Last Spring, when I found out that I was going to China again after 15 years, my first concern was that I didn't own a good shortwave radio anymore. I'd bought such a radio in Hong Kong the day before I crossed the border into then mysterious China on a moist June morning in 1973. During the three weeks I traveled inside the long forbidden domain of Mao Zedong (then Mao Tse-tung), I became dependent on the distant voice of the BBC in London as my single constant connection with the outside world. Thanks only to that trusty radio, I kept up with the relentless undressing of the Nixon Administration during the Watergate investigation and learned that Johnny Miller had shot a 63 to win the U.S. Open. It all had the romantic and exhilarating quality of receiving clandestine messages from Earth while exploring a planet in another solar system.
My faithful Hong Kong radio gave out after 12 years, so I planned to buy another in Japan on my way to China. I never got the chance to make that purchase, which troubled me—until I got to China and learned that I now needed a shortwave radio there as much as I would need one in Chicago. The smooth face of ABC newscaster Peter Jennings appeared for a daily half hour on the TV screens in all 1,007 rooms in the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel in Beijing. CNN nattered on for a couple of hours every day, and the Laker-Piston championship series was shown the same day. The International Herald Tribune was on sale in the lobby, as was the China Daily, an English-language paper produced by the same folks who publish the People's Daily, the official organ of the Chinese Communist Party. The China Daily ran U.S. baseball scores and apparently uncensored news stories from all over the world. Tourists and businessmen with big white faces and big round eyes were everywhere, and a note in the hotel's schedule for the week announced that the Whiffenpoofs, the ones from Yale, were going to perform in one of the Sheraton's bars on June 22. China was now plainly from the same planet I was, and I found that fact a bit baffling.
In the summer of 1973, I had gone to the People's Republic with a basketball delegation from the U.S. Our party, which included teams of men and women college players, was 46 strong, making it the largest of the American groups that had been allowed into China since Richard Nixon's historic visit there in the winter of 1972. It's impossible to exaggerate how much of a curiosity we were in the China of that time. We had the contingent of high-rise giants you would expect to find in a basketball delegation, so every time we went anywhere we moved like Gullivers through Lilliput. We were trailed by large murmuring crowds, sometimes numbering as many as 500 people. Even I—middle-sized and middle-aged, balding and relatively nondescript (although I was then sporting a mustache the size of a large mouse beneath my very un-Oriental pointed nose)—attracted enough attention that I felt the need to develop a sort of papal-presidential wave as an appropriate response to my countless admirers.
One might think 15 years isn't much in the blur of centuries that China has endured, but in fact, in the wildly volatile years of the 20th century, the country has been rocked by a surprising number of political and social upheavals. In 1900, China was a corrupt, chaotic, poverty-ravaged empire of 400 million people that was essentially enslaved by an arrogant ruling conglomerate of warlords, landlords and a variety of aggressive foreign opportunists (including missionaries and YMCA workers who, among other things, introduced basketball as a tool to convert heathen souls in 1901, only 10 years after James Naismith invented the game in Springfield, Mass.). Then came the Boxer Uprising against foreigners, the ineffectual revolutionary republican government of Sun Yat-sen, the invasion and occupation by the Japanese, the banditry of Chiang Kai-shek's American-backed Nationalist government and the conquest by Mao's Marxist revolution. And that brings us only to 1949 and the establishment of the People's Republic.
When I got to China in the summer of '73, the Western world had been all but locked out for almost a quarter century, until the stunning invitation to the U.S. Ping-Pong team in '71, which led to Nixon's visit ten months later. I was there because Mao's attitude toward foreigners had softened ever so slightly, from armor-plated paranoia to ironclad caution. Ever indirect in his dealings with outsiders, Mao had chosen sports as his favored diplomatic vehicle. At the same time our outsized delegation was lumbering through the Forbidden City and gawking at the Great Wall, teams of U.S. swimmers and divers as well as sports contingents from Japan, Mexico, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Albania, Great Britain and Pakistan were crisscrossing China. There were also various Chinese teams traveling in Japan, Burma, Canada, Italy and Lebanon.
But there was no sign of the outside world—sporting or otherwise—in the China I saw 15 years ago. To us Westerners, it was as unreal as Erewhon and as forbidding as Mars. Mao had made it his own walled-off version of Chinese boxes within boxes, 900 million people held under his control so completely that most of them seemed to speak his words and thoughts far more often than they did their own. In those days, there was almost no setting in China that did not contain some kind of portrait of the Chairman—from 50-footers hanging over public squares to locket-sized cameos hanging around girls' necks. Loudspeakers blared his slogans on schedule at factories, farms, offices and schoolyards, and his ubiquitous little red book of quotations turned up in every conceivable form—from ragged copies carried by ancient peasants to the fresh hotel-lobby editions that had been translated into every language from Farsi to French. Everyone except children wore the same bland, baggy clothes Mao affected. It was the ultimate egalitarian state, and it was sealed off from all possible infections and corruptions of the West.
Of course, if foreigners were locked out, the Chinese were just as completely locked in. They might as well have been living in the 15th century for all they knew about life in the modern world. One day an old man, a professor of hydraulics at Tsinghua University in Beijing, spoke to me in perfect English and told me that he had attended MIT and Cornell in the U.S. long, long ago and that he had been waiting for years to find an American who might answer a most pressing question for him. "Tell me," he said, "is Babe Ruth still alive?"
That was 15 years ago. Today, the death of someone like Ruth would be played on page one of the China Daily, and the Whiffenpoofs would do a musical salute to him in the ultramodern Great Wall Sheraton (which is located 30 miles from the wall, though I think it would look more natural 6,000 miles away, on Wilshire Boulevard).
Remarkably enough, things have changed so radically that these days it just might be easier to find a portrait of the Babe in China than one of Mao. He died in 1976 and all those billboards must have expired with him. His face is very hard to find, and statues of him are being razed. His little red book is no longer readily available, and his ideas are in amazing disrepute. In '73, dozens of the Chinese athletes I talked to, both the elite and rank amateur, endlessly, endlessly repeated Mao's boilerplate credo of no-win sport: "Friendship first, competition second" (or, as I liked to call it, FFCS). Bland and boring though it was, FFCS was like a religious litany, reiterated everywhere with starry-eyed seriousness.
This time, when I spoke of FFCS, most of the men rolled their eyes and the women snickered. One bright young sports official shrugged and explained to me, as if I were a backward child. "You must realize that not even the government says this anymore. We believe that competition comes first, that losing is nothing, while winning is very, very important." When asked about FFCS, a young female javelin thrower at the Beijing Institute of Physical Education looked embarrassed: "Oh please, you mustn't talk like that. Everyone tries to get first place now. Winning improves you more than losing. It's a well-known truth."