Song Liming lost his virginity on a chilly day in February 1982 to an Italian temptress named Antonella in Building 10 of the Foreign Students Dormitory at Nanjing University, while Antonella’s ex-, an avuncular German named Uli, was knocking on the door outside.
Song was 21 and China was changing.
Song hailed from Yancheng, a small city near the shores of the Yellow Sea in Jiangsu province, 200 miles north of Nanjing. During the Cultural Revolution, Song’s father, a small-time official in the Grain Bureau, embraced the insanity of the time and joined a radical faction of the Red Guards, called the Eager Gallopers – taken from a poem by Chairman Mao. Song’s father spent several years interrogating (and often, Song feared, brutalizing) officials at a May 7 Cadre School, established in 1967 to remold errant bureaucrats through hard labor and intense ideological indoctrination. Barely an elementary school graduate, Song’s father lionized the schools’ usefulness in “strengthening the dictatorship of the proletariat” in an article published by the People’s Daily – the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party.
Like many small-time officials who tried but failed to enter the Communist Party, Song’s father loved the party with the zeal of an unrequited lover. Even after the end of the Cultural Revolution and the arrest of the Gang of Four, he insisted that the party had never made a mistake. Once, Song recalled, he and his father were at a public bath in Yancheng in the mid-1980s and someone asked him why he had supported the party all along.
“Well,” he replied, “everything the party did was correct.”
Song didn’t share those views.
Bespectacled, swarthy with an infectious smile and impish laugh, Song was what the Italian girls at our school liked to call “simpatico.” His greatest desire, he would often say, was to be a free man.
The late 1970s and early 1980s were heady times for the young of China as the country shed its puritanical Maoism in favor of a schizophrenic mixed bag of economic and social reforms.
In the spring of 1978, foreign students – a motley, adventurous collection of Canadians, Yugoslavs, French and Japanese – held the first dance at Nanjing University since 1966. Two years later, the first big batch of American exchange students arrived in Nanjing. I was among that group, as a 21-year-old newly minted graduate from Stanford University. After language work in Beijing, I tested into the university at Nanjing – then a tranquil, tree-lined city on the banks of the chocolate waters of the Yangtze River six hours by train upstream from Shanghai. I chose the history department and moved into a 10×15 foot room with seven Chinese students. Song became my classmate and my friend.
Normal life was still buffeted by strange political winds blowing from Beijing. One week, we foreign students would hold a party and Chinese friends would attend. Dancing was allowed and boys could grow their hair over their collar. A few weeks later, we’d have another one and no one would come. Dancing was banned, boys had to get haircuts and girls were ordered not to let their raven locks hang free.
Nonetheless, Chairman Mao was dead. The Gang of Four was in jail. The inane, insane political purges of the Cultural Revolution, where people could be beaten to death for something as tame as praising China’s ancient sages, were over. For the first time in 25 years, thanks to economic reforms masterminded by Deng Xiaoping, a diminutive, chain-smoking victim of several political campaigns himself, the average Chinese could logically hope that tomorrow would bring a better day.
Peasants were allowed to grow crops on private plots, sell them at private markets and keep some of the money they made. In the cities, the seeds of a free market economy had begun to sprout. Private restaurants, barbershops and shoe cobblers opened their doors in Nanjing. We frequented a small privately-run eatery making delectably greasy potstickers quaffed down – when they had it – with Five Star Dark Beer.
In 1977, the Chinese government ended the practice of using political loyalty as the central criteria for university admissions and resumed university entrance examinations. My classmates, many of whom had spent the Cultural Revolution breaking their backs planting rice, killing stray dogs for a meal or banging metal in nightmarish factories, tested into university a year later with an average age of 23. Competition for a university place that year was the most intense it had ever been, and ever would be, in Communist China’s history. In liberal arts, for each spot at a Chinese university there were 67 test-takers, more than 30 times the current ratio today.
For Song and many of his classmates, university life stretched their minds farther than they had been stretched before. Classes were generally boring. Most of the professors in the history department had already suffered years of banishment, beatings and worse during the Cultural Revolution and were so afraid of retribution that they simply read from textbooks approved by the Communist Party. Of all the professors teaching history at Nanjing only two were considered any good – one taught classical Greek and Roman history and the other taught general history.
Only upperclassmen could use the library, but even then it was almost impossible to find a book. The card catalogue was a mess. There were no copying machines. Every research paper had to begin with a quote from Chairman Mao.
But the students, who on average had missed six years of education because schools were closed or dysfunctional during the Cultural Revolution, displayed a pent-up studiousness, idealism and curiosity about the outside world unrivaled in Communist China’s modern history. In the Chinese dormitories, lights went out at 9 p.m. But into the night, lining the ill-lit hallways and scattered through the malodorous, sodden bathrooms, hundreds of students would be reading, studying and writing.
Song was elected to be our classes’ representative to the party’s Youth League – a major step on the way to party membership. But when Xu Ruiqing, who slept above me and had joined the party before he entered college, approached Song with an offer, Song politely demurred. Privately, Song thought party membership was useless for someone who wanted to be free. He didn’t believe in Marxism-Leninism and, more to the point, it seemed all party members did was spend hours in mind-numbing meetings.
