The Chinese have taken away my Xinhua machine, and they won't say when they're going to give it back.
One day it was near my room at the Minzu Hotel, clattering away happily and spewing forth the latest statistics on lily-bulb production in Chengdu. The next day it was gone, leaving a void in my life.
Please dont't think i'm overdramatizing this. We foreign correspondents try to cultivate a dashing image. Covering China has its ocassional romantic moments. But what those of us writing about the People's Republic really do much of the time is huddle near our Xinhua machines, wondering what they'll tell us next.
When Premier Chou En-lai died, when Chariman Moa Tse-tung died, when Wahington recognised Peking and when China invaded Vietnam, it was the informative little Xinhua teletype - not any Peking wallposter or State Department insider - that slipped us the news. Now here i am in China's ancient capital, a newly minted Peking correspondent symbolizing the new era of Sino-American friendship, and they won't let me have my machine. Even in my trenchcoat, i feel naked.
Xinhua means "New China." It is China-watchers' shorthand for the official New China News Agency. In word news capital like Hong Kong and Tokyo, and in the offices of most correspondents here, the agency's teletype machines provide official government news in bulletins in English.These often appear long before we read the same news in Chinese in the People's Daily and in more reliable form than we can hear over the official radio. Those of us who have come here from Hong Kong would prefer to get away from our machines and report what we see and hear on the streets, but it is still vitally important to cover the government bulletins - particularly last week, the week of the National People's Congress, the Chinese parliament. The Xinhua machines, in their reports on the congress, disgorged the most extraordinary array of statistics seen here since the 1950s. They told us everything from the actual size of the national budget - for 20 years a state secret - to the latest count of the people's sheep herds. This excited economists and, though a bit dry, inspired new stories. Yet the four U.S. reporters now accredited as permanent correspondents here had no immediate access to this information. And the situation's been getting on our nerves.
I asked an American colleague how he was reporting the National People's Congress without a Xinhua machihe. "I have a friend who is a long-time correspondent here, and he lets me look at it after he's written his story," my colleague said. Naturally, he didn't tell me who his friend was. We learn quickly from our new Chinese friends how to keep a secret.
Fortunately, I also have a long-time correspondent friend, who generously lets me come look at the machine in his apartment and copy down the latest production target shifts. Often I arrive late, but like some foreigners living here in compounds guarded by Chinese soldiers with rifles, he leaves his door unlocked. I tiptoe past his bedroom door, hoping not to wake him and wondering why i have to behave like a cat burglar to get a story.
My friend Lin Chingyun of the information department of the Chinese Foreign Ministry could not enlighten me. Through the direct intervention of the U.S. embassy, some of us managed to get a Xinhua machine set up in the Minzu Hotel ostensibly to serve the needs of the press traveling with U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph A. Califano on his recent visit. "But we can't leave it here just for you few," Lin said.
The four American newspaper correspondents who recently arrived here are newcomers to this battle. The first American journalists to established themselves here, Associated Press Bureau Chief John Roderick and United Press International Bureau Chief Robert Crabbe, have been trying to get Xinhua machines for several weeks, and only last week succeeded in having them installed.
The only logical explanations is that this is a test of our doubtful American bourgeois fortitude, a way for the Chinese to see if we have the ingenuity and endurance necessary to cover their great and venerable country. Once I have measured up, I know they will give me back my Xinhua Machine. In the meantime, I'll making a lot of telephone calls to Hong Kong. I use what may now be the standard opening line from here. "What's going on in China?" CAPTION: Picture, Early morning in Peking/By Gordon N. Converse-The Christian Science Monitor