In 1969 I was finally able to see the China of my imagination, and to use Mandarin in an environment where it was the national language. I crossed into China from Hong Kong at the Lowu bridge near a small village called Shen Zhen. From the waiting room of the train station I could just make out the rows of low traditional peasant houses behind the posters with slogans exhorting the people to greater revolutionary efforts. Today, this quiet village has become one of the largest cities in China, a vast urban sprawl of modern skyscrapers and thriving capitalism, and a leader in high tech, fashion and more.
As a foreigner, I was automatically seated in the soft seat section on the train to Canton (today’s Guangzhou). This entitled me to a cup of flower tea, which was regularly refreshed with more hot water by an attendant as the train rode through Southern Guangdong Province with its hills of red earth and green rice fields. I strained to listen to the constant political messages being broadcast on the train’s public address system.
In Canton I stayed at the Dong Fang Hotel, a Soviet style hotel which accommodated the European and North American businessmen. The Japanese and Overseas Chinese stayed elsewhere, according to the arrangements of the Chinese authorities.
China was caught up in the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. Early every morning the guests of the Dong Fang Hotel were wakened to the stirring strains of Chinese revolutionary and patriotic music. The walls of the city were covered in slogans. The air of this southern city was heavy with warm humidity and tension. Military personnel were in evidence everywhere.
To a foreigner visiting for a short period, Canton seemed pleasant. There was very little traffic. The semi-tropical vegetation of Canton’s many parks was lush and green. The pace of life appeared leisurely, especially when compared to the hustle of Hong Kong. In addition, the legendary cuisine of Canton
did not disappoint. There was a selection of excellent restaurants at reasonable prices. Still, it was impossible not to notice the mood of tension and discouragement among many of the people.
Being a foreign diplomat, I was assigned a guide from the China Travel Service whose duty it was to keep an eye on me. We spoke in Chinese and exchanged views on many subjects. One day I asked him how he put up with the constant barrage of slogans. My guide, a product of Mao’s China and obviously security-cleared to guide foreign diplomats replied, “It is like Dr. Goebbels said in the Second World War. If you tell a lie a thousand times, it becomes the truth!”
So much for stereotypes! Far from accepting all the propaganda, this person was well read and had an opinion of his own. I was amazed!
Throughout 1969 and 1970 I was a regular visitor to the Canton International Trade Fair in my capacity as a Trade Commissioner. I was there to help Canadian businessmen in their discussions with the representatives of Chinese trading corporations. During the Cultural Revolution, the discussion was about politics as much as it was about business, much to the frustration of visiting Canadians. I tried to understand what was really going on in China but it was rather difficult. I was often invited to various presentations of the latest showing of Chinese Revolutionary Opera, revised and approved for its ideological content by Jiang Qing (Chairman Mao’s wife), leader of the Gang of Four who ran China in those days.
Around that time, Canada was involved in negotiations with China to establish diplomatic relations.