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The Journalist's Long March

By Robert O. Boorstin

Zhao Jinglun's apartment on Ware St. in Cambridge is neither large nor luxurious. A couch, an easy chair and a small desk provide the room's only furnishings; two Chinese scrolls dominate the otherwise blank beige walls. A radio plays soft classical music. Zhao's private quarters are similarly sparse--a night table, a chest of drawers and a neatly made bed. In the kitchen, where Zhao stands over the stove cooking lunch for his guest, there is little but the essentials. A small table covered with an oil cloth (and a glass bowl holding seven oranges and a package of Beechnut gum) serves for a dining room.

But for Zhao, who has spent much of the last 30 years living and working in Beijing, his three rooms seem almost princely. As managing editor of the Foreign Languages Distribution and Publications Bureau of the People's Republic, Zhao, his wife and two daughters all live in three rooms. Their apartment, which rents for about 10 Chinese dollars a month, has no bathroom. And Zhao and his family are relatively lucky--they have a telephone, a privilege normally reserved for higher-level party bureaucrats and cadres.

On the desk in Zhao's living room sits an open copy of Daniel Bell's The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. It has been almost 30 years since Zhao has been a student of economics, 30 years since he has been in Cambridge. The last time around, he studied as a graduate student, passed his general examinations and was preparing to write a dissertation on "the gestation period of investment." But in December 1950, several months after the Korean War broke out, Zhao decided to return home.

Three decades later to the month, Zhao once again attends lectures in Harvard Yard. Things are different, he says, looking out the window of his apartment in search of a memory of Cambridge in the late '40s. They use more mathematics in economics classes, and the noise in the Square is much louder. And Zhao is no longer studying for a degree. As a member of this year's class at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, and the first fellow from the People's Republic, he's come to Harvard for a crash course in the modern world.

Any journalist who decides to spend a year as a Nieman--one of a select group whom Harvard supports for a year of education and general socializing--goes through a reeducation process of sorts. Away from the frenetic pace of the newsroom--and not permitted to engage in commercial work--the fellow studies a field that he is interested in and that might some day help his own career. For Zhao, whose work includes editing a monthly periodical of translations from the Western press (circulated to a limited number of Chinese officials) and writing a column about the current scene in the United States, that field has been rather broad. "I want to learn more about the United States--politics, government, society, economy and foreign relations," he says simply.

Preparing for this year's studies has not been easy. Removed from the mainstream of Western thought for most of the last ten years, Zhao was forced to start from ground zero. Working with Daniel Bell, professor of Sociology, Zhao brought himself up to date by reading, among others, de Tocqueville's classic study, Democracy in America. His curriculum reads like a course of study in The Modern Western World: Bell's own Sociology 102, "Societal Analysis," Stanley Hoffmann's Government 185, "The United States in World Affairs," and Government 148, "American Political Development" with Samuel Huntington. A voracious reader with a native facility for the English language, Zhao has become an ardent student. Saturdays this term have been occupied with trips to Bell's house, for two-hour private seminars where the professor lectures and the two men discuss, among other things, Bell's conclusions in The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society and pressing issues in political theory and economic development.

For the 57-year-old Zhao, academic discussions about the interplay of politics and economics are a great leap from writing articles such as "China's Third Steel Base Starts Producing." Since his first visit to the United States--he arrived on a slow boat from China with $25 in his pocket--Zhao has written about everything from the "Three Anti's" Campaign to the Boston Symphony Orchestra's recent tour--in short, almost anything a Chinese journalist of the past 20 years could observe.

"I lived through all the political campaigns," he recalls, "either as a member of the work team..."His voice trails off; he would rather not complete the sentence with the phrase "or as a victim." "I'm not a professional revolutionary," he jokes, "I am a good-for-nothing intellectual."

Despite his smile, there is some bitterness in Zhao's recollection. He still remembers the night in 1966 when youths from the ultra-leftist Red Guard--the tools of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution--came to his home and interrogated him until dawn. They destroyed everything of value his family owned, abused Zhao; later he was branded an "active counter-revolutionary," a label--the worst of many one could wear in China during those times--that stuck with him. From 1969 to 1971, Zhao lived at a reeducation farm in Honan province--eight hours train ride from Peking, with the chance to visit his family every two weeks.

As one of a seemingly endless number of technicians, scientists and intellectuals "sent down to the country" during the Cultural Revolution, Zhao raised hogs, pruned weeds, and built a lot of houses. He laughs as he stands over the gas stove in his Cambridge apartment, saying that he learned to cook on the farm, where he stoked the fire for 150 people. He talks wistfully about the "great deal of unnecessary cruelty," the "widespread violence," about people whose hands were tied behind their backs and, like dogs, were forced to eat steamed bread from the floor-or eat nothing at all. "The Red Guards did many stupid things," he recalls. "Somebody hit me and did something very silly..." Again, the sentence is left unfinished.

