China 1976, And My Hunt For The Coronavirus Origin Story
Our Slovenian writer's bygone trip through a China still not plugged into the global economy reveals some clues for how the pandemic has brought us to this point.
This is a strange time. We are locked in our homes and in our thoughts. We try to touch the outside world and aspects of our lives with video chats and phone calls. We can stare at old photos, read messages from friends, and share memories on social media without leaving our room. We can do all that or we can dive into the coronavirus news updates and go insane. To be honest, it is nearly impossible to ignore what is happening in the world at this moment. This Yonder entry will attempt to explain where it all began. It is my version of the story about how the coronavirus was conceived.
At the end of 1976, I boarded the Trans-Siberian train in Irkutsk headed to Beijing. Thanks to a skillful currency exchange in Moscow, I paid only a small amount of money for the first-class car, which included a shower, an armchair and a never-ending supply of black tea and wafers. There were only two of us in the dining car, with borsch ad infinitum. It felt like sitting atop the agonizing Russian Empire itself, speeding past on the large railway tracks; an obsolete luxury with a shortage of supply. Outside it was freezing, but Lake Baikal was stunning, with magnificent pine trees watching us from ashore.
I remembered my father, who would have loved to have one of those Baikal pines in his garden. When he died, my younger brother, a landscaper, planted one over his grave. Where did my father's desire for the Siberian pine tree come from? As children, we hiked the mountains with him. Moreover, he was born in the karst area of Slovenia, a place that has pines. Was that it? I will never know. He died when I was 10. The thought disturbed me. I was so far away from home, learning my first Chinese lesson in a first-class car, watching the artistically formed crowns of pine trees shaped by the constant wind.
After nearly two days, the train stopped at the Russian border. It was a long stop since the Soviets needed to adjust the train wheels to fit the standard size of the rail tracks that the Chinese and the rest of the world were using. As we waited, I was searched by Soviet customs officers. I planned on living in China for a couple of years, and I did not want to be there without reading. But my books were in several languages and the officers wanted to make sure there was nothing they would not like. Five of them came into my cabin, one for each language. I could barely suppress a giggle as they tried to read my handwritten notes. Oh god, let me get to China, I thought as the officers tried to convince me to stay in the Soviet Union. The schools there were supposedly better than the ones in China, they said.
She asked us to leave the train and get a vaccine.
After everything was done and no one changed their mind, the train continued on its way toward China. Half an hour later, when it was dark outside, the train stopped at the Chinese border. Was it at Manzhouli? The station was a small countryside building that seemed to have been newly repainted. Everything was perfectly clean, and there were two flower lawns on each side of the building. I recall being surprised at this since it was the middle of winter. There was some calligraphy on the building, but who knows what it spelled out. What I saw was cute and childish at the same time, but compared to the brutality of Russia a few miles behind us, this place was heartful, a burst of life.
We were approached by a young Chinese girl in a padded jacket, large baggy pants, and a fur hat on her head, braids peeking out below. There was a large smile on her face. Later on, we discovered she was a People's Liberation Army soldier. We handed over our passports, filled out health and customs declaration forms, and she asked us to leave the train and get a vaccine.
I can't remember if we had any discussions about immunizations prior to this, but there should have been one since we took all possible precautions before leaving Yugoslavia. I found my diary from that day and it says I got a smallpox vaccine, which is something we all received as children back home. However, when asked to get it again, I consented without much objection. I was happy to be in China and did not want my first encounter with this new country to go badly. I told my travel companion that I was certain I would fall in love in China and all its irresistible beauty and energy.
As we walked into the station, border personnel seated us in what was supposed to be the waiting room but looked more like a tea room. It was very neat, or gemutlich as the Germans would say. There were a few young people hanging around, but it was impossible to figure out their role since they were all dressed in the same Mao dresses — the kind of uniforms that only the army wears today. They were all laughing and seemed happy. We were getting the vaccine in a separate room, divided off by a hanging bedsheet. My Slovenian travel companion fainted at the sight of his own blood, but the barefoot doctors reacted with no panic, laughing even more.
