Chapter Eleven

The New Long March

There was a popular slogan among Party orators in the twelve months from mid-1978. Referring to the historic Long March of the Communist revolutionary forces in 1935, a watershed between defeat and their ultimate victory, the new slogan called on all Chinese people to contribute their life energies to a `New Long March towards the Four Modernisations'. Taking up the theme, songs, poems, plays and hoardings soon all proclaimed the New Long March as the heroic task of China's modern age. For many, though, the call came too late. Idealism was not to be roused again, after the betrayals of the past three decades. Foreigners would become accustomed to the snigger with which many of their Chinese contacts used the slogan, for the standing joke among young sophisiticates was that the only New Long March to modernisation was the march right out of China, to a life of new personal opportunities elsewhere, free from the weight of China's problems.

Unofficial contacts with foreigners were always a risky matter, and it was rare for any Chinese to keep up a friendship which did not have, somewhere, an ulterior motive of one kind or another. It was no more than an extension of the normal way Chinese relate socially to one another, in which cultivation of the guanxi wang (`connections web'), is considered essential to any long-term endeavour. That is not to say that genuine friendship could not develop, but it was common for foreigners, among them some of the correspondents, to be sentimentally overwhelmed by the apparent pure and naive interest shown in them by their local contacts. It may come down to cultural differences, in that Western culture tends to put the highest value on so-called `pure' relationships free of self-interest, whereas in China people traditionally evaluate relationships very much in terms of what one person is able or willing to for the other.

`I've had enough of Chinese friends', said one foreign girl student who had been in various colleges in China for over two years. `It's impossible to have casual friendships with anybody, they don't seem to know the meaning of the word. Once a person identifies you as a friend, they become so demanding that I just feel smothered. If you start to become friends with someone else, they become as jealous as a lover!'

Some local friends might be motivated by nothing more than an intellectual curiosity about other societies, or a desire to practise a foreign language. But in ninety percent of cases, the bottom line, at some point, would be a request to help arrange for someone to get out of China. I never quite knew whether to be charmed or offended by the bluntness and preposterousness of some of these requests, but, as a journalist, I was clearly gaining some professional advantage myself from the various insights I gleaned from knowing such people, and thus would have been hypo- critical to complain about being `used'.

Requests for assistance varied a great deal. Academically qualified young Chinese would ask for help in contacting institutions which might offer them scholarships to study abroad. This was the cleanest and most honest way to achieve an exit, and I did help one or two by writing letters along those lines on their behalf.

Huang Lin was given my name by a mutual acquaintance in Beijing's Western music circles. His family, as was so often the case, were all involved in music as teachers or performers in the state orchestras and the conservatorium, and he had some relatives overseas who could support him with money if need be. Huang was a cellist, and wanted to go abroad, it seemed, purely to advance his musical career.

`Just like the Soviet Union, there is a minority priveleged class here,' he said.

`The ordinary people are in a hopeless position. The priveleged class has power, but no culture.. You can't develop your talent here. The government shouldn't be afraid of letting people go.. most of them will come back some day to serve China. Even if they don't come back, they still represent China overseas.

`Take the pianist Fu Cong, for instance. When he defected, it was a great scandal in cultural circles in China. But now, when he comes back to play the piano in China, the leaders say "Lets forget about the past". Now he's one of the glories of the Chinese people. All the time he has been away, he never insulted his homeland. We love our country, but the problem is that writers and artists cannot act freely to develop their talents.'

At that time, foreign governments were falling over each other to set up student exchange programmes with China, and China was taking full advantage of the situation. Thousands upon thousands of students were selected for overseas study by their relevant work units (a term which includes universities and research institutes, in case there is any doubt). Priority was given where possible to disciplines that the government itself considered useful to China - especially all branches of the sciences. Artists, musicians and the like found themselves at the bottom of the queue, and so were prominent among those who tried to find unofficial ways to achieve their New Long March. By mid- 1979, so many artists had departed for foreign countries from the Central Ballet Troupe and its orchestra, for instance, that the troupe had to cancel scheduled performances. All `unplanned' emigrations were immediately banned, to the great bitterness of those whose plans were still awaiting fruition.

Thousands from other units still managed to find their way, however, and by the end of 1982 the Party authorities had decided that a national clamp-down was necessary. Regulations were issued forbidding Chinese graduates to leave the country within two years of completing their courses of study, unless as part of the government's own research programme. After they have `repaid the People' with two years of assigned work, they may be considered for overseas study by their unit bosses. This means, of course, that the more talented graduates are the ones who find it hardest to get approval to study abroad, as their work units may be reluctant to release them.