Song used a favorite Chinese technique to spurn Xu’s advance. He said he would love to be a party member but argued that he did not believe he was worthy.
Nonetheless, Song’s position as Youth League representative carried with it some benefits. Specifically, his thoughts were considered suitably pure to qualify him to live with foreign students. That meant Song could swap his Chinese dormitory bunk where eight of us had squeezed into a 10×15 foot room for a room almost twice that size with just one foreigner, hot showers whenever he wanted them, instead of once a week, and lights out at his leisure instead of 9 p.m.
At the time, the first batches of Western students across China had been lobbying the Ministry of Education for the right the live with Chinese classmates. Chinese officials viewed the idea of cohabitation with alarm, fearing that Chinese students would get strange ideas about democracy, freedom, casual sex and even drugs from their foreign counterparts. Indeed, marijuana was growing rampant throughout the Summer Palace when I landed in Beijing in 1980.
Some schools bent to the foreigners’ will and allowed one hand-picked Chinese roommate. Only one school, Nanjing University, ever allowed foreigners to live on the crowded Chinese side – a decision taken by Kuang Yaoming, the school’s president. A Communist Party member since the 1930s, Kuang was a mulish free-thinker. He had been the subject of a front-page People’s Daily editorial at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution calling on China’s revolutionaries to topple a “Black Gang” with him as the head. He was kept in a cow shed for years. In 1989, he ran afoul of the authorities because he opposed the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Shortly before his death in 2001, he further irritated China’s Communists when he argued that universities no longer needed Communist party committees to censor research or dole out tenure track positions to the ideologically correct. Despite Kuang’s enlightened thinking, only three foreigners among us – Antonella’s former German boyfriend, a soon-to-be-famous Indian writer named Vikram Seth and me – ever volunteered to live in the Chinese dorms.
So there was Song, happily ensconced in the foreign students’ dormitory, responsible for reporting on the rest of his fellow students living with foreigners and he, of all people, was locked in a room with a buxom Italian discovering the joys of sex.
Song grinned at the thought. “The fox guarding the henhouse,” he said.
Song and I were sitting in a trattoria in Rome. It was early January 2004. We were supping on two Roman delicacies, a tomato and bacon pasta and fried artichokes. The last time I had seen him was 22 years before on the day I had left Nanjing.
I had gone to Rome expecting to find a broken man. I had heard from other classmates about how Song had become, like so many of China’s exiles, a pathetic dissident, how he had been granted political asylum in Italy for protesting against the 1989 crackdown around Tiananmen Square and how his dreams were filled with futile visions of returning to China.
What I found, instead, was a man whose personal journey of self-discovery and re-creation over the last two decades was a great modern Chinese story – even if much of it was played out a continent away. Like many of his classmates, Song had remade himself and had become – as much as any of us can – an agent of his own fate. Like many of them he had struggled with the idea of what it meant to be Chinese, good and free while his country was undergoing mind-boggling changes that would transform the lives of more people faster than any other country ever in the world.
Song had become one of China’s premier sports journalists, writing for a country obsessed with Italian soccer. Based in Rome, he’d become one of the lead commentators on Italian soccer for Titan Sports,China’s most popular sports magazine, whose own story underscored the immense changes roiling China’s entertainment and media world. He was making more money a year – $30,000 – than most of his classmates. He was the father of a plucky nine-year-old girl with his wife, Maria Luisa Giorgi, a Chinese specialist at a museum in Rome. He seemed genuinely happy.
As he sipped Chianti, he mused that living in Italy wasn’t really that different from living in China. Like China, Italy is a nation of tax cheats and crazy traffic where people revel in the complexities of life. Like the Chinese, the Italians love to laugh. So Song said he was at home.
Born in 1959, Song remembered ingesting, almost with his mother’s milk, the dangers of committing political mistakes in China. Once, in third grade, while he practiced Chinese characters, he mistakenly wrote “Chairman Imperialist” instead of “imperialism.” An easy mistake. But such an slip-up could easily be interpreted by a vigilant, paranoid Maoist as an attack on China’s leader Mao Zedong, be placed in Song’s file and follow him around for life. Song remembers being petrified even after he covered his error in black paint.
Song was seven when the Cultural Revolution began. But unlike many of his classmates, his life was not turned upside down by the turmoil. His family’s class background was good, meaning they were poor, so they were not banished to the countryside. Instead of a victim, his father became a hunter searching for political prey. At school, the first words Song learned to write were “Long Live Chairman Mao.” In high school, classes in math, physics and chemistry were cancelled and he and his classmates spent time learning how to drive a tractor on the sports field. All of his studies were devoted to agriculture. While his father was interrogating local officials at the May 7th school, Song and his classmates terrorized their teachers.
At the end of high school, Song was dispatched to a village near Yancheng to work in the fields to put his practical education to work. But the peasants never let him or any of his classmates near a tractor. Tractors were too valuable. The last thing the peasants wanted was to let a city boy touch one.
Song remembers the time as a generally pleasant one. Indeed, he could have returned to Yancheng after one year in the fields but decided to stay. From an early age, Song had thirsted after freedom. Living out from under the sway of his harsh father for the first time was a pleasure that not even growing mulberry leaves for silkworms could erase. Song spent his second year as a sent-down youth studying for college entrance examination over an oil lamp in a ramshackle hut surrounded by mulberry bushes.
