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Dateline Peking

Beijing — From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Chinese paramilitary police officer stands guard in front of Tiananmen gate in Beijing, China, Tuesday. (Vincent Thian)

Fifty years ago this week, an exhausted and bewildered young journalist arrived in Beijing after a two-day train journey from Hong Kong. Though it was late at night when he finally reached his hotel, Frederick Nossal headed straight for nearby Tiananmen Square to take in the celebrations of the 10th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

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Soon afterward, Mr. Nossal cabled home the first report by a Western newspaper reporter based in what was then commonly referred to as Red China. The article that appeared on the front page of The Globe and Mail on Oct. 5, 1959, was infused with the same mixture of awe and anxiety over the scale and direction of the nation-building project undertaken by the Communist Party that can still be found in Western media reports from the country five decades on.

"By night, Peking is a city of colour and gaiety. By day, countless thousands of proud and happy Chinese stream along the wide sweeping boulevards," the first article reads, after reporting remarks from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who was in Beijing for the anniversary celebration. "National sentiment is so intense that any Westerner not used to mass demonstrations is taken completely by surprise."

When Mr. Nossal arrived, China was a country of a mere 700 million (today it's closer to 1.3 billion), but in his reports he was already impressed by the country's enormous scale. "The Communists in China have one advantage many countries lack. If one man can't do the job, they get two; if 500 can't finish a planned building on time, they put on another thousand," he wrote in his 1962 memoir Dateline-Peking , adding a line that would prove prescient as this country, after some stagger-steps in the 1960s and 70s, stunned the world with its economic progress in the 1990s and 2000s. "Set hundreds of millions of people to work for low wages, and there must be development."

It is little wonder that Mr. Nossal was initially overwhelmed by what he saw. The story of how The Globe and Mail ended up as the first Western newspaper allowed to open a Peking (as the Chinese capital was known before the standardized pinyin system of transliteration came along) bureau is a convoluted one that seems to owe as much to chance as to warming Canada-China ties and the efforts of an enterprising editor.

That it was Mr. Nossal - a 31-year-old Austrian-born reporter and occasional Globe contributor who had been working at the Melbourne Herald in Australia when Oakley Dalgleish, editor and publisher of The Globe at the time, called him with a stunning proposal - who got the assignment was an almost completely random twist of fate.

Mr. Dalgleish, who lobbied for years to persuade Chinese authorities to allow the newspaper to open an office in Beijing (motivated by his personal belief that Beijing held the keys to ending the Cold War standoff between East and West), later revealed that Mr. Nossal had been his third nominee for the Beijing job. The Globe's first two choices were rejected by Chinese authorities, who seemingly weren't interested in anyone who might be able to mingle with the locals without their knowledge.

"We learned that anyone who had experience in China (pre- or post-revolutionary), anyone with knowledge of the language (unless a Party nominee), was unlikely to be welcome," Mr. Dalgleish wrote of the selection process.

Worried that the Chinese would close the bureau he had fought so hard to have opened, he told Mr. Nossal to play it as straight as possible in his reporting. No interpreting, he said, just write what you see.

From the Chinese perspective, the reasons why The Globe and Mail was the first Western newspaper allowed to set up a bureau seem lost in the mists of time, with most of the officials involved either dead or claiming they can't remember how it transpired.

"At that time, we welcomed media institutions, including some from Western countries, so long as they treated China as an equal and with due respect," Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhang Yong ventured.

"Dr. [Norman]Bethune [a Gravenhurst, Ont.-born physician famous in China for treating Communist fighters during the Second World War]was also from Canada, so there was always some special bond. Maybe there were political reasons, maybe not."

Whatever the backstory, Mr. Nossal would enjoy a brief burst of fame in the industry as his reports were regularly reprinted in publications such as The New York Times, The Daily Telegraph of London and papers across Europe and Australia, so thirsty was the rest of the world for any glimpse behind what was then referred to as the Bamboo Curtain.

From the moment of his arrival, Mr. Nossal obviously felt apart and somewhat uneasy living in what was then fervently Communist China. In Dateline-Peking , he says he started to feel "fear" as early as that first visit to Tiananmen Square. "I experienced for the first time a feeling that was frequently to recur - a sense of fear and foreboding generated by the dynamism and appeal of this nationalistic Communism which the Peking government had created during its decade of government. Groups of young people looked at me proudly as if to say, 'You white people are no longer the bosses of the world. Soon it will be us,'" he wrote.

"Nobody around me could speak English," he notes later in the book. "But soon I learned that a European's movements anywhere in China are closely watched."

Mr. Nossal felt that the distance between him and the Chinese he interacted with was unbridgeable. At one point, as he walked with his translator down Wangfujing Street, then and now Beijing's main shopping avenue, he asked the translator, named Yen, what he would like as a Christmas present. "Give me as a gift your friendship," Yen replied.

"It was nicely put, but he could not have meant it since he knew that true friendship between a dedicated Chinese Communist and a Westerner was virtually impossible," Mr. Nossal wrote of the experience.