Even private students, funded by scholarships or by overseas relatives, and who manage to secure approval under these circum- stances, are obliged to register with the Chinese consulate nearest their place of study, to obey instructions from the consulate. On return to China, they must accept a work assignment wherever the government should choose to send them. It hardly seems a great incentive to return, but the statistics seem to show that a great majority of Chinese students do return, sooner rather than later. Foreign embassy personnel in Beijing whom I questioned about this said that the rate of return of Chinese students overseas was among the highest for any developing country.

A common cause of irritation, both to students and to many host governments, was the custom of the Chinese Consulates taking the living allowances offerred to students under the terms of some host country scholarships. The consulate would then dole out to the student an amount considered by the consulate itself to be adequate, which usually obliged such students to live below the poverty line by host country standards. This can seem outrageous to us, but the Chinese viewpoint is that these students have been educated at the considerable expense of the Chinese People, and should not be encouraged to seek personal profit as a result. In my own experience, this often meant that the students would scrimp and save even more tightly, eschewing any thought of joining in a Western social life, for instance, in an effort to accumulate enough from their pittance to buy at least a cassette player or a colour television set to take home.

By August 1982, four years after the foreign study programme began to expand, Xinhua was reporting that from a total of over twelve thousand post-graduate students sent overseas, three thousand five hundred had returned, and most of the others were planning to on completion of their studies. Never the less, the media did see fit to carry a series of interviews with Chinese scientists of international repute, mostly mathematicians and computer designers, on the intriguing theme of 'Why I am Not Planning to Defect'. `The East has its own glory' was the principle sentiment expressed, along with some recognition that, on projects given priority by the state planners, China can indeed offer quite tempting working conditions to dedicated, practising scientists.

Another part of the `New Long March' was a huge upsurge in official delegations going overseas on diplomatic or `study' tours. It was, of course, an excellent thing that senior people of an administration that had been in very tight isolation from the world for thirty years should have the opportunity to test their imaginings against the realities of the outside world. But those on the receiving end of such delegations discovered all too often that the people who did the travelling were not the people capable of getting some real technical benefit from the tour. There were major reorganisations going on at the highest levels, and the gift of an overseas tour (courtesy, usually, of some foreign donor) was often the sweetener for a bunch of elderly cadres on the verge of forced retirement. The benefits of such a `study tour' were often raised by the Chinese side in the early stages of major trade negotiations, for instance, and when the hopeful vendor of steel mills or oil refineries quickly agreed, the Chinese ministry concerned might present a long list of suggested invitees.

The detailed technical presentations prepared for these guests, however, were often wasted, as the delegation made clear that it was more interested in shopping and tourism. Distinguished leaders of such delegations, on whom much personal attention might be lavished, were often found to have retired from active work by the time the anxious trader next arrived in Beijing, hoping to capitalise on his expensive goodwill. Rumblings of discontent over this, both from foreign hosts, and from the real experts within the relevant Chinese organisations, soon brought forth some stern editorials in the Party press, and the most obvious cases of `junketing' declined in numbers.

Some very senior members of the Central Committee and high government offices came in for some flak as well for their self- indulgence in travel, but the cases given notoriety in the press concerned, as usual, people further down the scale. There was a famous expedition by cadres from a Foodstuffs Collective in Sichuan province, who went to spend a week in Hong Kong on the pretext of studying the production of dofu (soybean curd). What they learned in Hong Kong about bean curd production has not been recorded, but an embarassing investigation by the provincial authorities upon their return exposed a four-day carousal in Kowloon, banqueting on the public purse, and not excluding `investigation' visits to low-life girly bars of Tsim Sha Tsui.

The glittering prosperity of Hong Kong, so tantalisingly close to China and yet so far, had been proving more and more attractive a lure to mainland Chinese, as various aspects of China's opening up to the world meant that the Chinese people knew more about the better life available elswhere. Hong Kong is attractive to the less sophisticated would-be emigre because it is so clearly itself Chinese, holding few of the potential problems of settling somewhere as different as the USA. Hong Kong-produced movies were shown on Chinese Central Television, in which somewhat glamorised Hong Kong office workers were shown to have living standards worlds above their mainland counterparts. Every ambitious youth knew the stories of the fabulous fortunes of millionaire Hong Kong tycoons who had left mainland China only twenty years previously, with not a penny to their names.

