The Last Visitor

The Last Visitor

D. Bell: Adventure on a Chinese Military Base

BEIJING IS an international city, but my neighborhood isn’t. I live in the far northwest part of the city, outside the fifth ring road, and in three years here I’ve seen a grand total of two other foreigners. I moved to this corner with my Chinese family because the air is better and there’s more of a community feel to the place. My walks through the nearby migrant worker districts serve as a reminder that China’s economic miracle has yet to extend to the bulk of the population.

Last week, my eighty-one-year-old father-in-law suffered a stroke. He had been in good health, but I could tell something went wrong when he suddenly seemed to lose his balance and his speech became slurred. I pulled him over to a chair and my wife called an ambulance. He was rushed to the nearby military hospital. A veteran of three wars–my father-in-law joined the communists at fifteen in the anti-Japanese struggle–he has taken the whole thing in stride, remains optimistic, and is gradually regaining his abilities. In my view, he is one of the few true communists left in China: meaning that his outlook is genuinely other-regarding. Relatives and friends visit him at the hospital and they want to know how he’s doing, but he seems more concerned about how they are doing. I go to visit him every day at the military hospital, a short walk from our home.

The usual routine broke down one day. I was running late because I had to take my kid to his piano class after the hospital visit. I usually combine the visit with a walk in the mountains outside my home, and I tried to take a shortcut. I should have known from the direction of the setting sun that I was heading the wrong way, but I distrust rational planning and I have an awful sense of orientation. My generally helpful rule of thumb is that I consult my intuitions and then do the opposite. I arrived at one of the peaks, which is surrounded by old bunkers and a run-down military hospice that’s still walled off by barbed wire and prison bars (though I doubt it has been used for half a century). Then I spotted a guy in military garb, and decided to follow him, thinking he might know a shortcut to the hospital. I waited a bit, then went down the same path he followed. It was a very steep and winding rocky path and it occurred to me that I’d be in real trouble if I injured myself and had to explain my location to would-be rescuers (I’ve lost the sense of physical invulnerability that I had two decades ago).

The path led to stairs, which made me feel more secure. I followed the stairs, and arrived to level ground, in what looked like a pleasant neighborhood with five story buildings in good condition. The buildings were strangely deserted, which lent an air of unreality to the place. I continued walking, noticing some small children playing tag and screeching in delight, without any parents (or grandparents) around, which was unusual. Finally, I came across an adult. By then, I knew I was lost and probably a fair distance from the hospital, so I asked him where I could get a taxi. He replied, in Chinese, “I don’t understand.” Now I may not have a perfect accent, but there’s no good reason I shouldn’t be understood. In remote Guiyang, a man had once reacted that way, apparently because it seemed impossible for him to conceive of the possibility that foreigners can speak Chinese. But in Beijing foreigners are usually expected to speak Chinese. I repeated the question, using three or four different ways of making the same point. He just shook his head and said “there aren’t any taxis around here,” and he pointed to what looked like the way out.

I kept on walking and came across a building with several uniformed soldiers standing outside. One of them saw me and exclaimed “foreigner!” Again, that was a first. Young children in my neighborhood sometimes say that, but not adults. By then I realized I had probably stumbled upon a military base. I turned to the group of soldiers and asked for directions to the military hospital. One replied that it wasn’t near here and I should quickly head to the front gate and get out of here. Which is what I had planned to do, and I walked at an accelerated pace.

I passed a group of female soldiers, one of whom said, “hey, there’s a foreigner!” I turned around and asked for directions to the military hospital. One of the soldiers asked me to come with her. She brought me to a store and said she would have to call her leader. At that point, I knew things would get more complicated. In China, dealings with officials can range from extreme flexibility to extreme rigidity (with hardly anything in between). The response usually depends on good luck, social relations, and personal attitude (modesty works best). I’ve been generally lucky, but this time I suspected we were headed for extreme rigidity.