Neither of his parents had graduated from high school, so Song’s family had no books in their house except for several volumes of the “Quotations of Mao Zedong.” Up until he was 20, Song had never read a book for pleasure. After he entered Nanjing University, all he did was read.
Song had a lot to choose from. Passed around in dog-eared mimeographed copies, was samizdat the likes of which had not been seen in China since the before the Communist revolution in 1949. The country witnessed a creative explosion of poetry, short stories and plays as the young and the old sought to make sense of the painful past and express hope and worries about the future. This Time, a creative writing magazine published in Suzhou, just four hours from Nanjing, captured the imagination of many students with poems, paintings and short essays by students around the country. It was shut down after its second edition in 1978.
Perhaps most influential was “Bitter Love” by the writer Bai Hua., a veteran of the People’s Liberation Army since the 1940s. It told the story of a painter who returned to China after 1949, eager to build a new China. During the Cultural Revolution, he was persecuted for his suspected foreign connections, and he finally took refuge in a marsh, subsisting on raw fish. After the downfall of the radicals in 1976, he collapses in a snow-covered field and dies. His body leaves an imprint in the shape of a question mark. Before the painter dies, he says, “I love the motherland, but the motherland does not love me.” The movie, “Bitter Love,” was made but was never released. In 1981, conservatives in the army blocked the film and conducted a withering campaign to criticize Bai Hua.
Most sensitive among the piles of samizdat texts were essays that had been posted on a wall near downtown Beijing in 1978-1979. One of those essays, penned by an electrician-turned-activist named Wei Jingsheng, was called “The Fifth Modernization” – which argued that along with the new push to modernize China’s industry, agriculture, science and national defense, China needed a “fifth” modernization – democracy. In March 1979, the Party crushed the Democracy Wall movement. Wei was arrested that month and later sentenced to 15 years in jail on charges including “counterrevolutionary incitement.” Today, a shopping mall and a Starbucks sit atop the place where Wei hung his posters.
Bored with his classes, Song’s interests turned elsewhere – to girls and games. He started playing bridge and read everything on bridge. His bridge team was so strong that they even beat China’s women’s national team. His love affair with Antonella, hatched over Italian espresso in Building 10, opened his eyes to Western literature. “She had read every important work by the time she was 20,” he remembered. “She taught me how to read for fun.”
The biggest hit among Song’s classmates was “Piao,” known in the West as “Gone with the Wind,” which took this generation by storm. The students in the history department had one copy and the tome was so popular that they blocked off two-hour chunks to read it throughout the day and night. It became a common excuse, if one of my classmates was late for an early morning class, to beg forgiveness by citing the graveyard shift with “Gone with the Wind.”
Song and his classmates also became sports fans. During the Cultural Revolution, individual hobbies and interests had become potential liabilities and the casual associations that make up everyday life – even a pick-up basketball game, even collecting stamps and coins – could be imbued with dangerous, political significance. So many people, for self-protection, dropped their hobbies.
But with the fall of the Gang of Four, the government began to back off from the lives of the ordinary citizens and allow them a limited measure of personal space. In November of 1978, Deng Xiaoping announced that “Tai Ch’I is good” ending years of persecution for people who practiced the martial art. Boxing, which had been banned for decades because it had been labeled “bourgeois,” was again allowed and a few clubs began to open around in major cities. Basketball had escaped such labels because Mao liked the game. It did even better with leagues opening around the country.
China also continued its halting process of engaging with the rest of the world and sports. The Ping Pong Diplomacy in the early 1970s, that helped lay the foundations for relations with the United States, was a good first step. In November 1979, the International Olympic Committee voted Taiwan out of the Olympics and voted China in. A year later, the Chinese Olympic team took part in the Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, N.Y. In November 1981, China’s women’s volleyball team won the world championship in Japan, triggering near riots throughout China.
I was eating pot stickers and drinking warm beer with a few friends at the small, private alleyway eatery when we heard this cacophonous roar. We dropped our chopsticks and headed to the main road only to be confronted with a moving mass of tens of thousands of young people, festooned with Chinese flags.
The crowd thronged towards Gulou, a delicate Qing dynasty temple at the top of a small rise near the university.
I had been in Chinese crowds before: at railway stations fighting for a ticket, on a boulevard in Chengdu in 1981 during Spring Festival, jostling to get into a restaurant on Wanfujing, the main shopping street in Beijing, but never had I been in a Chinese crowd that was actually going somewhere.
The sense of nascent power made me almost queasy as I trudged along with the group. Quickly, I became separated from my friends. I learned later that, fearing a police crackdown, they had slinked back to the university via side-streets. At Gulou, the crowd ran into a phalanx of green. Hundreds of officers and soldiers blocked its path. And as quickly as the crowd had assembled and gained momentum, it dispersed.
In 1981, China’s national soccer team, which had only started competing internationally in 1980 after a break of 26 years, almost qualified for the World Cup. During those games, Rong Zhihang, a forward from Guangzhou who was born on a British oil tanker a year before China’s revolution, became, arguably, the first non-state created hero since 1949. In China’s first World Cup qualifying match on Sept. 24, Rong was sliced by a player from New Zealand and, after receiving 10 stitches, returned to the pitch to continue playing. China held New Zealand scoreless in that match, again sparking massive celebrations. On the street in Nanjing, people shouted “Long Live Rong Zhihang!”
