Books: Flying Visits: Mrs T. in China - 2 : The Great Leap Homeward |
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Mrs T. in China - 2 : The Great Leap Homeward

Her negotiations in Peking for the nonce complete, the Dragon Lady flew south towards Shanghai, altering her image in mid-air, as dragons are wont to do. For the purpose of hard bargaining with the Chinese political leaders she had been the Woman of Jade, a material so tough that it was not until the period of the Warring States that the tools were discovered which could make it fully workable into such treasurable artefacts as the pi disc. But now her purpose was to spread enlightenment, so she took on the aspect of the Woman of Science, Yin Sage of the Book of Changes, Adept of the sixty-four Symbolic Hexagrams, and regular reader of the New Scientist. Corralled into the back end of her winged conveyance, the British Media, showing distinct signs of wear, resigned themselves to yet another punishing schedule.

The Yin Sage arrived in Shanghai to find herself lunching with the omnipresent Hong Kong shipping magnate Sir Y.K. Pao, a sort of soy-sauce Onassis. The Chinese need Powie to build ships, but unfortunately for them Powie’s expertise comes accompanied by his personality. Powie puts on a show of dynamism that makes Jimmy Goldsmith seem like a Taoist contemplative. As an old pal of the British Prime Minister, Powie was well placed to make her visit look like an occasion for which he had helped grease the wheels.

The PM’s advisers must have realised that it was enough for her to be representing democracy without also representing capitalism in one of its more unpalatably flagrant forms, because the bleary-eyed British Media were eventually allowed to get the impression that Powie’s knighthood did not, in HMG’s view, necessarily entitle him to behave as if he were carrying ambassadorial credentials to the Far East. But for the moment Powie was at the controls and hustling full blast. He had a new ship all set to be launched and there were no prizes for guessing who would swing the bottle.

After the big lunch, the big launch. Shanghai’s Jiangnan shipyards look pretty backward beside the Japanese equivalent, in which half a dozen engineers in snow-white designer overalls converse with one another by wrist-video while a team of Kawasaki Unimate robots transforms a heap of raw materials into a fully computerised bulk carrier with a Jacuzzi in the captain’s bathroom. Here there were about a thousand Chinese queuing up to borrow the spanner. But the atmosphere was festive. An air of spontaneity — real spontaneity, as opposed to the mechanical variety laid on by Party directives — was generated by a band truck tricked out with balloons and dispensing the Shanghai equivalent of Chicago jazz. A very big drum and several different sizes of gong combined to produce the typical Chinese orchestral texture of many obsolete fire-alarms going off at once.

Next to the completed ship, which Powie had cunningly named World Goodwill, there was a sign in English saying be careful not to drop into the river. The Yin Sage was dressed in navy blue with a white hat, thereby establishing a nautical nuance, an impression furthered by her consort’s azure tie. Actually it was the same tie he had worn when arriving in Peking, but this was a different city, and in China every city is a whole new nation. It is not just that there are a thousand million Chinese who have never seen the world. There are a thousand million Chinese who have never seen China. So if you wear the same tie at different ends of the country it is unlikely that you will cause the locals to whisper behind their hands. No stranger to the Far East, the Yin Sage’s Yang Companion has got such considerations well taped.

Powie rose to his Gucci-shod feet in order to convince anybody who still needed convincing that he bears a truly remarkable resemblance to the late Edward G. Robinson. He thanked his distinguished sponsor for being there. He thanked everybody else for being there as well. He thanked the Chinese Government for its breadth of vision. He was on the point of thanking the population of China individually, but the Woman of Science had a schedule to meet. Referring, in her Falklandish capacity as a connoisseur of naval architecture, to ‘this splendid ship’, she spoke of how it epitomised the ability of Socialist China and the freely enterprising West to work in harmony. ‘This ship … is a symbol of the close relationship.’ It was a relationship ship.

She launched the relationship ship by swinging an axe to cut the line that released the bottle. The bottle declined to break, but according to Chinese tradition it is the blow of the axe which matters, not the result. In the I Ching, according to the great naturalist philosopher Chu His’s justly celebrated interpretation, Li, the cosmic principle of organisation at all levels, is coterminous with an ultimately inseparable from chi, or matter-energy. To put it another way, it’s the thought that counts.

