When Chinese come back to China…

circa 1972:

Chinese from abroad who come back to visit the motherland are put in a special category. The Maoist authorities, with their fixation on classification, their obsession with hierarchy, arrange them in four different groups. At the top, you have the Chinese who have taken out foreign citizenship. They are the only ones we [Westerners] meet, because they stay in the same hotels and enjoy the same material privileges. But – noblesse oblige – these aristocrats also suffer from the same disabilities in their contacts with the people, including members of their own families. While they can usually see their parents in their homes (sometimes they may see them only in the hotels), they may not spend the night there. […]

The second class is made up of the “compatriots from Taiwan” – in practice this means Taiwanese who live in Japan or the United States. This brand is in great demand because of its many political uses, but the stock is limited. The press talks about them, but you never see them.

The third class, the Overseas Chinese, is more numerous. Usually they are well-to-do businessmen from Southeast Asia who enjoy the best of both worlds: patriotic pride in their mother country, wealth and ease in the country where they live. In the People’s Republic they enjoy special hotels and restaurants: less expensive than those for foreigners, but out of bounds for the local population.

At the bottom one finds “compatriots from Hong Kong and Macao,” most of whom come to China only to visit their relatives in Kwangtung province. This is really the largest group of all – on traditional festival days such as New Year’s Day, the Feast of the Dead (Ch’ing-ming), and so on, they cross the frontier by the tens of thousands. And the procedure for that is very easy: only an identity card is required. Of course, they see only their family villages, but at least they enjoy direct and close contact with the Chinese in an everyday way, whereas the higher-class visitors, though they can travel on the wider tourist circuits, are insulated by the prophylactic measures that cut foreigners off from real Chinese life.

–Simon Leys

Of course, things are (mostly) rather different now…


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