The words shocked and titillated Song – even as he yelled them louder and louder. For years, such an expression had been reserved solely for Chairman Mao and never used for another man.
In the end, China failed to qualify. Song cried in public for the first time since he was a child. (It was not until 2002, under the tutelage of a coach from Yugoslavia, that China actually made it into the World Cup.)
The World Cup that year pitted Italy versus West Germany. Each dormitory had one TV set so it was impossible to get a seat, but in the foreign students’ dormitory there were several. So Song stayed up all night with Antonella’s former German lover smoking cigarettes to watch the Italians win 3-1.
Song had a lot fewer problems going out with Western women than Western men had spending time with Chinese women. In the early 1980s, Chinese girls and women were routinely hauled into the police or punished at their work units for consorting with foreigners. Some were dispatched to labor camps, under the blanket crime of hooliganism that in those days covered everything from homosexuality to traveling away from your home without state permission. Many were fired from their jobs.
Chinese society then viewed sex in pretty stark terms. Chinese believed that when it came to sex, men always got the better of women. It was only in the early 1980s when men and women were officially allowed to hold hands publicly. Indeed, Premier Hua Guofeng actually made a special public statement to that effect in order to get the ball rolling.
In 1984, Song took Maria Luisa, then his girlfriend, to Putuo Shan, a Buddhist shrine located on an island off the coast of Shanghai. It was supposed to be a romantic holiday. Song brought a tent and the couple lived together on the beach. Just up the hill, however, Chinese police were holding a convention. Song grew concerned that he would end up in jail for sleeping with a foreigner. But the officers were friendly and at the end of their sexy weekend, Song and Maria Luisa found themselves being chauffeured to the ferry in a police jeep after the officer in charge secured them a private cabin on board.
“People on the street used to give me the thumbs up when they saw me with a Western girl,” Song recalled. “It was as if I was winning one for China.”
Despite his lack of interest in school, Song’s grades were excellent and he was one of six students who won places as graduate students in the university’s history department. At the time, a position as a grad student was coveted because it imbued high social status and the money and perks were comparatively good – far above those of China’s first businessmen. The proprietors of opened restaurants and small stores, they were generally the alumnae not of universities but of labor camps or otherwise denizens of the margins of Chinese society. Most Chinese had yet to embrace Deng Xiaoping’s contention that to “get rich is glorious” and many people continued to hold a traditional view about businessmen; money was “dirty” and so were the people who handled it.
Becoming a grad student also allowed students to put off the painful process of entering the job market. In those days, graduates could not look for work; jobs were still assigned and the best positions went to members of the Communist Party. Free-thinkers like Song would often wind up getting dispatched to a small institute in a far-away province with no hope of professional success.
At the end of 1986, Song was accepted into Nanjing University’s doctoral program in history. His focus tended towards Tibetan issues. He’d written his BA and MA theses on issues pertaining to how the British delineated Tibet’s southern border with India. But the China government banned research into anything involving ethnic groups, borders and foreign affairs, so Song could not access any Chinese government files. He decided to go abroad and study. A change of atmosphere – and access to some primary research materials – would be good for his head and his work.
Song won a scholarship to study in Florence, Italy for a year. In December 1988, at the age of 29, he boarded a plane for the first time and flew for 16 hours from Beijing via Dubai to Rome.
On April 15, 1989, the news in the Italian papers read like this. AC Milan had beaten Real Madrid in soccer. And a Communist leader named Hu Yaobang had died of a heart attack in Beijing.
Like the thousands of Chinese studying abroad, Song was captivated by the events unfolding at home. Throughout the world, Chinese began to congregate near embassies to express their support for the students who were demonstrating to commemorate Hu’s death and lobbying for the government to recognize a student union independent of Communist Party control. When the demonstrators declared a hunger strike on May 11, overseas students collected thousands of dollars in donations.
From Florence, Song led a delegation of Chinese students to Rome to express support for the students at the Chinese embassy. When the Chinese government declared martial law in Beijing on May 17, signaling preparation for a crackdown, Chinese students and scholars across the West protested. Song was among them.
In the United States, another classmates, Zhang Qingsong, then a graduate student in history at the University of Virginia, had become one of the lead organizers of the Independent Association of Chinese Scholars and Students, the main Chinese student association in the United States.
Starting in the evening of June 3, for the second time in less than 20 years, blood was spilled in and around Tiananmen Square. For Song, Zhang and other Chinese abroad, the crackdown was all the more shocking because they had a clearer idea of what was happening than Chinese at home. Unlike in China, it was carried live on TV.
Following the crackdown, Song led another protest – this time a 48-hour hunger-strike in front of the Chinese embassy. He was joined by a Who’s Who of Italian political luminaries, political party chiefs, actors, singers, even famed chefs. After the hunger strike, officials at the embassy provided the Chinese strikers with a meal.
