Beijing revisited after half a century

by bbc

By David Willey
BBC News

Bicycles dominate a Beijing street in 1965

Returning to Beijing after nearly 50 years sparks recollections of a China long gone, and the memory of one very special meeting.

The circumstances of my first visit to China were curious, to say the least.

A delegation of 25 journalists including a handful of Western reporters like myself had been chosen by the Communist authorities to report on the return home to China of a former warlord called Li Zongren.

General Li - although I personally had never heard of him - was famous for military campaigns during upheavals inside China during the 1920s, and again during the war against the Japanese in the 30s and 40s.

The general had, in fact, been acting president of China for a very brief moment during the period of political turbulence just before Mao Zedong emerged as leader in 1948.

He had escaped to the US and lived in exile there like many members of the former regime. Sick and old, he now wanted to return home to die, like any good Chinese, and a secret handover was arranged in Geneva.

So, on a cold, sunny Sunday afternoon in late September 1965, I found myself at a news conference followed by a reception in Beijing in the Great Hall of the People, rubbing shoulders with the entire top Chinese nomenklatura who had gathered to welcome the famous former warlord.

Zhou Enlai welcomes Li Zongren

I remember recognising Chairman Mao's brilliant number two, Zhou Enlai, an unforgettable face, and the burly Chen Yi, the powerful general who was acting foreign minister.

Also Peng Zhen, the Mayor of Beijing, shortly to be purged as the Cultural Revolution surged ahead and the infamous Red Guards caused mayhem all over the country.

I was even introduced briefly to a sad-faced, bespectacled old man who was pointed out to me, standing there drably dressed in dark blue fatigues in a corner of the vast reception room.

He was Pu Yi, the last Emperor of China. Pu Yi, last in line of the Qing dynasty, had succeeded briefly to the Dragon throne while still a toddler, and was forced to abdicate at the age of six.

After an eventful life, which had included a period of captivity in Russia, they told me, he was now employed as part-time literary editor and part-time gardener by the new Communist masters of China.

Pu Yi, emperor and, later, gardener

Beijing today bears little resemblance

To refresh my mind about what turned out to be perhaps three of the most exciting weeks of my entire life, I have been looking at my diary notes for 1965 and viewing for the first time in decades an hour of 8mm colour film I shot - despite the worried glances of our official minders - as we moved around Beijing and, later, around some of China's other major cities.


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2012-09-05 12:17:14