Now that’s living in a bubble

From a review by Gail Pellett of Foreigners Under Mao: Western Lives in China, 1949–1976:

I BROKE OUT laughing the other day when I checked my Twitter feed and found that some American expats in China were planning to pack up and go home because Xi Jinping was making it harder for them to get around the internet firewall with VPNs. Their main concern with Xi’s move? It would cut off their link to family, friends, and social media in the West.

These tweets reminded me of what it was like to live in Beijing in 1980 when I had access to two landlines — one located in the hallway of the building where I lived and another in the large offices of Radio Beijing. They hardly ever worked. You had to dial multiple times to make a connection and even then might not get through. If you were successful, you had to yell to be heard (obliterating any shred of privacy) and put up with clicking sounds that meant the line was bugged. I made exactly two calls “back home” to North America that year.

True, but it’s not 1980 anymore, China is now a modern country with no shortage of telecom infrastructure, and the internet and social media are frankly pretty damn central to most people’s lives (and indispensable to most businesses). I fully understand why, for some expats who have not made a long-term commitment to China, the exasperating daily struggle to get on the internet could be a deal-breaker.

During the 27 years of the Mao era, entry to China was tightly controlled. Of the sprinkling of Westerners living there, most were limited to residence in Peking. […]

And although Western press representation expanded gradually during the 1970s, along with an increasing diplomatic presence, the press corps never amounted to more than 20 people in the country at any one time. […]

Shocking as this may be today, in the 1960s all four Western correspondents working from Peking did not read or speak Chinese. […]

All these foreign experts worked inside Chinese institutions — universities or the foreign-language press, magazines, Xinhua news service, or Radio Peking. The work of these temporary experts, like that of the “long-term friends,” was seen as an important part of the propaganda agenda for the PRC — what they called “friendship diplomacy.” During the Mao era, the qualifications of these “experts” were politically determined — it was better to be “red” than “expert.” (In Radio Beijing’s English Department, I was the first experienced broadcast journalist to be hired in the 40-year history of that institution.) […]

Certainly the banning of personal relationships with the Chinese was the most devastating for all Westerners living in China during the Mao era and even for some years beyond. Not until 1983 did the government pass a law permitting Chinese people to marry foreigners.


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