But even in the midst of his suffering, Zhao was not vindictive. In the early morning following the Red Guard's visit, he discovered the youths--none over 17 years old--collapsed on the floor of his dwelling, trembling from exhaustion and the winter cold. Zhao gathered up spare coats and blankets and; as one admirer tells the story, "decided to protect the plunderers from the cold night."

Today; Zhao still feels little of the resentment and hate that infects other "counterrevolutionaries" who survived the Cultural Revolution. "I was not the only on who suffered," he explains. "There were thousands--tens of thousands--and you really can't pin down who was responsible." He does not blame the Guards, confused children under the spell of Mao, for what they did. "If one doesn't have a choice, you can't make any moral judgment whether he is right or wrong," Zhao argues. "I never doubted that things would change," he says, "because it was so ridiculous, so silly, so unreasonable..." His words reflect what one friend calls Zhao's "extreme understanding" and "inner faith." Tolerance let Zhao endure, says Masayuki Ikeda, a Nieman fellow and friend. "Hardship makes a man big."

So many years later, Zhao can even joke about his experience. Working in the countryside, he says, while pointing at his stomach, rid him of an ulcer and improved his stamina. "I wasn't too unhappy then," he quips, "because you don't use your brain much." The experience brought him closer to Chinese rural life. "Agricultural is hard, back-breaking work," he recalls. "When you pull a handcart of grain mired in mud, it takes a lot of willpower. It gave me a sense of what peasants do." The experience seems to have given Zhao what James C. Thomson Jr., curator of the Nieman Foundation, calls "the languid strength of a bamboo or willow--flexible though tough at the core." It is the toughness that Zhao shows today, as he shakes his head and sighs, "Nothing can get me scared."

As the Cultural Revolution hardened his own resolve, Zhao says, it taught the nation a lesson. "The ultraleft line was carried to its logical conclusion and was thoroughly discredited in the eyes of the people," he says. "The Cultural Revolution paved the way for the current reforms." He disagrees with those who believe that revenge alone is what powers current policies. For example, Zhao argues, the trial of the Gang of Four is a reassertion of the authority of written law after a period when "the top leaders' words were law." "It's very easy to gain vindication," he says, dismissing the notion that Deng Xiaoping--purged during the Cultural Revolution--is just "getting back" at his old enemies. "They can just put the Gang away and have them shot."

The trial is also part of a reevaluation of Mao, Zhao explains, with a frankness that several Harvard Sinologists say is unusual for a Chinese today. "It's really cutting [Mao] down to size." Zhao believes. "He was deified. In his late years, when there was obvious senility, he made mistakes."

One of those mistakes--one which Zhao believes will haunt PRC leaders for some time--is economic imbalance. Despite recent decentralization efforts, Chinese leaders' attempts to correct the economy's heavy industry and urban biases have not yet been successful. Citing a steel plant, which has already cost the regime more than $20 billion, Zhao says, "It's like sitting on a tiger. You can't give it up because you've sunk so much money into it, and you can't continue it because it's costing more and more."

'I was not the only one who suffered. There were thousands--tens of thousands--and you really can't pin down who was responsible.'

Zhao supports the current leadership and predicts that state power will "mellow in time." But he does not believe that economic decentralization means, as many observers have said, that China will become a "capitalist" nation, with increasingly democratic tendencies. Like most nations, he believes, China will develop a mixed system. Economic improvements will raise the standard of living, which in turn will spur people to ask for greater freedom. In his own field, he notes that "in the past, either you towed the party line and wrote about, things you didn't want to write about, or you didn't write." Today, censoring of journalism is reduced; writers are responsible for their own opinions to a much greater extent.

Long-term political change, he believes, will be difficult to implement. "Any reform will hurt the vested interest," Zhao contends. "Bureaucracy abhors change and present policies are running into a stiff resistance." If Deng's policies fail, Zhao warns, the nation will either revert to following the Soviet Union or become "something like Iran, neither pro-Western nor pro-Eastern, but internally confused and chaotic."

But in Zhao's worried tone there is still a strong strain of optimism. Beneath his journalist's skepticism and the constant questioning of the logic of past Chinese policies, he retains, as Thomson says, "a faith in the ultimate outcome of justice in China--which means faith in China itself." Zhao still believes in the strength of the revolution. At heart, he is an unswerving Chinese patriot.

He sits forward on the couch and emphasizes his hopes for Deng once again. The new leadership has "set the forces in motion, and they will be difficult to halt," he believes. "That's the only chance," he concludes, shifting restlessly, thinking about how his own fate is so delicately tied to his nation's. "The system is changing for the better--one can only hope it will continue."

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