As the Beijing correspondent for The New Yorker, Evan Osnos was on the ground in China for years, witness to profound political, economic, and cultural upheaval. In Age of Ambition, he describes the greatest collision taking place in that country: the clash between the rise of the individual and the Communist Party’s struggle to retain control.
May 16, 1979
Under a sliver of moon, on an island off the coast of China, a twenty-six-year-old army captain slipped away from his post and headed for the water’s edge. He moved as calmly as possible, over the pine scrub to a ledge overlooking the shore. If his plan were discovered, he would be disgraced and executed.
Capt. Lin Zhengyi was a model soldier, one of the most celebrated young officers in the army of Taiwan, the island province ruled by opponents of the Chinese Communist Party. For three decades Taiwan had defied Communist control, and Captain Lin was a symbol of that resistance: in college, he had been a star student who’d given up a placid civilian life to join the military, a decision so rare that Taiwan’s future president made a point to shake his hand, and the picture was splashed all over the newspapers, turning Lin into a poster boy for the “Holy Counterattack,” the dream of retaking mainland China.
Lin Zhengyi (pronounced “Jung-yee”) stood nearly six feet tall, with ramrod posture, a broad, flat nose, and jug ears that protruded from the rim of his hat. His devotion had earned him the assignment to the most sensitive place on the front line: the tiny island of Quemoy, known in Mandarin as Jinmen, barely one mile, across the water, from the rocky coast of mainland China.
But Captain Lin had a secret so dangerous to him and his family that he did not dare reveal it even to his wife, who was home with their son and pregnant with their second child. Captain Lin had awoken to a sense of history gathering around him. After thirty years of turmoil, China was appealing to the people of Taiwan to reunify the “great Motherland.” Any soldier who tried to defect to the mainland would be shot on sight. The few who tried were exceedingly rare, though the consequences were vivid; the most recent case had occurred less than a month ago. But Lin had heard his calling. China would prosper again, he believed. And he would prosper with it.
In the darkness he found the sandy path that could lead him safely down a hill laden with land mines. The wind off the sea had bent the gnarled island pines. The water, a brilliant crystal green by day, was now an endless black mass, surging and withdrawing with the waves. To ward off an invasion, the beaches had been fitted with long metal spears that protruded from the sand to face the sea.
Just before the captain left the tree line for the dash to shore, he loosened the laces of his shoes and stepped barefoot onto the soil and stone. He was ready to abandon his fellow soldiers, his family, and his name.
* * *
Virtually everyone else who had tried to swim those waters had headed in the opposite direction. In 1979, mainland China was a place to flee.
In the eighteenth century, imperial China controlled one-third of the world’s wealth; its most advanced cities were as prosperous and commercialized as Great Britain and the Netherlands. But in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, China was crippled by invasion, civil war, and political upheaval. After taking power in 1949, the Communist Party conducted a “land reform” campaign that grouped China’s small family farms into collectives, and led to the killing of millions of landlords and perceived enemies. In 1958, Chairman Mao launched the Great Leap Forward, attempting to vault his country past Britain in just fifteen years. Some advisers told him it was impossible, but he ignored and humiliated them; the head of the national technology commission jumped out a window. The propagandists hailed one fantastical harvest after another, calling them “Sputnik harvests,” on par with the success of the Soviet satellite. But the numbers were fiction, and as starvation spread, many who complained were tortured or killed. The Party barred people from traveling to find food. Mao’s Great Leap Forward resulted in the world’s worst famine, which killed between thirty and forty-five million people, more than World War I. By the time Captain Lin defected from Taiwan, the People’s Republic was poorer than North Korea; its per capita income was one-third that of sub-Saharan Africa.
Deng Xiaoping had been China’s paramount leader for less than six months. At seventy-five, he was a persuasive but plainspoken statesman, and a survivor—repeatedly purged from the leadership by Chairman Mao, twice rehabilitated. In the years since, he has often been described as the sole architect of the boom that followed, but that view is the handiwork of Party historians. Deng understood the limitations of his knowledge. On matters of the economy, his shrewdest move was to unite with Chen Yun, a fellow Party patriarch who was so skeptical of the West that he greeted the idea of reform by rereading Lenin’s Imperialism; and with Zhao Ziyang, a younger, progressive Party boss whose efforts to reduce poverty had spawned a saying among peasants: “If you want to eat, look for Ziyang.”
