Target of the Gang of Four

Shanghai’s Fuzhou Road, a haven for used bookstores, January 1976. All photos by author.

I left America for Macau to take up a teaching position in August 1972. I moved to Hong Kong on Christmas Day, 1972. By the end of 1975 I had lived most of the previous three years in Hong Kong with a spell at Harvard University in late 1974 and early 1975 to earn a Master’s degree. What is now a Special Administrative Region of China, Hong Kong was then a Crown Colony of Great Britain. I worked as a tutor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and, beginning in the summer of 1975, as an assistant editor of Asian Business & Industry, a limited circulation business magazine, published by Far East Trade Press, with readers in every Asian country, including China.

One day in July 1975, as I was walking back to my office in Prince’s Building, I passed by Commercial Press where I purchased a copy of a pamphlet entitled “On Exercising All Round Dictatorship of the Bourgeoisie” written by Zhang Chunqiao. Zhang was a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, and the theoretician of a leftist faction that would someday come to be known as the Gang of Four. I read the pamphlet and, based on my understanding of its contents, wrote an article for the August issue of Asian Business & Industry. I called out Zhang for his ultra-leftism – identifying him as the principal spokesman for radical economic policy in the Central Committee — and criticized his call for class warfare directed against the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie,” referring to a passage in his essay in which he calls for the “iron broom of the dictatorship of the proletariat” to sweep away bourgeois rights from China.

A few weeks after publication, I came to the office to find a stack of copies of the magazine wrapped in filthy rags. The China National Publications Import Corporation, the channel through which Far East Trade Press distributed its magazine in China, had returned all the magazines with a letter on its official stationary. The letter accused Asian Business & Industry of having published a counterrevolutionary article that had “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.” The letter concluded by stating that the magazine would no longer be allowed to circulate in China.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my article attacking Zhang Chunqiao had attracted the attention of Zhang and his leftist allies in what was sometimes called “the Shanghai faction.” Public security began a file on me, known in China as a dang’an. Such files are kept on virtually every Chinese citizen as well as on foreigners who visit China on a regular basis. Thirty years after my article appeared, I learned that it was the first item in my dang’an. The diplomat who gave me this information said that I was known in government and party circles as a “target of the Gang of Four.”

Shanghaied at the Feather and Down Fair

Shanghai Mansions.

My chance to visit Mainland China for the first time came in January 1976 when, as a freshly minted representative of the National Council for US-China Trade, I was asked to go to Shanghai to attend the China Feather and Down Garments Minifair (中国羽绒服饰小交易会) put on by the China National Native Produce and Animal By-Products Import and Export Corporation (CHINATUHSHU, 中国土产畜产进出口公司). My visa came through at the last possible moment, enabling me to make the flight to Shanghai from Guangzhou on January 6.

First though I had to get to Guangzhou from Hong Kong. I boarded the Kowloon Canton Railway train that departed from the Tsimtsatsui terminus at 8:24 on January 4, 1976, arriving at Lo Wu station around two hours later.

After crossing the border at Lowu and having a simple but tasteless lunch at the station on the Chinese side, I and other trade fair attendees boarded the 1:00 PM train for Guangzhou. I was accompanied by a young American entrepreneur who had become a leader in manufacturing down garments, then quite the rage in America, and an Australian businessman/scholar and his wife.

From the train windows we could view the countryside, fields left fallow for the spring planting. We passed the small village of Shenzhen, today a major city that is home to China’s first special economic zone. Upon arrival at the Guangzhou train station we hopped into grey Shanghai sedans for the run to the Bai Yun airport. We arrived at Hong Qiao Airport in Shanghai after nightfall, but there was no one to receive me.

Eventually Mr. Ma from the Shanghai Foreign Affairs Bureau showed up and I was taken to the Peace Hotel, the former Cathay Hotel, on the Bund. Mr. Ma was silent for the late-night drive though dark, deserted streets. The next day I moved to Shanghai Mansions, the old Broadway Mansions, where the trade fair was taking place. At the Shanghai Mansions I was given an immense apartment on an upper floor, with balconies overlooking the Huangpu River, Suzhou Creek and the Bund. There was a big radio circa early 1940s in the living room. Radio was the only form of entertainment available to me. I never bothered turning it on.

The next day, January 5, 1976, I visited the trade fair itself, and registered with the liaison office. The office was staffed by cadres from the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade (CCPIT), the National Council’s counterpart organization in China. The fair itself was held in four rooms on the second floor of the hotel. Different branches of CHINATUSHU had their own display and negotiation spaces which were fitted out with one or two tables and chairs. A tin of cigarettes was placed on the tables. The exhibition and negotiation hall reeked of cigarette smoke.

“Traffic” on the Bund. Not a single car in sight. Today this thoroughfare is multi-laned and bumper to bumper, one of the busiest streets in China.

