Monday, July 4, 2011

Meeting Songbird



"Let me tell you about the French," she said. "I'll begin with the French because they're especially loathsome to me. Then I'll talk about the others -- Americans, British, Israelis, Iranians, Iraqis, Syrians, Swedes, and Thais. But I'll start with the French because I know them so well. And knowing them as I do, having done business with them again and again over the years, I can tell you quite candidly that from the very depth of my soul I hate them the most."
We were in the coffee shop of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong. It was mid-August, 1991 -- a hot and humid Sunday morning. I was seated at a small table near a window when I saw her enter the room, exchange a word with the hostess and then glance in my direction. I stood and waved to her and she waved back. She is unusually tall for a Chinese woman. Her unpowdered skin has a lustrous porcelain glow and the only makeup I've ever detected on her is a delicate blush of lipstick. Her shoulder-length raven hair is always sculpted as meticulously as a model's. She is slender as a young girl and the dark, fashionably-tailored suits of French and American cut that she prefers -- always black or navy and worn over a white silk blouse open at the throat -- seem designed for her alone. Her only jewelry is a simple, gold wrist watch that bears the tiny red and blue logo of an Italian arms manufacturing company -- "a reminder of an unsuccessful transaction," she calls it. She carries herself with the grace and the confidence of someone with cash and connections. Time has been unusually kind to her and she seems at least a decade younger than her 41 years -- she may still be described most accurately as "beautiful" or "striking" rather than simply "good looking" or "attractive." And when she crossed the coffee shop to my table that Sunday, people turned to watch her, wondering no doubt, if they had seen her on television or in the movies.
She preferred the English name "Yvonne" and used it in the West for business purposes. It was a loose adaptation, she explained when I first met her, of the sound of her given Chinese name, Yuanchao or "Aid Korea" -- a popular patriotic name given countless Chinese children born in late 1950 -- the year the Chinese went to war with the United States in Korea. The academic precision of Yvonne's English is flawed only by her pronunciation of "r," which in Mandarin emanates from further back on the tongue and is more pronounced [as in the word "argue"] than the common American "r." A native of Beijing, her Mandarin has the unmistakable burr of north China.
I'd met Yvonne three years earlier, in Nanjing. I was teaching at the time at the Center for Chinese and American Studies at Nanjing University. She was visiting a friend who was a faculty member at the University. We were introduced -- the "foreign expert" and the "honored guest" -- at a Moon Festival Celebration held in the Center. We exchanged a few pleasantries at that time and posed with others for a group photograph. Later, in November, while I was visiting Beijing I spotted her in the lobby of the Jianguo Hotel. She was seated with a small group of western businessmen -- British, I learned later -- drinking tea and listening to the music played by a somber Chinese chamber group. She was surprised to see me and we again exchanged a few words. The following August, we met a third time in Hong Kong, on Salisbury Road, outside the entrance to the Peninsula Hotel where she was staying. She had recently returned from America, she said, and was on her way back to Beijing. She suggested we meet later and talk about life in the states. We had an American dinner that evening at the trendy "California" restaurant in Lan Kwai Fong. She promised to call me during her next business trip to the states and so we met three more times that year in San Francisco during her stopovers on flights to Washington and New York.
She was involved in business, I learned -- "import-export," she described it. But she was obviously reluctant to say anything more about it -- not even the name of her company. We talked instead about me, my work, my writing, my impressions of China, my travels, and the merits of restaurants of San Francisco, New York, Hong Kong, Nanjing and Guangzhou.
Then, in August, 1991, as prearranged by by mail several weeks earlier, we met on a Sunday morning at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. I was back in Hong Kong to complete some research for an article on the Vietnamese boat people languishing in the camps in the British crown colony. She was on her way to the US again.
She called me on Saturday night to confirm our appointment. And she asked me to bring along my tape recorder -- an unusual request. There were some things she wanted to tell me, she said, and she thought I might want to tape them. In the restaurant, she was more direct about herself than previously. "I have story for you" she said. "A story nobody else can tell you. Are you interested?"
I asked what it was about. "China," she replied. "But not the China you've read about in books. Not the China in the movies. China. The real China. My China."
"Why are you telling me?" I asked suspiciously. "Why me? Why now?"
"First, because you're here and because I'm here," she said. "And I have to trust somebody. You have an interesting perspective toward China. Maybe you can understand the truth of what I tell you. And I've decided to trust you. We've talked enough about other things. I want to tell you my story. The time is right. Maybe something good will come of it. I hope so. I really hope so. I've thought about telling this story since the spring of 1989. But I've waited, thinking maybe things would change in China and there would never be a need to tell it and it could just die. But things haven't changed. So the story has to be told. If you tell it in America, it will be told in due course in China. It will, I expect, raise a hell of a storm. Those who read it will know it's true and say it isn't. They'll start looking for the source. But at the same time they'll be held accountable. They'll have to explain their actions. When that happens, things may start to improve."
She said I'd need background information first -- where she came from, what she did and why. She asked me to turn on the tape recorder.
