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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Q&A: A Lifetime of Change in Beijing

May 25, 2008

the Lexington Herald-Leader (Kentucky)
May 22, 2008

In preparation for this summer's Olympic Games, I recently interviewed a Chinese-American man who was born in Beijing in the late 1940s. He lived in China until the 1990s, when he immigrated to the United States to work as a teacher at an international school. To protect the anonymity of his family, some of whom still live in China, the interviewee's identity will remain private and some dates have been left purposely vague.

Q: What was it like to be a child in Beijing in the 1950s? What was the government then?
A: The year I was born was a very sensitive time in Chinese history. The communists came to power in China soon after, and the nation became The People's Republic of China. People had different points of view. There were people who supported the nationalist government of Chiang Kaishek, who moved their provincial government to Taiwan before the communists took over. My family was not communist. We were not against the communist government, but certainly, we were not part of it. It was a hard time, because of the war. The Second World War ended in 1945, but fighting continued between China and Japan after Germany surrendered. In China, the communists and nationalists were fighting for a few years after that. So life was hard for people in Beijing.

Q: What was the population of Beijing then?
A: I don't know exactly, but it was a small city. At the time, central Beijing was about five kilometers long and five kilometers wide. That's it! Outside the city walls, there were just farms. Not many people lived outside of Beijing. Life was quiet. People were very friendly, very polite. The city walls stayed until the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. The government pulled down the walls, mostly relics of the Ming era. They filled the river with dirt, and started to build the subway.

Q: When did you move away from Beijing?
A: In the late 1960s. There was a movement to brainwash educated people. So I was sent to Mongolia, inner Mongolia, not the Republic of Mongolia. It's part of China, like a state or province. The government sent me there to get some "reeducation," to be close to the poor farmers. In those years, farmers, peasants or laborers were considered ideal. The educated people were the nationalists. In Mongolia, we had cattle, sheep and horses. I was looking after the sheep for eight years, until the mid-1970s.

Q: When did you finally leave China? Have you been back since?
A: In the 1990s. Yes, I've been back several times.

Q: What is your impression of Beijing now, compared to when you were a child?
A: It's a huge city now. There's a lot more people, my guess is probably 20 million people, more than the official number. Construction is everywhere. It's more polluted. Beijing was quiet, educated and civilized. It was the capital city for many dynasties. It was a college town. The sky was blue and now it is gray. You can smell the gasoline and smoke. It gets worse and worse every year.

Q: When you were a child, did people have cars?
A: Very few people had cars then, only the government officials. There were a few who were very wealthy before the communists took over, who had their own cars. Otherwise, only the very high-ranking officials had cars, not their own, but provided by the government. Now, a lot of people have cars. I have never had a car in China. In Beijing, I always rode a bicycle. It's good exercise and the air quality was better. Beijing was smaller. We don't need a big city like this.

Q: When you were a child, did you ever see people from Europe, the United States or other foreign countries?
A: Not many. I think the first wave of foreigners was after President Nixon visited China in 1972. The Prime Minister of Japan visited about the same time. After Mao died, the open-door policy started. The Chinese government sent some students to study in the United States in the early 1980s.

Q: When you were young, what did people do for fun?
A: We didn't have TV, that's for sure. We had radio. We played sports more than students do now. With the smaller population, the schools had more basketball courts and soccer fields. The students were more well-rounded. We played soccer, basketball, baseball and softball. Right now, the Chinese students are only studying books, not a lot of exercise. There is no space for schools to build courts now. We learned how to sing Chinese folk songs. We didn't know anything about country, jazz or rock though. China and Russia were friends in the 1950s, so I learned a lot of Russian songs.

Q: When you were growing up, did people ever talk about the Olympics or listen to the Olympics on the radio?
A: Yes, the majority of people supported the games. People are patriotic everywhere, right? This is for the country, the nation; it's not for the government. The Chinese people are very patriotic.

Q: It seems like China is very excited about the Olympics this year.
A: The Chinese people don't know a lot about how Western society criticizes the Chinese about human rights, etc. They don't understand or know about it.