When change came, it came from below. The previous winter, in the inland village of Xiaogang, the local farmers had been so impoverished by Mao’s economic vision that they had stopped tilling their communal land and had resorted to begging. In desperation, eighteen farmers divided up the land and began to farm it separately; they set their own schedules, and whatever they sold beyond the quota required by the state, they sold at the market and reaped the profits. They signed a secret pact to protect one another’s families in the event of arrest.
By the following year, they were earning nearly twenty times as much income as before. When the experiment was discovered, some apparatchiks accused them of “digging up the cornerstone of socialism,” but wiser leaders allowed their scheme to continue, and eventually expanded it to eight hundred million farmers around the country. The return of “household” farming, as it was known, spread so fast that a farmer compared it to a germ in a henhouse. “When one family’s chicken catches the disease, the whole village catches it. When one village has it, the whole county will be infected.”
Deng and the other leaders squabbled constantly, but the combination of Deng’s charisma, Chen’s hesitation to move too fast, and Zhao’s competence was startlingly successful. The model they created endured for decades: a “birdcage economy,” as Chen Yun called it, airy enough to let the market thrive but not so free as to let it escape. As young revolutionaries, the elders had overseen the execution of landlords, the seizure of factories, and the creation of people’s communes. But now they preserved their power by turning the revolution upside down: permitting private enterprise and opening a window to the outside world even if it allowed, as Deng put it, “a few flies” to get in. China’s reforms had no blueprint. The strategy, as Chen Yun put it, was to move without losing control—to “cross the river by feeling for the stones.” (Deng, inevitably, received credit for the expression.)
In 1979 the Party announced that it would no longer tag people as “landlords” and “rich peasants,” and later Deng Xiaoping removed the final stigma: “Let some people get rich first,” he said, “and gradually all the people should get rich together.” The Party extended the economic experiment. Officially, private businesses were permitted to hire no more than eight employees—Marx had believed that firms with more than eight workers were exploitative—but eventually small enterprises began popping up so fast that Deng Xiaoping told a Yugoslav delegation that it was “as if a strange army had appeared suddenly from nowhere.” He did not take credit. “This is not the achievement of our central government,” he said.
All over the country, people were exiting the collective farms that had dominated their lives. When they talked about it, they said they had been songbang—“unfettered”—a term more often used for a liberated prisoner or an animal. They began to talk of politics and democracy. But Deng Xiaoping had his limits. In March 1979, not long before Lin Zhengyi embarked on his adventure to the mainland, Deng spoke to a group of senior officials and demanded, “Can we tolerate this kind of freedom of speech which flagrantly contravenes the principles of our constitution?” The Party would never embrace “individualist democracy.” It would have economic freedom but political control. For China to thrive, there must be limits on “emancipating the mind.”
* * *
When change began to take hold on the mainland, Lin Zhengyi watched it from afar. He was born in 1952, three years after Taiwan and the mainland had embarked on the ideological and political standoff that would endure for decades. After losing China’s civil war to the Communists in 1949, the Nationalist Party fled to the island of Taiwan, where it declared martial law over the islands and prepared, in theory, for the day that it might return to power over China. Life in Taiwan was harsh and circumscribed. Lin grew up in the lush river delta town of Yilan, in a remote corner of Taiwan’s main island. His family was descended from earlier migrants from the mainland. The arriving Nationalist forces viewed the earlier migrants as low-class and politically unreliable, and they were subject to widespread discrimination in jobs and education.
His father, Lin Huoshu, ran a barbershop, and his mother took in laundry from the neighbors. The family lived in a shanty on the edge of town. But the father taught his children about ancient Chinese science and statecraft, about a civilization once so advanced that it started printing books four hundred years before Gutenberg. He read aloud from the old books—The Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West—and he drilled into his children the dream of China’s revival. He named his fourth child Zhengyi because it meant “justice.”
As a boy, Lin wondered why, despite China’s glorious history, his family could barely feed itself. His older brother did not ask their mother if they would have lunch, because it was an uncomfortable question, Lin recalled. “He would lean on the stove. If it was warm, that means we had lunch.” Otherwise, they went hungry. For Lin, the experience fostered a highly pragmatic streak. He came to view issues of human dignity primarily through the lenses of history and economics.
In his teens, he gravitated to tales about engineering—the exploits of ancient Chinese leaders such as Li Bing, a governor in the third century B.C.E., in today’s Sichuan Province, who set out to control deadly floods by devoting eight years to digging a water channel through a mountain. He relied on thousands of workers, who heated the rocks with hay fires and cooled them with water to make them crack. The result was an irrigation system so vast and durable that it is often compared to the wonders of the world; it transformed one of the country’s poorest stretches into a region so fertile that it is known today as the “Land of Heaven.”
