A tale of Sino-British-European history
It is a windy night in July and you wade into the water. The year is 1988. The sea chops against itself and the sky holds a new moon. It’s a clandestine situation, a sly beginning, like many escapes, but the crescent moon is a consolation. You are not alone. Beside you is your brother, younger than you and more agile, and the two of you get ready for the swim, undressing, at the water’s edge. Into a plastic bag you’ve stashed clothes, letters, and the document that details your prison sentence. Around the bag you’ve lashed bicycle inner tubes which you’d bought earlier in the day in town. This will be your floatation aid, your makeshift raft to freedom. You two start wading into the sea, close to each other in the darkness.
What thoughts run through your head as your feet enter the surf? Do you despair about the night ahead, dreading the hours of swimming? Or are you in fact filled with lightness? A hope that is unbearably light? You have almost nothing. You have no passport. You have few possessions. You have no government waiting for you, except the one you imagine is friendly. You are free.
But you have a wife, and, unknown to you, the seed in her womb that will become your son.
China was a country with an expanding knowledge of the outside world. Foreign ideas coursed through the growing civic space and there was demand, a hunger, for news, books, and education. Previously, university students in China were relatively few due to poverty and even worse political reasons. But hundreds of thousands of formerly deprived young people now had the chance to attend university.
Baba was a recent graduate in the early years of that decade, a man in his mid-20s. He found employment at a local university as an assistant lecturer in law. This was in Guilin, a city in the southern province of Guangxi—a relative backwater. It’s famous for its scenery and popular with tourists, and, historically, with princes looking for rest and relaxation.
Baba was born in 1956—a mere seven years after the founding of the “People’s Republic”—a new name for the country and for a new Communist dynasty. The history of China’s twentieth century was one of many revolutions. From the end of dynastic rule to the founding of the Republic; to its overthrow by the Communists for the People’s Republic; to famine, madness, and deprivation; to the initiation of reforms that would transform the country yet again, paving the way for its current incarnation as a capitalist powerhouse.
There is also the matter of Britain’s legacy.
You reach open water, kicking away—holding on to those meagre possessions, for dear life!
You are not a strong swimmer and your younger brother kicks harder than you do. Somewhere in the night you lose each other as a passing cargo ship cuts through. It’s disorientating. You splash about, looking for a sign of him, shouting. But he is nowhere to be seen.
There is little you can do. So you go on . . . it’s not even a difficult decision.
Your job is to go on. For an endless darkness the sea detains your body, like a celestial lock, but you kick on.
The Chinese Communist Party’s aura was coming under increasing pressure. Mum describes that time as one of looseness. And I can see it in funny videos of people disco-dancing. I can spot it in the increasing variety of hairstyles. In the general bonhomie of faces from photos of that period. I can only imagine what the atmosphere would’ve felt like.
It was the decade that followed Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 inauguration of policies collectively known as “Reform and Opening”. This had a profound effect on the country (and continues to do so). To hear mum tell it, it sounds like a country hopeful, dynamic, and looking excitedly to the future.
To me, it sounds like my childhood experience of late 1990s England when cheerful music—Britpop and the Spice Girls—and technological progress—Sony PlayStation and ever-slimming CD players—came together, with much else, to manufacture a wonderful feeling of optimism.
It must reflect—at least a little—late 1980s China . . . Baba says people felt emboldened by new ideas and hopes, for themselves and for their nation. “We felt powerful”, he says.
Optimism permeated the air.
China had multiple destinies before it. The young Republic appeared to have had various paths it could have taken. Paths that were submerged under the actual historical route China took. We can see this in the trajectory of a major historical figure: Zhou Enlai. Zhou was China’s premier from 1949 to 1976 and served also as foreign minister. He was a major figure in the Chinese Communist Party—but subservient. All had to heed the all-controlling Mao.
Zhou was considered urbane and charismatic, especially by foreign diplomats, in his character and the way he struck a stylish note. But in private he was cold, calculating, and cruel. In his earlier years, however, his intellectual development reveals deliberation and consideration. As a younger man Zhou studied in Europe—in France and England. There he employed the name John Knight and educated himself in the different ways that class conflict impacted European nations. Turn-of-the-century China still possessed serfs, warlords, eunuchs, concubines, and peasants, so for young Chinese patriots this education was of utmost urgency to help advance the nation. France appears to have held a special place for mobile Chinese men at the time and there was a work-study abroad program in place.
Zhou had connections and means and set sail for Europe. Once installed in France, Zhou found himself invigorated by concepts such as freedom, fraternity, and equality. However, it was witnessing a major miner’s strike in England, and consuming the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin that would have the greater influence on his thinking.
As the biography, Zhou Enlai: A Political Life by Barbara Barnouin and Chang-gen Yu observes, Zhou seemed to identify, following his reading and pondering, possible paths of change for China. In a letter to his cousin, written in 1920, he comments that either “China’s ills had to be cured by violent means”, referencing the October Revolution in Russia, or “by gradual reform”, as had happened in England.
“I do not have a preference for either the Russian or the British way”, Zhou wrote, “I would prefer something in-between, rather than either one of these two extremes”.
It is perhaps a sad quirk that this careful consideration would not be the fate that was decided upon for the People’s Republic.
The sky changes colour: something greyer. In the distance a light beacon appears. You have weak muscles from nine hours in the water but you move closer. And, somehow, you climb on.