As a result, an ever-swelling tide of Chinese, especially the young, devoted themselves to finding a means to get there. Over 1979, more than 150,000 succeeded in reaching Hong Kong by legal or illegal means, and under the regulations then prevailing in Hong Kong they were automatically entitled to stay, once they had reached the urban centres. The reasons behind this rule were less humanitarian than in the interests of Hong Kong's then booming light industries, ever hungry for more cheap labour. What brought it to an end was the influx of an almost equal number of Boat People refugees from Vietnam, just at the time when world recession was beginning to reduce Hong Kong's own labour demand. Beijing, after some persuasion, agreed to help stem the flow.

Three out of four Chinese immigrants to Hong Kong had been `illegals' - either running the gauntlet of border guards into Hong Kong's bordering New Territories, or else staying on after having been granted temporary visas of one kind or another, usually to visit relatives. With such a high proportion of those given visitors visas tending to stay on, the Hong Kong government had to clamp down hard, suddenly making it almost impossible even for those Chinese with husbands, wives and parents in Hong Kong to cross the line.

Because of Hong Kong's disputed legal status (the Peoples Republic never acknowledging that it was not a part of China) there are no Hong Kong government offices in China proper, and the visas for visits are issued through British Consulates in Beijing and Guangzhou. With the sudden strangling of Residence and Vistors visa approvals, the British consular officers in these places began receiving an extraordinary number of applications for Transit Visas. The practice had always been that anyone with a visa for a third country would automatically be granted a visa for a forty-eight hour stay in Hong Kong on the way through. Now, of course, most Chinese holders of such visas began simply disappearing during their `stopover' in Hong Kong, and the third country mentioned in the visa application never saw hide nor hair of its expected visitor.

A friend of mine working in this area reported a tremendous boom in applications, from apparently impoverished Chinese, to visit the most unusual tourist destinations. For some months, hundreds of such applicants would line up outside the British Consulate in Beijing brandishing tourist visas for Yugoslavia, Cuba, and Portugal. Word had got around that these countries gave out tourist visas virtually on request. Eventually the rules had to be changed again, allowing a transit visa in Hong Kong only when no alternative route was available. Tourist visas to Cuba dropped off markedly, I was told, when transit visas in Moscow and Bucharest were the only ones a Cuban tourist visa helped to obtain.

A sharp Hong Kong entrepreneur named Zhou Jiangping had a successful career for a few months selling `World Passports' to the gullible in Guangzhou, at several hundred dollars a piece, until the arrest of himself and several local Chinese accomplices intervened.

A few determined individuals then appeared at British consular offices in Beijing with proposals to visit the tiny number of countries, such as Surinam, which had no diplomatic representation in China, but had an office in Hong Kong. That ploy didn't wash for long, either. Foreign visa officers were offered money and even gold bars by people desperate to get out and ready to try anything. Candidates appeared with crudely forged documents. One gentleman who had been refused a Hong Kong transit visa by the British Consulate in Beijing reappeared an hour later, with the same set of documents, but this time wearing a hat pulled down over his eyes, a long overcoat, and a false pair of spectacles. The officer concerned concluded that this man not only was dishonest, but had a low opinion of the intelligence of foreigners. He didn't get his visa.

There was a third means of emigration, which involved high risk, but which many young Chinese in those days were prepared to have a fling at. One could marry a foreigner.

There had always been a few cases of arranged marriages between locals, usually women, and overseas Chinese who returned to their home counties in search of an appropriate wife. There had always been a number of foreign `Friends of China' who had settled down in the country with a Chinese spouse, though these had been among the most persecuted as `spies' during the Cultural Revolution. There were now, since the overthrow of the Maoists, a few cases where a marriage between a foreigner and a Chinese had been allowed, although it required special dispensation from the highest authorities.

To marry a foreigner required almost the same degree of running the gauntlet as an escape to Hong Kong. There was no rule or regulation that said you could not marry a foreigner, but there was an extremely deep-rooted prejudice against cross- cultural relationships in general. Many of the first generation of communist leaders, not including Mao himself, had been relat- ively cosmopolitan - they had lived abroad, and some even had foreign wives or mistresses themselves. But the second gener- ation, those who came to power during the fifties and sixties, tended to be more narrow-minded. Their ideas of relations between Chinese and foreigners were formed on the rape and pillage of imperialist invasions, followed up by eight decades of prosti- tution in the Treaty Ports like Shanghai and, to this day, Hong Kong.