One of my tasks was to write an article on the minifair for the National Council’s magazine, China Business Review, so I put in a request for an interview with the trade fair’s leadership. My request received a cool reception. I was told to go to my room and wait for an answer. This was a sensitive time for people doing business in China, and minifairs, an innovation introduced as a modest reform in 1975, were under fire as examples of the “roots of capitalism” being introduced by Deng Xiaoping, arch foe of the Shanghai Faction. I wondered if I would get an interview in Shanghai, or have to wait until I got to Beijing, where a Fur Garments Minifair was about to open.

Rather than heeding the liaison office’s instructions, I decided to take a walk along the Bund and up Nanjing Road. There were few vehicles on the road, the favored mode of transport being the bicycle. I checked out the Shanghai Exhibition Hall, a vast structure built in the Soviet style, and the Shanghai Number One Department Store, said to be the largest in China. Its five floors were stocked with a wide variety of consumer goods, all made in China except foreign watches, the only foreign consumer good allowed for sale in China. I resisted the temptation to buy an Omega for RMB 861.

I have always visited bookstores on trips to China, and my first trip was no exception. I walked into the large Xinhua Bookstore on Nanjing Road, passing through thick canvas curtains meant to shield the building from the bitter cold outside. Upstairs I walked into the room that held internal (nei bu) publications sold only to cadres with the right documents. I was quickly and unceremoniously told to leave.

I wandered back to the hotel, stopping first at the office of the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank, located in a small building on a side street not far from the compound housing the Friendship Store and the Seamen’s Club. The compound had previously served as the sprawling British Consulate in Shanghai. I was greeted by the bank’s British manager with more than the usual British reserve. He and his colleague from the Standard Charter Bank were at the time the only resident foreign businessmen in Shanghai. Unfortunately, they could not conduct business. They were in effect hostages of the Chinese government to ensure that China’s holdings with the banks wouldn’t be expropriated. Their colleagues had in fact been detained during the early years of the Cultural Revolution. They couldn’t leave Shanghai until colleagues arrived to replace them. The fellow I met expressed relief that he would be ending his assignment later that year.

The Shanghai Exhibition Hall.

I decided to stop by the Friendship Store, a dreary place selling shoddy goods far below the quality found in Hong Kong’s Chinese products stores. After examining the wares on display, I walked over to the nearby Seamen’s Club. Both the Friendship Store and the Seamen’s Club were located on the grounds of the old British Consulate in Shanghai.

In those days Seamen’s Clubs were the hubs of entertainment for foreigners in China. They served cold beer and one could always find a sailor willing to tell tall tales of his voyages to China. I struck up a conversation with a young Hong Kong sailor who was working on a tramp steamer registered in Hong Kong and operated under the Chinese flag. Together we went back to the Shanghai Mansions where we had a simple dinner and played pool for several hours, drinking beer and eating peanuts. The young sailor told me of his life on a PRC-owned vessel. He complained about the incessant political study sessions he and his fellow seamen had to endure. I listened attentively. Apparently, others were also listening attentively.

An Interview

A group of mourners assemble for the walk to Zhou Enlai’s funeral in a side hall of the Forbidden City. Photos by author.

On January 8, I was advised that my request for an interview had been granted. I was told to come to a room on the top floor of the Shanghai Mansions at 10 PM, an unusually late hour for meetings in China. I spent some time putting together my questions, and then prepared to join a tour of a Shanghai commune. When I tried to sign up for the tour however I was told that I was not welcome to join. I protested to the liaison office to no avail. I headed out on another walk, this time witnessing the arrest of a Shanghai citizen by a police officer. The officer frog marched the young man down a narrow alley, attracting a throng of curious onlookers.

I went back to the Shanghai Mansions, had dinner, and waited in my room for the interview. At the appointed hour I went to the assigned room and found about two dozen cadres led by “leading Member” Chen Wenhai waiting for me. The interview was a formal affair, no smiles or words of greeting. I was told the ground rules. I would first ask all my questions. Thereafter I would be given a brief introduction to the trade fair. No further questions would be entertained. I must have asked thirty or so questions, after which I was given the brief introduction. It quickly became apparent that few of my questions would be answered. The “brief introduction” started out with words of praise for the wise leader Chairman Mao Zedong and the correct policies of the Chinese Communist Party. I was then given the bare bones facts of the trade fair: how large the exhibition space was, how many provincial animal by-products branches were in attendance, how many traders from which foreign countries were in attendance. That was it.