I guess a fire must have been driving you. Desperation/hope.
From what I know it is hope backed by the steel of pride, vanity, ambition. What I know of you colours this tale.
Dawn, its pale glimmered hope, is arriving.
Dad (Baba) was getting high on Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I was not yet born. I was not even a shadow of a spermatozoon at this point. But my father’s reading of these books, authored by a two-centuries dead Genevan, would aid in altering my fate.
While a student of the Southwestern University of Political Science and Law, in Chongqing, my dad read through five books of Rousseau’s. These were:
- Discourse on Inequality
- The Social Contract
- Discourse on the Arts and Sciences
- Emile (Or Treatise on Education)
These books expounded philosophy, political thinking, and societal analysis, and many of Rousseau’s titles were bestsellers in their day. The ideas spread their way through intellectual society and were influential to the movement altering Europe (the Enlightenment), and the French Revolution. And two centuries later they were having an impact on the intellectual development of China’s youth. Rousseau wrote at a time when the divine authority of Kings was being challenged. It was thanks to him that the rights of individuals, and concepts such as liberty, equality, and property, began to be reckoned citizen rights—or later—as human rights.
Under the Divine Right, & Might, of Emperors and their Officers, and the succeeding Authoritarian Rule of Mao and his Officers, China was a Nation where Independent Laws did not Supersede the Authority of those in Charge; who held Power; who Exercised it with Impunity.
I try to imagine myself into my 23-year-old father’s mind. The year is 1979 and he picks up the page, in the Chinese translation, and reads the words: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”.
In 1896, Sir Claude Maxwell MacDonald was appointed Her Majesty’s Minister in China. He’d had a distinguished career in the British army, rising to the rank of colonel, serving throughout Africa. But he was put to work immediately in his new office. MacDonald was assigned the task of expanding Britain’s territories in China. It was a matter of urgency, what with the French and Germans carving up their own slices of land.
Decades earlier, the British Empire had invaded Qing China, twice, in what would become known as The Opium Wars, and forced the Qing Empire to cede the island of Hong Kong in 1842. The second Opium War won the British more territory.
MacDonald got down to business, exerting pressure on the Qing court. And he was successful. The territory of Hong Kong was duly expanded to include other islands and a rent-free 99-year lease was secured. The Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory was signed on 9 June 1898.
As for Colonel MacDonald, he is buried in Brookwood Cemetery, in Surrey, England, should you want to visit.
A boat appears! You grab a white t-shirt from your plastic bag and start waving it above you, hoping to draw its attention—a rescue flag of sorts. I can see this desperate figure, one arm holding onto the beacon, the other frantic in its waving of the t-shirt.
The vessel sees you and adjusts course, speeding towards your position.
The boat sprays surf as it powers near and carves an elegant sweep as it moves alongside, parallel, to eye the figure clinging on. The Hong Kong water police drag you aboard. They head back to port. Icy warm relief moves through you, like some scene from a movie. I can even imagine the camera angle.
It is like a movie to me; a fiction.
But I am here because of this act, this bold act. And I can’t say I have ever done anything as intrepid, as daring—as reckless? And this is a problem for future me. A shadow.
Dad, why did you escape China?
I needed to escape. The police were coming to find me and I would go to prison.
I was a democracy activist. I was writing letters to universities, writing about reforms, how to make our country better, less corrupt.
So you were trying to change things? Trying to change China?
That’s right. There were a lot of things going on at that time. Lots of things happening. It is hard to describe. Hard to imagine. You can’t imagine all the things.
So then the authorities discovered what you were doing, and you decided to escape, made this plan to go to Hong Kong?
Yes, with your uncle.
But why didn’t you tell mum—your wife?
I didn’t want to get her into trouble, you know.
But you were leaving her behind.
I thought that if I escaped, I could send back for her later. And I didn’t want to get her into trouble.
But she had no idea what you were doing. She didn’t find out about it until a long time after.
So why did you do it?
Why did you escape?
Maybe, I wanted, you know, to make a new life…for us.
You mean, for you?
You, father, will diminish in power.
A Chinese democracy activist who was unsuccessful, like all the others. I don’t know all the facts but I know the story. I will hear the story of your escape in my formative years. Told more than once, I will hold on to it tightly when I am a child, clutching it like a legend, belonging only to me. A foundation; a pillar. It is the story my mother tells of how we came to live in this country, in this England. And it is only when I am older that I recognise the power this story has. The elemental nature of it. Its pure narrative.
For how many times has the sea yielded stories? How many times has the father caused a rip, a disruption, that will echo across time? How many Gods, tribes, sea nomads, refugees, asylum seekers, adventurers have tried to span a sea?
Aeneas washing up from devastated Troy. Crafty Daedalus engineering wings for him and his son, Icarus, who plummeted while life in the foreground carried on. Perfect Aphrodite, so alluring in her visage, foaming into existence. Robert Louis Stevenson sailing into the South Seas, and before him Herman Melville doing the same. Moses, leading his exiles, to promised lands, flowing with milk and honey, sweeping the Red Sea aside.
A Great Flood. A Lost Continent, beneath the waves. Desperate people bent on a land promised to them, across the channel. How many brave souls have tried to cross that visible and invisible barrier? How many tales have washed up from the sea?
But it is only fitting.
For all our journeys begin in water.
Waves crash and ripples form.
Lu-Hai Liang is a British-Chinese writer and journalist.