The relationship ship was already in the water and thus destined to remain immobile after being launched, but the band truck, or Truck of Good Luck, erupted into a rousing rendition of its signature tune, ‘Seven Ancient Fire-Engines Failing to Discover the Location of Chow Fong’s Burning House’. The Yin Sage, charmingly referred to by a nervous young female interpreter as ‘the Rather Honourable Margaret Thatcher’, took leave of Powie with the air of one who knows that the separation will be all too short.

She was headed for the Shanghai Institute of Biochemistry of the Academica Sinica, whither all the British Media, except one, decided not to accompany her. My colleagues, wise in the trade, had knowledgeably concluded that now as the time to file their copy, take a well-earned nap, or check out the attractions of what had once been China’s most westernised big city, the first one to import every occidental fad up to and including Communism. In Shanghai it is even possible to buy an alcoholic drink if you turn the right corners. The girls are just as unattainable as in Peking but they dress more provocatively, with a cut to their comradely trousers which suggests that they are not above withholding some of their labour from the commune in order to sit up at night resewing the odd seam.

It would have been good to spend more than just a few minutes following Sidney Greenstreet’s ghost past the old Western Concession compounds of the Bund, and on top of that there was the Shanghai National Museum, containing pictures which I had been waiting to see half my life, and of which I can only say that if I could write the way those guys painted I would use up a lot less Tipp-Ex. But like a fool I went to the Biochemistry Institute, and like a fool I got lucky. The Woman of Science put on her best public performance of the tour so far, and I was the only scribe there to cover it.

The performance was good because for once she wasn’t performing. Biochemistry is her field and the assembled scientists were among the top boys in it, so when they spoke she was for a moment distracted from her usual self-imposed task of proving her superiority to everyone else. The head of the Institute apologised, in beautifully eloquent English, for his English, which he had not spoken for forty years. ‘Today we are very honoured to have you with us. First of all, may I introduce Professor …’ He introduced a dozen professors, respectively in charge of such departments as insulin synthesis, nucleic acids, biomemory, molecular radiation and a lot of other things I couldn’t catch. Most of it was Chinese to me but clearly it was grist to the mill of the Woman of Science, especially the stuff about insulin, which she was concerned with when studying under her famous mentor, the Nobel Prizewinner Dorothy Hodgkin — a name revered by the Shanghai scientists, who had a picture of her in their visitors’ book.

That the Yin Sage was Dorothy Hodgkin’s Pupil plainly went down a storm with the Chinese, in whom the dynastic principle is well ingrained. The Pupil’s pupils sharpened, I noticed, when one of the scientists announced that the laboratory was working on leukaemia and liver cancer. Since the same laboratory had already developed, among other things, such eminently applicable ideas as the reprogramming of fish to breed in still water, there was no need to think they would not crack the case, always provided that their government gave curing old humans the same priority as feeding new ones. Of these latter, needless to say, there is no shortage, and in fact that Shanghai laboratory is working on a fertility drug (derived from the same LH-RH analysis that fixed the fish) which could produce irreversible infertility at high dosages — a possibility which the Woman of Science immediately saw might be open to abuse, and said so.

Touring the individual laboratories, she interviewed the scientists working in each. They all spoke dazzling scientific English, with words like ‘cucumber’ falsely emphasised and phrases like ‘polypeptide macromolecular electrokinesis’ fluently delivered. After she left each room I backtracked to ask the interviewees, relaxing after their ordeal, whether she still knew her stuff. Without exception they said she did. She missed a trick, though, in the room where they analyse proteins by counting dots. Reminiscing, the Woman of Science said: ‘We had no computers in those days to analyse the dots.’ Her hosts were too polite to tell her the truth, which was that as far as they were concerned those days were still here. Even to the inexpert eye, the laboratory is painfully underequipped. The rubber tubes are perished, glass is hoarded like gold, and there is obviously no more computer time in a year than there are rainy days in the Gobi. They’re counting those dots with an abacus. When the Woman of Science handed a Sinclair desk computer to the Japanese it was coals to Newcastle, or at any rate bamboo shoots to Tokyo. The same computer given to the Shanghai Biochemistry Institute would have made some long friends.

The banquet that night was hosted by the Mayor of Shanghai, who generously announced in his speech of welcome that ‘British people have always had a great feeling for the Chinese’. He could have put this another way, saying that British people were instrumental in poisoning half the country with opium and showed an enthusiasm unusual even among the European nations when it came to humiliating the Chinese by such practices as shutting them out of their own cities. The park which was denied to ‘dogs and Chinese’ is still there on the river side of the Bund. Nowadays it is enjoyed by the indigenous population but they allow us to share it, which is a lot more than we ever did for them. One only hoped that the Yin Sage knew how tactful the Mayor was being in not mentioning any of that.

