Beijing Confidential: A Tale of Comrades Lost and Found.
Gary Watson is a former lecturer in Chinese studies at Queen’s University and is now a multimedia developer in Mississauga.
Jan Wong is well-known to many Canadians for her penetrating, sometimes unflattering, reporting on China for the Globe and Mail and her books, Red China Blues (1997) and Jan Wong’s China (1999). Unlike her earlier journalism, Beijing Confidential is light on the reporting that established Wong’s reputation. Gone is the hard-headed skepticism and determination to dig into and doubt the Chinese government’s official versions of stories that mattered. Instead, Wong’s mission here is a personal one, to trace the whereabouts of a former classmate, Yin Luoyi, who Wong turned in to Beijing University authorities in the 1970s for expressing a wish to leave China. Wong came to regret the episode, and her attempts to lift her guilt form the principal thread of her narrative. Her frustrating search slows the story and presents successive dead ends along the trail.
Beijing Confidential is “Jan Wong lite.” The China she found in 2004 frustrated and troubled her, not so much for its repressiveness but for its greed, self-indulgence, and rootlessness. Just fifteen years after the Tiananmen Massacre that Wong bravely covered, old Beijing friends were content to keep their nightmares locked away, confident that no real purpose would be served by thinking about a recent past too troubling to recall. Conspicuous consumption mattered more and comfort trumped conscience for her old contacts and associates. Wang is amused, shocked, and impressed by their consumerism. In the end, though, she cannot help but sense an estrangement among these people un-tethered from their own history.
Even though the resolution of Wong’s quest for Yin is anti-climactic, Beijing Confidential is worthwhile, mainly for its insights into how and why Maoist austerity gave way so quickly to the all-too-familiar obsessions with condo square-footage, granite countertops, and the inherent superiority of BMWs to Audis.