Q: What do you think about the situation in Tibet? And the protests in San Francisco and elsewhere?
A: It's a very complicated issue. Overall, Chinese-Americans do not feel comfortable with the protests in San Francisco. The majority support the Chinese government and the Olympics. There are not many Tibetans in the United States now. The media, you guys, you make this small thing a big issue, and most Americans follow the media; they don't have a brain. If you study the history of China and Tibet, you'll find that Tibet never had a formal relationship, no diplomatic relations, with any other country except China. The Dalai Lama is a religious title, but the religion and state were combined in Tibet, and this title was recognized by the Qing dynasty and the Chinese emperor over a hundred years ago. How many people in the United States know about that?

Q: So you think the United States' media is not doing enough background research?
A: They don't want to do that. They want it to be sensational. They are not scholars. I'm sorry. China needs to be stable. I don't like the Chinese government, but they try everything to make the country look good right now. They don't want to make anything bad, like Tiananmen Square in 1989. I don't oppose the Tibetan people or the Dalai Lama, but a few people want to make the Chinese government look bad right now. At this time, the government does not want to do anything to make themselves look bad. The last time there was a real conflict between the Chinese government and Tibet was 1959. That's history already. The Dalai Lama and his party were slave owners then. They were extremely wealthy, they had power. The majority of the Tibetan people were slaves. I am anti-communism, but we need to be objective.

Q: Do you think there will be protests in Beijing during the Olympics?
A: It's very hard to predict. I know the Chinese people want the Olympic Games to be successful. Personally, I think the Olympics is killing my hometown, but as a Chinese person, I don't want to see any embarrassment.

Q: Why do you say the Olympics are ruining your hometown?
A: The construction. It was a quiet, beautiful city. Beijing was one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It was unique with big palaces and large gardens. Historic, irreplaceable architecture has been torn down. Now there are rings of roads surrounding the city. That's why I no longer like my hometown, but not many people have this feeling. I don't want China to grow too fast. I don't want to see inflation. I don't want to see the pollution.

Q: How does Beijing compare to most major international cities? Are there a variety of restaurants?
A: Yes, there is a variety of foods. You can find Italian, French, Greek or Russian food, but the majority of restaurants are Chinese. McDonald's is there, of course, and Pizza Hut. McDonald's makes a lot of money there, because of the population. If one Chinese person buys one hamburger, that's a lot of burgers sold.

Q: Are many people in Beijing religious?
A: The Chinese people, overall, are not very religious. Christianity is not very new. Catholic priests came to China from Italy in the 16th century. In the last 200 years, both Catholic and Protestant churches have grown. In China, there are two types of Buddhists. One type is the Buddhist monks. They don't get married. They don't eat meat, only vegetables. There are a very small number of Buddhist monks. A lot of people claim they are Buddhists, even though they don't go to the Buddhist temple, they don't practice.

Q: Are the Chinese people still concerned about government censorship or control of the media? Do people have full Internet access?
A: The Chinese people are pretty open now. They can talk openly. But they are still very cautious when talking to Western journalists. I've never used the Internet in China, but I hear there is censorship of some sites by the government. I have quite a few close friends in the United States who talk to their friends in China online.

Q: What do you think the future holds for Beijing?
A: It will become more open and more Western, but there are many downsides: the construction, pollution, less forests and farmland. China has a huge population, so it imports a lot of wheat, corn and soybeans from Canada, Australia and the United States. China was an agricultural society. If I had power, I would suggest that we stop this. We need to support ourselves. The price of wheat is going up, and China relies on it, which is making the price of Chinese food go up dramatically. The government knows the problems. They should do more prevention. Why do we invite Ford and Buick to build car factories in China? If I was in charge, I would stop this.

Q: Is there still a problem with overpopulation? Is there still a rule that you can only have one child?
A: I've heard you can have a second child in the rural areas without consequences. Most of my friends just have one child.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to tell Americans as they watch the Olympics?
A: I hope that in this country, people will be more open-mined. It's hard to be Chinese in the United States. People should be more fair to other cultures and not jump to conclusions. I don't think the Tibetan issue is very big in China. It's more in the media here. I think most Tibetans are satisfied with their lives now.

Alex Marsh is a content producer at McClatchy Interactive. Send feedback to him at
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