Lin was the most promising of the sons, and in 1971 he won a coveted seat at National Taiwan University, to study irrigation. To pay his tuition, his three brothers left school and worked in their father’s barber-shop. Lin entered college just as the campus was roiling with debate over the future of Taiwan and mainland China. For years, young people in Taiwan had been taught that the mainland was run by “Communist bandits” and “demons.” The Nationalist Party used this threat to justify martial law, and it committed widespread human rights abuses against political opponents and Communist sympathizers.
But as Lin arrived on campus, Taiwan’s status was eroding. In July 1971, U.S. president Richard Nixon announced his visit to Beijing. The mainland was gaining influence. In October the United Nations voted to take away Taiwan’s seat at the UN General Assembly and give it to the People’s Republic, acknowledging that government as the lawful representative of the Chinese people. In this climate, Lin Zhengyi found his voice. He became president of the freshman class and emerged as one of Taiwan’s most ardent young activists. At a student rally called “Fight the Communist Bandits Sneaking into the United Nations,” he took the microphone and appealed for an island-wide protest, an idea so radical in the era of martial law that even his fellow activists couldn’t bring themselves to support it. At another event, he vowed to go on a hunger strike, until the dean talked him out of it.
When he announced that he was transferring to a military academy, he told reporters, “If my decision to join the military can arouse nationalism in every youth … then its impact will be immeasurable.” He had practical reasons as well: at the military academy he could study for free and receive a stipend.
At a friend’s house one day during college, Lin met a young woman named Chen Yunying, an activist who was studying literature at National Chengchi University. After they graduated, they married and had a son. Lin spent two years studying for an MBA and then he was assigned to lead a company on the island of Quemoy, known during the Cold War as the “lighthouse of the free world,” because it was the final spit of land before the Communist shoreline. The two sides had once shelled each other so ferociously that Taiwan’s military honeycombed the island with bunkers, underground restaurants, and a hospital carved so deep into the mountain that it was designed to survive a nuclear strike.
By the time Lin arrived in 1978, the war was more psychological than physical. The armies still shelled each other, but only on schedule: the mainland fired on odd-numbered days; Taiwan returned fire the rest of the week. Mostly they dueled with propaganda. They blasted each other with enormous, high-powered speakers, and they dropped leaflets from hot-air balloons. They floated softball-sized glass containers to the opposing shores packed with bundles of goods intended to lure defectors with glimpses of prosperity. Taiwan sent pinups and miniature newspapers describing the outside world, clean underwear, pop music cassettes, instructions on how to build a simple radio, and promises of gold coins and glory for anyone willing to defect. The mainland replied with liquor, tea, sweet melons, and pamphlets with photos of smiling Taiwanese diplomats and scientists who had defected to the mainland—or, as the Party put it, “traded darkness for light.”
* * *
In December 1978, Jimmy Carter announced that the United States was officially recognizing the Communist government in Beijing, and severing formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan. The news buried any remaining hope that the island might regain control of the mainland. In Taiwan, as a correspondent put it, people were “as nervous as a cat trying to cross a busy road with the traffic getting worse by the moment.” On New Year’s Day 1979, the Beijing government announced that it was ending its military bombardment of Quemoy, and broadcast an appeal to the people of Taiwan that “the bright future … belongs to us and to you. The reunification of the motherland is the sacred mission that history has handed to our generation.” It boasted that “construction is going ahead vigorously on the motherland.”
On February 16, Lin was reassigned even closer to the mainland; he was put in charge of a tiny command post on a lonesome, windswept outcropping called Mount Ma, known among the soldiers as “the front line of the universe.” It was a prestigious post, but, according to military investigators, Lin resented the assignment because he was marooned on the outer islands when he could be teaching at the military academy, or taking the exam for senior military office. His post was a favorite stop for political grandees who wanted to be photographed on the front line with the young patriots in uniform. In April he took a leave to see family and friends; one night, he told an old college classmate, Zhang Jiasheng, that he believed Taiwan could prosper only if the mainland thrived.
When he returned to Mount Ma, Lin was so close to the mainland that he could see the faces of People’s Liberation Army soldiers through his binoculars. His thinking had already begun to take a sharp turn. Although Taiwan and the Communists were enemies, ordinary people considered them two halves of the same clan, with a shared history and destiny. As in the American Civil War, some families were physically divided. In one case, a man sent by his mother to go shopping on the mainland just before the Communists cut off boat traffic did not get home for forty years.