On June 12, Deng Xiaoping emerged for the first time following the crackdown to congratulate the People’s Liberation Army for carrying out what basically was a massacre of unarmed civilians. In the Chinese parlance at the time, Deng gave an “important speech” setting the tone for all Chinese officials to follow from then on. “Comrades, you are tired,” Deng told the soldiers around him. “You have done an important job.”
The embassy in Rome informed Chinese students that any subsequent protests would be considered anti-Chinese. Song wasn’t cowed. On Aug. 1, the 68th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army, he led another demonstration in front of the embassy. Again, dozens of Italian politicians joined in.
At the end of the demonstration, Song met with an official from the embassy. He requested permission to marry Maria Luisa. At the time, Chinese, even those living abroad, needed to obtain permission to marry from their work units. Song’s work unit was Nanjing University. A few weeks later he was summoned back to the embassy and told that such permission had been denied. Song’s one-year passport was running out. The embassy told him they would not renew it because he was conducting anti-Chinese operations. Song was now facing the possibility of deportation to a country that was accusing him of anti-state crimes.
In the fall of 1989, two senior leaders of the exiled democracy movement, among them Yan Jiaqi, the bespectacled former advisor to purged party secretary Zhao Ziyang, traveled to Bologna. They had found out about Song’s interest in Tibet so they asked Song along. They told him the democracy movement wanted to contact the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. Democracy activists had heard that the Dalai Lama was the inside-favorite for winning that year’s Nobel Peace Prize. (They were right.)
So Song, by virtue of his interest in Tibet, became the representative of the Chinese democracy movement in Italy.
In December of that year, the Dalai Lama and Chinese exiles met in Paris and issued a joint document promising genuine autonomy for Tibet in a democratic China. Song was there.
Song was as awed by the Dalai Lama’s charisma as he was amazed by the ignorance of the Chinese exiles, who just a year before had held high-ranking positions in the Chinese government. None of them knew whether Tibet had ever been independent of China. Of course it had. If open-minded democracy activists could be so ignorant, Song reasoned, think about the rest of Chinese officialdom. Song vowed that if he returned to China, he would work to improve China’s relations with Tibet.
By now, the Chinese government had identified Song as the most serious threat it faced in Italy. Embassy officials ordered Chinese students to avoid him and warned those who met him of unspecified consequences once they returned to China. China’s campaign against Song seemed a ridiculous waste of time and effort on the part of eager-beaver bureaucrats. But each embassy in the West had been ordered to identify a ring-leader in its country and Song, despite his somewhat lackadaisical approach to China’s democratic revolution, was it.
With an expiring passport, Song’s only option was to ask the Italian government for political asylum. After a year’s wait, he was provided with a refugee travel document.
During the events that led up to June 4, Maria Luisa had been in Nanjing, working as an executive at Fiat’s Iveco truck plant in the city. It was a lucrative job but when Song could no longer return to China, she quit the job to be with him – a huge sacrifice in a job market that generally had little for Italians who spoke Chinese. The couple had no steady source of income and faced the future with a measure of dread.
Out of desperation, Song started writing about soccer. A friend of a friend at a small sports newspaper in Jiangsu province asked him to start covering Italian games. In the beginning, Song’s pay could barely cover the cost of a fax from Rome to Jiangsu. Song viewed the work like a hobby. He had always viewed himself as a historian. After all, he was a PhD candidate at Nanjing University and the recipient of an Italian government scholarship. He should never have ended up a starving part-time sports freelance journalist in Rome.
But, over time, the money began to mean something. He used his first savings to buy his parents in Yancheng a color TV. But Song was always worried that the Ministry of State Security, which kept close tabs on dissidents, would punish the little Jiangsu newspaper for employing a member of “anti-China forces.” Song called his editor and made it clear that he had a bad political background. “The ministry knows that you are working for us already,” the editor said. “But they said it was OK.”
In 1993, Maria Luisa became pregnant. The couple had not planned on a baby, especially during such a difficult time. But Maria Luisa, who was 34 at the time, would probably not get many chances to have another child. Donna was born in 1994.
Becoming a father contributed greatly to cooling Song’s ardor for radical political change in China although he remained committed to the ideals of democracy. It also coincided with a series of bizarre battles within the dissident movement that further alienated Song from his comrades overseas. Many of the exiles from Tiananmen Square generation had degenerated into cartoon-characters dissidents. Wu’er Kaixi, the charming student leader, had become a party animal in New York, pumped gas in San Francisco and ended up a talk-show host in a small town in Taiwan. Chai Ling, the top-ranked women in the student organization whose tiny frame belied a commanding voice, had re-made herself into a member of the Me Generation in the United States.
With no sign of political change occurring on China, Song, like many other Chinese, began to view the Tiananmen demonstrations as a tragic mistake. He believed the decision by the students to stay in Tiananmen Square following the declaration of martial law and their decision to confront China’s Communist leadership set back China’s political modernization by years, if not decades.
He held the student leadership responsible, in part, for the deaths around the square. Enemy No. 1 was no longer Deng Xiaoping, but Chai, the baby-faced student leader who, on the eve of the crackdown, told an American interviewer that she hoped for a violent end to the protests. Song views mirrored those of some other exiles, such as writer Liu Binyan, who called the students China’s “most selfish generation” since 1949, blaming the influence of Western commercial culture, individualism and sex.
