The China that Norman Webster discovered when he moved to Beijing half a century ago wasn’t an economic giant yet but instead a poor, drab and secretive country still coping with the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.
However, one of the first stories he tackled as The Globe and Mail’s new China correspondent would feel rather familiar to today’s readers: the lengthy detention of a foreigner in retaliation for the arrest of a Chinese national abroad.
“He was just a pawn in the clutches of the Chinese,” Mr. Webster said recently as he recalled how he reported on the release of a British journalist held captive in Beijing. Mr. Webster was interviewed following the launch of his book, Newspapering, an anthology from his long journalism career, one that included being editor-in-chief at The Globe.
Articles that he wrote about China underline the long march travelled by the Asian nation, the staggering changes it underwent, but also the unwavering ruthlessness of its leaders.
The Globe’s fifth China correspondent was present during a pivotal period when a reclusive country re-emerged onto the world stage. A week after his arrival, he went to Tiananmen Square, where half a million people cheered party chairman Mao Zedong as they celebrated the 20th anniversary of the 1949 proclamation of the People’s Republic.
Mr. Webster then covered the departure of Reuters journalist Anthony Grey, who had been in solitary confinement for more than two years in reprisal for the jailing of a Chinese journalist in British-ruled Hong Kong. It was a situation mirroring the current captivity in China of two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, after Canada apprehended Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition warrant. “He was shaky and looking worn,” Mr. Webster recalled, describing Mr. Grey’s departure at Beijing airport, where customs officers gave the Briton last-minute paperwork hassles.
Today’s China has tense relations with Canada and Australia, among others. In 1969, it was on the edge of war with the Soviet Union after ideological divergences between the two communist rivals escalated into border clashes. The rampages of the first days of the Cultural Revolution had abated but China was still in the grip of the Mao cult of personality.
Mr. Webster noted that street traffic consisted of bicycles, buses and donkey carts carrying cabbage. At a street corner, young girls holding Mao’s red book “were shouting quotations in a unison at passing cyclists.”
Neither Canada nor the U.S. had diplomatic missions in China. The British legation building remained a burnt-out shell – “like a rotten tooth,” Mr. Webster wrote – after it had been stormed by Red Guards.
At least Mr. Webster didn’t have the experience of one of his predecessors in 1967, the late David Oancia, who twice had mobs surround and attack him while he was in his car, including one occasion while visiting Mr. Grey.
There were then 19 foreign journalists in China, all from communist countries except for one from France, one from West Germany, three from Japan and Mr. Webster. As one of the few Western newspaper reporters, his stories sometimes appeared in The New York Times.
Mr. Webster, his wife, Pat, and their two sons, never met another Canadian resident during their two-year stay.
There were no telephone links to the West. A clattering teletype in their flat offered dispatches about Albanian farming. The only news from home came from copies of The Globe and Mail, arriving weeks late in the mail. “It was so totally removed, so remote from the rest of the world,” Ms. Webster recalled.
Travel outside Beijing was restricted, though eventually Mr. Webster was able to visit other cities. In Nanjing, for example, he saw “in the evening low-watt bulbs illuminate rooms with groups facing portraits of Mao Tsetung and reading their red books.”
But a big shift happened during that period. Mr. Webster reported on China’s increased outreach to other countries. “Chinese foreign policy, under the personal direction of Premier [Zhou Enlai], is again making itself strongly felt after the inward-looking years of the Cultural Revolution,” Mr. Webster wrote in June, 1970.
Canada and China established diplomatic relations and Mr. Webster witnessed the arrival of the Canadian mission and the raising of the Maple Leaf flag over the new embassy.
He also reported on the revival of sports but, like other observers, couldn’t have predicted what happened next when Chinese athletes returned to international competition.
In April, 1971, an encounter between Chinese and American competitors at a table-tennis tournament in Japan led to a surprise invitation for foreign players to come to Beijing.
Luckily for Mr. Webster, he was on vacation in Hong Kong when it happened. Already accredited by the Chinese, he was the only newspaper reporter able to cross the border with the players, travel with them and report on their first day in Beijing.
He noted that there were still dark patches on walls where the Chinese had just removed banners saying “People of the World Unite and Defeat the U.S. aggressors and all their running dogs.”
By the time he ended his posting, later in 1971, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger embarked on a secret trip to Beijing. After decades of hostility, Ping-Pong diplomacy had kickstarted a rapprochement that eventually led to then-president Richard Nixon’s famous 1972 visit.
“China knows well what it is to be owned and exploited by foreigners,” Mr. Webster wrote in one of his reports in 1970, explaining how the humiliations of that experience explain the country’s “determination never again to be beholden to anyone.”
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