After the vaccine, they sat us down in comfortable armchairs and served us tea. I tried to orient myself; there was a particular rubber smell to the soil, and the air of the unknown country was filled with the pleasant scent of tobacco. We were offered cigarettes, they were passed out as a small gesture of generosity. In reality, it was a small act of corruption; an investment. I inhaled one cigarette and this time it was I who almost passed out.
During my first hour in China, I noticed that compared to the Russians, the Chinese had no notion of personal space. They touched each other easily, sitting very close to each other. They began to talk to us in English. I realized it was less because they were curious about us and more because they wanted the opportunity to practice their English. China was opening. That was the most recent Party order everyone had to obey. But we learned about this later. On that day, I forgot about the vaccine. China seemed fun and the food in the dining car from the Chinese border to Beijing was a dream compared to what we had gotten on the Russian side.
Beijing in 1976 — Photo: Heinz Bunse/Wikimedia Commons
How was this possible? China was poorer than the Soviet Union! With fewer means, China somehow gave the impression of a well-functioning country. My mind was boggled. I realized that I was traveling to a place where I would have to reset many things. My life was great before I got on that train, but I was ready to take a step further. My first impression promised a great adventure into the unknown, beginning with smells, sounds, colors, landscapes, food, language and other elements of culture in general. I soon understood that Claude Lévi-Strauss was not a key in unlocking this new, unknown encounter. I will have to decode this by myself, I thought. The cultural impact grew stronger with every mile the train rattled past on its way through the Inner Mongolian plains.
I did not know then, that I, like other students already in Beijing, was a kind of bottle opener for China. We were all there to serve a purpose, not as missionaries but as part of the new opening. We were there to serve as a message to the Chinese. We were the foreigners, the virus of the outside world, suddenly reappearing in a country that had just lived through two decades of total isolation. We were the messengers, very young and not the soldiers, not the priests and yet, we were "the other" that existed outside of the uniformed Maoist world. But we were too young to understand the role we had in the opening of China.
Beijing was the collector, a recruiting center for all the foreign students from the entire world except the United States. The Americans were not there yet, as China still had a Party relationship with Albania and North Korea, and Beijing could simply not switch from Marxism-Leninism to Wall Street immediately. The jump would be too big, and nobody would understand it. The fact that China now had students from revisionist Yugoslavia was already a daring move, a strong signal.
Yet, for someone like me, who before China did not think politically, Beijing was overwhelming. It was a world that still woke up to strokes of an International anthem blaring over the loudspeakers, a sharp contrast to the division of the foreign students into groups according to the Maoist ideology of the division of the world, with western countries at the top of the hierarchy. China was searching for a new identity as it had done before after the fall of the last dynasty in 1911.
Things started to move fast.
When Mao died on Sept. 9, 1976, a universe collapsed and the fight for power began. In the few weeks after his death, Mao's wife and three extreme leftist politicians — the gang of four — were arrested. The fraction of the Party that wanted reforms and a stronger China won. Things started to move fast. On Jan. 1, 1979, the United States was back in China. The Vatican was not. Deng Xiaoping toured the United States and loved it. That marked the time for me to return home. My experiment had come to an end, but I was sad to leave so many new good friends behind and around the world. China continued to open and prosper. The 80s were happy times until the Tiananmen massacre happened in 1989.
That was when the deal was done. The Communist Party ordered the army to shoot down the voice of fervent democracy. Thousands of people, mostly students, died in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. China sacrificed its best to turn toward the rudest form of capitalism. Exploitation, inequality, privileges, and enrichment replaced the Communist Manifesto.
The United States was happy to finance the plan, transferring much of its venture capital and production to China. That was the virus that eliminated the regulation, the social mechanisms of surveillance of the new development. The Chinese soldiers killed the voice of civil society. The Party and Wall Street worked hand in hand, promoting new economic models for faster-growing profits. The capital of the free world flooded into the most populated, and one of the poorest countries in the world. The international capital and the Communist Party were the deadly combinations for human society.
The global economy was supposed to solve all the problems of this planet. Instead, it increased the greed, pollution, inequality, climate change, caused financial markets to crash and the erosion of healthcare systems around the world. So when it comes to the virus, the United States and China should once and for all sit down together and clean the shit they have created with full accountability. If they do not do this, viruses will continue to come.
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