In August 1997, Song received a phone call telling him his father had been diagnosed with stomach cancer. The disease was in its late stages so it was not a question of whether the cancer would kill his father, rather of when. Song began to make plans to return home.
He wrote Nanjing University a letter. In it, he tried to wax patriotic, raising the glorious return of Hong Kong to the embrace of the motherland as well as his case. He said he would be willing to drop his political refugee status for a chance to return to China.
Within a few weeks, Song received a reply – from the embassy in Rome – that he could return on a Chinese travel document but they would not issue him a passport and there was no guarantee that he would be allowed to leave China once he’d returned.
Would he be thrown in jail? There was no guarantee one way or the other. He wanted another Chinese passport but the embassy declined his request. Song needed to make sure he could leave again not only for his personal safety but because family was in Rome.
As the weeks passed, his father’s voice was becoming progressively weaker when Song called home. His sisters told him that he was so thin they could easily lift him out of bed. He was in extreme pain.
Song’s elder sister, a small-time official in the Yancheng government, had contacted the local state security bureau to see whether Song would be allowed to leave China if he returned. For months, there was no reply. So Song started making plans to send Maria Luisa and their daughter to take his place at his father’s bedside. He discussed his plans repeatedly on the phone with his family in Yancheng, figuring that state security officials who were bugging his parents’ phone would want to avoid “internationalizing” this problem. In March 1998, his sister called and said the state security officials had assured her that Song would not be arrested when he came to China and would be allowed to return to Italy. Based on nothing but that word, Song went to the embassy in Rome and said he would accept their conditions. The bureaucrats there added a new one.
The embassy demanded that Song place an ad in a Chinese-language newspaper published in Europe called the European Chinese Times. The ad should read as follows:
“I, Song Liming, vow to reject my political asylum status, formally break my ties with the overseas so-called Chinese democracy movement and vow not to partake in any anti-Chinese activities.”
Embassy officials demanded to see the ad before they would issue a travel document. Song paid the 50,000 lira, $25, and purchased the ad. He carried the newspaper over to the embassy. An official checked it and handed him a travel document to return home. Song said he felt “like a dog crawling on his belly.” To commemorate this indignity, Song started calling himself “Yesman” in Internet chatrooms.
Song arrived in Yancheng in April 1998 to find his father on death’s door. The old man could barely speak. Song spent a day at home. The next day, agents from the state security bureau arrived at his house and took Song away. The experience of having agents in their house agitated his father. From his deathbed as Song hurried to leave the house, the old man repeated weakly, “Make sure you tell them you love China. Make sure you tell them you love China.”
The interrogation lasted that whole day and well into the evening. His main interlocutor had traveled 200 miles from Nanjing to quiz Song. She began by asking Song to list all of his anti-China activities. Song was awed by the details the agents had amassed about his life even though he had played a tiny part in the overseas democracy movement. In 1997, he had gone to Moscow to attend a closed-door session of Chinese democracy activists. “It seems you were a little plumper then,” one agent remarked. The state security bureau had someone in the room taking photographs.
The interview was designed to ensure that Song understood just how powerless he, or any of the other Chinese exile dissidents, was to fight China. The interrogators also stressed that it was because of China’s benevolence that he was allowed to return home to be at his dying father’s side.
“It was like they wanted me to thank them,” Song said. “They wanted me to feel like I owed them a favor.”
At home, Song’s family never told his father that he had inoperable stomach cancer because they were worried that it would hurt his feelings. For Song, this was even more upsetting than his interrogations because he had been living in the West for the past decade where problems like this are generally confronted more directly. The experience drove home for him a broader problem in the way Chinese confront reality.
“It was this great big, horrible game,” Song recalled. “You wanted to make him feel better but you never could because it was like this great big lie. Everyone knew it was cancer but no one ever talked about it.”
“We Chinese live in the middle of contradictions better than people from the West,” he said. “But sometimes people need to speak the truth.”
A week after he arrived in Yancheng, Song’s father died. As a favor to the family, the state security bureau approached them with an offer. Even though he failed to join the party during his lifetime, the bureau was willing to go to bat for a posthumous entry into the party – which would give his mother an extra $12 a month in pension benefits. Song turned them down.
Yancheng, like the rest of China, had been transformed by economic development and other changes over the past decade. Song tried to find traces of his family’s old home – in a dormitory in the grain bureau – but the grain bureau had been moved and the dormitory had been torn down. He couldn’t even find the street.
When he arrived in Yancheng, workers were protesting layoffs and trying to form an independent labor union. Driving into the city, Song found the road blocked by demonstrating workers.
The authorities ultimately cracked down, arresting the leader of a group of workers at an ailing silk factory, Cao Maobing, and placing him in a Yancheng’s No. 4 Psychiatric Hospital where they sedated him heavily.
“In 1989, we students wanted democracy, by 1998 it had become a workers’ movement,” Song remarked.
Indeed, by 1998, most Chinese intellectuals had abandoned the idea of trying to mount an organized challenge to the Communist regime. The few that did were rounded up starting in November 1998 when China’s security apparatus launched a crackdown on the China Democracy Party. Most university graduates were generally happy with the reforms. They had benefited greatly with high-paying jobs upon graduation and opportunities to study abroad, buy their own apartment, take out a car loan, travel unheard of in their parents’ generation. Discontent with the reforms was now centered among China’s lower classes – the millions upon millions of workers fired from moribund state-owned enterprises and the hundreds of millions of peasants whose meager living was threatened by onerous illegal taxes and fees.
