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John Fraser

Erik Christensen/The Globe and Mail

The moment is still very clear. The so-called "Xidan Democracy Movement" was in full swing. Chairman Mao had been dead for more than a year, his spiteful widow, Jiang Qing, was safely away in prison with the rest of the Gang of Four, free speech was all the rage; everything seemed possible.

I was driving The Globe and Mail's new Toyota sedan from the bureau residence and office in San Li Tun to the Dian Bao Da Lo - the Big Telegraph Building, near the Great Hall of the People. It was about 1:30 a.m. in Peking - "Beijing" had not quite yet become common argot - and early afternoon back on the foreign desk in Toronto.

I had a great story to file. Deng Xiaoping had issued a warning to Vietnam to stay out of Cambodia - "Democratic Kampuchea" - or risk the certain consequences. This was Communist China savaging Communist Vietnam - ideological brothers who once described themselves as being "as close as lips and teeth." I had recently returned from an extensive trip to Vietnam and could refer back to an interview I had done with the Vietnamese premier, Pham Van Dong. I had local colour from both capitals. I had been in Hanoi. I was in Peking. If there was a better journalistic gig in the world, I wasn't aware of it.

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I kept to the vast main streets heading to Chang An Avenue. Were they six, eight or probably 10 lanes wide? I've forgotten, but with no other cars on the road and no speed traps and no pedestrians, it was like a vast empty stage and you could be your own balletic superstar of the tarmac.

Up ahead, one of the ubiquitous horse- or donkey-drawn carts that came in from the neighbouring farming communes was slowly heading down the middle of the road. I braked to a crawl. The cart was overloaded with winter cabbages, and the driver was absent-mindedly and gently flicking his switch on the animal's back while he bellowed out some song at the top of his lungs.

What was he singing? A connoisseur of the Peking Opera would have known. I was a mere foreign admirer and my command of the Mandarin national dialect was, shall we say, basic. My best Chinese friend once told me that I had learned enough Chinese to get into trouble, but not enough to get out of it.

But I could understand instantly what was before my eyes. I was seeing the freest man in China, a horny-handed peasant off on his own reverie, blissfully imbued with the classical culture of his country, keeping the masses fed, with no officials of the police state to say to him aye or nay. He was a man of his own time, for sure, but he was also an emblem: a man from China's ancient past and a man from its hoped-for future.

I didn't so much envy him as admire him. Those ubiquitous cabbages had a certain smell, after all. Yet he had found a job and a working hour that left him free of all restraints that hemmed in a billion other Chinese. Unlike Don Quixote, he and his steed would never have to charge at any windmill. He was the owner of the street, the king of the road.

I remember him clearly now, and I also remembered him two decades ago when I first saw the photograph of the lone man standing up in front of a monster tank as the student movement in 1989 was being so crushingly put down. To my mind, they were the same person caught out at pivotal moments: the eternal Chinese, a free and brave spirit longing to take flight, longing to sing out a song, longing to see old China as free and brave as his own soul.

John Fraser is Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto.

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