September 16, 1966
Political Report No. 24 from Hans Keller, Embassy of Switzerland in China, 'A Sad Return to Beijing'
This document was made possible with support from The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Embassy of Switzerland in China
Beijing, September 16, 1966
Political Report Number 24
Sad Return to Beijing
The Beijing Express, which this time consisted entirely of Chinese cars and was serviced along the entire route by Chinese personnel (aside from the locomotives and dining car), provided my wife and me our first contact with China. In contrast, there were noticeably few Chinese passengers and those there were showed themselves seldomly outside of their section. The Chinese train personnel were friendly throughout and kept the car sparkling clean.
Shortly after our departure from Moscow young boys threw stones at the train and punched a hole in a window with one. In other ways as well, the Russian population at train stops presented themselves often negatively, sometimes even hostilely, especially in sight of the Chinese emblems and writing on the passenger cars. Our Chinese car leader complained repeatedly that he had not even received coal and water for the car as he required and objected in other regards to the “behavior of the Soviet comrades” at the train stations.
When we had the Mongolian border at Naushki behind us, not much of the anti-Chinese attitude was left to be felt. Conversely, the Chinese passengers on the train thawed out a bit and even began to speak to other travelers. In Ulan Bator, a representative of the Chinese embassy appeared on the train with around 50 Chinese to congratulate their countrymen traveling home into the Empire for the “journey through enemy territory” that was just survived. At the Chinese border, the reception by masses of civil servants storming onto the train was not unfriendly, but was from our perspective intrusive. With loudspeakers at full volume; blood-red colored slogans from Mao’s works hanging, standing, or painted everywhere; chants and addresses to the homecomers “escaping the evil foreign country” etc. the two-hour-long border control, which was more complicated than before, should be drowned out. A group of French and Danish tourists that was journeying with us was absolutely overwhelmed by this unexpectedly intense reception. An accompanying Swiss academic thought however that he had not imagined the matter to be so bad. He had by then experienced other things.
No excitement was to be felt at any rate on the next day during the arrival in Beijing. Tens of thousands of Red Guard members of both genders besieged platforms, staircases, halls and the large station square; threw hostile or at best disapproving looks at those arriving with their frowned upon Western clothes, suitcases etc. and barred the passages everywhere. All of our embassy personnel and the pair from the Danish embassy we befriended were luckily pressed forward to our car in order to ease the first steps into a country that I hardly recognized. Certainly, it was not easy for the police to keep the tremendous mass fenced in (the station square also served as a camp space for tens of thousands of Guardsmen with fitting consequences for untrained eyes, ears and noses). We were downright happy when we were locked into a room for foreigners by our overseers where our papers had to be checked. Then finally we were allowed to slowly drive away in our car. Driving more quickly would have been too dangerous in light of the Guardsmen who mostly came from the country and knew no traffic laws and who loitered around in masses like vermin. To injure or even kill a guardsman could have catastrophic consequences for the “guilty,” especially when he is a foreigner.
I exhaled when I came into the residence, but our servants exhaled even more. They greeted the two homecomers politely but distantly. Apart from that it was easily and quickly recognizable what difficult experiences our Chinese employees had behind them. One doesn’t get grey hair and an unusually concerned, frightened facial expression in China for nothing. Without a doubt the house personnel found that certain excesses, as had happened in some other embassies, were less susceptible when the head of mission and his wife were present again. Luckily, at least none of our employees were deported or “entrusted with other work”, or even killed, as has occasionally happened in other places. The domestic staff declined categorically the small gifts that my wife brought with her this time from Switzerland with sad eyes, likely knowing how impolite they behaved in this (on orders from above). Fundamentally they were certainly terribly ashamed of what took place here during the Cultural Revolution, in particular the abuse, humiliation and expulsion of a Swiss nun who had visited our house for years, if only seldomly.