She was born, as her name indicated, in 1950 in Beijing. Her father and his brother, who were from a good background and held high positions within the military, were sent across the Yalu River with the People's Volunteers to help "our North Korean friends." She'd descended from generations of military officers and Communist party members. She'd been a Young Pioneer, a Red Guard of Mao Zedong and had joined the party two decades earlier. "I grew up hating and fearing the Americans and their adventurist policies in Asia. I believed that they wanted to overturn our revolution by armed force -- including the atomic bomb. Why else would they send their army to Korea or to Vietnam?" She and a younger sister and brother had followed her father into the military -- the People's Liberation Army(PLA) -- attended a prestigious military academy and then had accompanied the PLA force that invaded Vietnam in 1979. After the war she was assigned to the logistics department of the PLA and then left the military to work for Poly Technologies, Inc. soon after it was founded in 1983.
"What does Poly Technologies do?" I asked. "What sort of business were you in."
She thought for a moment and then answered with a big smile, "Guns 'R Us! You know the big American store in Kowloon on the waterfront-- the toy store -- Toys 'R Us? I've always laughed at the name of the place because I thought it was a sort of innocent American version of what we do. We buy and sell very special toys for the generals and admirals to play with -- missiles, tanks, airplanes, ships. We sell weapons and we buy weapons for the PLA. My military experience and my good family background made me attractive to the company. So they recruited me. I became a project manager with them. I saw how everything works in the arms business from the inside. I was part of it all. Unfortunately."
She a Rothman cigarette from it's blue box, lit it and inhaled deeply. Then she continued in a low somber tone, and she studied my reaction to her initial revelations. "You won't believe some of this," she predicted. "I know that. I know it. That's all right. Much of it is, to be sure, incredible. But it's true. Every word of it. You can check it out, in time. You'll find the people, documents, evidence. I'll help you. Where there are no documents, I'll give you some details, numbers, detailed descriptions, prices, names. But there are people who need to be protected. We'll have to change a few names. Is that all right?"
"Fine," I said. "What about you?"
"I'm not going back for a while," she said. "So it makes no difference to me. I'll wait until things change. But others who are still there must be protected."
She flashed a quick, confident smile and continued. "When you've written it all down, we'll see who believes you. My employers will, you can be sure of that. They'll recognize the truth and choke. And the Party's Central Committee and Central Military Commission and the generals and the admirals. They'll know I was there."
"But I think the most difficult audience will be your fellow Americans, though. They may not believe this, at first.
"Let me tell you why. I've been to America about a dozen times and I've done business there and attended conferences and seminars. I've listened to American scholars and China watchers. Generally, I can tell you, they're full of shit. They're laughable. They're never right about China. Never. Did you ever think about that? Look at the record. They were surprised that the Communists won in 1949. They were surprised when we helped Korea. They were surprised when we developed an atomic bomb. They were surprised when the Cultural Revolution began and surprised when it ended. They were surprised when the Gang of Four was arrested. They were surprised at the student democracy movement and finally they were surprised when the PLA killed the demonstrators. None of this was predicted.
The only thing that didn't surprise them, I guess, is our invasion of Vietnam. And that didn't surprise them because they knew it was coming -- Deng [Xiaoping] told them so during his visit to Washington in 1979. And, as you will see, not only did we receive your government's enthusiastic blessing for the invasion, we also received visible help in that invasion from both your NSA[National Security Agency] and your Navy. No surprises there. But for God's sake we had to tell you what we were doing -- show you pictures, almost, before you believed it. I'm sure had Deng not told your government in so many words what we were going to do, your China watchers would have somberly predicted something else. I'm absolutely sure of it.
"Americans!" she blurted out and shook her head. "Incredible people.
"The Tiananmen incident was the final obscenity for me. How many China watchers predicted what the PLA would do? How many? None that I could find. And do you know why? I finally discovered why. Because they spend all their time studying bullshit. They analyze the public statements of Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng and Yuan Mu and other party leaders. They study the People's Daily and Hong Kong publications and Chinese television news and they spend their lives deciphering meaningless details and facts that are usually dreamed up and issued only to confuse them. They take this shit seriously! They are really exactly like blind men around an elephant -- you know that children's story? Only in this case it is not an elephant they're fondling. It's a dragon!
"I know one thing from living and working in China all my life -- and especially from my involvement with Poly Technologies. If you want to understand China, if you really want to understand the dragon -- if you want to know his nature, his character, his soul, -- then you have to look him in the eye. Look him in the eye! This isn't easy. Few people really dare to do that. They are in love with their illusions. They cherish them. They go to the movies -- 'The Good Earth' and 'The Last Emperor' and 'Iron and Silk' and they conclude, 'How charming! This is really China.' Well, this is really bullshit. All of those stories are fairy tales. Believe me, the people in those films are as strange and stupid to the Chinese as they are to the Americans. So listen to me. I'll tell you things, I'll show you things I've seen and done. I'll introduce you to people and ask them to tell you what they've seen and heard and done. We'll lead you right up to the dragon and let you look him in the eye. Write down what you hear and see. And then watch what happens. See whether people prefer the old familiar bullshit or a little frightening reality."
It took a moment for the shock of both her frankness and her idiomatic profanity to pass. "You swear like a trooper," I observed.
"Life is filled with surprises," she shot back and then waited passively for my decision.
But I'd known already for several minutes what my answer would be. "OK," I said. "Let's do it. I'm ready."
"I hope you brought more tape," she said looking at the single cassette in my recorder. "This is going to take some time. But first, let's order breakfast. I'm starved. Then let's talk. I hope you're free most of the day. "
She picked up the menu, paged through it quickly and then signaled impatiently to the waiter who hurried to our table.

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