Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Memories of Communist China in 1979: Verne Strickland

Memories of Communist China in 1979

Verne Strickland, traveler

February 17, 2015

China. 1979. I walked across the Beijing airport’s dusty tarmac in the Autumn dusk, my heart pounding with excitement.
It had taken me two years to get here. Not because I had taken the trip on foot, but because the Chinese Communist government did not trust me – because I was a foreigner, because I was an American, because I was a Western journalist, and possibly because of my close ties to U.S Senator Jesse Helms.
 The implacable conservative from North Carolina was hated with a vengeance by communists everywhere, and equally by U.S. liberals, who called him “Senator No” for his refusal to go along with every piece of legislation they held dear. Their fury and frustration were palpable
Jesse Helms’ influence was considerable. With Republicans in the majority in Washington, Helms had ascended to the post of Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and later to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (his main goal all along.)
In earlier years, I had been hired by Helms to ghost write some of his conservative editorials aired as “Viewpoint”on WRAL-TV in Raleigh, and to report agricultural news, a post which at the time dealt largely with North Carolina’s tobacco-rich heritage.
There were delays, excuses, rebuffs, letters of inquiry, mostly through the Chinese consulate in Canada. The U.S. at the time had no diplomatic relations with the Peoples Republic of China. This made it tougher, but heightened the appeal and challenge for me, a North Carolina television journalist.
If agriculture seems a tame beat, it wasn’t in my case. I was able to satiate my yearning for travel, visiting over 30 countries during my fifteen-year tenure at the Raleigh station. But, for me, the plum was always China. Mysterious, forbidding, elusive China.
I sought help wherever it was available, creating friendships with many old China hands who were quick to encourage me. One was Herbert Hitch, now deceased, who as a U.S. Navy second lieutenant, became one of America’s key links to the Communist forces, befriending Mao Tse Tung along the way.
Hitch, also a U.S. intelligence agent, was entrusted by Mao to deliver a letter to the U.S. Joint Chiefs in Washington, asking for American support to defeat both the Japanese and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist armies.
When the Joint Chiefs refused to help Mao, the gritty old warrior determined to never seek U.S. cooperation again, and China skidded inexorably into Communist hands.
Introduced to Hitch in Charlotte, I told him about my plan – perhaps better described as a slim hope – suggesting that he try to return to China, and meet again with his old pal Mao, who was still alive at the time.
“If you can get in, I want you to take me along,” I pleaded. “If you can see Mao, I will be on hand to report the story. It will be a great coup for you as well as for me.”
Hitch had contacts. Good ones. He went to Juanita Kreps, former Duke University vice president who was then U.S. Secretary of Commerce. Kreps agreed to intercede with the PRC bigwigs in Herbert’s behalf.
He also took his case to Mrs. Seymour Topping, wife of the managing editor of The New York Times, who had her own circle of friends within the Communist hierarchy. She knew Hitch and was impressed with his idea. Things were looking promising.
But finally, the Chinese dashed Herbert Hitch’s hopes, as well as mine.
“They won’t let me in,” he said, “presumably because I was in foreign intelligence. They still see me as an American agent.”
What a story that would have been. I hated to see the opportunity slip by.
The months dragged on. A friend with the U.S. Foreign Agricultural Service tipped me off that the PRC rarely allowed entrance by individuals, but were more receptive to “educational” groups with the right agenda.
I saw an opening. North Carolina had been a leading exporter of U.S flue-cured tobacco to China, but the trade had dropped precipitously in the wake of the Communist takeover and a growing distrust of America.
I started anew, appointing a tobacco trade “committee” from among my farm and university friends, and pitching this possibility to the PRC through their consulate in Canada. Things warmed up, then stalled again.
Finally, I was on a plane with Gov. Jim Hunt and a North Carolina export group in Europe. Seated alone with the Governor for a few minutes away from the rest of the group, I unveiled my hopes and as well as my frustration.
“I don’t have the clout to bring this off on my own,” I said. “Will you pick up the initiative, contact the Chinese as Governor of the leading U.S. tobacco-producing state, and ask to bring my group with you? If you can get the invitation, I’d like you take over as head of the mission, and we all get in.”
A politician with a keen eye for publicity and promotion, Hunt took the lure. He would be the first North Carolina governor in history to visit China, with the prospect of reopening what once was a lucrative tobacco export business.
Within a couple of months, we were on our way. Our group spent three weeks in China, entering at Beijing, then heading south to Shanghai, a city which displayed striking Western influences from its days as a haven for British and American businessmen.
Shanghai had become gray and drab under the austere influence of the Chinese Communist Party, but it still had the feel of a thoroughbred straining against the reins to break into a run.
The morning that we were scheduled to leave Shanghai to head into the interior, I was awakened by the sound of music blaring from loudspeakers across the city. I pushed open the old leaded window to listen more closely.
Below me, on the roof of every building in sight, hundreds of people moved through the slow, graceful choreography of a Tai Chi workout. It was thrilling to see.
But my greatest surprise came as I recognized the strains of “On Top of Old Smoky” rolling across this Chinese city on the other side of the world. The tune is a traditional folk song about life and love in the North Carolina mountains. I chuckled aloud, realizing that the music director surely had no idea of the capitalist origins of his selection.
In Beijing and Shanghai, our white faces at times seemed to shock people on the street. They were curious, but never hostile. Communist fervor rarely infects the dominated masses.
We rode a steam train deep into the Eastern provinces to visit China’s tobacco production and manufacturing centers. There the U.S. tobacco mission made the trade contacts it had sought.
But for me, perhaps the most memorable and touching moment came in the port city of Quingdao, whose bay opened onto the Yellow Sea.
As I walked alone on the sand near our hotel, a young man approached. As we closed to within a few feet of one another, he stopped, and asked, “Are you English?”
“American,” I replied. He looked at me almost with relief. “One day I hope to go there,” he said.
He was an English teacher in the local schools. This accounted for the ease with which he spoke the language.
After we talked for a few moments, he asked if I had any U.S. newspapers or magazines that he could read. “Back in the hotel,” I answered.
He begged me to share some with him, as he never saw English news publications, and desperately wanted this chance to read them. I agreed to bring a magazine to him.
Then, speaking almost fearfully, he said he would hide by a small boathouse on the beach until I returned.
Furtively, I brought back a “Time” magazine I had purchased in Hong Kong. The young teacher was still there, almost beside himself with excitement as he flipped through the pages.
“America,” he said, smiling as tears welled in his eyes, “the land of the free.”
This moment was my China trip. I saw America then through different eyes. My country. Blessed by God. Taken for granted by many of us so fortunate to live there.
I prayed that my Chinese friend would someday realize his dream.

Closing note: 2/17/15

Larry Stogner, 40-year veteran television anchor for WTVD-TV in Durham, was also present on the mission, giving important coverage to the historic trade trip. He was always a close friend to Governor Hunt. In January 2014 Larry announced that he was stricken with ALS, a disease for which there is no cure. Larry is a beloved North Carolina news icon who has a wonderful family and many friends not only in the U.S. but in other countries as well. All wish him well.