China's own traditions of concubinage, prostitution, and the legal rape of the lower classes could never raise as much righteous ire as the thought of lascivious foreigners dallying with innocent Chinese beauties, while honest Chinese men, too poor ever to be able to buy themselves a wife, slaved outside the door. In short, their ideas were racist, though with some undeniable historical basis, and these ideas were fostered throughout China as part of the general anti-Imperialist propaganda campaigns. On stage and screen, brutal red-haired Foreign Devils with huge putty noses could be seen dragging Chinese maidens into degradation and slavery.

Any relationship between a local woman and a foreign man, even in the 1970s, was presumed gravely suspicious, almost a form of prostitution, unless extremely good arguments, or a very senior sponsor, could defend it. Even during my own period in Beijing, firm steps, amounting to kidnapping if necessary, were being taken by outraged unit bosses and parents the moment rumours of involvement with a foreigner became known. Inter- racial marriage was not actually illegal, but interracial courtship was definitely out.

Everyone of the older generation in Beijing could tell you, if the subject were raised, of the tragic tale of a beautiful and talented young woman in the Foreign Ministry who threw away everything in the fifties to marry a Hungarian journalist. Some would tell you that the man had `sold' her after leaving China, others that she had committed suicide out of sheer misery. Bill Kwo told me how a commisar had said to him, as the topic was being discussed in a political indoctrination session:

`She is begging to come back now to China.. but we won't let her come, however miserable she may be! What's wrong with Chinese men?!'

The facts were quite different, and it was my great delight on many occasions to be able to tell these people that the couple, Bela and Kunhua Elias, were not only still very happily married with a grown-up daughter, but, twenty-five years later, were at that very moment back in Beijing. Bela Elias was one of the more humorous and astute among the Eastern European correspondents, and Kunhua an elegant, open woman of an academic Shanghai family, well educated in both Chinese and foreign cultures. But I suspect that the story of Kunhua's supposed `misery' is still being told to the grandchildren of those who first heard it.

Xu Yanping had heard the story in kindergarten, but she had never dreamed of marrying a long-nosed foreigner. Her family were middle-class doctors in Beijing, and, naturally, they came under attack in the Cultural Revolution. Her father died as a direct result of persecutions, and her family was scattered. Yanping herself was sent, aged thirteen, with her entire class from an elite Beijing preparatory school, to `learn from the masses' at the old revolutionary base of Yenan - now a place of pilgrimage and memorabilia. Like almost all her generation, Yanping deeply believed in Mao and in his teachings, and became disillusioned only when she encountered the ignorant and immovable class hatreds of those peasants who took Maoism so seriously.

Being the youngest in her class, she was considered too weak to join the peasants at their labour, so she became, at thirteen, a schoolteacher to peasants at Yenan. Perhaps on account of her youth, she said, she managed to stay out of trouble for the next few years, studied privately, and eventually won a coveted place in the first waves of rusticated youth to be re-admitted to educational institutions. She went to the Shanghai Languages Institute and studied english. On graduation she was assigned to Xian, in the central west - a former Imperial Capital in China's Golden Age, but notorious in the 1970s as a stronghold of conservative Maoism. There she was to be a teacher in the Xian Foreign Language Institute, and it was there she met Stephen Nolan, an Australian who had found his way individually to China as a volunteer teacher.

There was a small group of foreign teachers at the institute, and they were segregated into a separate dormitory block, even eating their meals in a separate room. Chinese students could not visit them there without special permission. Chinese teachers, on the other hand, associated with the foreigners more freely, sharing a staff room at the Institute. Yanping was one of the brightest and keenest among the young teachers at the institute, and it was while doing after-hours work in the staff room with Stephen that a mutual attraction developed. Both recognised the situation as potential dynamite, for if Yanping were suspected of `flirting' with a foreigner she could face instant transfer and a serious, permanent note on the personnel file that would follow her, wherever she went, for the rest of her life.

Yanping had been forced to take hold of her own life at a much earlier age than most young Chinese women, when she was sent to Yenan at the age of thirteen. She decided now that she was not going to let her life, any more, be dictated by fear. Even to be seen talking together could invite trouble, so they arranged a rendezvous for the following Sunday at the Temple of Flourishing Teaching (Xing Jiao si) about forty kilometres' bicycle ride from the Institute, south of Xian. The temple, seldom visited now, claims to be the resting place of the eighth century monk Xuan Zhang, who had brought a new teaching, Buddhism, to the great Chinese imperial capital from India. His epic journey is now best remembered as the fairy tale 'Pilgrimage to the West', and known to Western television viewers through the Japanese series 'Monkey'. The saintly monk, certainly, had nothing against foreigners.

