A Canadian-born radical leftist and freelance broadcast journalist offers a debut memoir of her year in Communist China, where she edited English-language propaganda for Radio Beijing.
Pellett did well to delay publishing the story of her 1980 sojourn in post-Cultural Revolution Beijing. Had she published it sooner after returning to the United States, where she’s since spent most of her life working in media, she might have jeopardized the Chinese friends, colleagues, and lovers in these somewhat self-absorbed but highly engaging pages. She and her friends were under continual surveillance in a post-Mao Chinese society that was very unlike the workers’ “Little Red Book” utopia she might have imagined during her stint as a New Left revolutionary in America during the late 1960s and early ’70s. The authoritarian reality in 1980 China was one of very little personal privacy and an abundance of informants. She soon learned that talking with people while biking was the best way to avoid being overheard. As a hard-drinking, single, Western woman of 37 with red hair, lusty appetites, a stack of blues and jazz cassettes, and a propensity for asking leading questions, she attracted rabid attention. It’s no surprise that her quest for human connection, which was hampered by her inability to read or speak Mandarin, was risky for the Chinese people she met, due to Communist Party prohibitions against consorting with foreigners. Indeed, she reports that under Deng Xiaoping, campaigns against “bourgeois liberalization” and “Spiritual Pollution” later led to a million arrests and 24,000 executions. Still, she richly remembers some of the people who dared cross the line and interact with her. She also provides a marvelously deft view of street life in Beijing and other parts of China during the time of her visit. She pays less attention here to her humdrum job as a foreign expert at Radio Beijing, a state-run international broadcaster spouting the party line in four dozen languages. Readers can only marvel at her naïve realization that her colleagues weren’t really journalists and that she was “working for a propaganda institution rather than a journalistic agency.”
An often engaging story of a Chinese journey that’s worth telling.