Antonioni filming in Tiananmen Square

The masses might stone you

My time as the first foreign broadcaster accredited to Mao’s China

This article is part of our special China issue featuring articles from Rana Mitter, Patrick Porter Oliver Wiseman and Gary Jones. To read the full, unabridged version of this article, click here.

As our train approached the Hong Kong-China border, a loudspeaker boomed out a warning. “Anyone without a permit must leave the train at the next stop. You are about to enter a restricted area.” John Penlington, the ABC’s Hong Kong correspondent and, until then, our China watcher, gave me a final handshake and climbed down on to the platform. He waved goodbye as the train pulled out again on the short run to the border at Lo Wu.

I was excited to become one of the rare foreign correspondents resident in the People’s Republic of China, and the first ever journalist from Australia based in Mao’s China. But, I was apprehensive at being cut off in Peking (now Beijing) from the outside world. On that October day in 1973, only six of us had visas to enter the Middle Kingdom. The other five were African diplomats.

At Lo Wu, I stepped down from the train, passed beneath a Union Jack flapping in the breeze, and by a stern-eyed British soldier on guard. There was no direct train link or air connection from Hong Kong to anywhere in China, just once a week flights to Peking from Tehran and Islamabad. The vast country was very much cut off from the rest of the world with virtually no tourism.

So, carrying my luggage, I began the one hundred step journey across the covered bridge into the Middle Kingdom. It felt like a John le Carré spy novel. At the far end, a baggy-green-uniformed Chinese soldier hugged an AK-47 rifle to his chest. Above him loomed a huge red poster, emblazoned in gold with a revolutionary saying of the then demi-god, Mao Zedong: “We Have Friends All Over The World.” I wondered if that was a welcome, or a warning, or both. 

We foreigners resident in Peking were forbidden to have Chinese friends or even acquaintances

As I reached the end of the bridge, a polite, but unsmiling immigration official noted the red-star visa in my passport and waved me through. Sham Chun, now Shenzhen, was then a sleepy fishing village of a few hundred people. Today, it is a city of twelve million including billionaires, a prosperous powerhouse of China’s astonishingly swift modernisation.

The three-hour train ride through rural China, complete with pagodas, peasants and paddy fields, showed a countryside hardly changed over the centuries. In drizzling rain, the ride ended at what was then Canton, now Guangzhou. It resembled a grimy nineteenth century city. People’s Liberation Army soldiers gripping assault rifles lined the platform as we disembarked. From the White Cloud airport, we lifted off for Peking in a near-empty Ilyushin 62, a Soviet-built jet.

Thus began 18 months of a Kafkaesque existence. We foreigners resident in Peking were forbidden to have Chinese friends or even acquaintances; forbidden to have Chinese visit us in our compounds which were surrounded by high walls and guarded by soldiers with pistols slung on their hips. Our phones were bugged and our letters opened and read before they were delivered. Suspicious cars sometimes followed our cars through the streets, especially at night. 

The author covered the meeting between Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam (centre right) and Chairman Mao Zedong in November 1973

Clare Hollingworth, the Telegraph’s resident correspondent in Peking, once said an innocent hello to a Chinese passer-by in Wangfujing, the run-down premier shopping area. A stout, middle-aged lady with a red armband collared the person and led him away, almost certainly to the local police station. 

We were restricted to Peking’s city limits, forbidden from going beyond the pillboxes that ringed the city and were guarded by soldiers. They stood beside big signs warning that it was against the law for foreigners to proceed any further without permission. That was almost always refused, except for visits to the nearby, deserted, Great Wall and Ming tombs. 

Room 510, on an otherwise empty floor was my assigned home: equipped with two hard, single beds, a crudely fashioned wardrobe, desk, chair and a basic bathroom. It looked like a prison cell. The hotel had been built to house Soviet experts two decades earlier, but they had long since departed. It was to be my home and office for the next eight months, until I was given an apartment. I didn’t mind the hardship.

