What were the circumstances of your second arrest? They were very different from the first, is that right?
Very different. My wife and I were supporting young people who were trying to dismantle the dictatorship of the proletariat and establish a kind of town hall democracy in China. And I was making speeches in support of them all over the place. And, well, Mao lost his sense of humor about it and put me back in prison.
And you were imprisoned for how many years this time?
And solitary again?
But this was better than the first time because I knew why I was there, you know. The first time, I had no idea what I was doing there. There was this terrible hurt, this feeling of being misunderstood. But the second time, I was not being misunderstood, so it was different.
You were in prison until 1977—how did you learn about the death of Chairman Mao in ‘76?
I had the People’s Daily in prison so I had the news.
And what did you feel when Mao died? Were you relieved? Were you delighted? Were you sad? It must’ve been complicated.
No, no—I still thought he was a revolutionary leader that had answers to the world’s problems. I thought his death was this terrible loss ... but you know, here’s the thing, Matt. It was very strange. When Zhou Enlai died, in January that year, I was distraught. I thought he’d been a very dear, very warm and caring friend on a personal level. And I felt like I’d lost my father almost, I really, literally sat in prison, you know, and just cried and cried.
When Mao died, intellectually, I felt that this was much more important. A much greater tragedy, this was the leader, with a capital L, who had been lost to the world. But I didn’t have a single tear. And I remember thinking to myself at the time: why is this? What’s going on? And I didn’t have the answer.
I think my emotional intelligence, if there is such a thing, was smarter than my intellect at that point. Intellectually, I mourned him, but emotionally, I didn’t.
You moved back to the United States in 1980. What prompted that decision? Did you think you were through with China? Was it exhaustion?
No, no, not at all. When I was in the Army class at Stanford in 1943, I had this idea of learning to be a bridge-builder between Americans and Chinese. If I had both languages and both cultures, I could help these two peoples understand each other and to learn to work together. So by 1980, I decided there was nothing more that I could do on the Chinese end, and I needed to go back and work from the American end. What brought it about was my disgust at the corruption that was already rampant. It wasn’t yet like it is today, but it was already very much in evidence.
I was disgusted by the fact that Deng Xiaoping, after bragging to Robert Novak about the Democracy Wall, about how the government allowed people to put up posters and express their opinion and criticize freely and so on, he shut it down once he consolidated his power. He suppressed the Democracy Wall. We had lots of young democratic activists coming to our home every weekend and we had a kind of forum discussion, and we were living at the Friendship Hotel, where most foreign experts lived, and when they came in to the hotel compound, they had to register their names. So once Deng began suppressing democratic opinion, these people were all going to be in danger. I didn’t feel that my wife and I would be in danger because they weren’t going to fool with us anymore, but I thought these kids were going to be in danger.