One Man's Story Tells Tale of Two Cultures
Profiles of Confluence: People Drawing US and China Closer
BEIJING — The author of a bestseller here about life in America arrived in the US just weeks after the Chinese Army recaptured Tiananmen Square from students demanding democracy and change.
He left as protest leaders were being smuggled out of China on an underground railway in mid-1989 to evade the massive arrests that followed Operation Tiananmen. At a time when Sino-American relations were in a deep freeze, writer Qian Ning openly passed the tanks lining the streets of the Chinese capital and boarded a Boeing 747 to the US.
Unlike compatriots forced to use false identities and escape routes to seek sanctuary abroad, Mr. Qian's position as the son of China's foreign minister guaranteed him passage to the West.
Qian's book, which was published last year, reflects on China in 1989 and contrasts it with his six-year sojourn in the US. It is a first in the annals of Communist Chinese publishing.
"Studying in America" is remarkable not only for its evenhanded views of both China and the US, but because it was written by the son of one of Beijing's most powerful leaders.
"My life in America transformed me," Qian says in an interview. "I wanted to use the book to show a new kind of thinking, to be balanced and objective about the US."
China's rulers in 1989 surrounded the US Embassy here with machine gun-toting troops and accused Washington of conspiring with Chinese protesters to oppose communism. Since then, China's state-run publishing houses have issued a number of US-bashing books apparently aimed at fostering a wave of xenophobic nationalism.
Instead, Qian says the attacks rekindled an age-old fascination with the US and indirectly set the stage for a more balanced look at China's one-time enemy. Qian, who won a scholarship in journalism to the University of Michigan and then joined its faculty, presents a realistic portrait of America that is as deep as it is sweeping.
He juxtaposes snapshot interviews of Chinese migrs with impressionistic freeze-frames of American and Chinese life. "When I arrived at Michigan University [in August of 1989], students in T-shirts were crowded into street-side cafes and bars ... talking and laughing," writes Qian. "Just three months before, I had stood in Tiananmen Square watching impassioned students waving banners, shouting slogans, and leading a hunger strike."
"My mind could not connect the world before me and that of Tiananmen Square - it seemed they could not coexist on the same planet."
"I realized we Chinese, at least the younger generation of Chinese, could make a different kind of life for ourselves. The US provides an alternative, but not an absolute model, for China's future," says Qian, who adds that he is "not promoting any political idea or action."
Yet such heterodox ideas could have landed Qian in prison during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to '76, when Chairman Mao Zedong attempted to create a pure communist culture by isolating China and lashing out at "American imperialism." Qian says as he was growing up "anti-American protest marches were common, and we children joined them as we would a party or festival."
He adds, though, that one of the late leader Deng Xiaoping's greatest acts following Mao's passing in 1976 was opening China's doors to the West: "Although the government still said 'America is the enemy, capitalism is the enemy,' Deng sent Chinese students to the US."
Despite the political skirmishes that continue between Beijing and Washington, he adds, "few Chinese people today regard America as the enemy."
Qian, who returned to China in 1995, says he misses the freedom of speeding along America's highways while listening to pop music on the radio, and adds he admires the freedom-seeking spirit of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road."
Yet he adds that for some Chinese, raised in a collective society fostered by Confucianism and communism, America's focus on "individual freedom can become a terrible weight."
While Qian's book praises some aspects of American liberties, it also graphically outlines the homelessness, poverty, and racism that plague many cities. "The US is a first-world nation," says Qian. "So I was shocked when I discovered pockets of the country that were more miserable than the worst third-world countries."
Despite those blights, Qian says, he began to feel nostalgic for American pop music, films like "Forrest Gump," and even Dr. Seuss as he planned his return to China two years ago.
"As I packed, I had to prepare myself to give up my American life," he says. "Yet when I arrived in Beijing, I underwent an unexpected culture shock," he adds.
"Beijing radio played Western pop everyday, around the clock. The latest American movies were all available on videotape, and the newest CDs were being sold on many street corners."
While Beijing's leaders still used police and prisons to silence outspoken political dissidents, they allowed most Chinese to enjoy a degree of personal freedom that had not been seen since the 1949 revolution.
Although anti-American diatribes still occasionally appear in the state-run press, an invasion of Western culture is transforming China's cities and youths.
Qian says the 1989 clash at Tiananmen Square, rather than opening a new era of repression, actually closed a chapter in which Chinese were willing to lay down their lives for competing ideologies.
"I think China is moving in the right direction," says Qian. "Young people are becoming more open-minded and flexible." He says that if more Chinese students returned from the US, "they could have an enormous influence over China."
"China's future is still uncertain," Qian says, "but a new system could evolve that combines the Confucian idea of community with the American concept of individuality."
* First of several profiles running this week.