When I deviated from official truth, which was often, Ma changed to a scolding bully

The morning after my arrival, I took a taxi to the foreign ministry. I was amazed by the lack of cars and the swarms of bicycles. I later learned that there were about 7,000 bikes for each car in the capital. That statistic has long been reversed. The sky was a deep blue and the wooden buildings in the city centre, some painted in pastel colours, gave Peking a charming, antique look. It was far different from the brutal, and sometimes grotesque, modern architecture of Beijing today. 

At the foreign ministry, I was greeted by Ma Yuzhen, head of the section handling the dozen Western foreign correspondents given the rare privilege to reside in and report from Peking. There were no Americans, no BBC or any other foreign broadcast reporter except me. Ma was to prove alternatively the delight and the blight of my life for the next eighteen months. He was a brilliant, dedicated man, who eventually became China’s Ambassador to Great Britain for the four years leading up to 1997, and then China’s powerful éminence grise in Hong Kong until 2001. 

On my first full day in Peking, and on every day that my dispatches to the ABC and Radio Australia were positive, Ma was all smiles. But when I deviated from official truth, which was often, Ma changed to a scolding bully, determined to correct my errors despite knowing that I was reporting the actual truth.

The Chinese regarded we foreign correspondents as a novel kind of spy. They had no choice but to tolerate our unwelcome presence because it involved a trade. China wanted its journalists resident in our countries, and in return our governments wanted a similar number of journalists in Peking. I later learned that at least one of the first Chinese foreign correspondents based in Australia, from the official China newsagency, Xinhua, was indeed a spy. He was tasked with informing the Chinese government about prominent Australian Chinese who supported Taiwan.

I remember a conversation with Ma at his bully best during the row that erupted in mid-1974 over the ABC showing of Chung Kuo-China, Italian film director Antonioni’s documentary of life in China. Antonioni was an avowed leftist, and his documentary was a positive look at China since the communists seized power in 1949. Indeed, it was an admirer, Premier Zhou Enlai, who had arranged for Antonioni to film in China. 

But Zhou was locked in a power struggle with the Gang of Four, a radical faction that rose to national leadership during the Cultural Revolution. Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, was their leader. The Gang ran a nationwide campaign against the film to strike a powerful blow against the Premier. A key member of the Gang, former journalist Yao Wenyuan, controlled the country’s mass media and the attacks were relentless.

I got caught up in the fight. Out of concern for my wellbeing, the ABC called to ask if I felt the documentary should be shown. I knew my phone was bugged, but I advised that it be judged solely on its worth. The broadcast of Chung Kuo-China prompted a torrent of anger from China’s foreign ministry. When I next visited Ma for his necessary permission to travel in the countryside, he looked at me, as much in fake sorrow as in anger, as he remarked in a posh English accent: “Mister Raffaele, how can I give you permission for such a journey when I can’t guarantee your safety from the anger of the masses? They know the Australian Broadcasting Commission has shown the Antonioni film against our express wish. If they were to catch you alone, the masses might even go so far as to stone you.”

I never knew whether Ma was having a quiet joke. This handsome man, with his keen insight into the workings of the Western media, could be charming. He could also haul a delinquent foreign journalist over very hot coals publicly if his political masters required it. Ma called me into the foreign ministry twice where he warned me that my “hostile reporting” on China was putting me at serious risk of being expelled from the country. His attempts at intimidation failed.

In one ABC report, I stated that the difference in status between China’s leaders, national and provincial, and villagers was vastly bigger than that between an Australian billionaire and blue-collar workers. Ma called me in to warn me that I was treading a fine line with my “false reporting”, and that I risked being expelled from China. The Australian Ambassador, Stephen Fitzgerald, was also very unhappy with me and, in a meeting at the embassy, warned that I had, “crossed the Rubicon” with my critical reporting of China. Fitzgerald had been called to the foreign ministry a number of times to hear complaints about my stories. 

In mid-1974, Fitzgerald attempted to arrange with the foreign ministry a dinner to effect a peace treaty. Margaret Jones of the Sydney Morning Herald and I would also attend. Ma and two colleagues agreed to come. The dinner was planned for 7 pm, and at one minute past 7, I suspected trouble when the Chinese had not arrived. They were always punctual to the minute.