The possibility that the Woman of Science might be a bit thin in the area of Chinese history was a constant worry to those of us in her entourage who wished her well on her delicate mission. But she caught all eyes in her dress of vivid K’ang-his cobalt blue, a veiled reminder that in the eighteenth century (our time) the European demand for Chinese porcelain was matched by an equally eager supply. The Mayor, perhaps forewarned, had countered in advance by gracing every table with a full kit of Yi Sing stoneware specially procured for the occasion. It looked like bitter chocolate and provided an ideal container for the dreaded mao tai, the liquid land-mine, the anti-personnel potion employed by Chinese functionaries to render one another’s official speeches inaudible. Since first encountering the stuff a week before, the British Media had settled on two ways of coping with it. You could down it in one and get drunk straight away or you could sip at it and get drunk almost straight away.

In Shanghai, however, one was likely to forget about drinking in favour of eating, because the food was astonishing — compared with Peking, there was a playful savour to its presentation which suggested that we were already getting closer to the West. The same thing was suggested by the attire and general demeanour of the waitresses, who wore skirts instead of trousers and in an alarming number of cases were unmanningly pretty. British scriveners and cameramen fought one another for a smile. If you are the kind of man who falls in love through the eyes, you will fall in love a hundred times a day in China. No wonder that in the Chinese artistic heritage the pictures outweigh the words and even the words are pictures. The whole place soaks the optic nerve like a long shot of morphine into a fresh vein. I smiled like a goof from daylight to dusk.

Among those prominent behind the top table’s array of carved pumpkins was the inevitable Powie. The Mayor referred to him as ‘Mr’ Y.K. Pao, thereby depriving him of his knighthood, which he must have received for services to athletics, because when the Woman of Science went up to congratulate the orchestra Powie was out of his starting blocks and congratulating them right along with her. The great Australian sprinter Hector Hogan used to move that fast but he needed spiked shoes to do it.

Onward to Canton, where there was another banquet, this time for lunch instead of dinner. The venue was the Dongfang hotel, a Disneyland Chinese emporium all dolled up in funfair gilt filigree. By now you could feel the West close by, just outside the Pearl River delta, a jetfoil ride across a short stretch of the South China Sea. People from Hong Kong come here to visit their relatives and give them that greatest of all gifts, a television set. The girls at the cashier’s desk have pocket calculators which the scientists in Shanghai would covet and which the clerks in the Minzu hotel in Peking would probably fail to recognise. China is a big place. Here, at the edge, it is a bit like the West, but the edge, we had learned, is a long way from the middle.

We were all Old China Hands now. Even the Woman of Science, clad today in a green dress recalling the famille verte teapots of the Ch’ing, was looking blasé. The locals kept bringing forth food fit to change the mind of anyone who had been harbouring the notion that Cantonese cuisine means offal rolled in red ochre and glazed like a brick. It was wonderful, but after a week of banqueting we had had enough. The Yin Sage’s impeccable chopstick technique did not falter. She could still pick up a greased peanut without lifting either elbow. But her usually transparent azure eyes had grown slightly occluded, like the milky-violet glaze which the Chinese collectors of ceramics call kuei-mien-ch’ing, or ghost’s-face blue. Perhaps she had seen too much of Powie.

She escaped him on the short flight to Hong Kong. When the plane took off he was not on it. I was not on it either, having failed to fill out the right forms some weeks before. After several hours spent anxiously facing the prospect of staying in China for ever — imagine how long it will be before they get breakfast television — I secured the last seat on a packed Trident and scrambled aboard. As I came stooping through the door I recognised a certain pair of Gucci shoes. It was Powie. He assured me that Mrs Thatcher’s trip was ‘very successful’ and that she had done a grand job. Powie has a lot in common with David Frost — permanent jet-lag, an unusual way with the English language, and an infallible nose for the main action.

The approach to Kai Tak, Hong Kong’s notorious airport, starts between mountains and continues between buildings. As the joke says, Hong Kong is the only city where street-vendors sell you things before you land. The place struck me, even at the very moment when I thought I was about to strike it, as a kind of slant-eyed Las Vegas. No sooner had the plane stopped rolling than Powie was outside and into a black Toyota, while your reporter was making his solitary and sweat-soaked way to the Hilton, where the rest of the British Media were already up to their necks in pine-scented suds while they filed copy on the bathroom telephone. The wealth of Hong Kong would seem ridiculous anyway, but after the Chinese People’s Republic you feel like a nun dropped into Babylon. To dial room service is to experience disgust, and for half an hour I hesitated. All right, half a minute.

