Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘The Great Wall of China’

Communist China’s 60th Anniversary

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 1st October, 2009

Mao ZedongOn 1 October 1949, the People’s Republic of China was declared. I wasn’t yet born, but I remember vividly at my primary school in Eccles in the late 1950s the headmaster standing in front of a world map (the British Empire still reassuring coloured pink) explaining how ‘we’ (the Western world) were going to liberate China from the murderous Reds, by backing Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalists on the island of Taiwan. Thank God the man was only in charge of a school, not the country. But something about that lesson stuck in my mind, so that by the time I was in secondary school, I was doodling Chinese characters (some real, most imagined); for some strange reason, ideograms fascinated me. The fact that ‘Red China’ had by then cut itself off from the world and was entering what would turn into the long nightmare of the Cultural Revolution only made it more mysterious, more alluring.

Great Wall of ChinaTo cut a long story short, I ended up reading Chinese at university and was in Taiwan, doing my year abroad, when Richard Nixon went to China. The family I was lodging with near Taipei were frozen on the spot with fear as we listened to the broadcasts on the radio. They couldn’t believe that their great ally, the United States, had defected to the other side. Nixon was a class act. He was taken to the Great Wall and declared, ‘Gee, this is a great wall!’ Little did I realise that only two years later I would be asked to write a book about it (the Wall, that is). At last I got to go to the People’s Republic, to see things for myself. Beijing was all bicycles, seemingly millions of them, and most people still wandered round in Mao suits.

Zhou EnlaiSixty years on from the day that the Great Helmsman stood before the cheering masses in Tiananmen Square, China is one of the most materialist societies on earth. Skyscrapers shoot up in every city, while the streets are clogged with cars. People’s life expectancy has doubled since 1949 and for most people — not all — the quality of life has improved exponentially. China is now poised to make the 21st century its own. Should this be something we in the West celebrate or fear? As the late Prime Minister Zhou Enlai said when asked what he thought about the French Revolution, ‘it’s too soon to tell.’


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1989 The Berlin Wall: My Part in Its Downfall

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 11th September, 2009

Peter Millar book coverAs the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall approaches, the bookshops are filling up with commemorative and interpretative volumes. One of the most welcome is Peter Millar’s 1989 The Berlin Wall: My Part in Its Downfall (Arcadia Books, £11.99), which will be launched at the Frontline Club in London on 1 October. Peter followed me from Oxford into Reuters at the news agency’s old Fleet Street offices and then as the baby in the set-up in the International Press Centre in Brussels, though he lasted longer than I did. I resigned while still in Brussels when I received my first book contract  (for The Great Wall of China), whereas he went on to work for Reuters in East Berlin and then Moscow, before moving over to the Sunday Telegraph and then the Sunday Times.

We didn’t meet up in East Berlin when he was posted there, though I was going in and out of the place frequently at the time, visiting Quakers and other people involved in what became the Swords into Ploughshares movement which was the forerunner of civil unrest that would eventually see the edifice of DDR authority collapse like a house of cards. By the time 1989 came round, I was at Bush House as a sort of ‘rest of the world’ commentator for the BBC World Service and at times rather envied those who could concentrate on the disintegration of European communism. I did go to Berlin again shortly after the Wall came down, however. Rather than  bringing back a chunk of that graffiti-daubed monument, I bought a very fetching Soviet sailor´s cap for US$1 from a tipsy Russian instead.

Peter Millar’s book — whose title is a deliberate nod of homage to the late, great Spike Milligan — is full of telling anecdote and seamlessly blends autobiography with historical reportage. There are a few go0od laughs, but much of the tale is suitably serious. There was indeed euphoria on the night of 9 November 1989, as the Wall was breached — I shed a tear of joy myself, watching the scenes on TV at home in London — but there was anguish too. Peter was able to smile wrily at some details he later discovered in his Stasi files. But for many of my friends and colleagues, what they then found out about the system they had been forced to live under for so many years was in many cases even more traumatising than what they had imagined.


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