The letter from Australia is a weekly newsletter from our Australian office. subscribe to get it by email. This week’s issue was written by Jane pearls, who grew up in Australia and held China for the New York Times from 2012 to 2019.
Her first visit to the country dates back to 1966 as a university student and she described her experience over the decades in an essay for a new book, “The Beijing Bureau”, which tells the evolution of China through the eyes of 25 Australian foreign correspondents.
Here is an excerpt from his essay, “Father and Son”.
Xiaolu was different from the rest of the so-called princely class: the sons and daughters of the privileged founders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Xiaolu was accommodating, helpful, willing to talk to outsiders and even slightly blunt about what was happening at the top of the party under the new Xi Jinping. We met in an Italian restaurant, where he ordered the same plate of spaghetti each time followed by ice cream. His English was acceptable: many years earlier he had served as a military attaché at the Chinese embassy in Britain.
At the time, he was a senior executive at Anbang, an insurance conglomerate that had developed very rapidly and then diversified. Executive may be too strong a word. He seemed to be more of a door opener, the guy with the contacts, but not the guy with the business acumen. He avoided the tailored suits, the tied-up hair, and the shiny shoes of the Beijing business class. He showed up for lunch in a casual shirt, a gray cut, and an out-of-fashion fabric shoulder bag.
During our first two lunches, Xiaolu was relatively circumspect, but I could feel he had reservations about Xi. As children, they had lived in the same elite complex, Zhongnanhai, located on the edge of Tiananmen Square. Their fathers were both prominent in the pantheon of great men under Mao.
Xiaolu suggested that Xi’s first major initiative, a massive anti-corruption campaign among party officials, was actually a political purge. Officials had been terrified of making decisions. The bureaucrats were afraid of each other. He also made negative comments on Document 9. Released soon after Xi’s rise to power, it listed Western ideas – constitutional democracy, universal human rights – that the party called unacceptable in China. Document 9 was an early sign from Xi that the Liberals were going through a rough time. It showed Xi’s determination to enforce the authoritarian government. Xiaolu looked deeply disappointed.