Jan Wong put her life on hold to search for a student she betrayed during the Cultural Revolution, writes Bron Sibree
Jan Wong is both revered and reviled in her native Canada for her relentless, honest reporting. How many journalists, you wonder, can boast of an irate telephone call from their prime minister? But the columnist dubbed 'the Queen of Mean' by her countrymen has also copped her fair share of flack in China, where her best-selling 1997 memoir, Red China Blues, remains banned for its vivid account of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
No one, it seems, can provoke people in quite the way Wong can. But few can beguile their readers in the way this third-generation Chinese-Canadian has across four decades of writing and reporting. The thing that endears you to Wong, 55, is that she doesn't just reserve her brutal honesty for others, as her second memoir, Beijing Confidential, now in paperback, attests. In it she writes about her betrayal of a fellow student at Beijing University during the Cultural Revolution - and her subsequent quest to make amends - with such candour it can take your breath away.
'I really tried to dig as deep as I could into my own motivations, which I hadn't done before,' says Wong. She first fetched up in China in the 1970s, she recalls, 'as a fervent young Montreal Maoist who looked Chinese but couldn't speak Chinese', becoming one of only two western students to be accepted into Beijing University in 1972, during the height of the Cultural Revolution. There she 'ratted out' a fellow student, a young woman called Yin Luoyi, whose only crime was to ask for help in reaching America. Wong recorded the incident in her diary and forgot about it until 1994. By then she had clocked up six years as a Beijing correspondent.
'In 1994, just as I was leaving China, I was going through my diaries from more than 20 years earlier and I saw it. I was so shocked I just didn't want to look for her and I didn't know how I could find her either.'
Wong realised the only way to deal with her lingering sense of guilt and shame was to search for Yin under the cover of writing a portrait of Beijing in the pre-Olympic makeover fervour. Dragging her husband and two reluctant young sons along for solace, Wong's quest to find Yin and absolution in a city where the past is being bulldozed away at dazzling speed has produced an evocative, shrewd and funny read.
Wong is unabashed about using her husband and children as comic fodder in a narrative that is essentially an inquiry into the culture of amnesia, wrapped inside an engaging and easily digestible portrayal of 'the most capitalist capital on Earth'.
She is relentless too in wringing out the comedic properties of linguistic and culinary differences as well as Beijing's newly minted consumer lust, wryly noting the city that once ranked as the socialist capital of the world now has the world's largest Ikea store.
Defying the odds of finding anyone in a city of 40 million unlisted mobile phones, Wong eventually locates Yin on the final leg of her trip. On listening to her harrowing story of expulsion, exile and 're-education', and subsequent heroically successful re-entry into post-Mao Beijing, Wong forges a friendship with Yin that she describes as 'uncommonly frank. Many friendships in China are laden with layers of frivolity and reticence. But we had to pick up the pieces and figure out the path we had each taken,' she says.
'I had to apologise and explain why I did it, and I wasn't at all sure how she would react to me. But I felt that her story was really a story of China, of Beijing, and everything that the city had gone through.'
Wong calls the Cultural Revolution China's Holocaust. 'I was trying to get back into my own mindset. Why did ... people turn in friends and neighbours, colleagues, professors, parents? Because most people were betrayed by people they knew. So it was very personal.'
Wong hints at the notion that even as Beijing is feverishly erasing its past in the interest of creating a shiny new China, the patterns driving it are still the same. 'I think this is just Chinese history. People have put up with a lot of turmoil and they just keep going on. They all know what happened in the Cultural Revolution, they all know what happened at Tiananmen Square, and the reaction is simply to bury it. There's no idea of reconciliation, which other nations go through. So many people were killed, so many people lost their careers, years and years of their lives, and yet it just keeps going on. I don't really understand it.
'I think also the Chinese were pretty good at fooling people. So much was kept secret. After being so eager to conform, so eager to accept what I was being told, I think I've gone the other way completely and I'm much more sceptical now.'
So much of her aggressive reporting, be it contravening quarantine rules while reporting on a severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak, or, notoriously, linking school shootings in Quebec to the Quebecois community's concerns with racial purity, she attributes directly to having been deceived in China.
'I've been subjected to so much Maoist propaganda and deception that I'm serious about anyone trying to deceive the public or put a spin on things,' she says. 'I find the corporate business world is similar to communist China, so I try really hard to pierce whatever veil is being drawn over something. I think that's what journalists should do. I'm not afraid to say what I think. It has made me notorious. But that's okay. That's the price you pay when you say things.'
Wong remains fascinated by China. 'The US is going downhill faster than anyone predicted, and the only country in place to take over is China,' she says. 'I don't think the world is ready for this. I don't think anybody has a game plan for what to do when our superpower is a communist country with a capitalist economy.'
Beijing Confidential by Jan Wong (Anchor, HK$160)