Saturday 5 September 2020

When the Red Gates Opened: A Memoir of China's Reawakening

The 1980s was a period of rapid change and economic growth for China. In 1979, paramount leader Deng Xiaoping opened special economic zones in southern China, experimenting with market capitalism. Dori Jones Yang, a reporter for BusinessWeek, saw China’s rise in the 1980s and has recorded it for her memoir When The Red Gates Opened.

The book opens in May 1989, during the protests in Tiananmen Square, then flashing back to January 29th, 1979, when Deng Xiaoping visited the United States, the first Chinese leader to do so. Here, Mrs. Yang is starstruck, comparing Deng to a rock star, an understandable feeling in 1979. Unlike Mao Zedong, who died in 1976, Deng Xiaoping was a far more moderate and pragmatic leader, eager to steer China away from the chaos of the Cultural Revolution to economic stability.

The 1980s was an era of hope for China, since it was not only liberalizing economically but politically too. When The Red Gates Opened balances these historical aspects alongside Dori Jones Yang’s personal experiences. While still in America, she becomes enamored with China and is filled with a desire to escape “ordinariness.” In her own words:

“I had grown up the third of three look-alike Jones sisters in Ohio. I wanted to distinguish myself. I wanted to be extraordinary. I wanted to be somebody. Whatever that meant.”

“That” meant China, and in 1982, she accepted a transfer as a BusinessWeek correspondent in Hong Kong. The author paints a good picture of the city in the early 80s, and the general anxiety about the expiring lease on the British colony. 1982 was also the year where British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher met with Deng Xiaoping to discuss the future of Hong Kong. It was decided that the British would hand over the city when their lease expired in 1997, providing the Chinese gave an extended period of relative autonomy, hence the “one country, two systems” policy.

The atmosphere of Hong Kong was a justified dread, as recent events have proved. Even back in the 1980s, many Hong Kongers were selling their property and moving to Canada and the United States. Still, Hong Kong was a far cry from Mainland China, and Dori wanted to peer behind the bamboo curtain and into the Middle Kingdom itself. It’s around here where she meets Paul Yang, who she becomes romantically involved with and eventually marries.

Paul is originally from Taiwan, but the child of waishengren, Chinese people who fled the mainland in 1949 after the Civil War. He was also educated in America and speaks English well, a helpful skill since Dori is learning Mandarin. In one particularly memorable scene, she meets her future-in laws who are not all that impressed with her Mandarin skills (although they might have been bad, she admits) but are blown away by her ability to use chopsticks. I can relate.

Complicating matters is that Paul is still technically married, although he is going through the process of a divorce. The memoir continues interspersing political history with personal drama. We see her analysis of China’s rise as a manufacturing giant, to the birth of Paul and Dori’ baby girl, Emily, to the political upheaval of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, as she witnessed them firsthand. 

What began as a decade full of hope and idealism for China ends in a bloody massacre and bitter tragedy, one that still haunts the world to this day.