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Chen Yonglin: Wrong country, wrong century

By Geremie Barme - posted Tuesday, 14 June 2005

I haven’t met a defector for years. Well, at least not an embassy official. But in the late 1980s my then partner, Linda Jaivin, and I were befriended by Wang Qunsheng, a pleasant if rather doctrinaire member of the Chinese embassy staff in Canberra.

Wang was always solicitous and perhaps a little bit too ready with ideological guidance. At the time I was a regular contributor to The Nineties, an international Chinese-language monthly based in Hong Kong. Carrying controversial commentaries and reports on politics, society and culture, The Nineties was much sought after, though banned, in China.

Today it is easy to post a dissenting view on issues of the day on one of the numerous websites or blogs accessible to readers on the mainland.


Back then, The Nineties was an outlet for heterodox opinion on the changing shape of Chinese life. I was the journal's main writer on mainland culture from 1986 to 1991.

Wang was an avid reader. But, charged with the duty of defending party-state policy at every turn (and believe me, during the 30 or so years that I've been involved with things Chinese, there have been a great many twists and turns), he was always assiduous in remarking on my wayward thoughts, whether on the nascent environmental lobby, avant-garde art, oppositional politics or cultural criticism.

So he tried to get me to mend my ways. He even presented me with a copy of Deng Xiaoping's selected works and he offered to fact-check my articles before I faxed them to Hong Kong each month. I wasn't entirely unappreciative of these ministrations, tentative moves by a Chinese embassy official to "open up to the West". Nonetheless, I declined his kind offer and we agreed to disagree.

But that was in the heady days of 1988-89, when political debate and discussion were more open in China than at any time since 1949. Then came the mass protests of 1989, the Beijing massacre of June 4 and the nationwide repression of political dissent.

In the wake of that political tragedy, even the stalwart Wang found it impossible to stomach his government's hard line. So he defected and, in the national outpouring of sympathy for the violent repression in China, he was granted asylum.

Much has changed in the intervening years. China's economy has boomed and the socio-cultural landscape of the country has been transformed. More to the point, Australia has become more enmeshed with the trading behemoth than ever. Politically, though, China is still pretty hard to stomach.


So it has been instructive to see the Chinese ambassador, Fu Ying, field questions from the local media about the latest defecting diplomat, Chen Yonglin. And there's no doubt about it, the ambassador is one class act. She presents a far more human face (and voice) than that of the old New China.

Fu deftly brushes aside concerns that Chen will be persecuted on his return to China. She tells us that there are laws and regulations that should ensure his wellbeing. Of course, she won't be the person responsible for administering the spirit, as opposed to the letter, of those finely worded laws and regulations. Anyway, Fu declares, it's not the '70s any more and with the smoothness of a chat-show host she says, "We have moved on".

Having lived in '70s China, I know just what she means. Parts of her country have certainly moved on, so much so that they look like a yuppie dream of consumerist heaven. People are free as never before under Communist Party rule to make a buck, so long as they don't misspeak themselves or make social demands above their station.

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First published in The Australian June 8, 2005 as "Under the bamboo curtain and into Vanstone limbo".

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About the Author

Geremie R. Barme is a professor of Chinese history at the Australian National University.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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