No More Utopias

By Gail PellettMarch 3, 2017

No More Utopias

Foreigners Under Mao by Beverley Hooper

I BROKE OUT laughing the other day when I checked my Twitter feed and found that some American expats in China were planning to pack up and go home because Xi Jinping was making it harder for them to get around the internet firewall with VPNs. Their main concern with Xi’s move? It would cut off their link to family, friends, and social media in the West.

These tweets reminded me of what it was like to live in Beijing in 1980 when I had access to two landlines — one located in the hallway of the building where I lived and another in the large offices of Radio Beijing. They hardly ever worked. You had to dial multiple times to make a connection and even then might not get through. If you were successful, you had to yell to be heard (obliterating any shred of privacy) and put up with clicking sounds that meant the line was bugged. I made exactly two calls “back home” to North America that year.

I also worked on a standard (non-electric) typewriter, used a ballpoint pen, and sharpened my pencil with a knife. There was no access to a copier. Occasionally, issues of Newsweek would be available at the Beijing Hotel, although they were very expensive. Chinese TV was at a formative stage. I did own a little short-wave radio that let me hum and buzz into Voice of America, the BBC, and Soviet Radio along with dozens of other crackling stations around the globe.

China has changed radically since 1980, of course. Many millions there now live comfortable, middle-class, digital lives. Hundreds of thousands of expats hold various kinds of employment in China, compared to the few dozen during the 1970s and early ’80s who all worked for the only company in the country, the Chinese government. But who cares now what the Western experience in China was like before privileged kids in the West had access to well-endowed Asian Studies departments, including language programs subsidized by the Chinese government, then got jobs with multinational firms who paid their way to China’s big cities, where they could enjoy a thriving nightlife and a cornucopia of mass-media entertainment?

Perhaps we should care given the rise of a leader in the United States who seems bent on ideological control and authoritarian decision-making — and who is being compared to the paranoid Mao Zedong while at the same time threatening our relationship with China. There might be some lessons to take from a reflection on modern Chinese history, and thus Beverley Hooper’s Foreigners Under Mao: Western Lives in China 1949–1976 arrives at a convenient moment.

From the mid-1800s through World War II, Britain, France, and the United States dominated the scene in China, gaining colonial footholds and establishing Treaty Port enclaves where bourgeois communities could go on with their business while the surrounding country imploded. World War II shattered Euro-American complacency, however, and following the Communist Party victory in 1949, Western companies fled. As a result, in Hooper’s words, “little remained of more than a century of Western business and missionary activity in China.” During the 27 years of the Mao era, entry to China was tightly controlled. Of the sprinkling of Westerners living there, most were limited to residence in Peking. (Hooper uses “Peking” rather than “Beijing” because that was the standard English-language romanization for the capital during the Mao era.) Britain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian countries were the only Western nations to acknowledge the new government. They would be joined by France in 1964 and Canada in 1970–’71. The United States did not recognize the People’s Republic until 1979, three years after Mao’s death.

Once in power, the Communist Party banned Western news organizations, only permitting reporters from the Eastern bloc, including the Soviet news agency TASS, and occasional sympathetic journalists from the West like Agnes Smedley, Edgar Snow, and Anna Louise Strong. Eventually a Reuters bureau opened in 1956. An Agence France-Presse reporter was permitted early entry, then expelled in 1957 for harboring a Chinese woman labeled a “rightist.” Toronto’s Globe and Mail and the German Deutsche Presse Agentur opened offices in 1964. And although Western press representation expanded gradually during the 1970s, along with an increasing diplomatic presence, the press corps never amounted to more than 20 people in the country at any one time. The American press didn’t gain entry until 1979 when the US embassy opened. During the Mao era (1949–’76) and into the 1980s, Western journalists had little or no access to Chinese officials or ordinary people and received virtually no information beyond official government news releases.

Mao’s governing team initially welcomed Soviet and Eastern European “experts” to help them build a New China. By the mid-’50s, these foreign professionals numbered close to 10,000, influencing everything from agriculture and industry to education and culture. But within a few years, the Sino-Soviet conflict forced these people to pack up and head home. That’s when the Chinese government began looking to Europe and Great Britain for foreign-language teachers and “polishers” for its propaganda outlets.

