The reputation of Jaime A. FlorCruz as TIME and CNN journalist and longtime China exile precedes him—and of course, comes naturally into play in his newly launched book, The Class of ’77: How my classmates changed China (Earnshaw Books Ltd., Hong Kong, 2022). It does not disappoint.
It is a fascinating memoir that weaves the personal story of the author’s decades-long exile and professional career as journalist, his inevitable China-watching covering the dramatic shifts in the country’s growth with the significant rise and fall of leaders—today iconic and idolized, tomorrow best forgotten—and the story of the historic class of 1977 at Peking University that FlorCruz was part of.
How can such a rich background not provide priceless material for such a book as this? All that allows the reader to read and appreciate the book on different levels—as memoir, as primer on Chinese history and politics, as excellent example of journalism and storytelling.
The year 1977 was a milestone in Chinese history with a huge impact on Chinese education, because this was the very first time in 12 years that college students were admitted based on academic credentials, upon passing the gaokao, meaning high or top test, the national college entrance exams. With the adoption of gaokao came renewed hope for the future, especially for the youth previously disenfranchised because of family background that had them perceived as being enemies of the State.
The class of 1977 did not graduate that year, but in 1982. They entered college and made a name for themselves as leaders in politics, education, military, business, arts and culture. They were referred to as the “lost generation,” highly capable students denied higher education during the Cultural Revolution. They were more capable than the worker-peasant-soldier students who did not have to take qualifying exams. Truly, they comprised the core in the rebuilding of the new China.
There is a special mention, with an unmistakable touch of snobbery, when the author uses “Peking University,” not “Beijing University,” even if Beijing is now the official transliteration of the city “Peking.” The insistence on Peking University speaks of the university’s proud origin and beginnings in 1898 during the Manchu regime which was then attempting reforms in imperial China. Its well-known and accepted nickname today is Beida, considered the equivalent of Harvard in China.
The school’s well-known and accepted nickname today is Beida, considered the equivalent of Harvard in China
When FlorCruz went to enroll as freshman in the Class of 1977, he noticed that the students on campus were older, referred to as the worker-peasant-soldier college students, said to be the last batch of that cohort with the introduction of the gaokao. Admission into Beida was a dream come true for him. He writes, “If I had been in the wrong place at the wrong time on August 21, 1971, this time I was in the right place at the right time, seated in the front row witnessing a superpower’s awakening and rise.” (August 21, 1971 was the day his supposed three-week study tour of China began, with a delegation of Filipino student activists.)
The stories of the members of Class 77 are truly book material for their diversity and their being exemplars of the school spirit, “Conquer or die.” There was Bo Xilai, who would become a “political superstar” transforming a large city and a province with economic success. Wang Juntao, one of the youngest enrollees and a whiz in nuclear science, would turn to politics and become an “evangelist of democracy,” ending up in jail and exile in the US. Li Keqiang became China’s premier, who would become the second most powerful person in the country.
It was this strong school spirit and extraordinary energy that also explained “how a man with the surname FlorCruz ended up as one of the most visible foreign journalists operating in China.”
How the gaokao entailed great sacrifice for aspiring students and transformed lives is stranger than fiction. The examinations were likened in a Chinese aphorism to “tens of thousands of soldiers and horses all squeezing over a bridge made of a single log.” While the opportunity was welcome, there was much ambivalence about taking it. Another member of the class, Bai Weiji, was working in a car manufacturing plant when the gaokao was announced and his mother felt it was better for him to be a factory worker all his life. Chen Yanni had resigned herself to life in the countryside, fated to work as janitor or street sweeper in the city. Passing the exam “gave me a second chance.”
Beida stood its ground when Chairman Mao’s grandson, Mao Xinyu, tried to enter Beida unsuccessfully
A story they, successful Beida enrollees, cherish is how Beida stood its ground when, in 1988, Chairman Mao’s grandson, Mao Xinyu, tried to enter Beida unsuccessfully, despite the family’s clout and record of having three generations of Beida graduates. The school’s final word to resolve the issue referred to Beida’s free spirit and that “we will be unable to ensure his safety if he enrolls here.”
Not all were happy success stories at Beida. Not all could cope with the academic and peer pressure, like the promising student who scored among the top 10 in the gaokao in his home province. After failing four make-up exams to avoid expulsion, he simply disappeared on campus—not long after, his floating body was found in Weiming Lake.
A recurring theme of FlorCruz’s book centers on “turning a bad thing into a good thing” and “turning adversity into opportunity.” This became important, encouraging, and life-changing maxims when it became more and more apparent that a trip back home would be impossible under the dictator’s regime. He decided to immerse himself in studying Mandarin, earning a degree in the language and translation from the Beijing Languages Institute, qualifying him for admission during that critical year of 1977. It allowed him to catch up with the world beyond China. “I felt like Rip Van Winkle waking from his stupor.”
FlorCruz’s own phenomenal success story, transforming his years of exile during which he honed his mastery of not only the language but also Chinese studies, its complex politics and history, is a sterling example of the adversity-into-opportunity motto. It was reminiscent too of the black-and-white banner at Mao’s funeral that admonished all to “Turn grief into strength.” Didn’t he, with his fellow unrelenting exiles, also say that they were young enough (then) to outlive the dictator, which they did? But first they had to learn to live in China.
