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Saturday, December 14, 2013

Surrealism in Guangzhou, 1994

During the 1970's, when I was in college, Nixon was almost universally hated.  Radicals, extolling the simple virtues of "Third World" revolutionary states from Albania and Bangladesh to Zimbabwe, with thunderous applause for Mao's China and Ho's Viet Nam on the way, saw Nixon as the epitome of The Man, and the Watergate affair as proof that the capitalist system was starting to devour itself, paving the way for the glorious revolutionary dawn. Authors who had lived and worked for Mao's revolution prior to 1949 were much in demand, and greatly admired.

And then, in 1994, Nixon the statesman and radical idols of the 1970's became closely intertwined in Uncle Cephas' small world.

I actually got to meet Richard Nixon in the flesh a few months before his death in 1994.  He was traveling through the country, doubtlessly reminiscing about the breakthroughs he made in establishing formal diplomatic relations between the PRC and USA.  He came by the US Consulate General in Guangzhou, where the entire staff got to shake his hand.  I came away from my meeting with the distinct impression that Nixon was a fundamentally shy person who never really liked the flesh-pressing required of American politicians, or the petty banter that passes for discussion among political junkies. And, at the same time, it was hard to remember at the time that I was shaking hands with the one President of the United States to resign office in disgrace.

Most of the work of a US vice consul in Guangzhou, China back in the early 1990's involved processing visa applications.  Refusals of most non-immigrant applications were fairly easy, because most Chinese were really too poor to be casual travellers and too eager to leave the socialist paradise their fathers had fought for (or against) for greener pastures. Immigrant visas posed their own problems.  Most were issuable, but there was still considerable fraud about relationships and the problem of meaningful membership in a totalitarian party, namely, the Communist Party of China.

Such a cause for visa refusal and referral back to the legal section in the Bureau of Consular Affairs and the immigration service happened at Uncle Cephas's visa window.  The petitioner was Ms. H., a hefty young Eurasian and the daughter of an American author who witnessed and aided Mao's work of revolution in the waning years off the Chinese Civil War on the Mainland.  The author wrote several books known to almost all students of China of my generation, whether we agreed with his adulation of Mao Zedong or not.  The beneficiary of the petition was a young man from Jiangxi who belonged to China's ruling party.  So sorry, US immigration law does not permit immigration of aliens who belong to a totalitarian party without special considerations and dispensations by Washington.

And then Nixon died.

Every American officer stationed at AmConsul Guangzhou was expected to put in a certain amount of time babysitting the official condolence book in the lobby.  When my time came, the hefty Ms. H. was sitting across the room, looking daggers at me, having closely noted me as I refused her fiance's application.  Doubtlessly she hoped to complain about me to my superior--even if the most he could do for her would be to note that his lowly subordinate had done no more than apply the immigration law.  Of course Ms. H. did not sign the condolence book, although the page to which it was turned had those of numerous other Americans who had been passing through Guangzhou at the time.

I wondered what would happen if the story got out in the media.  A mere consular scut dared to deny a visa to the prospective son-in-law of a major radical icon! Imagine!  A mere bureaucrat poking his finger in the eyes of a family whose patriarch had been one of the prescient minds extolling the wonders of the People's Republic!  Perhaps I would get to be a villain in some Hollywood production--or, at least the picture of the gray-faced banality of evil that can happen only on the central or right portions of the political spectrum.

In time, Ms. H. entered the recesses of the citizens services section while I sat resplendant in white shirt and striped tie beside the condolence book.

Then entered an ordinary-looking Chinese man in early middle age.  In halting English, he asked who would see the condolence book.

"The US Government, Mr. Nixon's family, and probably a library holding his presidential papers," I replied.

The Chinese man looked around furtively, then bent over the book, picked up the pen, and wrote.

After he left, I looked down on the page:

"Thank you, Mr. President.  Without your visit, we Chinese would have been left with nothing but that stupid Little Red Book."

I noticed that the man had signed himself as a professor at a local university.  I have wondered if in the time after the signing my Chinese counterpart in either SF or LA has stopped by the Nixon Presidential library, noted the names in the condolence book, dutifully reported them back to his masters, and gotten the professor sent to ten years of Laogai for daring to criticize the founder of what Ms H.'s father and his admirers touted as the finest example of participatory democracy and social justice ever.

It's my understanding that the radical author whose son-in-law was denied a visa at my hands went to his grave extolling Mao Zedong and the politics that Chinese leader practiced.  Clearly, he had not grown up even after 1989 and the early 2000's.  Yet I learned shortly after Nixon's death that nations, if not radical authors, grow and change.

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