Raffaele reporting in Peking in 1973

Fitzgerald tried for an hour to contact Ma by phone, and when he finally reached him, Ma stated that he and his colleagues would not attend because of Margaret’s and my presence. That was a massive diplomatic snub, the foreign ministry standing up the Australian Ambassador. Margaret was an innocent bystander because the snub was clearly prompted by my reporting.

Going home that night through the capital’s darkened, empty streets, it seemed clear the foreign ministry regarded me as an opponent of the government. That was not paranoia. China’s ally in Australia, Ted Bull, a communist trade union leader on the Australian waterfront, had labelled me in his union’s newsletter, Vanguard as, “an enemy of the Chinese people”. The newsletter was purchased in bulk by China to distribute among senior English-speaking officials in the capital, and elsewhere in China.

However, despite the ABC’s concern for me, not once did I feel under physical threat while I was based in Peking. But their apprehension was not entirely misplaced. In 1967, during the Cultural Revolution, Reuters correspondent Anthony Grey was put under strict house arrest in his basement. Red Guards hanged his pet cat as punishment, and as a warning. Grey spent 27 months in the basement with very little contact with others but was never charged for his alleged crime of spying. The Chinese released him in 1969, just four years before I set up the ABC bureau there. 

I reported that there would be no coalition after Mao’s death. It would be a fight to the political death

They played The Game of Thrones rough in China. Early in the Cultural Revolution, Mao had his chief rival, the country’s President, Liu Shaoqi thrown into jail where he died in 1969. Mao also kept Liu’s stylish wife, Wang Guangmei, in prison in solitary confinement for twelve years. Liu’s ally, Deng Xiaoping, was exiled to work as a machinist in a southern China factory. While he was away, Red Guards threw his son out of a second-floor window after a “struggle session”, paralysing him from the waist down.

Many diplomats in Peking believed, or hoped, that despite the clear animosity, once Mao died the Gang of Four would form a coalition with Zhou and Deng to rule China. Ambassador Fitzgerald even advised Margaret Jones and I that such a post-Mao coalition was most likely. That seemed like nonsense. I reported that there would be no coalition after Mao’s death. It would be a fight to the political death. 

My reporting on this issue seemed to have a high-level supporter within the Chinese leadership. In 1974, visiting presidents and prime ministers were treated to elaborate banquets at the Great Hall of the People, and invited by Madame Mao to witness with her a performance of one of her eight revolutionary model opera/ballets. Only the media from the foreign leader’s country were invited to the theatrical performance. So it was most unusual when I was the only Peking-based correspondent invited to The White Haired Girl put on for the visiting Algerian president, Houari Boumediene. 

Baffled, I turned up at the Great Hall and found Ma there, waiting for me. During the interval, he took me outside, sat with me on a marble bench, and warned yet again that I risked being expelled for my reporting about the current political battle. Ma was known to be on Zhou’s side. Later, on a trip to Hong Kong, a respected China watcher had an explanation for the strange event. He speculated that the invitation was a thank you from Madame Mao for being the only correspondent based in Peking to report that she and her Gang were battling Zhou and Deng for control of China. Maybe. I’ll never know.

Had the Gang of Four won, we might still have millions of Red Guards running around the country waving Mao’s Little Red Book, taunting, torturing, jailing and killing their opponents, and ensuring China had little contact with the outside world. China would be a very different place if Deng, after Zhou’s death, had not managed, allied with powerful generals and provincial warlords, to overthrow the Gang of Four and jail them just a month after Mao’s death.

China, under the communists, was ruled by a merciless, totalitarian regime. That was the reality, and so that is what I reported

There were many good moments with Ma. He and I enjoyed jousting verbally about our very different political and social systems at the frequent Great Hall of the People banquets, where he sat at our foreign correspondents’ table. I also remember with fondness the long, stimulating conversations on Chinese life, morals and philosophy with my office translator, the studious and pleasant Mr Wang, and roaming Peking with my driver, also named Wang.