FlorCruz’s memoir exemplifies the principles he teaches in “China and Media Matters” at Beida’s School of Journalism and Communications, where he is adjunct professor. He teaches them about “the power of words and sound and images,” and what makes for good storytelling, of which there are ready examples in his book. In the maze of often confusing and perplexing Chinese names and places, the author deftly assembled his decades-long experiences and China’s political changes and upheavals into a most readable narrative. I need to call particular attention to his masterful shift from the chronology of his life events to the various life stages of his Beida classmates and to the sequence of the rise and fall of China’s most revered.
‘How can one person have so much bad luck in life and love?’
Readers will definitely enjoy his sense of humor and his candor even as he talks of his major heartbreaks with Chinese girlfriends, who inevitably left him because such relationships with foreigners were frowned upon. He openly refers to loves lost, and one can’t help but smile even as he is beyond understanding how a Chinese girlfriend could ever choose “career opportunity over love” and abandon him and China for a scholarship in an American university. It was another broken heart, another farewell. “How can one person have so much bad luck in life and love?”
This aspect of his life, of course, finds a happy resolution when he won the heart of a Filipina, Ana Segovia, who would be his wife. He first spotted her on a brief Manila visit, and proceeded to woo her in Beijing.
His youth in Malolos, Bulacan, his seeming lack of ambition—his sole dream being to marry a pretty girl and to drive a red Mustang—was a complete contrast to his sudden celebrity status in China as a non-Chinese speaking fluent Mandarin and singing English songs. He became popular for guitar-playing, then considered in revolutionary China as “exotic and attention-grabbing,” and for his repertoire of revolutionary songs.
The finger-pointing—a kind of witch-hunt— during the Cultural Revolution, he describes thus—“all to prove that the accuser was Redder than Thou.” Describing the austere dorm facilities—and yet, as a foreign student, his quarters were several notches better than those of Chinese students—where the hot shower schedule coincided with dinner time, a British dorm mate had bantered, “Wash and starve, or eat and smell.”
‘Learning the history of China was like watching a magician dipping into a box of props’
As student of contemporary history, he noticed early on how historical figures were deleted and then brought back from documents and photographs. Why, even paintings were retouched to represent the current political climate. He had seen how the supposed “military genius” Lin Biao was hailed in 1971. Yet in 1972 Lin was airbrushed, literally, out of history after reportedly staging a failed coup. FlorCruz writes, “Learning the history of China was like watching a magician dipping into a box of props. Now you see it, then presto, everything was gone or transformed by sleight of hand.”
He describes the learning in most Beida classes as a painful process which the students fittingly called “teaching the force-fed Peking duck way,” alluding to the practice of farmers fattening up their birds to be served in restaurants. Students took copious notes which they were supposed to give back on exam booklets.
He witnessed how the political climate had changed when dancing was no longer considered politically incorrect or a form of bourgeois decadence. How the students enjoyed this, even as “we waltzed under the gaze of massive portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Mao.” What a contradiction, it seemed, though days later, students at Beida and other colleges would spread the word that “it was now fine to tango in socialist China.”
When dancing was no longer considered ‘bourgeois decadence,’ ‘we waltzed under the gaze of massive portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Mao’
Remembering how cassette tapes of O Sole Mio, Auld Lang Syne, and Blue Danube were popular, he says a mere few years ago, they would have been arrested for indulging in “bourgeois trash” and music that “saps revolutionary will.” He adds, “I’m sure there’s a way to dance the Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman, a paean to Chairman Mao’s greatness—but it wouldn’t have been fun.”
He takes pains to describe the lovely campus of Beida and Weiming Lake, China’s centuries-old structures, and the distinct landscapes that drove artists to unforgettable art and poetry. He writes a particularly lyrical description of the pine and cypresses, pavilions and gazebos, and “bathing the Imperial Palace’s yellow-tiled roofs and crimson walls with soft fading light.” This was the same backdrop that led him, nay, inspired him to contemplate life and memories that led to such a book.
At the end of FlorCruz’s account, one is touched by his Postscript where he writes that after five decades in China, he remains truly Filipino but indebted to what he considers his second home for the worlds it has opened up for him. It is a sentimental journey back to his beloved Beida, which welcomed him back as professor for a semester a year.
He turns meditative as he seeks refuge on a bench up a small hill next to the lake on campus, not far from the tomb of Edgar Snow, the American journalist considered “a friend of the Chinese people.” FlorCruz cannot help but also think of himself like Snow, a man who belonged in a sense to two countries. “I am a Filipino who found myself in a troubled China and have lived to see it prosper in the world even as it struggles to find its modern soul.”
As the author said in an FB post, there was no better way to mark a 70th birthday. Certainly not a bad product from a “wayward” son whose parents once worried about his academic standing and the lack of the impressive college diplomas that the rest of the five siblings had. Dedicated to his grandchildren, it is a precious legacy of an unusual family story for every reader, for all of us.
‘The Class of ’77: How my classmates changed China’ is available on Amazon and Kindle.