Hooper’s book describes the Mao-era experiences of that tiny community of Western diplomats, journalists, foreign experts, and students — along with a very special cohort, the “long-term friends of China,” consisting mostly of Americans and a few Brits who saw the Chinese Communist Party as the bright hope for a socialist future. They were mostly middle-class professionals: doctors, lawyers, journalists, economists, and teachers. “In the West,” Hooper claims, “they were viewed at best as misguided ‘commies,’ at worst as Cold War traitors to their home countries and the ‘free world.’” To Western diplomats and correspondents, “who rarely if ever saw them,” they were referred to as “the renegades,” “the misanthropes,” or “the malcontents.”

Whether diplomats, foreign experts, or correspondents, the complaints were the same — isolation and insulation. Their privileged segregation included higher salaries, better housing and transportation, and access to special stores where only foreigners and high cadres could shop. There were very strict controls on where foreigners could live. Most foreign experts were housed in Peking’s infamous Friendship Hotel, a neighborhood unto itself, otherwise known as the “golden ghetto.” There were restrictions on how far foreigners could travel from the center of Peking — not beyond a 20-kilometer radius. Special permission was required to travel anywhere and this always involved supervision. Some regions were definitely out of bounds.

But the real existential torment came from regulations that forbade authentic contact with the Chinese. Any work relationships were formal and tightly controlled. Foreign experts and students had minders — or “shadows,” a term borrowed from Simon Leys’s 1974 book Chinese Shadows — who, while supposed to be translators or fixers, were also reporting on foreigners’ everyday lives and their comments, movement, and associations. Plus, says Hooper, there was “official pressure exerted on the local population not to associate with foreigners.” (The complaints of foreigners carried over into the post-Mao era as well, as I show in my own book about my experiences as a foreign expert at Radio Beijing, Forbidden Fruit — 1980 Beijing.)

Mistrust was an element of the culture of New China from the beginning, affecting not only Chinese attitudes to foreigners, but also to each other. This led to disastrous betrayals in Mao’s various “purification” movements. The mistrust of — and occasional outright hostility to — Westerners, Hooper argues, was rooted in how the Chinese viewed the behavior of Western countries during the previous century of imperialist aggression and national humiliation. These attitudes continue to influence China’s views of the West today.

Hooper claims that the greatest hostility was directed at Western diplomats. She devotes long passages to stories and interviews with the diplomatic corps, especially the British and French, perhaps because they were more forthcoming than other Westerners or perhaps because she once worked in the Australian diplomatic corps in the Soviet Union. Peking’s diplomats had always led a sequestered life, even before the Mao era, with “social life revolving around dinner parties, tennis tournaments and picnics.” During the Mao period, their apartments still “had all the Western trappings,” with regular feasts and alcohol supplied by flights from Hong Kong. This was still the case in 1980 when I lived in China.

Diplomats, whose whole rationale for existence is based on making personal connections in another country and culture, were stifled in those efforts after 1949. As one Western official said, “One longs for an hour’s personal chat with a Chinese poet or historian, a painter or a composer.” If there was any such contact, there was always a “shadow” at your elbow or else that person was asked to report to Chinese officials. One British diplomat described their situation as a “luxe leper’s colony.” The lively stories that Hooper recounts of diplomats living in a privileged yet hostile bubble detail how the degree of animosity from the Chinese waxed and waned depending on the political movements of the moment. From the “hysterical anti-Western atmosphere of the Korean War” to the Great Leap Forward when the diplomatic corps — and long-term foreign friends along with short-term experts — were isolated from the devastating famine surrounding them.

With the launching of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, foreigners became easy targets. On August 20, 1967, Red Guards ransacked and torched the British diplomatic mission and attacked members of the corps. One office worker reported, “We were hauled by our hair, half-strangled with our ties, kicked and beaten on the head with bamboo poles.” Eventually soldiers rescued the staff. The incident was fueled by Red Guard anger over Britain’s behavior in Hong Kong, which had involved the suppression of leftist demonstrations and the detaining of a reporter from China’s state news service, Xinhua.

But even the “long-term friends of China” — mostly communists and socialists — were rounded up and imprisoned after Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, said, “We must watch out for foreign spies.” Some of these “true believers” had been in China since the 1930s. Others arrived in the mid-’50s, fleeing McCarthyism in the United States. Many of these “China Hands” were kept under house arrest for years, while others were kept in solitary confinement in Peking’s Qincheng Prison. The longest prison sentence was handed out to an American, Sidney Rittenberg, who had become too involved with the political factions at Radio Peking, even taking over the leadership briefly before being sent to jail for 10 years, his second prison sentence since devoting his life to New China in 1949.

When I worked in China, I met some of the “long-term friends” in a political study group I was encouraged to attend along with other foreign experts. One of the roles of the “China Hands” was to interpret and transmit government policies to the foreign newcomers. A tormenting question from the start was how this group of highly intelligent people could keep defending a system that had persecuted them along with millions of others. In 1980, some of them seemed more concerned with Deng Xiaoping’s capitalist-leaning economic policies than with the devastation of people’s lives and family relationships caused by the Cultural Revolution and other political campaigns orchestrated by Mao. Others seemed ready to switch allegiances with ease from one campaign (Mao’s Cultural Revolution) to another (Deng Xiaoping’s “Opening and Reform”). Was this all a survival mechanism, since it would be so difficult to return to their home countries at their mature ages? Was it distrust of confiding in a foreign newcomer like me, who might really be a Western spy? Knowing the extraordinary work some of them had done creating a Chinese-English dictionary, translating Chinese classical literature, along with the works of Mao, I struggled to understand their predicament and loyalties, their choices and commitments.

By the early 1970s, some of those “long-term China friends” were out of jail and back at work. But foreign journalists were still frustrated in their efforts to report on what was going on. They continued to have little or no access to cover anything that wasn’t on a Xinhua Daily News Release in English. During the Cultural Revolution they had no contacts whatsoever. It was also difficult to get permission to travel outside Peking. Consequently, the images the world saw of China were presented through government agencies. In addition to Xinhua, there was Radio Peking (roughly equivalent to the Voice of America) and various foreign-language publications, like China Reconstructs.

Hooper reminds us that “[a]t the heart of the correspondent experience were fundamentally opposing concepts — the Western view of the media as informative and investigative vs. the PRC view that its role was to advance Communist Party interests.” She quotes Mao in 1948: “The role and power of newspapers […] was their ability to bring the Party program, the Party line, the Party’s general and specific policies, its tasks and methods of work before the masses in the quickest and most extensive way.” Chinese government officials could never wrap their minds around the idea that Western journalists did not work for their government.

Shocking as this may be today, in the 1960s all four Western correspondents working from Peking did not read or speak Chinese. As Hooper comments, “even if you had the language you were isolated and had little access to anyone in government and no permission to talk to anyone else.” This forbidding “wall” did, however, push correspondents into relationships with Western diplomats in order to trade tidbits of information. This only fueled the suspicion of the Chinese, who believed Western reporters were spies.

In the mid-’70s, Toronto Globe and Mail’s correspondent, Ross Munro, was expelled after writing about:

extreme control exercised by the danwei (work unit) over people’s everyday lives, which included not being allowed to choose one’s own job or to travel without official permission. he also wrote about the lack of a code of law, about executions for political beliefs and the continued discrimination against people because of their bad class background.

If you look at Munro’s website today, you will find that his associations are with the Center for Security Studies, the National Intelligence Council, and the US Department of Defense. These kinds of connections might — and I only say might — mean that the Chinese had some cause to link journalists with government intelligence operations. Hooper never questions the possibility of a dual role among Western journalists beyond trading thoughts with diplomats. On the lighter side, the real problem for correspondents, from 1949 until the early ’80s, was that Peking was a one-bar town!

Nobody other than specialists thinks much about the Sino-Soviet split these days, but it was a traumatic period in China for those long-term foreign friends and experts recruited by Communist Parties across Western Europe, who mostly sided with the Soviet Union following Khrushchev’s revelations of Stalin’s purges. Mao continued to defend Stalin. His giant image was still up over Tiananmen Square when I arrived in August 1980. By October, as Deng Xiaoping was consolidating power, it came down, along with the images of Marx and Engels. Only Mao’s remained.