She asked for my ID. I went through my wallet, and had only a few credit cards without any photos. I rifled through my pockets, and luckily I found a Tsinghua name card stashed among bills. Triumphantly, I pulled it out, told her I teach in the philosophy department (I didn’t say that I teach political philosophy, as I would normally do). She asked where I’m from, and I told her I’m Canadian (I confess I felt lucky not to be an American at that point). Another question: how long have you been in Beijing? I told her four years. She said that my wife must be Chinese because I had mentioned my father-in-law at the military hospital, which I confirmed. Then she said to wait at the store. A couple of male soldiers waited with me. I looked around, the store was clean and well-stocked but I resisted the urge to look around and buy things. I talked to the cashier and told her I got lost looking for the military hospital, and she told that story to the few customers (all soldiers) who walked into the store.

A few minutes later, the “leader”, in his late-forties or early fifties, came to see me in the store. I repeated my story, apologized for having stumbled into a restricted area, but I pointed out that there were no signs saying it was a restricted area. He told me, let’s go have a talk and we walked over to another building. We went up to the second floor, and I was asked to sit in a chair against a wall, surrounded by several soldiers. I was given a bottle of mineral water. Images of interrogations in war films came to mind.

The leader took my name card and asked if I have an English name. I told him, yes, it’s on the other side. He asked about my wife’s “work unit.” I told him the name of her Chinese company, but he didn’t recognize it. Then I told him they were affiliated with Goldman Sachs, and he nodded at that. He asked if I have the phone number of my head of department. I told him I have it at home, but not in my cell phone. Most people in China store names in cell phones, but I told him I hadn’t yet mastered that technology and showed him I only have a few names in my phone (that were inputed by others). But I had memorized my wife’s phone number, I gave him that. I had also memorized the number for the department of philosophy’s administrative office, and I gave him that. He took those numbers and went to another room.

A few minutes later, the leader returned, and I guessed that he hadn’t gotten through to any of my contacts. My wife, a busy lawyer, often won’t answer calls if she’s in a meeting. And it was nearly six p.m.; the administrative officer in our department must have left for home. The leader asked me if I knew the numbers of any of my colleagues. I said no, again, I have them at home. I was about to say why don’t we walk over to my home and I’ll give you the numbers, but I realized that would have been a silly request. He left the room again with other soldiers.

Now I was alone with a couple of soldiers, including a pleasant looking young man seated on a desk across from my chair. I told him my story in more detail, then I realized that I also had my father-in-law’s phone number in my cell phone (he had recovered his speech and had phoned me the day before, and I could retrieve his number from the “received calls” listings in my phone). Excitedly, I told the young soldier that I could give them my father-in-law’s number. But he kindly responded that we should not bother him in his state.

The leader returned and judging by his facial expression I knew things were better. He had gotten through to my wife (who subsequently told me that she tried to find out where I was being detained and was told something vague about the military). He also told me that he had gotten through to the international office at Tsinghua, and they would send a car to pick me up. According to procedure, my “work-unit” needs to pick me up and I’d have to wait. He lightened up a bit and told me that I could phone my wife and tell her things were OK. I apologized again for trespassing, trying out a pun that it was incorrect (budui 不对) for me to walk into a military installation (budui部队). Nobody laughed. The leader replied that foreigners are not supposed to be wandering around military installations, aren’t there such places in Canada? I said, yes, of course (actually, I don’t know). I phoned my wife, speaking in Chinese (we usually speak in English, but I didn’t want them to get suspicious). The leader left with his soldiers, and I knew that my “ordeal” was basically over. I hadn’t felt threatened or intimidated at any time, but it was still a relief.

Alone with the young soldier–with three stars on his collar–and his companion, I was asked about my family in Canada. I told him my father had passed away but my mother lives in Montreal, my home town. He replied that China is a society based on emotion, and I took the implicit contrast to be Western-style cold rationality and self-interest. The Confucian saying about children not wandering too far afield while parents are alive came to mind. Somewhat defensively, I told him that I return to Montreal once a year to see my mother. He asked if I have siblings, and he seemed relieved to hear that my younger sister lives close to my mother. I told him there are many advantages to cross-cultural marriages, but one of the disadvantages is that one spouse often has to live far away from parents. In retrospect, I should have pointed out that daughters in traditional China usually left their parents for their husband’s household, with hardly ever a chance of return. At least my situation is better.

