On August 30, 1977, two Boeing 707s landed at the Beijing Capital International Airport. They looked huge on the tarmac, next to the small airport hall that had been built in 1959 under the orders of Mao Zedong to mark the tenth anniversary of the foundation of the People’s Republic. By the time the two planes landed, Mao had been dead for a year and the arrival of foreign jets to the capital had become more frequent. There were other changes in the capital of the country that had isolated itself since the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. In October 1976 — one month after Zedong’s death, the “Gang of Four,” — the group of radical ideologues (including Mao’s wife) who pushed the Cultural Revolution to its extreme — were arrested. With Mao confined in his crystal coffin in the huge mausoleum underneath Tiananmen Square, and with the Four imprisoned, China virtually ended the turmoil created by the Cultural Revolution that Mao had unleashed on the country.
The Cultural Revolution began with an attack on Mao’s political enemies 50 years ago. But once his biggest rivals — such as Liu Shaoqi and Peng Dehuai — were out of power, Mao started to enjoy the idolatry that Chinese youth projected onto him. Young men and women adored the great leader who told them not to go to school, who enabled them to travel freely around the country and enjoy large amounts of power. They worshipped Mao so much that he started to believe in his own supernatural power and behaved like a divinity who could command the whole country. He believed that he was strong enough to control any situation, so he let the youngsters loose. He entrusted the country to the younger generation — the Red Guards who for a decade terrorized the educated, wealthy, internationally connected or otherwise experienced middle-aged and elderly generations. There was no mercy for anyone who refused the rays of the Red Sun of China, which came packaged in the Little Red Book and branded as Mao Zedong Thought. Luckily, the situation in China did not go as far as it did in Cambodia, but the cruelty of the Pol Pot regime was inspired by Maoism. That regime committed some of the greatest horrors that any ideology has ever produced in this world.
But with one dictator dead — with one extremist movement at its end — two jets with the words “Yugoslav Airlines” written across their bodies brought another dictator to China: Josip Broz Tito, the then-79-year-old Marshal of Yugoslavia, Secretary General of the Yugoslav Communist Party and the president of the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia — a war hero, a co-founder (with Nehru and Nasser) of the Non-Aligned Movement, a pal of Churchill and a friend of Richard Burton. A person who watched two movies a day, but who was also a locksmith and a man who loved women, gold and good drink. Yes — all this was standing on the jet that sat at the tarmac of the tiny Beijing airport. It was a sunny August afternoon, and Tito was looking down the stairs, onto the unfamiliar crowd of people in a place that looked like the middle of the nowhere — a flat, dull countryside. The place Tito always said he did not want to go to.
The reason for Tito’s distaste for China was Mao’s dogmatic opinion of Yugoslav socialism — and of him:
People have seen how in Yugoslavia, although the Tito clique still displays the banner of “socialism”, a bureaucratic bourgeoisie opposed to the Yugoslav people has gradually come into being since the Tito clique took the road of revisionism, transforming the Yugoslav state from a dictatorship of the proletariat into the dictatorship of the bureaucrat bourgeoisie and its socialist public economy into state capitalism. Now people see the Khrushchev clique taking the road already travelled by the Tito clique. Khrushchev looks to Belgrade as his Mecca, saying again and again that he will learn from the Tito clique’s experience and declaring that he and the Tito clique “belong to one and the same idea and are guided by the same theory”. This is not at all surprising.
Yet Tito walked down the steps of the plane convinced that he could put a definite end to the Cultural Revolution. Now that Mao had died and Yugoslavia was no longer a revisionist country, Tito — given his good relationship with Western countries — could offer China an ideological bridge to the West. Even more than talking to the temporary president, Hua Guofeng — who acted as the chief of protocol — Tito was eager to talk to the “little big man,” Deng Xiaoping, who had been restored to power just a few months before the visit and was once again running the show in Beijing. Deng and Tito both disliked Mao in the same way. Yet, since the two communist parties were formally rebuilding their relationship, courtesy required that Tito had formal talks with Hua, who was the secretary of China’s Communist Party. Meanwhile, being sick and old, the major ideologue of Yugoslav communists, Edvard Kardelj, stayed at home. For this reason, the tallest and strongest radio antenna in town was built on the lawn of the Yugoslav embassy. Since there was no internet at the time, radio was the only way to keep in contact with the master ideologue who was sitting at home, I was told. Did Tito ever talk to Kardelj from Beijing, or was the big antenna just a product of the mythomania of Yugoslavia’s protocol at the time — something that the secret service needed to do to impress China? We will never know.
But one trusted diplomat who had been a member of the delegation told me that at the crucial point of negotiations, Deng Xiaoping ordered Hua Guofeng to leave the room and continued alone with Tito.
The whole thing was impressive. I was in Beijing studying language and philosophy, but since China was still in intellectual hibernation, politics were the best amusement to be had during my free time.
In 1977, China was still experiencing strict repression from its government — sexual and otherwise. No tight pants, no heavy covers on the bed. In order to justify the lack of chocolate, the authorities advised Chinese citizens against it. Not only tight pants, but chocolate, too, created sexual arousal! Vigilant citizens and the police were always after couples hiding in the bushes. The doors of our dorms were locked at night for security reasons. “There is still a class enemy somewhere outside,” echoed one of the most frequent slogans of the Cultural Revolution.
For a whole year after the official end of the Cultural Revolution, we witnessed a march in the opposite direction of the culture promoted by Mao Zedong. Many people in China were prosecuted for crimes related to the abuse of power during the Cultural Revolution, though most former members of the Red Guards were left alone. The “instructed youth” — that is, the university students and graduates who during cultural revolution were sent to the countryside to be reeducated — started to return to the cities. The universities reopened for anyone who passed the entrance exams, not just for those who had a working-class background.
A few months after Tito’s visit, China broke its relationship with Albania, who for years had been Beijing’s closest European ally and a devoted propaganda machine. It was a decisive move away from dogmatic communism. China started to move incredibly fast. Almost too fast. There were moments when one got the feeling that the whole nation was in the awkward period of puberty.
As far as the Sino-Yugoslav relationship goes, in 1978, Hua Guofeng visited Yugoslavia and spent some time on the island of Brioni, where Tito had his summer residence. Apparently he watched quite a few movies out of Tito’s rich film archive. In 1979, a delegation from the Chinese Academy for Social Science visited Ljubljana in order to learn about the Yugoslav self-management system — one that no one really understood. It was conceived by Kardelj — the person who was supposed to sit on the other end of the wire while Tito was negotiating in Beijing. But to my surprise, the Chinese understood it. During one lunch, the head of the delegation told me that the system was too complicated to be implemented in China, but that it definitely represented the most efficient and complete control over the working class.
On January 1, 1979, China and the U.S. reopened their diplomatic relationship. There was a big party in Beijing’s International Club, which was aired on TV by some American network. Later that year, Deng Xiaoping visited America and opened up the real game, in which China became the main competitor of the United States.
Also published on Medium.