When I was a small boy in Albany, N.Y., someone told me that if I dug a hole deep enough I would come out in China. I went into our back yard and dug and dug until the hole was as deep as my arm. I peered into the hole, did not see anything that looked like China, and gave up.
On Sept. 15 this year, I stepped off an airliner at the Peking airport as a member of a delegation of American newspaper editors for a three-week odyssey in the People's Republic of China. It was my first visit.
China is endlessly fascinating, endlessly frustrating.
It is fascinating because you never can be certain that what you see is what you are seeing. One of my first impressions, for example, was that almost every conceivable vehicle was a military vehicle. This was so because the majority of trucks, three-wheel pickups and Chinese-made jeeps are painted a deep olive drab. I was wrong. Later I learned they are all painted this military color because it is the paint that is most available.
The way to tell a Chinese military vehicle from an identical Chinese civilian vehicle is the license plate. Military vehicles have white plates with blue numerals always preceded by a single character. Most civilian plates are a different set of colors with numerals only and no Chinese characters.
It is frustrating, in the first instance, because the inability to speak or to read Chinese is a sever handicap. There are few signs in English. Few persons speak English, even though it is rapidly becoming the second language of China's young. When you cannot get youngsters to say "hello" back to you, they often will respond to, "Good morning, teacher."
Even many Chinese interpreters, of whom there is a shortage that promises to get worse as tourism booms, are somewhat limited and limiting in their grasp of English. And even crude attempts to communicate in Chinese can prove difficult.
"I tried to do some birdwatching while I was in China. One of our host-interpreters had written a note in Chinese for me that said: "What is that bird called? Would you please write it down for me?" One day at a commune in Szechwan Province I saw some sparrow-like birds in a tree and turned to a villager next to me, pointed excitedly to the birds in the tree, and then showed him my note. He nodded in recognition and wrote some Chinese characters in my notebook. I dashed off to find an interpreter, showed him the Chinese, and asked what the bird was called. He replied: "Eucalyptus tree."
It is fascinating as much for the absence of some familiar Western take-for-granteds, as for the presence of the new and the different and the exotic. Thus, for example, there are few dogs in the Chinese cities we visited. This makes it nearly ideal for jogging, which the Chinese do in great numbers. At one of the agriculture communes we visited where rice was the main crop, a sideline industry for the commune members is the tanning of skins - sheep, rabbits and dogs. The dogs are raised on a dog farm in the mountains of northeast China. The people there kill the dogs, eat the meat and sell the skins to the commune in Szechwan where they are made into quilts.
There is a noticeable absence of birds, particularly in northern China. Some observers suggest that many wild birds still are being killed by people who want to supplement their monthly meat ration of about 3.3 pounds.
There are no body shapes to speak of - men and women dress pretty much alike and the dress is very loose. This is now changing.
There is little litter. Sweeping cities clean is an industry, or so it seems.
There are no psychiatrists. Attempts to learn more about mental illness are met with noncommital politeness. We did encounter one mentally ill person, quite by accident. A young woman in a post office threw her arms around the neck of an American editor and clung to him until some Chinese pried her away. They said she was deranged and were so embarrassed by the incident that the entire postal staff on duty came out to the curb to apologize profusely.
Finally, in this short list, there are no lawyers in China. As one Chinese student of jurisprudence explained to us in Canton: Before the communitys victory in 1949, lawyers used to exploit the poor and illiterate who needed them. "After the liberation, when illiteracy was wiped out, we established people's courts to defend people, and where people can defend themselves, so why pay a lawyer?"
It is frustrating because of the secrecy imposed by the regime and the Chinese bureaucracy - the greatest such in the world. One western observer notes that there are a bureaucratic layering matched only by the Roman Catholic Church. How big is the bureaucracy? The best guess is that China has 20 millions civil servants.
Item: We ask the editors of the People's Daily newspaper for the casualty figures in the tragic Tangshan earthquake of two years ago. "Our country has not yet released those figures." (Western sources put the number of casualties at more than one million.) More telling, China just invited a group of American engineers and architects to Peking to help explain how to design and build earthquake-proof hotels. These experts ask to go to Tangshan. They are told it is not possible.
Item: On a trip down the Yangtze gorges our boat puts in at the town of Wan-Asien to anchor overnight. We ask to be allowed to go ashore and wander around the city for a few hours. We are told "Sorry, it is not yet open to visitors."
Item: There are 42 daily newspapers in China but only the People's Daily and the Kwangming Daily - both national newspapers are available to foreigners. To be sure, foreigners who read Chinese can read the others so-called provincial newspapers on the walls where they are posted in the cities they are published. But foreigners are not allowed to buy these newspapers. Nor are foreigners allowed to buy the Reference News, a daily compilation of news extracted and excerpted from news published in other countries and whose circulation rivals that of the People's Daily.
Item: West Germans and Japanese are both living and working in the industrial of Wuhan helping the Chinese to build the "new China." The Chinese keep the two groups segregated from one another, and for all intends and purposes, segregated from the Chinese masses.
Still, for all the secrecy - that officially imposed and that imposed by language - one does not feel oppressed or followed in China, the way one does in the Soviet Union, for example.