One of the things I wondered about when I returned to Boston after 12 years abroad was how I could possibly keep up with the ever-evolving story of China’s emergence as a world power, which I had covered as a journalist in Tokyo and Beijing. I needn’t have worried: the Boston-Beijing connection is strong and getting stronger.
Within weeks of my arrival at Harvard as a Nieman Fellow in September 1997, the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research announced that China’s President, Jiang Zemin, was coming to speak at Memorial Hall. The carefully scripted pomp and glory of Jiang’s symbolic visit—the thundering motorcade, children waving flags of welcome, the descent upon campus of unsmiling bodyguards and U.S. Secret Service men posted at every conceivable strategic point—gave new meaning to the gates of Harvard yard.
What really made the event memorable for me, however, was the enthusiastic “welcome” of thousands of peaceful demonstrators who not only caught President Jiang’s eye but also showed a great outpouring of anti-establishment emotion. Tibetan monks held candlelit prayer ceremonies, China dissidents Harry Wu and Wang Xizhe faced the cameras, and thousands of others braved a cold drizzle to show support for the victims of China’s success story.
Inside Sanders Hall, the Secret Service and their Chinese counterparts were dispersed in a hall with hundreds of empty seats to insure decorum would be observed. Jiang Zemin’s arrival was prefaced by the roar of demonstrators outside and then a series of polite introductions from representatives of Harvard. The Chinese-language portion of Jiang’s speech, a rambling account of China’s long history, was almost certainly designed for the TV audience back in China, but when he started speaking English, making informed references to Harvard and a previous visit to New England, he charmed the crowd into many rounds of applause.
When the Harvard moderator, Ezra Vogel, announced that the Chinese President would take a question from the floor, I stood up and asked about the release of a dissident, Wei Jingsheng. I did not get a response (the official transcript refers to my shouts in Chinese as audience unrest), but I got my answer two weeks later when Wei Jingsheng was put on a plane to the United States, free after 17 years in prison.
The spirited demonstrations marking Jiang’s Harvard visit reminded me of Tiananmen in little ways: the pithy Chinese slogans, the red flags waving in the air. In 1989 the world’s TV cameras were in Beijing for Gorbachev’s state visit and ended up filming the Tiananmen rebellion; this time the press was in Cambridge because of the interminable trial of a British au pair accused of murder and ended up getting a colorful demonstration.
Tiananmen took a rocket ride in the news cycle that day, because some Harvard pundit said that Jiang Zemin had apologized for the Tiananmen massacre. For 24 hours the story soared on wire and print, until the Chinese side emphatically denied any such interpretation, sending the ill-conceived interpretation crashing to the ground.
After the Jiang Zemin speech I made a few pointed comments to CNN about Harvard’s coddling dictators. I thought I’d never get invited to another “China” dinner in this town again. Yet three weeks later I was invited to a fancy dinner at the Harvard Faculty Club welcoming five influential generals from China’s People’s Liberation Army!
The dinner host, Joseph Nye, Dean of the Kennedy School of Government, did make a point of looking me in the eye and saying the session with Chinese General Xiong Guangkai was off the record, but the truth is the speeches and toasts of everlasting friendship were far less interesting than the fact that the dinner was taking place at all. In March 1996 the U.S. Navy moved an aircraft carrier in the direction of Taiwan as the Chinese Army launched provocative missile tests in the area. A year and a half later, the military élite were eating French food with knife and fork in a posh wood-paneled dining room decorated with oil paintings of Harvard’s crusty benefactors.
At Harvard there are numerous professors and retired diplomats who have worked for the CIA and other intelligence organizations. In stark contrast to the “get the CIA off campus” atmosphere of college campuses in the 1970’s, they are broadly accepted and even respected as men of power. President Nixon used to refer to Harvard as the “Kremlin on the Charles,” but “Langley on the Charles” is not far off.
Being back in America after almost a decade and a half in Asia, I have discovered a country that is more international than when I left. Oddly enough, television news and the dumbing down of other media suggest quite the opposite: an increasingly isolationist America absorbed with contemplating its own navel. Commercialism is more rampant than before, which may help explain why ratings and the bottom line are driving much of contemporary journalism.
But if you turn off the TV and put down your copies of The New York Times and The Boston Globe, it is plain to see that America is getting more Asian all the time. I hear Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Thai spoken throughout Boston and note the flourishing of ethnic enclaves and tasty restaurants. Thais flock to Cambridge. Japanese students have helped revitalize Porter Square and Newbury street. Koreans, Filipinos, Tibetans, Indians, Vietnamese and Cambodians are fellow passengers on the subway.
It’s a long way from China, but if you listen carefully you can hear the echoes of Tiananmen at Harvard Square.