The biggest shock for Song was the explosion of prostitution, dance halls and the accessibility of casual sex. “It was incredibly developed,” he said. “And that is an incredible development.”
Sex was, indeed, everywhere. Scores of barbershops that fronted for small-time massage parlors lined Yancheng’s grubby streets. Huge karaoke halls offered patrons private rooms where girls were available as singing partners and much, much more. To Song, it seemed that Yancheng’s most vibrant industry was sex. Many of his richer friends boasted openly of having set up mistresses – young, pretty women from the countryside – in apartments around the city. One man, a real estate developer, admitted to having four.
To ensure that Song would stay under their watchful eyes, state security agents arranged for Song’s trip to Nanjing where he stayed at a guesthouse inside Nanjing University – booked by state security. Song had returned to Nanjing to wait for his passport – part of the original verbal deal with the ministry. But months passed and no passport arrived. Song’s daughter was missing him terribly, so Song again decided to broadcast his exasperation across the telephone line to Italy in the belief that state security was bugging his phone and might take a hint.
On June 22, he and Maria Luisa decided in a phone conversation that she would bring Donna to Nanjing in three days. The next day, Nanjing police brought Song’s passport over to the guesthouse. Song returned to Italy.
Back in Rome, Song continued writing for sports publications in China. Italian soccer was becoming bigger and bigger in China. Chinese fans, faced with the perennially miserable performance of Chinese soccer, looked abroad for heroes and found them in the Italian soccer league and the English premier league.
Song began to earn a reputation as a good writer, with an easily accessible and punchy prose style. He didn’t fill his copy with florid sports clichés favored by Chinese writers. More important, Song wrote straight. He had favorite teams, like any sports journalist, but he didn’t obviously lean one way or another in his reporting. And, keeping in line with Chinese sports journalists at home, Song began to criticize failure when he saw it.
The late 1990s ushered in important changes to the Chinese media. A decade after the Tiananmen Square crackdown, China’s state-owned newspapers, magazines and TV stations began to explore topics that had been banned for years. Southern Weekend, a weekly based in the southern city of Guangzhou, broke stories on AIDS crisis in Henan province and showed that government officials were responsible for the AIDS epidemic among peasants there because they had encouraged farmers to sell their blood for money. Other periodicals wrote for the first time about sexuality, official corruption and police brutality.
One of the areas where China’s media was the freest was sports reporting, partially because it had no direct bearing on the political system and partially because Chinese professional sports had become so corrupt that outrageous stories of sleaze, sex and incompetence dropped into reporters’ laps.
Among all the fraud, soccer was arguably the dirtiest game. Until 1994, Chinese soccer on a national level was just another lumbering state-owned enterprise. But that year, China created a professional league, thereby freeing the world’s largest soccer market from the grip of the state. Clubs won the right to hire and fire players and coaches, including foreigners. Among them was Bora Milutinovic, a Yugoslav who coached the Chinese team to victory in October 2001 when it qualified for the 2002 World Cup finals.
The emergence of pro clubs intensified China’s soccer fever. Every province wanted its own club. Zhejiang province, a fast-growing economic stronghold on the coast, lacked soccer talent. Its state-owned team had been disbanded in the 1980s after dismal performances. So a real estate developer started a team.
But the proliferation of clubs didn’t make Chinese soccer that much better. It just made soccer more corrupt. An investigation in 2001 found that referees and players took money to fix more than half the games. Dozens of refs and players were implicated in what was dubbed the “Black Whistle” affair.
In 2000, the Chinese national team came to Rome for a friendship match with a Roman team. An editor in China asked Song if he would write up the results for the Titan Sports Weekly, published in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province. Titan would pay him three times what he was making at the Jiangsu paper.
And, indeed, for 1000 characters, about 600 words, Song received $36 – not a bad fee for a Chinese stringer in 2000. Within a few months, Song’s arrangement with Titan had become a regular deal. The owner started him on a retainer of $400 a month. That quickly became $600 a month. In 2003, that became $1000 a month with extra money for each story he wrote. The paper gave Song a zippy nom de plume, Qiao Wanni, Giovanni in Chinese.
Titan’s story was emblematic of the times. Technically, like all of China’s media, it was a state-run affair. But, in reality, it was a private company. In 1997, an entrepreneur approached the Hunan province Sports Association, a government body, with a deal. Let me operate one of the magazines that you now run at a huge loss, and I will pay you a yearly fee. The provincial Sports Association agreed and Titan was born.
By 2001, Titan had gone from a weekly to being published three times a week. Its circulation had skyrocketed from 100,000 to around 2 million. Its foreign staff grew from one stringer, Song, in Rome, to bureaus in Italy, Spain, Britain, France, Germany, Argentina, Brazil, South Korea and Japan. Working three days a week, Song made $30,000 in 2003 and was heading for $40,000 in 2004, placing him near the top of his class in terms of salary.