Our conversation turned to academic matters. He told me he had specialized in international relations at university but had also studied philosophy. I’d normally ask which university he had attended, but it didn’t seem appropriate for me to ask personal questions in that setting. So I asked which philosophers interested him. He said he particularly liked Sartre and existentialism. I was a bit surprised, because while existentialism was popular in the 1980s in China when the former certainties of the Cultural Revolution had been toppled, few philosophers seemed to be interested in Sartre anymore (at least in my department). He told me Sartre had visited China in the 1950s. I thought to myself that his visit didn’t have the lasting impact of earlier visits by luminaries such as Dewey, Russell, and Tagore.

The young soldier told me he had also studied Augustine, and he noted that the rigid dichotomy between the “City of God” and the “City of Man”–with the former as the site of true meaning–was quite foreign to Chinese thinking. I agreed, and mentioned that I’ve been working on the relatively this-worldly tradition of Confucianism, and thinking about its implications for contemporary society. I told him I had written an essay on Mencius and just war, arguing that Mencius’s views are still valid and defensible today. He said it’s hard to know what’s just and what’s unjust. I told him it’s not so hard to know what’s an unjust war: just think of the Nazis. He replied, Yes or like the Japanese in China. I agreed and added that if we know what’s unjust, we could also know what’s just: the struggles against the unjust ones. I added a bit about Mencius’s views on just war. He agreed that Mencius has a lot to offer, and quoted his line about “valuing the people most, then comes the gods of earth and grain, and the ruler comes last.” I asked him if Mencius is being taught at military academies, but he didn’t answer directly. We talked about justice in war and agreed that civilians should be protected from attack (it occurred to me that it’s easier for civilians like me to endorse that argument). He told me about the practice in the three kingdoms era (third century AD) of protection for an “ambassador” sent to enemy territory for negotiations during war time, which might be analogous to present day diplomatic immunity. I was impressed by his knowledge of different traditions, and wondered if a Chinese academic who had stumbled upon a secret military site in the U.S. might have this kind of conversation with an American officer.

Then the young soldier said that there are limits to just war. In the modern era, national interest comes first and may sometimes conflict with the imperatives of justice. I wanted to reply that national interest might include ethical considerations, but we were interrupted by a phone call. One of my colleagues had been sent in a taxi by Tsinghua’s international office to pick me up, but he was stuck in traffic and the driver didn’t know the way. The young soldier provided some landmarks without specifying an address. I knew we’d be “stuck” for a while, given the horrible Beijing traffic on Friday nights. I asked if I could phone my kid to let him know I wouldn’t be able to accompany him to his piano class. This time I spoke in English, not having to worry so much about what the soldiers might think.

After I put down the phone, the young soldier said he reads English but that he needs to improve his spoken English. He added that he doesn’t have many opportunities to practice his English and asked if I might have any suggestions. I said we could talk in English outside if we meet again. He replied, why, are we not having a good talk now? I felt bad that he thought I thought we weren’t really having an informal friendly chat, and told him, no, that’s not what I meant, it’s just that we could meet on other occasions so he could practice more.

To my surprise, he switched to English: and his spoken English was excellent! A very good accent and precise vocabulary, if a bit halting in the delivery, perhaps overly cautious about not making any mistakes. He asked how much we pay my son’s piano teacher. I told him the amount, and he said it was expensive, piano teachers were much cheaper in his “neighborhood” (he gestured to the surrounding buildings outside the window). I told him my son’s teacher was famous and in great demand, and hence can command a good salary. He asked about the material benefits of soldiers in the Canadian army. I told him I don’t know, but regardless of the benefits it’s a dangerous job because they are being sent to Southern Afghanistan and were suffering heavy casualties. I was about to ask if Chinese soldiers faced similar risks, but I stopped myself.