By the end of that day, on a quiet hillside overlooking a plain teeming with village agriculture, Yanping had come to a decision. There was no question of half-measures, no question of any relationship short of marriage. On their first date, it had to be an ultimatum. Stephen admits to being somewhat swept off his feet by the speed of developments, and his mind was whirling as they pedalled back, separated by a discreet interval, that evening. Within a few days, each had been to ask their supervisor for permission to marry.

Yanping then went through a period of intense pressure, as the Party cadres of the Institute tried to dissuade her. She was given all the well-known horror stories of what happened to innocent Chinese girls who married barbarians - she would be sold, she was told. Westerners have no morals, Stephen would soon tire of her and abandon her in a strange land. Perhaps he already had a wife in Australia? It was, of course, a cause celebre in the Institute, and soon throughout the town.

`The gossip was hardest to bear', Yanping later told me.

`Many people really believe all that about foreigners. I lost some friends, people who thought I was crazy, or who just didn't want to be associated with the scandal of it. But I gained other friends at that time - people who had courage and an open mind. Even my own mother was terrified that our whole family would now be considered to be `spies' because of our relations with a foreigner - that had always been the case before. But most of the active hostility came from the officials'.

The problem, really, was that marriage with a foreigner was considered virtually a diplomatic crisis, and officials at provincial level were terrified of making a decision either way that could bring unfavourable repercussions from Beijing. The cadres' most fervent wish was that Yanping would simply give up her request, and the whole thing could be swept under the carpet. There were daily `counselling' sessions. When no reply was forthcoming to the application, Stephen decided to go to Beijing to see what assistance he could get from the Australian Embassy there. Friends warned him against this - there was every chance that the Institute cadres, or the Public Security, could take advantage of his absence to spirit Yanping away, as had happened several times before when romance threatened between Chinese and foreigners.

Stephen took the risk, and it was rewarded. Representations were made on his behalf through the diplomatic channels, and a message went to Xian instructing the local cadres to approve the marriage. It went ahead quickly, once the formalities were settled. A Chinese wedding has two parts: the registration, which makes it legal, followed by a `housewarming party', which makes it proper. Stephen was not fully apprised of this, and considered himself fully married once they left the Civil Affairs Bureau clutching their individual marriage licences, emblazoned with red flags. With colleagues now enthusiastically supporting them, a strange domestic arrangement was contrived. Stephen was still a foreigner, and Yanping was still a Chinese, and there was no precedent for them to live together either in the Chinese staff quarters or in the foreign staff quarters. Instead, they were assigned a small classroom in the no-man's-land of the Institute itself. The desks went out, a double bed, wardrobe and enamel washstand went in, and they were home. Without more ado, Stephen and Yanping embarked upon married life.

After some days, Yanping was taken aside by a teaching colleague with a worried expression, who warned her that the unit leaders were scandalised afresh at their living together without having held a proper housewarming. The party was duly arranged, the unit leaders appeared to bestow their ritual congratulations and presents of sweets, and Stephen and Yanping were finally accepted as a married couple. Indeed, they were celebrities in Xian, where the number of foreigners was still small and every detail of their lives was curiously observed. To some, Stephen's marriage to a Chinese would always be fundamentally offensive, but to a majority, it made him seem somewhat more human, after all.

From the start, they had known that a marriage would mean returning together to Australia - Stephen did not speak Chinese, and had no intention of staying beyond his agreed period. When I talked to them in their classroom bed-sitter, they both seemed to feel that their marriage had cut them off, to some extent, from the world of the Institute in which they had met each other. Yanping had few fears about moving to Australia - she spoke english well, and looked forward to further study of Western literature.

`Of course I'm going to miss China, its culture, my friends, and especially I will miss very much my family. But I look forward to more freedom, more varied culture, less pressure of people around me. Australia is a good country - I can have privacy'.

It was the first time I had heard a Chinese use the word `privacy' which, as is often remarked, has no equivalent in the Chinese language.

Few would-be emigrants could have as relatively smooth a ride as Yanping. In Beijing, time and again, my wife Dilber or I would come across a man, or more often a woman, who, sooner or later, would ask us to find them a foreign spouse. Some of these candidates were simply adventurers. One girl, from a relatively comfortable family in Beijing's professional class, asked me to arrange by long-distance telephone for a man of my own choosing in Australia to become her fiance, and sponsor her immigrant visa in time for her to begin the next university term in Australia.

`I don't mind if I have to marry him for a short time', she said, and was almost indignant when I declined to undertake this for her. After all, she had cultivated us on one or two previous encounters with little presents for our baby.