I found it somewhat strange that Song didn’t respect his success as a sportswriter. In fact, he looked down on it. “I’m really a historian,” he would explain. But the successes kept coming.
“As far as I am concerned one day a week was enough,” Song quipped, “but they wanted me for three.”
A few days into my visit, Song and I traveled by train north of Rome to Modena, famed for its balsamic vinegar and racing car motors. We’d journeyed there so I could see Song at work. I was having a hard time imagining a Chinese sports reporter in Italy. I had also never been to a soccer game before.
At Rome’s central station, a phalanx of heavily-armed Italian police resembling latter-day gladiators, clothed in spiffy black jumpsuits, sporting clubs, pads, shields and helmets, met the Roman club’s fans as they boarded the train. And as we pulled into Modena’s central, the police were out in full force as well, greeting the Roman enthusiasts with brandished shields and truncheons. The stadium was just a short walk from the station. As we strolled there behind another phalanx of officers, I noticed a sign, pointing west to a place called “Tiananmen Square.” I pointed it out to Song.
“I think Westerners remember the crackdown more than many Chinese,” Song quipped. “Well, at least someone is remembering.”
At the stadium, we went to the press box office to pick up our tickets. They were there but Song had been told beforehand that they could only provide us with one seat and that we would have to find a second empty one once inside the stadium. He was curious whether he, the Chinese sports journalist, would get it or whether they would give it to the representative of a big American newspaper. (Song had used my affiliation with The Washington Post to secure my ticket.) The seat was in my name. Song snickered. Even though I couldn’t speak a word of Italian and his was fluent, the “Chinaman” was still the subject of discrimination.
Once inside, after getting rousted out of seat after seat, we found two marvelous places and settled in to watch the game. He explained off-sides and we both oohed and ahhed when a Roman striker streaked ahead of Modena’s defenses to score a dramatic first goal. The crowd, well-coiffed ladies and men in stylish overcoats, all seemed to know each other. It was like a wedding. And to add to the Modenians pleasure, their team succeeded in tying 1-1 Rome’s Lazio, a much better team. Song wrote a small story about the experience, focusing on what he called the discrimination.
On the train back to Rome, Song told me that underneath everything he wanted to return to China to live.
In 2000, Nanjing University had agreed to take him back as a history teacher. He was quite ready to return, he said, but then Wei Jingsheng, the author of the essay on China’s “fifth modernization” who was released from jail in 1997 and exiled, came to Rome and needed assistance. Song helped him with some arrangements. The Chinese embassy got wind of Song’s involvement and put another black mark in Song’s file. Nanjing University withdrew its offer.
Nonetheless, with a ballooning bank account in China (he only takes $12,000 a year in U.S. dollars), Song said he figured he could use his nest egg to live half the year in China and half the year in Rome. Perhaps he’d use the money to buy an apartment in Nanjing or the southwestern city of Kunming where the weather – the Chinese say – is spring four seasons a year.
Song’s goal, he confided, had never changed. It was to be free.
“My own personal ambition is to be a truly free person,” he said as the train sped toward Rome. “I don’t want anyone to bother me.”
I found Song’s plan strange. The fact that he believed he could achieve this freedom in China of all places is testament to China’s changes, the increasing everyday freedom of choice enjoyed by many Chinese, the greater opportunities, the somewhat more relaxed attitude the government has toward the expression of opinions.
For certain, as long as he ended his research into Tibetan issues and stuck to sports writing, Song would probably have a nice life in China. But it’s unclear if Song would be satisfied being China’s Red Smith. His spirit was more restless than many of my classmates whose ardor for political change had cooled as their bank accounts grew, their apartments expanded and their children matured.
It seemed to me that living in Italy all these years had done two things for Song’s soul. It had preserved the spirit of the infectious, blind idealism of the 1980s that made China so vibrant at that time. Song wasn’t around for the Tiananmen crackdown and China’s descent during the 1990s into a frenzied hunt for cash and kicks fueled by mind-boggling corruption, swindlers and the disintegration of whatever remained of China’s traditional values.
At the same time, he had become more of a real Westerner than my other classmates, a fact that his decision NOT to become an Italian citizen seemed to prove. Indeed, his argument for declining to apply for Italian citizenship was the same as the one he used for avoiding membership in the Communist Party. He just didn’t feel he measured up to the responsibilities of being a European. But this time he actually meant it.
But I also saw in Song something of his father – the spurned applicant to the Communist party yearning for China’s acceptance. His vision of a free future back in China made me think of “Bitter Love,’ the story of the dashed hopes that China’s first generation of patriotic returnees had after the state turned on them after 1949. What would stop the state from arresting him after he popped a call for serious negotiations with the Dalai Lama on an Internet website? People are routinely arrested for less. In the first few months of 2003, state security agents rounded up scores of Chinese for posting their opinions on the Internet and slapped them with lengthy prison terms.
Near the end of my stay, Song, Maria Luisa and I went for a coffee. As we savored our creamy espressos, Song told a Taoist fable about a young boy who went to another country to learn their way of walking. Before mastering their steps, however, he forgot his own and had to crawl home.
“Perhaps I am this boy,” he said.
©2004 John Pomfret
John Pomfret, Beijing bureau chief of The Washington Post, is examining the fate of the class of 1982 of Najing University during his Patterson year.