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Nations, being spied on and paranoia

The windows shattered a few feet away from me and the stranger, a blonde, petite young lass dressed stylishly for revolution in South Africa, 1990. A horde of people charged towards us amid the thud of rubber bullets and teargas smeared our faces. It was the day of Mandela’s release and first appearance in the city square in Cape Town and as we saw the crowds charging down on us, fleeing the police and perhaps the looters barging into shops, we instinctively hugged each other.

Ohhhh, sweet mercy, for a moment there I felt like Tom Cruise meeting the mysterious, sexy new heroine in some Mission Impossible shenanigan. Or perhaps we could have been in a scene from Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a book and movie which was all the arty students’ rage in the late Eighties. However, she and I were unable to engage in any further gratuitous romance, opting to run for dear life in the general direction of Adderley Street.

“That incident would have been filmed and the Intel filed,” more than one South African “Intelligence” type I have met since then has solemnly informed me. “The whole area would have been under close scrutiny for snipers and the looting could easily have been the distraction, preventing agents from doing their job: protecting Mandela and Co.” The first security policeman type who indicated this to me was a raw-looking unshaven Dutchman who drove me home after my car was stoned during a rioting incident about that time near Langa High, a “black township” school I was teaching in at the time. He turned and looked at me, “your info will be kept on file,” he chuckled, Dutch blue eyes glinting through a frost of heavy drinking, his eyes looking me over the way a butcher ponders how to cut the freshly slaughtered buck. That man unnerved me and he was surely used for all sorts of “dirty tricks” clandestine ops. He dropped me off at home and I am glad I never saw him again.

“Mao Zedong caused many problems … ” I think I heard the man muttering to me here in Suzhou, China, as I sat in the cobble-stoned park of our apartment block. I often sit on a bench here in the evenings and watch the Chinese do Tai Chi, play with their children and go about their evening affairs. The Suzhou people, unlike the Shanghai people, love to come and actually chat to me, instead of ignoring me. The young man had walked up to me, wearing what looked like the garb of a petrol attendant and the green sneakers commonly worn during the Cultural Revolution.

I became paranoid when I heard the petrol attendant use the chilling words, “Mao Zedong”, a “personage” still regarded as something of a “god-man” among many Chinese, as discussed in my book Cracking China. Chinese as a rule never discuss internal politics with outsiders, especially a dead leader some of them hate and some still worship. I looked around, wondering if he had been sent on purpose as a surveillance exercise to find out what this newly arrived foreigner or waiguoren had to say about politics in China. Immediately I thought of those paranoid times when Mandela was released and a new SA was slowly, painfully, birthing.

The petrol attendant’s uninvited, in-depth talk about a sensitive area of recent Chinese history with a waiguoren (thus doubly as stranger) sounded the warning bells in me. I mostly just listened to him, trying to follow what he was saying. I think I gleaned: “Mao bad for our culture.” “Americans should have tried to stop him.” Then, more gently, “Mao came from Sichuan province,” and I steered the conversation away from super-sensitive politics to discuss the spicy Sichuan food, which I love, but deliberately failed to mention that I understand Uncle Mao was born in Henan province, whose fiery, less oily cuisine I prefer to even Sichuan food and can wolf down by the bucket.

I was wondering why we two strangers were having this high-powered conversation when he appeared to not know where the Chairman was born. Was he deliberately testing me to see if I knew where the “god-man” came from and therefore that I knew a lot more than I was letting on?

I tried another line, asking, “I am told Mao could not really understand Mandarin and only used his local dialect?” (Or so I have read, and that villages even twenty miles away from where he grew up used another dialect he and his fellow villagers also could not follow, which I can believe from my experiences with communication in China.) The petrol attendant’s eyes glittered as he looked at me with a smile. “Yes, he did not always use Mandarin,” he replied, somewhat ambivalently or euphemistically. Well … did Mao understand and use Mandarin or not, as far as our ostensible petrol attendant was concerned? To answer simply, “He could not speak Mandarin,” opens up dangerous innuendos. This would include Mao’s education or lack thereof, and therefore question his suitability to steer and “transform” for decades a mammoth country. Not knowing much Mandarin would suggest Mao was a philistine, with no grasp of 文 明, wen ming, usually translated as culture or civilisation. 文 明 is a slogan often emblazoned on stones in parks in bright red and most certainly in any school.

The petrol attendant man came to a halt in his conversation after I steered us in the safer direction of the current premier, Hu Jin Tao, asking where he was born. “Anhui province,” the man replied, then nodded at me as I said, “I must go home.”

Perhaps paranoid was not the right word. But I have no doubt from various experiences I am watched here. On a slightly different note it is sobering to look at the many steps required to get into a country via an airport if you are not a citizen. Arriving in China a few weeks ago was no exception: our passports were scanned in while a camera took a snapshot of me which was then compared on the same screen with the photo in my passport. I had to sign a form declaring where I would be staying and my visa was examined by some scanner. One or two police dogs pulled their owners along the long queues. Sadly, getting into most countries these days is not much different. Paranoia is so endemic in nations these days it is as natural as having skin.

We don’t necessarily know we are paranoid, but we are.

Become an essentially stateless or homeless traveller like me for the last seven or so years, and well, you become an objective outsider noticing others’ paranoia, and your own, through a globe-trotting lens I find hard to describe.

Never before in all my five years in different parts of China have I had a conversation about her internal politics with a Chinese citizen. The Chinese extremely rarely talk to waiguoren about that.

As I strolled home, nearby there’s a canal with the bright memory of a flower seller I saw that afternoon on its bridge leading to our home: a potato-skinned, grinning woman in the middle of a splash of carnations, freesias and sweet smelling stocks. The memory-splash gives a hue to the last of that evening, the way all memories give a hue to events, often without our knowing it.

My memories of that paranoid time when Madiba was released colours my experiences of perhaps innocent strangers here in China. The late light lingers on the ash-blown street and people’s shoes are leaves pattering on the rain-polished paving as I take my last meander before going home to where Marion is preparing dinner. In the distance the buses’ metal and rubber clash on the streets. In the distance the paranoia jars through my memories, shapes unexpected meetings like these.

This article first appeared on Rod’s “The Mocking Truth” column on NewsTime


  • Rod MacKenzie

    CRACKING CHINA was previously the title of this blog. That title was used as the name for Rod MacKenzie's second book, Cracking China: a memoir of our first three years in China. From a review in the Johannesburg Star: " Mackenzie's writing is shot through with humour and there are many laugh-out-loud scenes". Cracking China is available as an eBook on Amazon Kindle or get a hard copy from His previous book is a collection of poetry,Gathering Light. A born and bred South African, Rod now lives in Auckland, New Zealand, after a number of years working in southern mainland China and a stint in England. Under the editorship of David Bullard and Michael Trapido he had a column called "The Mocking Truth" on NewsTime until the newszine folded. He has a Master's Degree in Creative Writing from the University of Auckland. if you are a big, BIG publisher you should ask to see one of his many manuscript novels. Follow Rod on Twitter @