China today — a big sur­prise

Au­thor re­calls trav­el­ing East decades ago, with­out see­ing the huge changes on the hori­zon, An­drew Moody re­ports.

China Daily (USA) - - LIFE - Con­tact the writer at an­drew­moody@chi­nadaily.com.cn

It was ab­so­lutely my first ex­pe­ri­ence of Asia and it kind of hooked me for life.” Chris Mullin, Bri­tish au­thor, says of his first visit to China in 1971

Chris Mullin says en­coun­ter­ing China for the first time changed his life.

The best-sell­ing au­thor and for­mer UK gov­ern­ment min­is­ter re­traces vis­it­ing the then largely im­pov­er­ished coun­try mid­way through the “cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion” (1966-76) in his new au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Hin­ter­land.

“It was one of the sem­i­nal events ofmy life re­ally. It was ab­so­lutely my first ex­pe­ri­ence of Asia and it kind of hooked me for life,” he says.

Mullin, who was speak­ing over lunch in the restau­rant of Barter Books, a huge sec­ond­hand book­shop, in Al­nwick, Northum­ber­land, says he did not fore­see then China’s emer­gence again as a ma­jor eco­nomic power.

“There was lit­tle sign of it as late as 1980, although there were some wel­come signs of sen­si­ble eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment,” he says.

His me­moir, more thought­ful than some of his other writ­ings with­out still ever tak­ing him­self too se­ri­ously, also takes in his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer, which saw him be the mem­ber of par­lia­ment for Sun­der­land in the north­east of Eng­land for 23 years as well as a min­is­ter in for­mer Bri­tish prime min­is­ter Tony Blair’s gov­ern­ment.

It also charts his writ­ing ca­reer, which in­cludes three nov­els, one of which, Year of the Fire Mon­key, is about China and an­other, A Very

Bri­tish Coup, was turned into a BAFTA and Emmy award-win­ning TV drama shown in 30 coun­tries.

His out­put also in­cludes three vol­umes of diaries.

Mullin, who has an almost old­fash­ioned cour­te­ous and kindly man­ner, is also known for his high­pro­file cam­paign­ing role in se­cur­ing the re­lease of the so-called Birm­ing­ham Six, who were wrongly ac­cused of the IRA pub bomb­ings in the city in the 1970s.

His vis­its to China and his time as a young reporter cov­er­ing the Viet­nam War were for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ences.

It was the sum­mer of 1971 when he took leave from the Mir­ror Group Train­ing Scheme, un­der which he was trained to be a jour­nal­ist, to visit China.

The trip was or­ga­nized by The So­ci­ety for An­glo-Chi­nese Un­der­stand­ing. Of the party of 18, most were stu­dents of Chi­nese at ei­ther Ox­ford or Cam­bridge.

“We set off from Moscow on a Chi­nese train that played The East

Is Red from a loud­speaker as the train pulled out of the sta­tion,” he re­calls.

“The din­ing car cor­re­sponded to which coun­try you hap­pened to be pass­ing through — which I think is the case today. So go­ing through Rus­sia, the food was ter­ri­ble — all cab­bage soup and meat­balls — and then when we got to China the food was won­der­ful and re­ally first class.”

He sold his story of the jour­ney to the New York Times, but the China he en­coun­tered then was in stark con­trast to that of today.

“China at that time was more or less closed to for­eign­ers. The Nixon visit hadn’t oc­curred at the time. It was still to come,” he says.

“If you got onto a bus, be­cause we did wan­der around on our own, peo­ple would stand up and of­fer you a seat. It was ter­ri­bly em­bar­rass­ing.”

At the Peace Ho­tel in Shang­hai he en­coun­tered a for­mer US sol­dier who had been cap­tured in the Korean War and had gone on to be an ac­tor in China.

“There was a short­age of for­eign­ers avail­able and so he used to play the big bad im­pe­ri­al­ist in all the films. He had told them he wanted a chance to play the good guy for once be­cause he was for­ever be­ing de­nounced in the streets by kids,” he re­calls.

Mullin went on to cover the Viet­nam War for the UK’s Tele­graph mag­a­zine in the early 1970s, and it was there that hemet his fu­ture wife Ngoc, who was then a stu­dent.

“The Amer­i­cans thought they were fight­ing a com­mu­nist con­spir­acy to take over the world when, in fact, all they suc­ceeded in do­ing, at the cost of blood and trea­sure, was de­lay­ing the ad­vance of mar­ket forces by a gen­er­a­tion.”

Mullin, now 68, stood down as an MP for Sun­der­land in 2010 and now lives in an es­tate house with a walled gar­den in Northum­ber­land.

His for­mer seat was one that voted most heav­ily for Brexit in the re­cent ref­er­en­dum, de­spite be­ing home to car gi­ant Nis­san, which re­lies on ac­cess to the EU sin­gle mar­ket.

“Yes they did, and no doubt Nis­san em­ploy­ees voted as tur­keys of­ten don’t do, ac­tu­ally, for Christ­mas. They can’t say they weren’t warned be­cause Nis­san did gen­tly draw their at­ten­tion to the fact they came here to get in­side the EU.”

One of the most se­nior jobs Mullin held was Africa min­is­ter.

He re­calls in the book a some­what sur­real work­ing life where he used to take the Lon­don un­der­ground to Heathrow Air­port from his Brixton flat, and then be feted as a head of state for a week when he landed some­where in Africa.

“I came out the other end with ev­ery­one talk­ing on walkie-talkies and where there were con­voys of cars and blue flash­ing lights,” he says.

Although Mullin was on the left of the Labour Party, he re­tains a high re­gard for Blair, his for­mer boss, whom he al­ways refers to as “The Man” in his diaries.

“He was prob­a­bly the out­stand­ing po­lit­i­cal leader of my life­time. His tragedy was that he was linked um­bil­i­cally to the worst Amer­i­can pres­i­dent of my life­time, with the con­se­quences we all know about.”

Mullin, who has been back to China twice since his first visit, re­tains a strong in­ter­est in Asia.

He is think­ing se­ri­ously about tak­ing again the jour­ney by rail from Moscow to China that he did in 1971.

“I would like to see the places we were taken to and see how they have de­vel­oped since,” he says.

He is wor­ried about the speed of de­vel­op­ment in Asia, which he sees in both Viet­nam and China, and its ef­fect on the en­vi­ron­ment.

“We are con­sum­ing re­sources on the planet as if there is no to­mor­row. If we carry on do­ing that, there will be no to­mor­row,” he says.

He is still continuing to write his diary and is aim­ing to pub­lish a fourth vol­ume bringing him up to 2020.

“It will cover the pe­riod of my re­tire­ment. I didn’t think life could fea­si­bly be as in­ter­est­ing now but I re­al­ized af­ter a while I was wrong,” he says.

“I keep a lit­tle red note­book— the sort I have in my pocket here at the mo­ment — and then I type it up at the week­ends.”

NICK J.B. MOORE / FOR CHINA DAILY

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Mullin’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy re­traces his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer and his jour­ney to China decades ago.

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