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Interview with Jan Wong -

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Interview with Jan Wong

Broadcast: 20/05/2008

Reporter: Mark Corcoran

Third generation Chinese Canadian author Jan Wong went to China in the nineteen seventies as a
fervent young student. It was the height of the country's cultural revolution, and she was naïve
and gullible believer.

She later wrote a best selling memoir about that period, Red China Blues, that's still banned
there. In the late eighties she returned to a very different China as a foreign correspondent. Jan
Wong's latest book is called Beijing Confidential.


CORCORAN: Well Jan Wong, welcome to Foreign Correspondent. The Chinese authorities make a great
deal about their openness - that foreign journalists now have unprecedented access, what's your
take on that? Is there really a new approach to the foreign media and openness?

JAN WONG: Actually, I think there is. It's very different from the way it was even ten years ago
where we needed permission to travel anywhere. I think now the only restriction remaining in China
is Tibet. You can't go to Tibet really if you are a journalist but you can go to the earthquake
site. I think they want the press there, at least for now. It's going to probably turn very ugly in
a few days when there are going to just be, you know there won't be any more rescues, it will just
be finding the dead bodies.

CORCORAN: Just on that point, we're starting to see perhaps in the last 24/48 hours, reports that
dodgy or shoddy building practices may have in fact contributed to the death toll and we may see a
shutting down of this press access.

JAN WONG: I think we may see it because it's going to get so bad. People may start rioting and
demonstrating against the government. That's when I think they'll go, maybe we shouldn't have so
many journalists here.

CORCORAN: But it's always such a long way from 1976 when China experienced one of the worst
earthquakes of the 20th century.


CORCORAN: Indeed probably the highest death toll...


CORCORAN: Depending on who you believe anywhere between a quarter of a million and seven hundred
and fifty thousand people were killed.


CORCORAN: And they maintained that virtually as a state secret.

JAN WONG: It was a complete state secret and Chairman Mao at that time said no foreign aid. China's
self sufficient, we don't need any help so it's a complete contrast with today where immediately
they announced it.

CORCORAN: And what was the logic behind that in maintaining this as a state secret?

JAN WONG: Well the logic is Communist Party logic which is only good news, we only, we only tell
the people good news. We don't tell the people about these disasters so it's the opposite of our
media right? We only tell people bad news and there they only tell people good news.

CORCORAN: You write about what you call 'cultural amnesia' of contemporary China, what do you mean
by that?

JAN WONG: I mean that people don't want to remember some of the things from the past, some of the
bad things. They deliberately just gloss over it and move on. So when I talk about cultural amnesia
I mean what each person did during the Cultural Revolution that if they were a victimiser, they
don't want to talk about how they beat people up or caused people terrible hardship. And if they
were a victim, they don't want to talk about what they went through either because it's so
difficult for them.

CORCORAN: Well another historical landmark is coming up in a couple of months, Beijing will host
the Olympics. Do you think in becoming the host city that the Olympic movement has had an influence
on Chinese politics, on the Communist Party?

JAN WONG: I think it's good that they have them. I think it's only good to shine a light on China
and to have foreigners going in and Chinese coming out. Now the IOC has never been a, you know a
bastion of democracy and freedom itself. It's a very conservative organisation, run by a very small
number of men, white men. That's the way it's been for years and so they're not interested in
promoting democracy around the world. That's not what they do. They're interested in promoting you
know the IOC and getting lots of television revenue for the International Olympic Committee. So the
criticism of China right now that it's not democratic enough to hold the Olympics, is just a phoney
criticism because it's never been a criteria to have a perfectly democratic place hold the

CORCORAN: Does this become a propaganda platform for the Chinese Government?

JAN WONG: Absolutely. Absolutely and I, I think you know the torch relay was so interesting because
you couldn't make this up. You couldn't make up the people in London chasing after the torch with
fire extinguishers you know and then in Paris you know wrenching it away from this woman in a
wheelchair, you can't make that stuff up. The interesting thing is that they've been coming out
against foreigners because of the criticism of Tibet but they're going to ratchet that all the way
down now because in a few months the foreigners will be arriving for the Games and they can't have
hostile people right? Receiving these foreigners. They've got to change it again and now we love
Westerners and we're going to be happy they're here so the Government has to be very careful what
it does when it whips up this nationalism.

CORCORAN: Just turning to your book, the key theme of Beijing Confidential is your search for a
young woman named Yin.


CORCORAN: A fellow student who you denounced.

JAN WONG: Yes that's right.

CORCORAN: Who you betrayed.

JAN WONG: Yes because I was an idealistic young Maoist. I called myself, I call myself now a
Montreal Maoist because I'm putting myself down. I really didn't understand Maoism but I thought I
did. What happened in... in my first year at Beijing University, a young woman, a stranger came up to
me and asked me to help her go to the US and I was shocked. Nobody wanted to leave I thought.
Certainly nobody had voiced that feeling to me and so I told my teacher. I thought that they ought
to know that there's this person who wants to leave. She could use a little ideological work,
that's what I thought. I thought that she would be helped but she wasn't of course.

CORCORAN: What happened to her?

JAN WONG: She was denounced by her whole department, she was a history student, and she was
expelled. So when I decided to write Beijing Confidential, it was supposed to be a book about the
city of Beijing on the eve of the Olympics and it is about that, but I thought I should go back and
see if I can find Yin. I wanted to apologise and tell her that I was sorry about what happened.

CORCORAN: Did she accept your apology?

JAN WONG: She did.

CORCORAN: Just briefly what fate had befallen her?

JAN WONG: She had been sent for hard labour, into northeast China for years. Luckily Chairman Mao
died three years later after this happened and she was able to get a job in an oil field which was
a step up from working in the countryside and then from there she managed to get back into

CORCORAN: And now do you feel any remorse?

JAN WONG: Yes. I definitely feel real remorse. I realised from this research that I wasn't the only
one who caused her problems but I might have been the catalyst. I might have been the first person
to alert the authorities to her and then they started watching her, reading her diaries,
questioning people so if I hadn't done it she might not have gotten into trouble. You know I'm
always questioning myself too and I'm always seeing where am I a hypocrite? Like I used to be such
a Maoist and now I really like to buy things. I like to shop, I like to have nice things, so I'm
aware of it. I was certainly aware of the contradiction and the irony. With Yin, I mean she has
everything now. She has a new husband. She was back at Beijing University the place that destroyed
her life. She's living there in this amazing Western style house but that's not her only house. She
has a condo, she has a pied-a-terre in the centre of the city and they have a villa in the
countryside - and they have his and her cars and I think, this is the woman who wanted to go to the
US and I told on her and she suffered but now she has everything because the West has come to her.

CORCORAN: Jan Wong, thank you very much.

JAN WONG: Thank you.