Peking

The precise moment is clear in my mind. Last Sept. 28, after concluding an interview with several members of Peking's Number One ballet troupe, I began talking in my primitive Chinese to the composer of the score for a new ballet. As a former ballet critic, I had been elated by the music when I first heard it several months before because it marked a significant break from the turgid mulch produced during the Cultural Revolution.

By this time, my wife and I had become so sick of hearing the "Gang of Four" blamed for everything that we would groan openly when the familiar excuse was trotted out. Since we had had no significant contact with Chinese people, the whole Gang of Four business seemed a huge propaganda farce.

So when this young composer apologized to me for his poor English by saying the Gang of Four had ruined his education, I cut him off with, "Yes, well I speak rotten Chinese, but I'm afraid I can't blame the Gang. I'm a slow learner."

We were walking down the stairway of the Peking Ballet School at this point and he let out an infectious whoop of laughter. He got me laughing at his own mirth. Then silence ensued and, for the first time, I told a Chinese what was really on my mind:

"Look, everyone tells me things are getting better, but for me nothing is normal here. I'll believe things are getting better when you can come to my house with your wife and we can go to your house. But frankly, I don't think our paths will ever cross again. That's the way things have been in this country ever since my newspaper opened its office here 20 years ago."

This was translated for him and as it was sinking in we were joined by other people. The prolonged and stilted pleasantries of Chinese farewells had begun. I lost sight of the composer, but just before leaving he came running up to me.

"I've written down my name and address," he said with a nervous smile. "I'm busy for the next few weeks, but after that why don't we get together and talk about music?"

THUS BEGAN my friendship with Huang Anlun, 32, the son of Huang Feili, who is head of the conducting department at the Peking Conservatory.

The event would hardly be worth noting if friendships between Chinese and foreigners, especially foreign journalists, were not made so difficult by past government reprisals and a general atmosphere of fear. Only in the past year has it been possible to think about having a Chinese friend.

But Huang and his wife Ruili became our friends. There are only a few people in the world to whom we feel as close.

A couple of months passed before we actually got together again. He was working on a chamber opera score and I had the chance to visit Vietnam for a month. Upon my return, just as the extraordinary events surrounding the emergence of public stirrings of democracy in the wallposters at the Xidan Democracy Wall started to unfold, I wrote him a letter inviting him for a meal. I was sure I would never hear from him.

But he phoned in the middle of the Xidan drama and said he could come over for dinner that night. Barriers between Chinese and foreigners were crumbling nightly, and this was the first unofficial Chinese to accept a dinner invitation from a Globe and Mail correspondent since the bureau opened in 1959.

Inviting a Chinese home is one thing; getting him into your apartment is another. All foreigners live in compounds guarded 24 hours by soldiers from the People's Liberation Army. Although the guards are allegedly there for our protection, their main function is to keep Chinese out.

Shortly before 6 p.m. I went down to the main gate to await Huang, but to my horror he had already arrived and was being questioned by the Army guard. As soon as I arrived, however, the guard stopped his inquisition and let him pass. That was when I discovered that if you accompany a Chinese yourself into the compound, he won't be stopped.

A minute later, we were all sitting down in the living room and it was quite a moment. My wife and I, Huang and the Globe's interpreter all stared at each other in mute surmise and smiled like idiots.

"I never thought such a day would come," said Huang finally. The same thought was on my mind.

After dinner, he sat down at our piano and played a Beethoven sonata. We wanted to hear something he had composed, so afterwards he played a study he wrote in 1969 (when he had been sent to the countryside to work) and which he had been told by the cultural arbiters of the day was "pure garbage."

SINCE THAT day, we have seen each other often, we spent many evenings at Huang's small apartment, where he lives with his parents, two brothers, wife and young son. Through him and his circle of friends, we came gradually to understand the ordeal the Chinese people went through during the Cultural Revolution.

The physical destruction of his father's library was one thing. Books burnt or confiscated are a terrible symbol certainly but most of them can be replaced.

One night, though, Huang told us in the presence of his father that he once took his two younger brothers on his knees and told them that their father would be criticized severly by the masses and the masses would be correct.

My friend loves his father, who studied in the United States for two years during the 1940s under composer Paul Hindemith, as few sons do. Huang told us that he still tries to analyze those times and the events which made him think such a thing.

We have other Chinese friends too, but unlike Huang, they did not feel free to ask their respective unit leaders for permission to visit a foreign journalist.

From November to April, however, we had free access to a wide circle of very bright people and quickly got beyond mere curiosity. The long talks, sometimes until 3 a.m. on a Saturday night, left us exhausted and exhilarated. Yet journalistic prudence made me suspect that the reigning atmosphere could come crashing down, and crashing down it came at the end of March when the authorities decided everything was getting out of hand.

Because neither the government nor the Public Security Bureau could differentiate between firendship and normal exchange and the purveying of state secrets, it clamped down on everything.

As a journalist active in the coverage of the free speech movement and who had been chased by the police through Peking streets because there was a Chinese in my car, I was poison to any relationship save the one with Huang and his family, who had received permission to continue seeing us.

Our friendship with other Chinese is not dead but like many Chinese I do not yet trust the Chinese government sufficiently to be forthright about everything.

These other friends -- and while we rail away a bit at their tolerance of some things, we are in awe of their patience -- assure us nevertheless that despite the crackdown, things really are better and still getting better.