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


Dateline Peking Add to ...

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.

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."

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