It was most likely Ma who arranged another special, memorable treat for me. In 1920, Deng had sailed to France at the age of 16 as part of a Work-Study project for 80 Chinese students. He stayed there for several years, working in a factory as a machinist, and met Zhou. Now Deng, as first deputy premier, was returning to France for the first time, and, along with just one other correspondent, Rene Flipo from Agence France Presse, I was invited to the airport to witness his 4 am departure. 

Ma took us onto the darkened tarmac where a Boeing 707, with its interior lights ablaze, was waiting. Four big, black Hongqi (Red Flag) limousines drove onto the tarmac and their occupants, four senior leaders, lined up at the foot of the stairs to bid Deng farewell. I was surprised to see Zhang Chunqiao, the brains of the Gang of Four, among them. Rene and I stood a couple of paces behind. 

Soon after, Deng arrived, also in a Hongqi. He walked along the short line shaking hands. He stopped opposite Zhang and gave him just a wry smile. From two steps away I called out, zhu hao yun — good luck. Deng looked at me, raised his hand in thanks, then climbed the steps to the 707. It was a very moving moment to witness up close. Deng, who had gone to Paris in his mid-teens half a century before, was returning as one of the world’s most powerful people. I could only guess at his emotions as the plane took off.

Resident correspondents were among the best journalists in their country, such as the UK’s Clare Hollingworth, Germany’s Gerd Ruge and Canada’s John Burns. Scoops were their bread and butter at home. Yet I can’t recall anyone filing a single scoop while I was in Peking. But we never missed the dozens of state banquets in the Great Hall of the People. We went, not for the excellent food, but to see if we could detect any change in the leadership by their presence or absence, and the content of their speeches.

We foreigners were allowed to wander through the Forbidden City, the centuries’ old home of the emperors. I was often the only person inside that vast complex of gilded palaces besides the guards stationed at the entrances to turn away locals who were forbidden to enter. We picnicked amid the ruins of the ancient Ming tombs, again with locals forbidden. 

Twice a year, Ma and his foreign ministry colleagues took the resident correspondents on a tour to some interesting place in China. We were like kids on a school excursion with our teachers. On one trip, to the Manchurian steppes, we stopped for two days at Harbin, once a stronghold of White Russians. The city was in the midst of a vicious fight between political factions, and the streets were plastered with thousands of large, hand-written wall posters attacking the grandees on each side. 

The chairman of the city’s revolutionary committee, the real power, met us in our hotel lounge. When I asked him to explain the posters and the factional fight, in a perfectly Orwellian moment, he denied there were any posters. I invited him to come with me to the window where we could look out and see them, but he declined. 

During my 18 months in Peking I tried hard to give Australians an accurate glimpse of the politics and society in China. Conflict with Ma and his colleagues at the foreign ministry was inevitable because I was reporting on an evil regime that held its billion people in brutal bondage, permitting no dissent: the communist regime controlled all thought and all actions, from birth to the grave. 

Opponents were jailed for decades and even executed when they called for freedom of thought and democracy. China, under the communists, was ruled by a merciless, totalitarian regime. That was the reality, and so that is what I reported.

I was based there during the final stages of the Cultural Revolution and was saddened by the many horror stories I heard. I was wandering along a Canton street in early 1975 and came across an open lorry surrounded by people silently staring at four men standing in the back with their shaven heads bowed. They had their names written with black paint on narrow boards strapped to the back of their necks, and with crosses cancelling out the names. I knew what it meant. They had been condemned to be shot to death, and were being displayed around the streets as a warning before their execution the same day. The boards did not list their crimes. 

In mid-1975, when I was offered the post of ABC Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok to cover the aftermath of the Indochina wars, I accepted. My wife and I took the two-day train journey from Peking to Canton on our way to Hong Kong to catch a jet to the Thai capital. We were saying a lingering farewell to a country and people we both loved very much, unsure if the Chinese government would ever allow us to return. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover