"You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilization from barbarism. I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass. A tug here, a push there, and you bring back the reign of Saturn."
--Sir John Buchan (1875-1940)
Gold-plated plaque in a Taoist temple, Beijing
Souvenir sellers at a tourist bus stop in Xian, China
"These folks live in sort of a splendid isolation, waiting for the overthrow of the current government in Beijing."
Photographs of interrogators who later became victims hang from the wall in Tuol Sleng.
"...the barbarians are still very much in evidence. These days they wear mirror sun glasses, drive Toyota Land Cruisers and English Range Rovers, drink Johnny Walker Black over long loud breakfasts in hotel dining rooms, and terrorize the civilian population with polished sidearms..."
It was 10 p.m. on a Sunday and the Beijing terminal was nearly deserted. Northwest Orient's feckless five-hour delay in Detroit meant that I was too late to get to my hotel by bus. The only people around at this hour were at the "local transportation" counter. From the look of that line, I wouldn't make it to my hotel before breakfast, even assuming I could somehow learn to speak Chinese by the time I reached one of the listless information clerks.
Suddenly my bags were scooped up by a small band of young Chinese men. I was hustled out of the terminal through a VIP entrance to a large black Toyota parked under a sign that announced ABSOLUTELY NO PARKING AT ANY TIME.
I had been hijacked by capitalists.
My guidebooks had warned me that this might happen, and in five minutes I had stubbornly bargained my way down to an amount only slightly more than double the guidebook's suggested rate for the 30-minute trip downtown in an unmarked pirate "taxi." The driver was a stern young woman who took her job entirely seriously. She managed to avoid several police checkpoints on the superhighway by driving through parking lots and down back streets between a maze of high-rise apartment buildings. Her companion was a mysterious fellow wearing enough gold jewelry for an opening act in a downtown Las Vegas casino. He kept flashing a great roll of American currency at me.
The Total Shopping Experience
Welcome to the new China.
Not that the old China I remembered from our first trip in 1981 had disappeared entirely. Outside my hotel window in the western suburbs, coal-fired steam locomotives worked 24 hours a day in railway yards, and thousands of people bicycled past streetcars full to bursting with humanity. The air was still unbreathable with smog that never let up, the water was still undrinkable, and the young army recruits from the countryside still held hands as they walked wide-eyed through the gates and courtyards of the Forbidden City. The hotel was slick, but since it was owned by the Party, the food was wretched. One memorable lunch consisted of stewed ox lungs.
I happened to be in China over the May 1 Labor Day weekend; I don't know whether I was more surprised by the total absence of any military parades or by the total dedication of the local population to turning this most revolutionary of workers' holidays into a total shopping experience. The crowds at Macy's in New York a week before Christmas pale in comparison to the Labor Day crowds in Beijing. I had the feeling that a billion Chinese had decided quite literally to shop 'til they dropped.
The city was also celebrating the 100th anniversary of Beijing University that weekend--mainly by closing off the roads in and out of the university quarter. (It was one week away from the ninth anniversary of the Tienamin Square massacre.) A student told me over a beer that several hundred undercover government security agents had infiltrated the campus. These men--and even I could spot them--reinforced the silent message of the video cameras that were posted on lampposts in every public place I went. That message, from what I'd experienced in Beijing thus far, evidently was, "The Party wants you to go shopping."
"It's good to be rich" was all that remained of Mao's revolutionary rhetoric.
Last spring, Western movies about Tibet were hot in the Americas and Europe and were extremely critical of China's overthrow of the Dalai Lama and the 1951 war that resulted in China's annexation of Tibet. Yet in Beijing last spring, you'd never have guessed there was any controversy. The Chinese response was everything a Party Madison Avenue advertising cadre would have hoped. The giant posters in the streets were never exactly clear about what "our glorious revolutionary armies" freed the Tibetan people from, but from what I could gather from Beijing television, newspapers, and cultural exhibits, the Tibetan masses were overjoyed to have been forcefully reunited with China under communism. How many thousands were slaughtered in the process was not mentioned.
When I finally arrived at Tienamin Square, it was largely deserted, perhaps in large part because access to the square has been made all but impossible by the erection of pedestrian barriers both above and below ground.
"Your Tax Dollars at
By the time we arrived in Xian (another shopping mecca, as it turned out), I had had my fill of "the glorious revolution." I wondered how many people in China could truly be supportive of the regime's aging dictators and their cynical "it's good to get rich "view of human progress. In the end, my guide in Xian summed it up more eloquently than I ever could have: As we pulled to the side of one of the modern new highways to let a wedding procession go roaring past, we stared in wonder as the bride's brothers showed off her dowry of a clothes washer, a refrigerator, and a water heater, all still in their boxes. "Another rich peasant bride," my guide sneered in English. "Let's see how happy she'll be a year from now." The woman could have been speaking metaphorically about her entire country.
Leaving China always feels more like an escape than a departure, and the feeling this time was as pervasive as it had been 20 years earlier. I was en route to Cambodia to fulfill a lifelong dream of seeing the ruins of Angkor Watt, but the best way to get there was to go by way of Bangkok. With the Thai bhatt devalued to about 50 cents on the dollar, I couldn't resist taking some time to see a bit of northern Thailand.
In the mountainous north where I was headed, Thailand is populated by isolated groups of ethnic Burmese, Laotians, Hmong, and Chinese, most of whom live on a thriving narcotics trade and by illegally clear-cutting the last remaining rain forests in southeast Asia. All of these people are one way or another geopolitical refugees. Few of them would have much chance of survival in their native lands if they were repatriated.
I had lunch my first day in the country in a very prosperous but completely isolated village near the Burmese border. Here the last remains of the old Nationalist Chinese Army settled after the final victory of Mao's revolutionary forces. Having moved here when most of their compatriots fled to Taiwan, these folks live in a sort of splendid isolation, waiting for the overthrow of the current government in Beijing. Until recently they were supported almost exclusively by not-so-secret money from the American CIA, whose idea it was to keep an anticommunist "third force" at the ready to take over the government of a democratic China. Or so our government reasoned back in the 1950s. "Your tax dollars at work!" my Thai translator chuckled.
Thailand is a wonderful, beautiful, and magical place. It seems ironic that it is now the primary vacation destination of working class Japanese and rich Chinese on sex tours, though most of them head for the fleshpots along Thailand's southern resort coasts. From the veranda of my resort hotel on the Mekong River at Thailand's northernmost point, I could look down to see small groups of incredibly young-looking girls in brightly lit cafes waiting for customers who took them away in sport utility vehicles and military 4-wheel drives, while across the river to the west Burma (Mynamar) and to the north Laos lay silent in absolute total darkness. Once in a while the sound of a small outboard motor could be heard on the river—probably a Laotian peasant towing a stolen teak log or a boatload of raw opium to clandestine markets somewhere down river. I recalled how this trade had provided an important piece of the financing that kept the defeated rebel Khmer Rouge army solvent for more than a decade--an often-fatal half-day's journey downstream in Cambodia. I wouldn't have been at all surprised if the legendary Mr. Kurtz had come up to me on that dark hotel veranda to offer me a gin and tonic.
Faces of the Dead
The short drive to town from the airstrip revealed signs of recent warfare on virtually every building. Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge government had murdered between 1.5 and 2 million of their own people in less than four years between April 1975, when they seized control of the capital, Phnom Penh, and 1979 when the Vietnamese army drove them into exile deep in the jungles. On April 18, less than a month before I arrived and a week after his death, Pol Pot's earthly remains had been incinerated in a garbage dump.
Nothing could have prepared me for the shock of Cambodia. I had read several histories and knew that the murderous regime of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge had ended when the Vietnamese Army had invaded Cambodia and driven the remnants of the Khmer Rouge into the jungles. From several Western news accounts I also knew the dark horrible secret that Pol Pot and his regime survived only because of the covert financial and overt political support of the United States under three presidents. Cold War politics had caused us to side with Pol Pot, who was protected by China, and to make common cause with depravity against the Vietnamese invaders who were then allied with the Evil Empire of the USSR. But when I walked through Tuol Sleng, the modern suburban high school that in the 1970s had been turned into the main torture center where 20,000 Cambodians had been "processed" before being murdered as enemies of the revolution, I realized a horror I could barely comprehend.
The Khmer Rouge had systematically photographed every one of their victims in this place of death. The pictures of those about to be executed are hung by the hundreds, like a hellish wallpaper, in every room. They were teachers and students, mothers and grandmothers; they were shopkeepers and sanitation workers; they were all doomed. The eyes of the now-dead stare out at us, pleading, terrified. A young American college student and I were alone in one room. "My God," he whispered, "they look at us like they want to tell us we were responsible for what was about to happen to them." "I think they did," was all I could say.
Bringing Back the Reign
It seemed wherever I went on my travels this past summer, barbarism was more than just an abstraction; it was recent memory. Whether it was the slaughter of students in Tienamin Square; the subjugation of Tibetans to a brutal materialistic atheism; the political, economic, and civil bleakness of Laos; the brutish dictatorship in Burma, or the mass destruction of human life in Cambodia--the barbarians were not just at the gates, they were as real and present as the kalashnikov assault rifles in the hands of raw teenage recruits, and the hundreds of human skulls that have been mounded in the shape of the map of Cambodia behind plate-glass display cabinets.
In Phnom Penh--where in April 1975 money had been abolished, and all clocks were reset to the Year Zero; where everyone with eyeglasses, education, books, art, or any international experience was immediately put to death; where to complain of starvation meant a bullet in the head--the barbarians are still very much in evidence. These days they wear mirror sunglasses, drive Toyota Land Cruisers and English Range Rovers, drink Johnny Walker Black over long, loud breakfasts in hotel dining rooms, and terrorize the civilian population with polished sidearms that are used without restraint against anyone who happens to give offense. They are drug smugglers, pimps, timber thieves, money launderers, and the sons of highly placed officials (the current strong man, Hun Sen, has a son at West Point). They are the newest manifestations of mankind's oldest fears. They are the very face of evil.
And yet, somehow the human heart survives. Sitting under shade trees on brutally hot afternoons I listened to hours of heated debates among young tour guides and souvenir hawkers about Cambodia's then-upcoming elections: Do you vote for the dictator in the hope it will legitimize his power, or do you vote your conscience and risk renewed outbreaks of civil war?
I spent most of a morning drinking tea with the elderly Mrs. Cheap, a Cambodian shopkeeper who had several pieces I really wanted to purchase, but who was far more generous with her time and her tea than she was in her willingness to haggle over prices.
I was served simple and wonderfully creative French dinners in nearly empty restaurants by boys in their mid-teens--the proprietor explained that although he had escaped to Thailand during the Khmer Rouge dictatorship, all of his former employees had been executed.
I had a long late-afternoon conversation with my 40-year-old translator and guide in Phnom Penh who had lost nearly every member of her family to the Khmer Rouge insanity simply because they all knew how to speak French. All she wanted to know was: Did Americans know about the suffering of her people?
Compared to the delay-ridden, anger-filled flight to Beijing weeks earlier, my trip home on Thai Air was a wonderful self-indulgent treat. But as I thought back on the hassles and short tempers a month before in the departures lounge in Detroit, I wondered how many Americans have any idea how trivial and inconsequential most of our problems would be in the eyes of most of the peoples of our planet. We live in a time and a place where we can take efficiency, courtesy, and even decency completely for granted. I had traveled to places where the police have powers that we cannot comprehend. I had been in villages where 12-year-old girls are sold off for prostitution. I had seen a country still in the grip of the tyranny of barbarians. I had seen the faces and heard the stories of the dead. And yet everywhere I was treated with kindness; and all anyone ever asked was that we not forget what had happened to them.
I wrote these words to help me remember.