We were interrupted by another phone call, with the young soldier explaining to the other person on the line that he’d be late for dinner. I spoke to the other soldier during that time, who wanted to confirm that English is the main language in Canada. I told him I’m actually from Quebec and that my mother tongue is French. When the young soldier was done with his call, I again apologized for my mistake and delaying his dinner. He switched back to Chinese and said, stop staying that, it’s not a mistake, it’s a misunderstanding. He also told me that two other foreigners had previously stumbled upon the place. He noted they were Koreans and said it’s hard to tell them apart from the Chinese. I replied that I could tell them apart, it’s the….He interrupted me and said it’s the haircut, and I laughed in agreement. Then he smiled and said, how about if we go for dinner outside? I said, great, let’s go.

We left with the other soldier. We went into a car with a driver that was waiting for us outside the building. We drove off, and I realized it was a huge “campus.” The young soldier said, it’s big, but not as big as the Tsinghua campus. I thought to myself, this guy actually looks familiar, could he have been one of my students? I asked if he did his undergraduate degree in Beijing. He said, “masters,” without going into more detail. I didn’t press.

Finally, we arrived at the main gate. I looked around for signs, but there weren’t any. And the road was a small lane I had never seen before. Just then, my colleague arrived by taxi. I was happy to see him, but disappointed that I wouldn’t be going out for dinner with my interlocutors. My colleague gave the young soldier an official envelope from Tsinghua and shook the soldier’s hands. I also shook his hand, and told him that he has my name card, and please feel free to call me so we can chat some more.

I drove off with my colleague, through several winding lanes, and realized I’d never be able to find that secret location again. What exactly had I stumbled into? Was it just a regular military base? And would anybody believe me if I told them the story? What if it’s like the “Land of Peach Blossoms,” the idyllic village “discovered” by a fisherman in the Jin dynasty (265-420)? The local magistrate went to look for the village, but he couldn’t find it. As I ran through these possibilities, I noticed that the taxi meter showed 49 yuan, which means that they must have spent quite a bit of time looking for the place where I was being held. I thanked my colleague and told him I’d foot the bill. He said not to worry, the department would cover it.

We arrived at the military hospital and I was dropped off two hours late. I went to see my father-in-law and told him about my adventure. I was afraid he might be a bit upset, but the grizzled old revolutionary just had a good laugh.

Postscript (March 19, 2009): I wrote this piece more than a year ago. Since then I’ve take several walks up the same mountain, making sure to steer well clear of that dangerous path down to the military base. Today, I noticed that they finally got around to putting up a prominent sign at the entry to the path that says 军事禁区; 游人止步 junshi jinqu youren zhibu (“Military Base: Forbidden to Sightseers”) which is rendered in English simply as “No Visitors.” Why did it take so long to put up the sign? Perhaps there was a prolonged debate with some arguing that the military base, whatever its function, should remain secret to the point of denying that it exists (apparently the Central Party School, which is also close to my home, did not advertise itself as such until ten years ago or so). Or maybe I wasn’t the last visitor, perhaps other visitors stumbled in there and they were forced to do something about it? I doubt we’ll ever find out the answer. In any case, I had some doubts about publicizing this episode for fear of revealing the existence of a secret military installation, but now that they’ve come out of the woodworks I can too.

My father-in-law, for his part, is doing well. The left side of his body is semi-paralyzed, but he can walk slowly and his mind is active as ever. My parents-in-law had to leave our home because we live on the fourth floor of a building without elevators, but they live close by and we go there once a week for dinner. Last time, he enthusiastically showed me the latest government publication on 科学发展观 kexue fazhanguan (scientific development outlook) and I was moved that he still expends the effort to convert me to Marxism. He showed me a passage with the line “以人为本” yi ren wei ben (loose translation: “putting the people first”) and I could not resist pointing out that the passage, written in classical Chinese, owes more to Confucianism than to Marxism. My father-in-law simply nodded his head, indicating that he was already aware of that. Before he joined the communists in the early 1940s, he had had a rigorous classical education in his village school and was still familiar with the ancient texts.

Daniel A. Bell teaches political philosophy at Tsinghua University (Beijing). His latest book is China’s New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society (Princeton University Press, 2008).