`Can't you even do it just for friendship?', she asked. I suppose I might have tried something for `friendship', but I found the imposition a little premature.

Others who talked about leaving were people who had nursed a genuine desire to work for their own country and their own people, but had been rebuffed too often, for ideological or personal reasons, and had simply concluded that New China had no place for them. Meihua, for instance, was a woman who had under- gone enormous privations in the Cultural Revolution, spurned on all sides for her bourgeois background, her restless intelligence, and her appearance, which, she was convinced, was unattractive to Chinese men. Meihua, having lost all hope of a professional career during the Cultural Revolution, saw her life thwarted, with marriage to a foreigner the only possible way out.

`I don't think Abroad is heaven,' she told us, `but I would like to try it. The only safe way is to find a foreign husband. He doesn't have to be rich, he doesn't have to be handsome, he doesn't have to have a brilliant career - I don't mind if he's old, divorced, even handicapped in some way. I would care for him, love him, just for the chance to rebuild my own life in a free country! Please help me find someone!'

By the time we left Beijing, nobody suitable had been found.

For the first two years in China, until the end of 1980, I was single myself, and became the target of a number of such marriage offers or `introductions' by mutual friends. In my innocence, I took a while to realise what was happening on the first one or two occasions.

Among his large repertoire, my friend Wu Qing, the fixer in Guangzhou, was often asked by young women if he could help them find a foreign husband. Amongst Cantonese, it was not too difficult a matter to arrange a marriage with some young fellow who had got away to Hong Kong and had established residence there, but it was becoming extremely difficult, as time went by, for the spouse to capitalise on this by joining him there. At the same time, the growing numbers of traders, foreign advisers, and tourists in southern China were becoming a more tempting prospect to the local girls with their sights set over the border.

I meet Wu Qing as arranged, a hundred metres or so from the entrance to the Peoples Cinema. I notice he has three flimsy tickets, not two, pinched firmly between finger and thumb, but before I get around to asking why, he introduces me to a girl who has risen from a nearby bench and joined us.

`Du Weici, this is my cousin, Xiao San'. He uses her familiar name, `third younger sister', which tells me nothing about who she is, so I believe him. Xiao San is slim, pert, and I estimate around twenty-seven years old. Most Chinese women are spoken for, if not married, by that age. Wu Qing looks around a little apprehensively.

`Let her walk ahead. It could be bad if people saw her together with you. She's coming to the movie with us'.

He doles out one ticket to Xiao San, who walks ahead into the thickening crowd towards the movie theatre. I note that she is done up in her best, her blouse open one bold button at the neck and tucked into the straight waist of her skirt. Sheer nylon half-stockings end at garters below the knee. A large shady cotton hat, sunglasses, and a white vynil shoulder-bag give Xiao San the air of heading for a garden- party or a day at the races. But I guess that her high-heeled shoes are borrowed, as they are two sizes too big, and she is having some trouble staying up on them. There is a daring blush of rouge on her cheeks.

A couple of young bloods in the crowd nudge each other, looking at her. There's no doubt that she has set out to be attractive.

In the dark of the cinema, I am surprised to find Wu Qing ushering me into the seat ahead of him, which puts me between the two of them. Next to Xiao San. Xiao San gives me a small, conspiratorial smile, but does not venture on any conversation. Cinema crowds are always seeded with police informers, or so the public believe.

The movie is mediocre, but after it Wu Qing seems unusually jovial and expansive.

`Lets go to the coffee shop and eat ice-cream', he says, making it sound like a considerable expedition. No woman of any dignity would go beer-drinking at night.

We head for a famous coffee shop which had once, in the old days, been owned by a foreigner. Now, the coffee is made with re-boiled grounds and served weak, in large bowls like soup plates. No milk or cream are available, but a cassette player hooked up to a coarse loudspeaker on the wall is blaring out sentimental disco numbers on a tape from Hong Kong, in Cantonese.

We three sit on benches around a wooden table on which food and spilt drinks have been left by the previous occupants. I sweep these onto the cement floor with a paper napkin, as Wu Qing goes to fetch the coffee and icecreams.

Xiao San takes a deep breath and begins to tell me about herself - how she hates the police, how she wants more freedom, how silly it is that foreigners and Chinese are kept apart. She tells me she has met quite a few foreigners - well, mostly from Hong Kong. A Japanese man asked her to go for a walk in a park, once. That was easy, because he looked like a Chinese, nobody made trouble. What do I think of Chinese girls? She has heard that all foreign men like Chinese girls very much. She leans forward confidentially and pats the table with two fingers.

