A Westerner's Firsthand Look at Chinese History ; John Pomfret Was a Student in China. Twenty Years Later, He Checks Up on His Classmates

Article excerpt

As a young student at Nanjing University in 1981, John Pomfret quickly recognized that he had a front-row seat at a moment when China was in the midst of a dramatic shift.

The Cultural Revolution, during which his classmates had come of age, was over. Its worst chaos and cruelty had been checked. Young 20-somethings - some of whom had waited years to once again attend school - were determined to heed Premier Deng Xiaoping's admonition that "to get rich is glorious."

In what Pomfret describes as a "heady" time, his fellow students tested new possibilities - and gauged their limits.

Pomfret was one of the earliest American students to study and live with Chinese students after the United States and China formally restored diplomatic relations in 1979. Fresh out of college, he found himself face to face with the devastating social impact of the Cultural Revolution.

But it wasn't until 20 years later that Pomfret, by then the Washington Post's Beijing bureau chief, decided fully to plumb the devastation the period wrought in his friends' lives.

This was a generation that had witnessed some of Mao's worst excesses - only to turn on a dime and build an economy with a vigor that would astound the world.

But their experiences during the Cultural Revolution left a mark on Pomfret's youthful peers. As children, some had turned on their parents in revolutionary zeal. As students, many had discovered that, with one slip of the tongue, they could find themselves on the wrong side of Maoist ideology. These experiences left a bitter legacy - one that may hamper China as it tries to build on its growing, though highly inequitable, prosperity.

Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China examines that legacy, which, Pomfret argues, continues to cast a long shadow. The country is currently generating endless superlatives - from its blazing economic growth to its billion-plus population to its massive construction projects.

But sitting in a cafe in 2004, amid China's growing glitz and prosperity, Pomfret listens to a friend tell how, as a 15-year-old member of China's feared Red Guard, he humiliated his mother by publicly criticizing her for incorrect thinking. Forty years after the fact, he is probing the consequences of such state-sanctioned actions.

"'How do you think a society where that type of behavior was condoned, no, not condoned, mandated, can heal itself?' " he asks Pomfret. " 'Do you think it ever can?' I said Chinese were forever telling me, an American, how much stronger their family values were than those of the United States. Zhou smirked. 'Don't believe the hype.' "

Zhou's story exemplifies the often-tortuous route of those Chinese who have had to negotiate their way through so many different Chinas: a China gingerly liberalizing after the Cultural Revolution, a more repressive post-Tiananmen China, and a China obsessed with acquiring material wealth. …