During the 1970s, those European “foreign experts” attracted to work in China as teachers and polishers for two-year contracts ranged from being “committed Maoists to apolitical Chinese cultural enthusiasts” — untroubled, I suppose, by Mao’s defense of Stalin. I only wish that Hooper had included a broader range of “foreign experts” than the narrow English- and French-speaking ones she covers. During the Mao years, China also took in political exiles from South Asian countries fleeing persecution back home, like my Filipino neighbors at Radio Beijing. China also harbored exiles from Turkey, Pakistan, Chile, and Argentina. But things could get dicey for those people when China’s anti-Soviet policy led it to support governments like Pinochet’s in Chile or some military coup leader elsewhere.

All these foreign experts worked inside Chinese institutions — universities or the foreign-language press, magazines, Xinhua news service, or Radio Peking. The work of these temporary experts, like that of the “long-term friends,” was seen as an important part of the propaganda agenda for the PRC — what they called “friendship diplomacy.” During the Mao era, the qualifications of these “experts” were politically determined — it was better to be “red” than “expert.” (In Radio Beijing’s English Department, I was the first experienced broadcast journalist to be hired in the 40-year history of that institution.)

To rationalize this policy of “politics in command,” the Chinese again drew on the long history of Westerners’ efforts to modernize China. Western military personnel, economic advisors, educators, doctors, and engineers who went to China in the 19th and early 20th centuries usually approached the country from a “standpoint of superiority” and wanted to change China along Western lines. Hooper quotes Jonathan Spence from his 1969 book To Change China: Western Advisers in China: “Even if some Chinese welcomed them warmly, there were always more who met them with indifference, deception or hostility.”

“Politics in command,” throughout the Mao era, meant that everyone from diplomats to foreign experts, from the long-term friends to correspondents and students on the new 1970s exchange programs, “whatever their political views and role in China[,] shared the experience of being ‘managed’ by the state. […] CCP media policy directed at controlling all information published in and about the PRC.” Certainly the banning of personal relationships with the Chinese was the most devastating for all Westerners living in China during the Mao era and even for some years beyond. Not until 1983 did the government pass a law permitting Chinese people to marry foreigners.

So what can these experiences teach us about present-day realities in China and the United States? Hooper’s book provides insight into the mutual frustrations and the consequences of mistrust caused by efforts at state control over information and over natural relationships between people. It is a tale of isolation, ignorance, and misunderstanding. But we also need to examine and acknowledge the history of US propaganda in major news outlets — during the Chinese Civil War, the McCarthy era, and the long Cold War. I had hoped for more of that in Hooper’s book.

We have to ask what Western countries would have done had they known the real facts of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution when they were happening? If journalists had access to reporting on these events in real time, would foreign experts or students still have gone to work and study in China? Perhaps.

For US citizens facing a new president who seems intent on wrapping himself in dictatorial powers, the vision of China during the Mao years acts as a cautionary tale. As President Trump reaches out to flirt with Taiwan and challenges the Chinese in the South Seas, he may wish to remember how that kind of belligerent foreign policy played out in the past for US diplomats and journalists.

But there are other reasons to consider the experiences of Westerners in China as outlined in this book, and that has to do with political utopias. For those of us who have longed for an alternative to the economic injustices of a voracious capitalism, the real intrigue in this book has to do with the “long-term friends of China,” those “true believers” who arose out of the tough realities of the Depression, the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and McCarthyism to see hope in an agrarian revolution that promised an egalitarian future for millions of poor people in Asia. Where are these political utopias now?


Gail Pellett is the writer, director, and producer of award-winning TV and radio documentaries and the author of Forbidden Fruit — 1980 Beijing, a Memoir.

LARB Contributor

Gail Pellett is author of Forbidden Fruit—1980 Beijing, a Memoir. She is also a writer, director, and producer of award-winning TV and radio documentaries for PBS, NPR, NBC, and CBC as well as WBCN-FM/Boston and Pacifica Radio (NYC & Berkeley). Her articles have appeared in the Washington Post MagazineMother Jones, Village Voice, Truthout, Common DreamsMoyers Media3 Quarks Daily and the Trans-Asia Photography Review. Archival website: and author’s site:


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