Pomfret's Tales Out of School: 'Chinese Lessons'

John Pomfret i i

hide captionJohn Pomfret's nickname during his Chinese college years was "rice bucket."

John Pomfret

John Pomfret's nickname during his Chinese college years was "rice bucket."

John Pomfret went to college in China. In 1981, that was a rare experience for an American. Pomfret — now a journalist — has since checked on five former classmates for the book Chinese Lessons.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

John Pomfret was one of the first American students ever admitted to China after the Communist Revolution, when he came to Nanjing University in 1981. The first nickname he was given, both to salute his hearty appetite and perhaps to embarrass him, was Rice Bucket. He returned as a correspondent for the U.S. press and was expelled shortly after the repression in Tiananmen Square.

He returned again as bureau chief of the Washington Post in 1998. Now Mr. Pomfret has written a small part of the story of billions living in a growing, robust and often brutal China, by tracing what's happened to some of his university classmates in China. His book is called Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China. John Pomfret joins us from the studios of NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. JOHN POMFRET (Author, Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China): Thank you very much for having me.

SIMON: You know, a whole generation of people have grown up not remembering the time when there wasn't a U.S. airline that flew to China, when every other product you pick up in the store wasn't made in China. What was it like to be a student in China in 1981?

Mr. POMFRET: That's exactly right. We tend to forget that China then was both a forbidden and a forbidding place for America, pretty much the closest thing that we could get to interplanetary travel without having to join NASA.

The thing that really struck me about China then was the absences - for example just colors. I mean, the landscape was grey and brown, and the clothes people wear were blue and green. Only the very, very young were jauntily dressed.

SIMON: Could you recollect for us the great national woman's voice of China that used to wake up a billion people every morning?

Mr. POMFRET: Indeed, there was this squawky, martial voice, and it said, basically, Prepare for war, increase your vigilance, and fight for the Revolution. And we heard that every morning at about 5:30 a.m.

SIMON: And yet at a time of repression and a lot of - a lot of, to use an Orwellian phrase, one-speak, commonality in the ideologically based language, some of your fellow students made up their own lyrics to an old propaganda tune called Study Hard.

Mr. POMFRET: Yes, exactly. In 1976, Deng Xiaoping came into power, and in 1977 the government resumed college entrance examinations for the first time in 10 years. During the Cultural Revolution, entrance to college had been determined purely on your political background.

And from 1977 on, it was determined almost purely on merit. The type of people who went to college, who got into college in 1977 and 1978, who were my classmates, really crawled their way out of hell to get into university. And so this was a very, very unique generation of people.

SIMON: Can I get you to read the lyrics to Study Hard?

Mr. POMFRET: Yes.

SIMON: What were the original lyrics, heavily propagandistic?

Mr. POMFRET: Yeah. The original lyrics were basically, Study hard, study hard, look up into the sky, study hard. It was basically built around a saying that Chairman Mao had written to the young of China to study hard every day and move forward every day.

SIMON: I'm not sure you could sing it, but if you wanted to try that, we'd be game, too.

Mr. POMFRET: I will give it a try.

Mr. POMFRET: (Singing) Every day there is nothing, nothing to go after at all except soybean milk and onion pancakes on Wednesday morning. But then 20 people cut in line. Our classes are ridiculous. We must study on our own. Maybe tomorrow things will change.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POMFRET: I'm embarrassing myself, but...

SIMON: The book centers around some of the old classmates. One of the first people you met when you came to China as a student was a fellow who says, oh, call me Old Shoe. Everybody calls me Old Shoe. And he was, I guess, a little bit older, but that's not why people deferred to him?

Mr. POMFRET: No, Old Shoe was the Communist Party secretary among the students in my class, and so his job was to help people get into the party, which was then a very important thing, because once you entered the party, you got assigned a better job. Once you got assigned that better job, you definitely got assigned better housing. You had a ticket to the good life if you got into the party. So Old Shoe was sort of the gatekeeper there. He was also my gatekeeper, and he slept right above me.