I find her voice rather trying - she is affecting the shrill tone used by women in the awful stage conventions of contemporary Chinese theatre, and transferred downwards from the theatre world to those who would like to be mistaken for actresses. Xiao San has plenty of self-confidence, and I am sure she has been told often that she is pretty. I notice that Xiao San's small, round face has a very determined chin.

By the time Wu Qing comes back, Xiao San's prattle has attracted the attention of three young men drinking beer at the next table. They have been drinking for some time, and are becoming flushed and slovenly. One of them reacts.

`What kind of object's that over there? A Chinese man's not good enough, she has to have a bloody foreigner too. Two men for one woman.. Huh!. Dressed like a prostitute, too...'

Xiao San's voice dies away and she sits back in her chair, colouring with fury behind her sunglasses. Her lips move and I detect she is silently swearing. I hope she doesn't decide to take a swing at someone. Wu Qing pretends to have heard nothing, and I take my cue from him. We jab silently at our icecream buckets for a while, saving face, while the muttering continues at the next table.

`Let's go somewhere else.. the coffee's not so good here', suggests Wu Qing. We drop Xiao San off at her bus-stop, and he walks along further with me towards the Dong Fang hotel.

`Not bad, is she, Xiao San? Lots of men like her, but she's pretty fussy. What do you think? Shall we see her again?' I am noncommital.

A couple of days later Wu Qing arranged to see me again, this time at the gateway to the Dong Fang Hotel itself.

`Xiao San would like to see you again. She thinks you're pretty good, very civilised. She likes you, really. How about we come over to the hotel for a coffee in there? That's high class enough for her.'

At seven-thirty, as arranged, I went out to the gate, and saw what looked like a first-class row taking place, at the foot of a tree twenty metres down the road. As I approached, I saw it was none other than Wu Qing and Xiao San, surrounded by the usual crowd of gleeful onlookers to any kind of re nao on the streets.

`You bastard! What do you think I am! You told me six o'clock, and I've been standing here for an hour and a half! Do you know what happens to women who hang around the Dong Fang hotel? I've had enough of you! You're bloody hopeless!'

Xiao San was in full cry, her theatrical voice breaking down into something more throaty and, I must say, more attractive. Wu Qing was doing his best to quieten her as I approached. She took no notice of me whatsoever, lips curled in and small pointed chin twitching angrily until her fury had run its course, another two minutes at least, to the general amusement of the crowd.

Finally, she took a deep breath and turned to me, her cheeks still red with anger at her `cousin'.

`Du Weici, I'm sorry, I'm very sorry', she said, deciding that whatever might have happened was not to be. She walked off quickly towards her bus-stop, and the crowd drifted away, apart from a pair of curious twelve-year old girls who hung about us for the last few drops of drama. Wu Qing watched her go, happy that the tirade had ended if nothing else. Then he turned to me and shrugged.

`Du Weici, forget the coffee. How about a beer?'

Wu Qing's campaign had a motive of its own. One of the many options he was exploring for the development of his own career was emigration. He had asked a couple of foreign women if they would marry him. One, an elderly Canadian teacher, had even agreed, but the matter ran into trouble when her own family raised merry hell with the Canadian consulate. Wu Qing had been obliged to go underground after that, for a while.

But being a man of lateral thinking, Wu Qing quickly realised that having a close relative living overseas was just as good, in most ways, as being there oneself. Most of the countries which interested him had `family reunion' visa provisions which would make it relatively easy for Wu to follow whichever of his relatives he managed to plant overseas. Being blessed with a number of eligible sisters and cousins, he kept an eye out for the main chance. My brush with Xiao San, I later learned, had been part of this campaign.

On my next visit to Guangzhou, some months later, Wu was hinting broadly that something tremendously important was afoot. Loving the drama of life, he wanted me to be curious, but would give no details. It was several more months before I would learn the secret: Wu Qing had finally got one of his cousins a foreign husband!

It had been a long and harrowing chase, like stalking a prize stag. The quarry was a European trade representative, who had a deep personal interest in Chinese culture and politics as well as his professional business commitments. But he was, above all, a cautious man, absolutely terrified that something could damage his standing with the Chinese authorities, or with his own corporation. From a very early stage, he imposed conditions of exaggerated secrecy on his meetings with Wu Qing, and tried to segregate him from all other foreigners in case the word got around.