The Dragon Lady, guarded by police swat squads up on the roofs, had by now transferred herself into the Keeper of Secrets. The fate of Hong Kong, known to her faithful consort as Honkers, was locked in her mind and safe from divination, even by the methods of geomancy or feng-shui (the winds and the waters). While the Hong Kong Media went crazy with speculation, she did her chores, starting with a visit to the Scots Guards at Stanley Fort. After Northern Ireland, Honkers is a cushy posting. The wives swim in the clear water of Repulse Bay and have babies while the going is good. The Keeper of Secrets dropped out of the sky by helicopter and moved among them in a midnight-blue dress sprinkled with almond blossoms. The heat was breathtaking. ‘Are you all pregnant?’ she asked. The teeth of a pretty child called Joanna were duly inspected. The British Media rushed to interview Joanna. I interviewed the wives, who all said, without being prompted, that their visitor looked too tired to last out the day.

As she climbed back into the thwacking helicopter, one could only agree. Her stamina is impressive but she is overly proud of it, and this trip she had pushed herself too far. Along with the punch-drunk British Media I strapped myself into the back-up helicopter and found myself hanging into space over an open door with Kowloon lying sideways underneath. If she felt half as bad as I did then the upcoming, all-important press conference was going to be a disaster.

In fact, it was her best yet. On the last day in Peking she had made a bad press conference worse by showing obvious impatience with the halting English of some of the Hong Kong Media. This propensity probably springs less from intolerance than from her urge to get cracking, but to possess it is a handicap and to indulge it is a grievous fault. Now, however, on the day that mattered, she kept her irascibility bottled up. She said all she could say, which was that an agreement had been reached that there should be an agreement, and that from here on in it was all down to the diplomats. When a Hong Kong girl reporter said that the question of renewing the lease could have simply been ignored, the Stateswoman turned a potential minus into a plus by insisting that a contract is a contract and the means of meeting it should be found early, ‘in good time’. Clearly she spoke with conviction, from the deep core of her nature, where the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval has the force of law. In Peking she had got away for a few minutes on her own in search of a bolt of fabric. The one she liked was too pricey at £39 a yard, so she had not bought it. Her passion for managing the household along sound lines was what got her elected in the first place, and was what now reassured the people of Hong Kong that things might just conceivably, in the long run, be going to be all right. On Hong Kong television the assembled pundits, posing in front of blown-up Thatcher glossies that looked like publicity stills of Eleanor Parker in Return to Peyton Place, began a long analysis of what little she had said, as if there could have been more. Next day the stock market dipped but there was no crash. When the rabbits had finished pulling out, the smart money would probably buy back in.

The smart money was there in force at the Government House reception. Chinese businessmen whose personal wealth made Powie look like a pauper were jostling to breathe the Dragon Lady’s perfume. If her mission had been a flop then they would already have been in Acapulco, so the signs were favourable. I met such mighty Hong Kong tai pans as Mr Lee of real estate, Mr Fong of many boats, and the ineffable Sir Run Run Shaw, who had made a hill of money out of those terrible films in which bad actors kick each other. (In the days when he was plain Mister, Run Run invented a cinematic process called Shawscope, a version of the wide-screen ratio which allowed more actors to kick each other at the same time.) One after the other I asked all these characters whether they had been in Peking lately. It turned out that all of them had been spending a lot of time there. Mr Lee told me how much the Chinese leaders respected his honesty.

So the boys are smoothing the road to the inevitable. Only Sir Run Run had the cheek to say that if a new regime asked him to make a Socialist movie he would run-run for cover. Actually it is hard to see why he should be worried: his movies would be readily adaptable to a Marxist-Leninist ideological content. Just make the bad guys the capitalists and the good guys could start kicking again straight away.

The Dragon Lady’s VC-10 screamed out of Kai Tak like a fighter and banked steeply towards India. All RAF transport aircraft have the passenger seats facing backwards, so the British Media, once again confined to the rear of the aircraft, could see where they had been. Laden down with electronic devices and paper kites for the children, they were too tired to sleep. So was the Dragon Lady, but she had no choice. Soon it would be the Conservative Party Conference. It was time for another transformation. The cabin lights went out to denote that she had retired. Her mind stirred in the darkness, putting away China and putting on Britain, forgetting Zhao Ziang and remembering Francis Pym. She was turning herself back into a Party Leader. While she dreamed and the Media drank, I looked back through the window along the Road of Silk, the ancient trade route which brought Marco Polo to Cathay and the Land of Prester John, and which was already old when Chinese lacquer boxes were on sale in the markets of Imperial Rome.

