CDT Bookshelf: Interview with John Pomfret

In Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China, John Pomfret traces the lives of four of his classmates at Nanjing University, which he attended as a 20-year-old Stanford student in 1981. Given the rare opportunity to live in a Chinese dorm room with seven undergraduates, Pomfret gained an intimate knowledge of the generation that had come of age during the Cultural Revolution and was at the forefront of China’s reform process. Interwoven with these stories are Pomfret’s own recollections and impressions from his time in China as an undergraduate, again as a reporter for the Associated Press during the 1989 Democracy Movement and subsequent military crackdown, and finally as the Beijing bureau chief for the Washington Post from 1998 to 2003. Pomfret is currently the Los Angeles bureau chief for the Washington Post. Chinese Lessons will be published by Henry Holt and Co. in August. An adapted excerpt from the book was published in the Washington Post last week. John Pomfret’s website is here.

Pomfret recently answered some questions for CDT about his new book and his thoughts about China.

China Digital Times: You went to Nanjing University as a 20-year-old Stanford student in 1981, a time when very few American college students went to China. What appealed to you then about China?

John Pomfret: China at the time was a forbidden zone, going there was probably the closest an American could get to space travel without joining NASA. Also, I had digested a lot of book learning about China. I wanted to see the theory in practice. Of course, it turned out to be totally different from what we’d learned in books. Professors teaching Chinese history in the US were generally sympathetic to Mao and his legacy. I learned that the Chinese were not as forgiving.

CDT: What were some of your very first impressions of the country when you arrived? How did your impressions differ from what you had learned about the country at Stanford or from reading the news?

JP: It was a poor scruffy place. But the people possessed a bubbly curiosity about the outside world. Some places hadn’t seen foreigners in decades — if at all. So I was constantly surrounded by gaping rubber-neckers. At Stanford I had been taught that Mao was — following the Chinese Communist Party’s formula — 70 percent good and 30 percent bad. Many Sinologists of that era had embraced leftist political ideology and to them Mao was always the acceptable dictator of the 20th century. Once in China, I listened to my roommates and friends and came to understand that the experience of the Chinese under Mao had been a miserable one.

CDT: You had the rare opportunity to share a dorm room with seven Chinese students, something that foreign students are barred from doing today. Can you say a little bit about how they responded to you and your first impressions of your new living quarters?

JP: Nanjing University was the only major university to allow foreigners to live on the Chinese side. It was an experiment and in my case I will always feel grateful to the university’s president Kuang Yaming for allowing it. The experience — from start to finish — was critical to allowing me to fashion an understanding of the Chinese. I watched them get up in the morning, clearing their throats en masse with a chorus of phlegmy hocks. I watched them go to bed at night, to a man all washing their feet in metal wash basins with a peony painted at the base. The experience provided me with an intimate look at a group of people who had literally crossed through hell to get into university. They opened their hearts to me. They would routinely come onto my bunk and confide their secrets. They asked me advice — everything from how to kiss a girl to how to get out of China.

CDT: Did you remain in close contact with your roommates and classmates at Nanjing University after you left the school?

JP: I lost contact with most of my classmates but stayed in contact with others. They learned about my expulsion from China in 1989 by watching the national newscast. They also learned that I’d returned to China in 1998 when they saw my mug on Chinese TV at press conferences.

CDT: In “Chinese Lessons,” you trace the stories of four of your classmates, beginning during the Cultural Revolution up to the present day. Even in the context of the times, the individual stories are exceptionally dramatic and in some cases horrifying. How did you choose these particular classmates to focus on? Was it difficult to convince them to participate in your project?

JP: One of the things that has changed the most in China in recent years is the fact that the government no longer blocks people who share something in common from forming associations (unless they are even minutely political in nature.) So there is now a network of alumni associations. I got the list of my class — class of 1982, history majors, Nanjing University — and wrote letters to all 63 students. They all remembered me and I received 55-plus letters in reply, all welcoming my project. I then went off in search of them and interviewed them. Slowly I began to winnow down the list to about 10. I chose the characters for the stories they had and what those stories told about China. I wanted a guy from the system (and, logically, he cooperated the least). I wanted a businessman. I wanted a dissident. And I wanted a romantic. The only one who did not cooperate fully was the Party official. But to the extent that he could, he did. And for that I am grateful.

CDT: Your classmates represent the generation that was at the forefront of China’s reform process, yet the lives that the four students went on to live in today’s China are quite different from each other. Taken together, what, if anything, can readers learn from these stories about the trajectory of contemporary Chinese society?

JP: The purpose of “Chinese Lessons” was to describe what it has been like for Chinese people to live in China for the past several decades, to give a voice to the manifold stories of that country.

As such, what I was seeking to do when I wrote the book was not to draw a conclusion about China or stamp it with some type of adjective saying it is this way or that. Rather it was an attempt to say, here are some stories of people I knew, this is what they have gone through, these are the Chinese, this is a nation that is seeking to become a world power, this is where it has come from and its history will clearly inform its future.

CDT: Throughout the book, you give numerous examples that portray a lack of morality or even humanity in the relations between people in China, both during the horrors of the Cultural Revolution and today. Do you think that is changing in today’s China and if not, how will it influence China’s development?

JP: I think the whole question of the moral vacuum in China has and will continue to have an important influence on how China and the Chinese conduct business, foreign policy and other international relations in the future. It will affect how China treats its neighbors, its friends and its enemies. As to whether it is changing, I think that change is unavoidable. Among the young in China there is a new movement toward social consciousness, but it is in its infancy. The big problem is that the Party-state is still unwilling to understand that people can have faith in religion and be loyal to China at the same time.

CDT: You have said that 1988 was one of the best times to be in China because of the level of cultural and social freedom. How would you compare China in the period leading up the 1989 protest movement to the country you left in 2004? In what ways are people’s daily lives different?

JP: The level of intellectual debate and exploration in 1988 has yet to be surpassed. Issues like the separation of the Party and the state were openly discussed then. Now they are still taboo. However, in terms of general sophistication of lifestyle — and in terms of types of lifestyles – obviously it’s much more open now. Basically, the deal that Deng Xiaoping made with the Chinese people in 1992 involved this: I will let you get rich, eat great food and have as much sex as you want, in exchange you won’t rock the boat. That deal continues today — although it’s fraying a bit around the edges because not enough people have gotten the good life.

CDT: As a reporter in China, did you feel it was difficult to accurately portray the country to an American audience? What were the major limitations, from both the Chinese and American sides?

JP: I portrayed China as accurately as I was able. The limitations of newspaper writing are well-known. You can’t weave yarns like you can in a book. You can’t write about your relationships — which often most clearly reflect a culture and a time.

CDT: Now that you are based in Los Angeles, what is it like to view China from afar? Do you think the US media does an effective and accurate job of covering the country?

JP: I think the reporting about China in the US is very good these days. I think American reporters write about the good, the bad and the goofy with equal enthusiasm.

CDT: There has been such a surge in interest in China around the world recently that interested readers are barraged with information about the country. What do you think is the most important story coming out of the country right now that people should be paying closest attention to?

JP: Demographics. China will be the first country to grow old before it gets rich. By 2040, according to current projections, China will have a higher percentage of people above 60 than the United States. Does that mean that the one child policy should be changed?

Read a review of “Chinese Lessons” from the New York Times.


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