Reunion in Beijing
Portions of their conversation will be broadcast during Goodman's latest PBS special, Crossroads China: 2001 (previewed January 7 by New York's WNET; shown elsewhere between February and April). The program explores China's future, in which Goodman envisions conflict between an authoritarian leadership and a burgeoning private sector filled with entrepreneurial aspirations.
Ji entered Harvard to study chemistry (his father was working in New York at the time), but returned to China with the outbreak of the Korean War because he didn't think it right to study in an "enemy" country. In China, he joined the Foreign Ministry and became a translator for a host of Chinese leaders, including Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and Deng Xiaoping. He eventually became ambassador to the Court of St. James's, and recently retired as an under-secretary-general of the UN.
Goodman, author of The Money Game and host of PBS's Emmy-winning Adam Smith's Money World, connected with his classmate after a chance conversation with Ji's old roommate, Herbert Levin '52. "Harvard didn't hear from Ji in the Mao years, but when things let up, he even came to a reunion," Goodman says. "Ji gives us a sense of how a high-ranking true believer sees his country over the last 50 years--both rationally and emotionally. He's got a fax and uses the Internet. But he thinks change in China is an organic experience. He says, 'We've changed before,' but emphasizes the Chinese-ness of these changes."
Not all of Ji's comments could fit into the program, so Goodman shared the following Harvard-focused, edited excerpts.
Goodman: Was going to Harvard a plus or a minus?
Ji: It was a plus for reasonable people--and a minus for the radicals....The leadership in the Foreign Ministry all said, "Well, Ji, this was very useful for you and for us because you know the U.S; you know English well; we need people like you." But when the Cultural Revolution broke out in all its madness, they said, "Frankly, what did you do there against the Chinese people? What reactions and thoughts did you learn in that reactionary institute of the U.S. imperialists?" Wild-eyed radicals in the ministry would condemn me, subject me to struggle meetings, even send me off to the countryside to feed pigs, plant rice, and do all kinds of menial tasks including shifting manure--sometimes with my bare hands. Nevertheless, the premier [Zhou Enlai] knew about me, and that, of course, was a great plus.
G: What if you had stayed at Harvard?
J: I probably would be an assistant, maybe an associate, professor. I was just above average in my field. But there is no possibility I would have done that, because from a very young age...I intended to go back to China as a good communist--in a society where everyone will lead a better life, and a freer and more democratic life.
G: What does it mean to be a communist?
J: To be a very good person. To be honest. To feel that one's primary aim in life is not for one's personal advancement, but for the advancement of the country. And in that process also to uplift yourself.