Wu maintained that there was nothing irresponsible in his actions on behalf of female relatives, and he only agreed to make an introduction after a very thorough screening of the foreign prospect. It was after weeks of checking out this European bachelor that Wu decided to introduce him to his prize cousin, Xiao Ling. This particular cousin was pretty, good-natured and innocent - he was determined to protect her.

The pair seemed to take to each other immediately. Further meetings were arranged, and, for discretion, the normal rendezvous was Wu Qing's own comfortable little apartment near the old foreign trading enclave of Sha Mien island. By this stage, Wu Qing's prosperity was such that he had employed a fulltime housekeeper who cooked, cleaned and washed for him. To protect the confidential rendezvous, he regretfully sent her back to her village for the time being.

`Rain and shine, I had to get out of the place, to give them a chance to get to know each other', he complained, as of hardships endured in a noble cause.

The potential brother-in-law's caution became extreme. He asked Wu Qing to curb his less respectable activities in case they should get him into trouble, which would then embroil them all. He dithered and dithered interminably before taking the plunge to ask official permission to marry. The stakes were, indeed, high - if they played their cards just a little bit wrong it could mean disaster for each of them. Wu fretted like an expectant father. At one point Wu threw up the whole thing in exasperation, but by that time the man was really keen, despite his caution, and kept coming back. He decided to go through with it.

This left Wu Qing with another problem. The first question the girl would be asked by the Public Security would be under what circumstances she had met the foreign man. If she named her cousin, he could be accused of procuring. Chinese tradition, anyway, requires a formal `go-between' (mei ren), so Wu went out to find one. The man was fussy - he didn't want any other foreigners involved. Wu Qing eventually found one of his contacts among the businessmen from Hong Kong who agreed to do it, but the `cousin-in-law' somehow managed to insult the person, and he withdrew. This was too much for Wu Qing, and once more he vowed to leave the pair to their own devices. Everything stalled for another few months, until they came back humbly to ask his help.

`In China, there is nothing that can't be done, if you set about it the right way', was Wu Qing's motto. He set about visiting the girl's unit leaders, bearing presents of cigarettes and wine. He went to see the local Public Security officers, who would also have to approve the match, and sweetened them. Obstacles went down, one by one, over several more months.

As a final humiliation, foreigners intending to marry a Chinese woman have to obtain a medical clearance that they are free of venereal disease! Wu Qing accompanied the intending bridegroom to the hospital, bearing the usual carton of cigarettes, and the test went very smoothly. Finally, when all obstacles to the marriage had been cleared away, Wu Qing was the recipient of what he considered a most ungrateful suspicion from his foreign cousin-in-law.

`You want something from me in return, don't you', said the man.

Wu's reply, as he recounted it to me, was quite blunt, now that the gloves were off.

`From the beginning, you must have known that. You asked for my help, accepted my help, my sacrifices, and you knew that I wanted to help my cousin leave the country... why now should you be surprised if I ask you for some help as well? Naturally I wanted to help my cousin get out.. if not her, then another one. But don't you try to claim that you were so pure in this, and don't try to evade your debts to me. What I ask from you will be nothing compared to what I have given you - your wife.'

He nourished a certain resentment against his new brother- in-law over this, muttering darkly that the man must be a Leftist, with his fancy hypocritical notions of the ways of the world.

People at the top were well aware of the tide of disillusion among that class in China who were now most needed - the qualified, the energetic, the entrepreneurial. Measures were being taken to a certain extent which aimed to make life more attractive for the middle classes in China itself, but there could be no compromise over the basic issues of the Communist ideology or the `dictatorship of the proletariat', the absolute rule of the Communist Party.

Several movies were made during that period along the general theme of Chinese being tempted by the attractions of foreign bourgeois life. The most popular of these, 'The Herdsman', later declared Film of the Year, concerned a young man sent out from the city to work as a teacher in a remote Inner Mongolian pastoral area. His father had emigrated many years before, but now returned, wealthy, from the United States, and invited his son to join him in America. The young man is seen getting an introduction to the `decadent bourgeois' lifestyle in the fleshpots of (would you believe) Beijing, drinking and dancing the night away.

He asks his wife if he should go, and she lays it on him: `Go on, go! There you can have a car, good food, a big house... you can go bare-arsed dancing if you want it! 'Just leave us and go!'

Needless to say, the hero eventually declines, in favour of his rustic and stoic life `building socialism'. That was the surface of the story, what the script said. But what really shone through the film was that it was actually the purely domestic pull of his family that held the man back, as it has held back generations of Chinese with emigration opportunities before.