SIMON: Let me try and get you to tell the story about - where life finds Old Shoe. I guess you were not totally surprised that when he winds up getting put in charge of a government office, he turns it into an ad agency, of all things.

Mr. POMFRET: Right. I mean, Old Shoe is the ultimate climber, so when he was the party secretary at Nanjing University, he was always hitting me up for sugar, a variety of things. I would make trips on his behalf. And then when we catch up again 20 years later, he's recently been booted out of his job in the government because he was assigned to the party history office of the Chung Jo(ph) city government, which is a small city along the Yangtze River.

And the party history offices were basically propaganda offices, and he realized that that was just a dead end, and so what he did was he turned all the people who were working in the office into guys writing ad campaigns, and he turned it into an ad agency, and he started making a lot of money.

They started writing ad campaigns for all the number of - growing number of enterprises that were popping up in the city, because this was in the mid-'90s, when the economy had begun to boom again. And he started to ride that wave, and he did very, very nicely with it, until one of his underlings gets jealous and writes a report about him, saying, hey, this guy's breaking the law, he's turned the Communist Party office into an ad agency. And then Old Shoe is arrested, investigated for corruption, and ultimately forced out of his job.

SIMON: So many years after the crackdown and the deaths at Tiananmen Square, what's the price that you think China has paid, particularly that group of people that was there in the square and others around the country who joined them spiritually?

Mr. POMFRET: With Deng Xiaoping's trip down to southern China in 1992 and sort of the jump-starting or the resumption of the massive economic reforms, you see the end of idealism and the beginning of a very mercantilist view of the world, because that's the route that Deng gave them as a sort of a solution to the Tiananmen Square problem. Basically, the Chinese want democracy. Deng said you can't have democracy, but you can get rich.

SIMON: I wanted you to read that section.

Mr. POMFRET: I returned to China in 1998 with the Washington Post, and one of the things I found fascinating was how the Chinese in Beijing were very, very careful to wipe out any sign of their recent history, specifically the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

And then I was doing a story on this new trend. The Chinese sort of had taken to cars. They'd also taken to drive-in theater. I noticed something there, and I'll just read you this little paragraph.

Still, signs of China's troubled past surfaced in the strangest of places. One of the few undeveloped plots of land near the city center had been a small wooded area owned by the forestry department. A businessman had turned it into a drive-in theater, the Happy Auto Movie Palace, a taste of Americana in Beijing, except here cars were provided for those who did not drive.

When I visited the drive-in one summer afternoon, the owner pointed to the concrete slabs beneath our feet. If you looked closely, you could see tank treads. He had bought the unwanted pieces of the Tiananmen Square from a corrupt army captain to pave his theater. How bizarre, I remarked. Not really, he replied. It was a good deal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: We have a feeling in the West that if people become more prosperous, they also have the means to be more independent and to become more politically outspoken. For how long will China, will the classmates you know, be satisfied with just the prospect of making money?

Mr. POMFRET: Right now there's effectively a very successful social contract, if you will, between the Party and the elite. We'll give you the opportunity to make money, you don't organize against us, you back us. Among the lower class in China, that contract is breaking down, so you have increasing number of demonstrations, riots. And so the danger will be the revolution will be caused by the underclass somehow.

SIMON: Let me understand this. So the Communist Party has to hope that the workers don't arise and revolt?

Mr. POMFRET: Indeed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POMFRET: That's the biggest - that's the biggest - right now it's the biggest threat that they face. I mean, the Communist Party is no longer the Communist Party of the proletariat. It's the Communist Party of the elite.

SIMON: Mr. Pomfret, thanks so much.

Mr. POMFRET: Mr. Simon, thank you. It was a real pleasure.

SIMON: John Pomfret, who's now the Los Angeles bureau chief for the Washington Post. His new book is called China Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Scott Simon.

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Chinese Lessons

Five Classmates and the Story of the New China

by John Pomfret

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