China rewind

By Liu Heung Shing. Excerpt from the book 'China. Portrait of a Country'

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An Unsettled Childhood

I was born at the dawn of the People's Republic in Hong Kong, which was then still under British rule. This was not the place in which I passed my formative years. That was to be China, for my parents sent me back to the Mainland in the early 1950s, not much more than a mere toddler, whose first hours of "play"were devoted to participating in the Destroy Four Pests campaign aimed at ridding the country of enemies of the food chain. Initially, the four pests were defined as being rats, sparrows, mosquitoes and flies. Later, it was realized that sparrows ate worms and, therefore, were not a pest. As a consequence, the sparrow was replaced by the flea. The People's Daily reported that on April 19th, 1958, three million Beijing residents had spent the entire day catching 83,249 sparrows. At the time of this national folly, it was suggested that four sparrows would consume sixteen ounces of grain, which was equal to one person's daily food ration. This was a major part of my primary school education. I regularly turned in my homework - matchboxes brimming with mosquitoes and flies that I killed with vigorous diligence, though I only caught a couple of sparrows - but no matter how much effort I expended, the grade I was awarded for "political behavior"was rarely higher than "C". The Destroy Four Pests campaign turned out to be a disguise to turn people's attention away from severe food shortages.

In 1960, as the situation grew worse in the wake of the miserable failure of the Great Leap Forward,my father arranged for me to return to Hong Kong. China was in the throes of a three-year famine (1960-1962) in which 30 million people reportedly died of hunger.

Back in Hong Kong, I studied English and learned local Cantonese dialect and during the summer breaks,my father taught me how to translate Associated Press (AP) and Reuters English wire stories into Chinese. As the foreign editor of international news of Ta Kung Pao, a Beijing supported daily newspaper, he would come home venting his frustrations, such as when Beijing censored the story that the American astronauts had landed on the moon!

Time Out of Asia: Start of a New Life

In 1970, I left Hong Kong to study in the US, choosing to major in political science at Hunter College in New York. In the final year of my studies I took a course in photography with famed Life Magazine photographer Gjon Mili. This one semester was to shape the rest of my life: upon graduation, I followed Mili and took an internship at Life Magazine. This put me in the right place, at the right time, for following the normalization of Sino-American diplomatic relations. In 1979 I was given an assignment in China which made me the first Chinese foreign correspondent to be sent to Beijing by Time Magazine, and later I joined the Associated Press.

My work as a photojournalist for the AP resulted in many relocations: China, the Unites States, India, South Korea, and the former Soviet Union. As I moved from country to country,my childhood experience in the People's Republic continued to loom large. I found myself comparing the poverty of India with that of China; the pragmatism of Chinese Communism with the political idealism of Russian Communism under Mikhail Gorbachev; and latterly (after moving back to Beijing in 1997), how overseas Chinese businessmen compared with the emergent generation of red capitalists in China. As a photojournalist, I would compare notes about Chinese politics with my fellow American reporters; all the while alert to the fact that China did not fit in with the reporting agenda of American newspapers. It seemed that many of my western colleagues ended their own tours in China saddened and disappointed, perhaps it was the accumulated experience of the difficulties in daily reporting that they encountered, and the fact that China defies western generalization. Former British ambassador to China, Sir Percy Craddock, commented in his memoirs: "China-watching is an acquired taste, much of it is bitter."
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Two young school children in a school in Shanghai perform a skit denouncing Madam Mao, Jiang Qing, after the arrest of the Gang of Four, 1977. The so-called Gang of Four for which Madam Mao was allegedly the leader represented the ultra leftist ideologues in the Chinese Communist Party. Photo (c) Liu Heung Shing
Senior leader Yu Ping is denounced by a fanatical worker at a session in Liaoning to humiliate officials overthrown by factions loyal to Mao. Yu Ping, one time secretary of Liaoning Provincial Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, was ousted at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, and then denounced. The sign hanging round his neck reads "Yu Ping, diehard capitalist-roader". He survived the Cultural Revolution, and may have had some satisfaction from being appointed a member of the jury in the trial of the "Gang of Four". He died in 1995. Photo (c) Jiang Shaowu, 1966