I tried to slip in one more question. In 1975 China agreed for the first time to sew into garments intended for export the labels of the western company that had ordered them according to their specifications. This was a welcome reform as Chinese labels like Peony, Snowflake, and the like didn’t appeal much to American and European consumers. Suddenly, at this minifair, traders had been advised that this policy had been cancelled. No more foreign labels would be sewn into Chinese made garments. There was much unhappiness among foreign traders about this sudden change, and I wanted to ask a question about why this step had been taken. I never got a chance to do so. I was cut off and reminded that there would be no more questions and told that the interview was over.

Shortly after returning to my room the phone, an old black apparatus with a solid feel, started ringing. It was the young sailor I had befriended the night before. His voice was shaking, and I guessed he had company sitting nearby. Obviously distressed, he told me that he was leaving Shanghai early, and that I was not to try to contact him. He told me he would always remember our friendship. He rang off. A cold shiver ran up my spine.

I went to bed, but had trouble falling asleep. In the early hours of January 9, I heard a great commotion taking place on the barges on Suzhou Creek below me. There were loud voices and the sounds of fighting. I dozed off and when I awoke I saw the streets lined with military vehicles, and all the barges gone. In the distance I could hear the somber music of a funeral dirge. I left my room and encountered an elderly floor attendant. What has happened I asked? He told me that Premier Zhou Enlai had died. He was weeping.

I and other trade fair attendees went to the liaison office to find out more. The official who met us solemnly announced the premier’s passing, and then told us that “the Chinese people will turn grief into strength” and that they would carry on the great traditions of the revolutionary leader. There would be no interruption to the trade fair. Business as usual.

To reinforce this point, the liaison office laid on visits for the attendees and this time I was invited to join the tours. We were offered visits to a well-off commune on the outskirts of the city – one of its production brigades specialized in raising “hairy crabs,” a Shanghai delicacy – and a factory making feather and down garments. Our visits were punctuated by bursts of propaganda praising the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

Upon my return to the hotel I ran into the Australian who I had met on the train up to Guangzhou and his wife. They had just had a harrowing experience. They had gone for a morning walk and saw crowds of people reading newspapers which had been posted on wooden hoardings. They were reading official news of Zhou Enlai’s death, and the couple decided to photograph the scene. Bad move. In those days it was against the law for foreigners to purchase or even read local newspapers like the Wen Wei Bao and Liberation Daily. The couple were swiftly taken into custody by the local neighborhood committee and held in a small room until the police showed up. They were interrogated and lectured at length. Their actions were unlawful and violated the terms of their visit to China. After signing expressions of regret, and apologizing profusely, the couple were escorted back to the Shanghai Mansions.

A small group of us decided to try another restaurant for lunch, having sampled just about everything on the Shanghai Mansions’ menu. We walked to the Peace Hotel and took the elevator up to the dining floor. We chose the Western restaurant. Sitting down, we noticed that the waiters were wearing black arm bands. One of the young men came to our table and explained: “We have been told not to commemorate Zhou Enlai’s death, but we are doing so anyway. We are not afraid. Let them come and try to make trouble.”

The next day I flew to Beijing where I attended the fur garments minifair, and visited one of the model communes on the city’s outskirts as well as, of course, the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs.

On January 12, I took part in the funeral of Zhou Enlai as a member of the American delegation. Diplomats were all dressed in black, thin clothing for the bitter cold. We were received on the dais by Jiang Qing, wife of Chairman Mao Zedong, one of the members of the Shanghai Faction later to be known as the Gang of Four. Zhang Chunqiao was also present.

China would be visited with much more sorrow in 1976: the campaign against the right deviationist wind, the Ching Ming protests and the deadly response, the July earthquake in Tangshan, and much joy when the Gang of Four was overthrown in October. I witnessed all of those events during many visits to the country that year.

Upon my return to Hong Kong after attending Zhou’s funeral I was asked by a friend at Ta Kung Pao, a left-wing newspaper, to write a eulogy for the recently departed premier. I did so, and the piece ran under the Chinese name given to me by a teacher in the United States: Kang Youhan (康又瀚). The eulogy was full of praise for Zhou. A few days after it appeared my friend told me that the article had been removed from the Reference News edition published in Shanghai. My friend suggested that I adopt a new name for any future Chinese language articles I might write. I adopted the name Kang Yuan (康原), and have kept it to the present day.

Postscript: More than 30 years later, I took a small group of businesspeople to Shanghai. We went to the restaurant at the top of the Peace Hotel, and there I recounted the story of the defiant young waiter. Across the room I spied a man of roughly my age who was now the manager of the restaurant. He looked familiar, and I asked him to come to our table. He complied, and we quickly figured out that he was that young waiter I had encountered in January 1976. In excited voices we relived what had happened. Misty eyed, he asked me a favor. Would I be willing to come back and talk to his young charges? “Young people have no idea how we lived then. And they aren’t interested. You can help. Please come back.” I agreed to do so, but when I returned a few months later the restaurant was closed for renovation. I subsequently found out that Mr. Zhang the manager had retired.

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