As you might have gathered, I loved China. But Westerners have always loved China. In the last century they drugged her, stripped her naked, tied her hands above her head, and loved her as they pleased. We were lucky that a revolution was all that happened. If we are luckier still, the current bunch of Chinese gerontocrats will be smoothly replaced by a generation of intellectuals who were so appalled at the Cultural Revolution that they are now less frightened by democracy than by despotism. If that happens, the Chinese revolution might manage what the Soviet version so obviously can’t — to civilise itself. Here, as in every other aspect of Chinese life, tradition is a comfort. China knew totalitarianism two hundred years before Christ, when the mad First Emperor of the Ch’in obliterated all memory of the ancient glory of Chou, burned the classical texts and put to death anybody caught reading the Book of Songs. But he unified the tribes, and on that strong base rose the majestic dynasty of Han, on whose era the Chinese of today still pride themselves, as will the Chinese of tomorrow.

In Delhi Mrs Thatcher had breakfast with Mrs Gandhi: a hen session. In Bahrain she shook hands with a sheik. At 34,000 feet over Europe she invited the Media forward for a drink. God knows what she thought of us: prominent in the front row of the scrum were at least two journalists who had been blotto since Peking. As for what we thought of her, the answer is not easy. Some had their prejudices confirmed. None thought less of her. I still wouldn’t vote for her, because I favour the Third Way, the Way of Tao, in which the universal principle is made manifest through the interlocking forms of David Steel and Roy Jenkins.

But I had grown to admire her. She is what she is, and not another thing, and on such issues it is better to be crassly straight than subtly devious. Perhaps being haunted by the Falklands, where for want of a nail she was obliged to send many young men to their deaths, in the matter of Hong Kong she seemed determined to be well prepared. The business touches me personally, because on Hong Kong Island, in the war cemetery at Sai Wan Bay, my father has lain since 1945, cut down at the age of thirty-three because the British did not know how to avoid a war in the Pacific. If firm talk and a steely glance can stop that happening again, Mrs Thatcher is ideal casting. She deserves credit for her iron guts, even if you think her brains are made of the same stuff.

While thinking all this I was searching the cabin. He wasn’t there. Finally I wangled an invitation to the flight deck. He wasn’t there either. Powie was not at the controls. She had got away from him at last. As the VC-10 dived towards Heathrow the wings suddenly shone like water gardens. After ten days and a dozen countries it was raining for the first time. The Han dragons could control the rain but ours must have been too tired. She had just enough energy for the last transformation, into the mother of her children. Mr and Mrs Thatcher stepped down to embrace their son Mark, who had driven all the way from town without getting lost once.

— October 3, 1982


The first part of this two-part Postcard was the biggest single technical trick I ever pulled off as a journalist, not so much in the manner of its writing as in the way I filed the copy. To get it home in time I had to phone it in. There were no mobiles in 1982, and the hotel phones in Beijing went not much further than the front desk. International calls had to be made at the post office, for cash on the nail. From my fellow journalists, in return for sterling, IOUs and hasty promises, I raised a small mountain of Chinese money and spent the lot on a call to London that would have been at least an hour and a half long even if it had been uninterrupted. It was interrupted every fifteen minutes by something going wrong with the system, probably a diesel generator in the basement. To get the connection restored I had repeatedly to rejoin the queue and threaten the nice girl behind the desk. The gleam of her incipient tears is with me still. But the pony express got through, mainly because of the Observer’s copy taker at the other end. In those days the copy takers were fine-point grammarians: they all knew how to sort out solecisms, maintain the integrity of your subordinate clauses, and punctuate accurately just from the inflection of your voice, although my copy taker might have been unique in knowing something about Chinese porcelain as well. The whole piece got into the paper without a single misprint. The second part I was able to write at leisure in Hong Kong and on the plane back to London — by hand, in an exercise book, the only item of advanced technology I ever carried. If the modem had existed, and I had known how to work it, the whole job would have been a lot easier, but I don’t think it would have turned out any better. Making those little marks on paper was the heart of the thrill, and still is. The rattle of plastic keys reminds me of a squadron of butterflies failing to fight their way out of a paper bag.