CHINESE COMMUNIST PARTY members don't tell foreigners much about the organization or policies of the CCP. They have a way of answering questions they don't want answered that leaves curious tourists just as uninformed as they were before their unwelcome inquiries. "They answer you but not the question," said one visitor who recently returned from China.
I had an experience like that last summer. I was part of a group of high school and college students that administrators of Model Cities/Chicago Committee on Urban Opportunity program accompanied to the People's Republic of China. We'd been told that we would be able to talk to national Communist leaders about the structure and operation of the CCP, and thought we'd be more receptive to their ideas than most American visitors.
We assumed the Chinese would welcome us as fellow oppressed peoples because we were all minority students. Thirteen of us were black. There were two Puerto Ricans, two Chicanos; one girl was of German descent and one fellow was of Polish ancestry. The only Oriental in our group was a Japanese-American girl whose parents grew up near Tokyo. One of the Chicanos, who became a U.S. citizen only six weeks before we left the country, told a reporter covering our trip preparations that the Chinese "are interested in the Latin community." We were also the youngest group to visit China. Excluding our adult escorts, mostly in their thirties, our average age was 17 years. We were all inner-city youth from low income, "poverty-stricken" ghetto neighborhoods.
We became even more hopeful when we got to China and the guide in charge of our tour in Canton told us he was reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. We started asking him to arrange a meeting with Chairman Mao Tse-Tung and Premier Chou En-Lai. They were the only two Chinese leaders we knew by name. We wanted to brag to our friends back home and we figured those two could tell us more about the nation's communist system than anybody else.
Two weeks later, with our wish still unfulfilled, we had given up hope. Three of our supervisors were lucky enough to spend a morning at the office of the Deputy Minister of Peking's Revolutionary Committee, but for the rest of us our walks past the Great Hall of the People and Mao's heavily-guarded residence were as close as we got to a party official. With only one day remaining in our 15-day stay, we had returned to Canton en route to Hong Kong, where we would take a plane back to the United States.
At lunch the guides told us they had scheduled a meeting that night with a member of the Canton Revolutionary Committee. We had to prepare our questions and give them to the interpreters. They would select those they felt most suitable, and answer no others.
It was pretty shart notice. We had to turn in all the qustions before we finished lunch. That meant trying to think up something to ask and at the same time paying attention to the guides during our last tour of Canton. It was especially hard to think about the meeting while we were watching hospital patients receive acupuncture treatment that afternoon. We scribbled down general questions like "How many minority people are on the Revolutionary Committee?", "How are the members of the committee chosen?" and "How long do the members serve?" Somebody asked "Who chooses the committee members?" Another question sought the percentage of workers, peasants and soldiers on the committee and its total number of members.
THE MEETING, held in one of the hotel lounges, came about an hour after our seven-course dinner. The room was full of overstuffed chairs and sofas and had been equipped with extra red and white electric fans to cool us in the sultry August heat of southern China. The hotel had brought in several bunches of bananas, bowls of filterless cigarettes that look like Pall Malls, three or four cases of cold beer and an equal number of cases of cold orange soda, called "chii-shui" (chee-schway), the favorite Chinese soft drink. There was hot sugarless tea for those who preferred it. It cools you off much better than beer or soda.
The Revolutionary Party spokesman, introduced to us as a "man in charge of a number of functions under the Revolutionary Committee of Canton," was Liu Shou-Shien, the party's general secretary. He didn't speak English so we conversed through the Chinese interpreters.
The questions we had written down were handed back to us. Then Liu gave us the usual 15-minute "brief introduction" that preceded all the meetings and tours we had. The introduction always included a friendly welcome in behalf of the "Chinese people" and background information on how the particular group was carrying out its part of the revolutionary struggle. He finished by saying he was ready to answer any questions we wanted to ask. This didn't make sense, because the head interpreter had already told us it was okay to read the questions we had but that we couldn't ask any others.
We began. "What is the committee's role within the Communist Party?"
The interpreter repeated the question in Chinese to Liu. He spoke for maybe ten seconds to the interpreter, who then began speaking to us, giving no less than ten minutes of the history of China before and after the 1949 communist take-over.
The interpreter used some phrases which, in their abbreviated forms, would fit nicely into a new Chinese calendar. The general idea was that "Before the Revolution" (B.R.) everything in China was worse than Satan's lair but "After the Revolution" (A.R.) Mao Tse-Tung made everything beautiful for the previously downtrodden, starving and homeless Chinese peasantry.
The country, according to the interpretation, was doing fairly well "Before the Cultural Revolution." "After the Cultural Revolution," however, China almost became a land of peace and harmony, plenty of food and political unity. I termed these two eras B C R and A C R because these periods take on as much meaning for our East Asian neighbors as the birth of Christ does for most of the rest of the world.
All our questions got the same treatment. We had almost memorized the history of the People's Republic two hours later, when the jovial Mr. Liu decided we had learned enough about the intricacies of the Revolutionary Committee and the Communist Party. He thanked us for being so attentive and commended the intelligence exhibited in our questions. Our group leader presented Liu with a set of albums recorded by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Mr. Liu and his guides filed ceremoniously out, leaving us no more aware of what goes on in the Communist Party than we had been when the meeting started.