Mr. Nossal worked in another world from the one today's foreign correspondents know. He communicated with his editors in Toronto by telegram and mailed his rolls of film around the world before they were printed. He waited weeks, sometimes longer, for copies of The Globe and Mail to arrive so that he could see what kind of play he was getting in Canada.

The Chinese authorities certainly didn't make it easy for him to blend in. Mr. Nossal and the two other Western reporters in Beijing - one each from the Reuters and Agence France-Presse news agencies - were forced to live in the Xinqiao Hotel, and their activities were monitored whenever they went outside. Reporting was largely restricted to press conferences at the Foreign Ministry and rare government-organized trips outside Beijing. Much of his time was spent inside the Xinqiao watching the teletype machine for official press releases to come across.

"If you can't speak the language, you can't talk to local folks unless there's an interpreter there, and the interpreter was provided by the state. You're very much in the state's control," said Mr. Nossal's son, Kim. (Mr. Nossal died in 1979.)

Now a professor of international relations at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., Kim Nossal was an eight-year-old boy in the spring of 1960 when the Chinese government finally gave his father permission to bring his wife, Audrey, and their four children to join him in Beijing. Prof. Nossal's recollections also highlight the isolation his father felt at the time.

"My memories of Beijing back then are a low-rise city that was incredibly dusty and in which all of us were incredibly unusual," he said by telephone during a recent lecturing trip that took him to Shanghai. "There were very few Westerners, and very few eight-year-old Western boys on the trolley bus to school."

The Beijing that the Nossals arrived in could scarcely be more different than the one I landed in 50 years later. Today's Beijing is a city of more than 12 million, a place where futuristic high-rise office towers surround multilane highways and where foreign tourists and business people are nearly as common as Chinese in some parts of the city. While red banners urging residents to help build a better socialist society still hang from the bridges, most Chinese are more interested in nothing more ideological than earning a little more money for themselves and their families.

Instead of a two-day train ride from Hong Kong, my wife, Carolynne, and I arrived last December in the expansive new Beijing Capital International Airport and were whisked straight to our new home in the Sanlitun neighbourhood, in a building that sits across the street from such un-Maoist institutions as a Mercedes dealership, a Starbucks and the local offices of Boeing. Farther down the road is the Workers' Stadium, a 70,000-seat facility where public executions were frequently carried out during the Cultural Revolution, but which more recently hosted soccer matches during last year's Olympic Games.

The task of being a foreign journalist here has also changed dramatically. Where Mr. Nossal rarely went anywhere without a government-appointed translator at his side - and rarely interacted with ordinary Chinese - I'm free to go almost anywhere I want in Beijing and legally allowed to speak to anyone I want, provided the other party doesn't mind chatting with a foreign reporter.

But, in my short experience here, I've also learned that the new openness applies only in Beijing, Shanghai and a few other big cities. Farther afield, and especially in and around sensitive areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang where the government fears ethnic unrest, the old control machine is very much still in operation. (I was detained and expelled from the western city of Kashgar during the ethnic unrest in July in Xinjiang, and meeting with Tibetan monks requires cloak and dagger measures to get around the government's ban on journalists travelling independently to the plateau. The same goes for interviewing dissidents in many cities beyond Beijing and Shanghai.)

Still, a recent trip to North Korea, a country that still clings to the totalitarian model that defined the China that Mr. Nossal arrived in, taught me how far this country has travelled since those times. Reporting in Pyongyang in 2009, I imagine, was a lot like Mr. Nossal's 1959 experiences in Beijing. I went nowhere, and spoke to no one, without government "minders" around. After only a week, I returned to China with a new appreciation for how far this country has come.

Prof. Nossal, who occasionally returns to China, acknowledges that today's Beijing would be almost unrecognizable to his father. The old Xinqiao hotel is now a Novotel, battling for customers against a range of other Western hotel chains in the shopping district that has sprung up in the streets around Tiananmen, where Mao still lies in state, blissfully unaware of the market reforms that have transformed his People's Republic.

The Nossal family's stay in Beijing was shorter than they or The Globe had hoped. In June, 1960, a few months after his family was finally allowed to join him in Beijing, Mr. Nossal was informed by the Foreign Ministry that his visa would not be extended.

While some Western commentators (most notably Time magazine) accused Mr. Nossal of being to sympathetic to Mao and his henchmen - the most damning accusation was that he missed the cruelty and man-made famine of the Great Leap Forward while being led around by his government minders - the Chinese authorities felt that Mr. Nossal's reporting had turned against them and that his reports "had not been in all respects accurate."

Mr. Nossal and his family left Beijing, and The Globe and Mail bureau moved back to Hong Kong, at least until his successor, Charles Taylor, negotiated a return to the Chinese capital in 1964.

"China, one of the fountainheads of human civilization, has become the enigma of the atomic world. Nobody could predict what she would do next, though it was a little easier to make guesses from Peking than from the outside," Mr. Nossal wrote in the epilogue of his memoir.

Much has changed in the Middle Kingdom since he wrote those words. Yet, as the 17th in a long line of correspondents sent here by The Globe and Mail to try to make some sense of that enigma, I'm not sure there is much I'd change about that sentence.

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