In the first years after the separation, some soldiers had tried to swim to the mainland, but fierce currents swirled around the islands, and the defectors washed back up, exhausted, and were arrested as traitors. To deter others, the army destroyed most of the island’s fishing boats, and the few that remained were required to lock up their oars at night. Over the years, anything that might be turned into a flotation device—a basketball, a bicycle tire—had to be registered, like a weapon, and the army conducted spot checks around the island, knocking on doors and demanding to see that all balls and inner tubes were accounted for.
Earlier in the spring of 1979, a soldier had made the rare attempt to defect, but he, too, was caught. Lin was undeterred. He believed his plan was better, but he wanted to minimize the effects on his commanding officers. He was scheduled to move from one command to another in May; he believed that if he defected at the time of the transition, senior officers could plausibly blame each other for missing the clues and avoid much blame. What’s more, spring on the island was the season of fog, when the humid air met the cold water of the sea and draped the shoreline in a curtain of gray, a shroud that just might be heavy enough to conceal a figure slipping into the waves.
With each spring day, the currents were growing, and by summer they would be strong enough to push a man back to shore, no matter how hard he fought against the waves. If Lin was going to swim to mainland China, he had to go immediately.
* * *
On the morning of May 16 he was at his command post. He asked the company secretary Liao Zhenzhu for the latest tide chart. High tide would come at four o’clock in the afternoon and then begin to withdraw.
That night, after sunset, Lin attended a meeting at battalion headquarters and returned to Mount Ma for dinner. At 8:30 a company secretary named Tung Chin-yao visited his table to say he was going over to the battalion headquarters to pick up a new soldier. Tung returned an hour later, but Lin was no longer in the dining hall.
He wasn’t in the barracks, either. At 10:50 p.m., two captains from the division recorded his absence in the log and organized a search party. By midnight, commanders had launched a full-scale search of the island—a Thunderbolt Operation, as they called it—involving a hundred thousand people, including soldiers and civilians, men, women, and children. They tore open farmers’ storehouses and probed the ponds with bamboo poles. Then searchers found the first clue: at the end of the mine-laden trail, from Mount Ma to the shore, were his sneakers, stenciled with the characters for “Company Commander.” They searched his room and discovered that items were missing: a canteen, a compass, a first-aid kit, the company flag, and a life jacket.
By then, Lin was far ahead of them. From the command post, he had to cross just three hundred yards to reach the gray-brown boulders on the shore. From there, he slid into the waves. He had calculated that he needed to enter the water before low tide at 10:00 p.m., so that the force of the sea would draw him away from the land. He had taken one other crucial step: According to military investigators, two days before he swam, Lin inspected the sentry posts along the coast, and he addressed the young recruits assigned to watch the horizon. He told them an odd joke: if, at night, you see swimmers who show no signs of attacking, don’t bother to shoot; they’re probably just “water spirits,” and if you shoot, you’ll tempt them into retribution. Superstitions about omens and spirits thrived in Taiwan, and an offhand comment from a commander might have been just enough to make a nervous teenager think twice before raising the alarm over a mysterious flutter on the night sea.
In the water, Lin swam hard and fast. The current tugged at him, but soon he was clear of the shallows and alone on the black depths, enveloped in water and sky. He needed only to make it to the middle of the channel, and then the rising tide would carry him the rest of the way.
He swam freestyle until he was exhausted, and then floated on his back to regain energy. After three hours, with his legs throbbing and numb with cold, he was nearing land. It was the easternmost edge of Chinese soil—Horn Islet. It was just sixty acres of sand and palmetto scrub, home to nothing but Chinese guard posts and artillery guns. The shore, he knew, was laced with land mines. He reached into his clothing, where, sealed in a plastic bag, he had stowed a flashlight. His frozen fingers fumbled with the button. He flicked it on and signaled to Chinese troops, who began to mass on the shore.
Lin reached the shallows. He had much to look forward to: the Communist pamphlets had promised a hero’s welcome and rewards of gold and cash. But in the darkness, a lone Chinese soldier waded into the water, edged toward Lin Zhengyi, and placed him under arrest.
Evan Osnos is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he served as the China correspondent from 2008 to 2013. He is the winner of two Overseas Press Club awards and the Asia Society’s Osborn Elliott Prize for Excellence in Journalism on Asia. Previously, he worked at the Chicago Tribune, where he was part of a team that won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 2008. He lives in Washington, D.C.
Copyright © 2014 by Evan Osnos