Amid the plethora of China memoirs by Western writers over the years, this new one set in Shanghai from 1978 to 1979 stands out a little because it takes place during a time of transition in China. But Anne E McLaren’s Slow Train to Democracy is more than just a record of her time in China or the transition; it’s an account of a little-known democracy movement in Shanghai —around the time the government coined the term “socialism with Chinese characteristics”—that was eclipsed by Tiananmen a decade later.
McLaren witnessed and recorded the Shanghai poster movement as a student at Fudan University at a time when only 21 other foreign students lived in the city and months before the first American students were allowed to study in China; for the most part she was the only Australian.
As a PhD student in China for research, McLaren met Chinese students who spoke about politics and the recent changes in China. The Gang of Four had been arrested just a couple years earlier and Deng Xiaoping was wrestling for power with Hua Guofeng. While McLaren writes about the impending re-establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the US, the Sino-US relationship is not central to her story. Instead, she mostly covers the Shanghai poster movement in 1978-1979 that mainly took place on public bulletin boards. Unusually early and unusually neither American nor British, her account lends diversity to the corpus of expat China memoirs.
Posters mattered. Before the advent of the internet, Chinese newspapers were displayed for public viewing each day in glass-encased bulletin boards on the street and on campuses. While the newspapers were all state-run, the bulletin board area provided a natural space for protest posters that would be sure to gain an audience as people clustered to read the news on these bulletin boards anyway. These protest posters exemplified the openness in China at a time when people felt free to speak out against the failed policies over the previous two decades; the government allowed and even encouraged criticism of the Gang of Four, arrested two years earlier.
The poster movement began as Beijing acknowledged the 5 April 1976 Tiananmen crackdown that had begun as a student memorial to Zhou Enlai after his death earlier that year. The memorial ended in a violent police crackdown—McLaren writes that many were killed and thousands injured—until the change of messaging in 1978 it had been labelled as “counter-revolutionary”. It was in Shanghai more than Beijing that demonstrators took action when the government recognized the crackdown as such. Some people surely remembered Shanghai’s pre-1949 uniquely open lifestyle. The Shanghai activists in the late 1970s marched along the Bund and set up soapboxes in People’s Square.
In late November 1978, the BBC reported on the poster movement:
Deng is said to have officially disapproved of posters criticizing Mao, but such posters are still continuing. In a further news item, one learns that Chinese from the mainland are flooding into Hong Kong at an alarming rate—about three hundred a day.
Other reforms were occurring in China at this time. Departments of politics were formed in universities and dancing on college campuses was allowed for the first time in decades. McLaren also chronicles China’s war with Vietnam at the beginning of 1979, which ended almost as soon as it started. The poster movement was however squashed by the government by April 1979, lasting only six months. Whether by coincidence or otherwise, it ended just after the first Americans were arriving in the city.
McLaren’s quick observations about the impending influx of Americans are fascinating. Besides the democracy movement—which was in fact rather a short period in which students and other activists joined together to call for more freedoms—her book title refers more to her many lengthy train trips. On one such train journey between Shanghai and Hong Kong—taking a whopping 33 hours each way—she wrote the following in December 1978:
American recognition is bound to make a deep impression on Chinese society. A new building at Fudan is being built to hold existing foreign students and the large number of Americans expected next year. This is to be a self-contained building with its own foreign canteen, class-rooms and small shops—nothing but the best for the Americans! At the moment foreigners dine in the university canteen (really grotty—a real shock when I first saw it!) and our class-rooms are in the same building as the Chinese department.
Among the first foreign students in Shanghai, McLaren experienced Shanghai in a way that differs from that of many who came after her. She fastidiously followed the democracy poster movement and copied the characters on the posters one by one over a period of half a year. Her book is structured in a journal-like fashion, including excerpts from many of the posters she transcribed and how they evolved each day. While she doesn’t mention translating the posters into English, one assumed she did: she was in Shanghai then to study Chinese.
In an epilogue that takes place in 1986, seven years later, she notices great changes in the city. People’s Square, site of many of the 1978-79 democracy posters, had since moved to the old racetrack. Yet McLaren noticed the protest movement remained alive and well.