be discussed.
One student told me that the campaign failed because the Chinese public was afraid it would turn into a second cultural revolution, and so refused to co-operate by denouncing known cultural polluters. Deng Xiaoping said the campaign was ended because it had fulfilled all its objectives and the problems it was aimed at eliminating had been eliminated. A Communist Party member I met told me that Deng Xiaoping had intended the campaign to fail from the start, in order to discredit left wingers inside the party like Propaganda Minister Deng Liqun, who had initiated the campaign.
Ideologically the campaign had never made sense. Its objectives changed weekly. Perhaps it made sense as a power struggle between the opposing wings of the party over the new economic policies. But all I could see from my office on the outskirts of Beijing were distant puffs of smoke from the battlefield. To me, an English teacher at a small language institute, the world of Chinese politics seemed a baffling universe. A campaign appeared, slogans were shouted, then the campaign melted away, the blaring press fell silent, and everything was as if the campaign had never been. There was no explanation. It just happened.
Mr Zhou had his own interpretation: 'This campaign could not work,' he cackled. 'China is polluted already. Zhang, Du, all the Zhangs and Dus, they are in love with this pollution.'
It was November 1984, a year after the death of the cultural pollution campaign. People's Daily had just published an article saying that disco was healthy, another that Marxism was not a doctrine to be followed blindly but a creative process. Chinese TV had just showed the Russian movie Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears complete with brief nude scenes. My friend Bill Goede's band was planning the first rock tour in China's history. Everywhere on the streets of Beijing I saw long-haired young men dressed like the young man on the poster in Luoyang, but with real polyester cravats around their necks instead of snakes.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7