Our embassy lay on one of the main streets of the city center not far from the building that was still named the “House of Chinese-Soviet Friendship”, but for weeks was nothing other than a headquarters of the Red Guard. In and around the house and on the street in front of it, thousands of Guardsmen were occupied with eating, sleeping, studying, “singing” etc. In the car and above all by foot, fighting through this mass of humanity makes work but there’s no getting around it. All the house and street walls are covered up with Mao’s quotes and all the Guardsmen are always reading from the red Mao Bible, without which they apparently do not dare to do anything. Numerous latrines, which were erected along the length of the street, are not sufficient for all the demands and spread a stink that sometimes becomes almost unbearable, but which has however recently abated somewhat because some of the Guardsmen disappeared, allegedly to help with harvesting. Provided that that lasts…
On some walks or drives through the city, a woebegone picture was presented to me of what the “Cultural Revolution” had achieved so far. Almost none of the modest comfort of the main business street Wang Fun Chin remains to be seen. In many businesses, the entire interior decoration was either destroyed or made unusable. Radios and televisions, European-looking clothes and shoes, clocks, books, photographs and other traces of “decadent Western lifestyles” became victims of a clean-up campaign which brought back unfortunate thoughts of similar acts of violence of the Hitler Youth. What played out and still continues to play out in the side streets, courtyards and other places was worse: defenseless men and women, whose “guilt” consisted of using foreign books, devices or clothes, maintaining contact with foreigners etc. The consulting room and special equipment of a doctor who was accessible for foreign patients (with official approval!) was smashed to pieces, and he himself was so badly injured by the Guardsmen that his arising from his injuries is doubted. His legs were broken with bamboo sticks. The same occurred to an old dentist who had returned “home into the Empire” a few years ago, so that he committed suicide out of despair. The largest Beijing hospital that the Americans built here years ago and where our former colleague Dr. R. Hoeppli operated, and which now is called the “Hospital of Anti-Imperialism”, experienced terrifying moments after the Red Guard intervened there and a 16-year-old scallywag humiliated the entire corps of doctors deeply and spit on individual doctors who were educated abroad. Multiple suicides were likely the result of this, as an African patient, who was an eyewitness, assured me.
Guardsmen are marching around everywhere in the city, bellowing their Mao quotes, disturbing traffic and order, without the police daring to intervene. “Exposed capitalists” and “reactionaries”, mostly honorably grayed old men and women, carry placards on their chests or backs on which they accuse themselves of reactionary or other regime-hostile acts or thoughts (!) and perform humiliating work like street sweeping, the removal of excrement etc, all while dressed in rags and derisively ridiculed by the youthful mass and often even pushed or hit. I had to repeatedly turn away in order to not bash away out of anger at the youthful rabble with nearest instrument and free the defenseless victims. Like many other foreigners, on multiple nights I could almost not sleep anymore.
Traffic descends into chaos. The police don’t trust themselves to drive the young Guardsmen who want to play at “order” at traffic intersections. As soon as a standstill arises, the traffic-guardsmen take refuge in their Mao Bible and increase with this the general confusion and are pleased when they drive the terrorized drivers to exasperation.
Some quiet civil servant and teacher families, who had never exchanged a word with the members of the embassy but who nevertheless in time led a tacit, bearable existence with us, lived next to our residence. Multiple of these neighbors were beaten in the cruelest manner for hours during my absence, spit on and completely robbed. They had to carry away their modest household belongings themselves in the most primitive carts. Even today one still sees such wretched transports everywhere in the city. On the 15th of September, I saw dozens of them on the road to Tianjin, all moving at a snail’s pace of course in the direction of Tianjin, and which would arrive there after some additional days and nights of marching. One sees more human draft animals than ever.
In one of the houses next to me, an old married couple has appeared to put up a fight against the looting, with the consequence that the Guard intervened there especially gruesomely. The Yugoslavian journalist that lives next to our office could not sleep for several days and nights, so appalling were the screams and moans of the victims of the Guard. When I returned on September 7th, the earlier inhabitants had all disappeared, likely they were tortured to death.
At the moment, the terror in the center of city appears to be abating, but the suburbs and other cities should likely have their turn next. That the spirits that Beijing awoke will not so quickly come to rest is very likely. I regret more than ever that I can read only so few Chinese characters. One reads all important news today first and foremost on the written placards that the Guardsmen nail up, in front of which many people immediately gather to learn the latest news. Some Sinologists among the few foreigners do nothing other than read new placards day and night, often at great risk, since for foreigners also to learn what is taking place is apparently a thorn in the Guard’s side.
I experienced the Nazi terror of 1938-1939 in Vienna, later the anti-Semitism of Slovakia and the conquest of Bratislava by a Red Army that had gone wild, then the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia, then the terror methods of the Soviet concentration camps in the Caucasus and so likely more dangerous days than in China. But never before in my life have I felt such a disgust as from the outrages of the Red Guard, and in a country which for thousands of years counted respect for and veneration of seniority and cultural values among its highest and most beautiful virtues. It is almost not able to be born any longer here, entirely apart from the dangers to which now as ever foreign observers with or without diplomatic status are exposed. What came about in 1900 in the Boxer Rebellion is the talk of the day here.
The Swiss Ambassador:
The Swiss Ambassador, Hans Keller, discusses Chinese-Soviet relations, political and cultural tensions due to China's Cultural Revolution, and other detailed observations about life and current events in a political report.
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