In 1946, during a visit to the United States, former British prime minister Winston Churchill gave a memorable speech about the advance of post-war communist totalitarianism in Europe at a college in Fulton, Missouri. This address first deployed the chilling phrase that would loom menacingly for the next 50 years – the “Iron Curtain”.
Not unnaturally, when the Communists assumed power in China in 1949, the “Bamboo Curtain” became the Asian equivalent. But like all easy labels, this phrase obscured as much as it illuminated. The Bamboo Curtain was more porous than its European counterpart; during communist China’s years of relative isolation, from the early 1950s until the late 1970s, there was greater connection with the rest of the world than is widely believed.
How did those who left China with the Communist Party’s assumption of power communicate with those who remained behind? Until the late 1950s, there was considerable human traffic between China and the wider world. British diplomatic recognition of the Communist regime in 1950 meant that mail services, while subject to surveillance at both ends, continued from British territories such as Hong Kong and Singapore – a tremendous boon for those with relatives outside China.
Private messages were usually carried out of the country by hand, secretly and at great personal risk – concealed in a suit pocket or handbag, or between the pages of a book or magazine – for onward postage outside China. Letters for international destinations were posted from Bangkok, Manila, Rangoon or – most usually – Hong Kong. A communication from an individual in China might bear the return address of a goldsmith’s shop in Singapore, with the next letter forwarded via a backstreet herbalist in Penang, or a rice merchant in Saigon.
Much as water from the hills eventually reaches a stream, then a river and, finally, the open sea, personal messages got out of “Red China” somehow.
Endless patience was required; months or even years could pass between communications. Due to the risk of detection and misinterpretation, the contents became more gnomic as time went on. Many in contemporary Hong Kong referred to China and its various power brokers as Ah Yeh (“grandfather”); in the same way, by the late 1940s, even before they had fully assumed power across the country, the Communists were referred to by the immediately obvious code words “They” or “Them”.
Letter from Peking, a novel by Pearl S. Buck, first published in 1957, when these circumstances were horrifyingly real, takes personal communications from behind the Bamboo Curtain as its central dramatic theme.
Of course, life was more straightforward for those Chinese people who had no foreign connections, the majority, but for anyone who had – and China, in those decades, had a large Eurasian population who identified with their Chinese heritage – circumstances were very different. As political campaigns intensified throughout the 1950s, these people’s every movement was closely watched and documented, against some future day when a random scrap of information might provide state organs with the justification to pounce, denounce and persecute.
Western “fellow travellers” with the Communist cause came and went with little hindrance during these years, but those who chose to remain permanently in the “New China” were subject to equal suspicion in their home countries. On the rare occasions they returned, every word and action was scrutinised by these nations’ security agencies; totalitarian states, ultimately, give respite to no one.