Foreign correspondents based in China often adopt a confrontational stance for reporting on the mainland. That might seem the inevitable outcome of covering a country with rampant human rights violations, ever tightening controls on the Chinese press, and what often seems like a general lack of freedom for its citizens. And it certainly doesn't help that foreign reporters face tight restrictions on where they go and with whom they talk, are often followed, and have their phones regularly bugged by the police.
A recent visit to Dandong, a gritty but glittering city of 800,000 on the border with North Korea, was a powerful reminder that despite its obvious problems, China is a lot more complicated. In fact, it appears—and I'm going out on a rather long limb here—a hotbed of personal freedom when you're in Dandong, gazing across the Yalu River at the wacko, totalitarian, missile-threatening police state just across the water.
I knew it was bound to be an interesting visit when I landed on the evening of July 4 at the run-down military/civilian airport in Dandong (unlike larger cities in China, which usually feature gleaming, updated facilities, Dandong is too small and remote to have a new port of entry yet).
North Korea had been threatening to blast missiles for some time already and here I was, celebrating my own country's Independence Day with a reporting trip to the North Korean-Chinese border. Funny job, I thought, as I bumped over the dusty road into the city.
Exploring the main streets of Dandong doesn't take long. Despite its population of nearly one million, it's considered a small city for China. A good rule when visiting Chinese cities for the first time is to check out the area around the train station, always a hive of activity.
Indeed, that once again proved true, with the station located at the heart of the city. And there was an added bonus: the square in front of Dandong's terminal still has a massive rusty red statue of Mao Zedong towering on a pedestal—an increasingly rare sight in China.
But Mao's reputation for populist egalitarianism and simple living certainly didn't show here in Dandong. "Mao was good at fighting, but terrible at economics," said one fifty-something taxi driver. That seemed to me a decent summary of the Great Helmsman's now tarnished legacy. Indeed, it wasn't until after Mao died in 1976 that the rise of new pragmatic leaders like Deng Xiaoping finally launched China's astonishing economic run.
A huge blinking television screen mounted above the station's main entrance competes with the Mao statue for the attention of strollers. It shows ads for companies such as NY-listed telco China Mobile (CHL ). Nearby, an also big billboard advertised the high-end Chinese clothier Judger, while a massive green sign for the local Yalu River Beer, stretched down ten stories of a high rise hotel adjacent to the station.
There are several KFCs, and at night impromptu beer gardens were packed with young Chinese watching the final games of the World Cup—at the improbable kick-off hour of 2 a.m.
While the memory of long-departed Mao vies unsuccessfully with rampant commercialism in Dandong, on the other side of the river it seems very much alive. The North Koreans' version of Mao is the father-son team of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, known as the Great Leader and the Dear Leader, respectively.
While the father is dead, the 64-year-old son is very much alive and kicking; witness the latest missile tests. Even while they're alive, though, Pyongyang doesn't shy away from celebrating its leaders with massive statutes across the country.
Indeed, while the city of Sinuiju, Dandong's counterpart just across the river, vanishes into darkness at night (due to electricity rationing and the general miserable state of the North Korean economy), a dim glow rises up from one point far off, where massive floodlights are trained on a likeness of North Korea's leader. "They don't have power to light their households, but for their statues, they always have lights," says one Dandong resident who has been traveling to North Korea for his trading business since 2000.
My first morning in Dandong I woke to a surprise: North Korea had fired its missiles. I am here to report on border trade but suddenly things had gotten a lot more interesting. Over coffee with a European who lives in Pyongyang—here in China for some "R and R," as he puts it—I am feeling nervous about the day ahead of me.
As a foreign journalist on an unofficial trip to a Chinese border town, and one abutting a country that has suddenly started seizing world headlines, I wondered whether the local Chinese police might be watching me, or might even decide to pull me in for questioning—not an uncommon occurrence for foreign reporters outside China's bigger cities.
I asked my breakfast companion whether he thought the local authorities monitor his activity. "China?" he said with incredulity. "No. No one pays attention to me. It's completely free. Just go down to the river tonight and watch all the people strolling, doing exercises, and enjoying life along the river. And there is no life on the other side [in North Korea]. Even the lights on the bridge [the so-called Friendship Bridge, the main artery between the two countries] only run halfway across."
Indeed he was right—the Chinese half of the bridge was gaily lit with lights at night, but halfway across they vanished. "I feel completely free here," he said, mentioning that for every visit outside Pyongyang he has to apply two weeks in advance and is always accompanied by a North Korean government minder.
I felt stupid for my question. Relative to the level of control across the border, China was child's play. But I wanted to make a close-up examination of the authoritarian state, so tantalizingly near but obviously off limits for a U.S. reporter. So that evening I went to a North Korean restaurant, one of many that dot Dandong. Hardly a trip into the hermit kingdom, but maybe if I was lucky, I'd meet some interesting people, maybe even some North Koreans.
The place I chose looked lively from the start. There was red, yellow, silver, blue, and green tinsel strung before a red curtain, which itself hung at the back of a small stage. And the place was crowded with Chinese and Koreans—from both the South and the North (though not together at any table).
"You can tell the difference by their dress and manner," my Dandong-resident friend said. Although the traditional Korean dish of rice mixed with beef and egg, turned out to be close to inedible, things started to look up as ever more Yalu River Beer was consumed, and the decibel level rose.
Things really got lively when the pretty North Korean waitresses, dressed improbably in white wedding-like dresses with frilly pink and luminescent green sashes, got up on a small stage and started belting out Korean folk songs.
They called up a man from a table of visiting South Koreans, who was asked to do a duet in Korean with one of the waitresses. Next, a 24-year-old waitress from Pyongyang switched to a Chinese pop song, and a Chinese gentleman with a face flushed from too much beer, joined her for another short duet.
Then, much to my surprise, a waitress grabbed my hand and pulled me onto the stage. With much applause from the now raucous audience, she sang a Korean song, and we did simple two-step dance. Does she have any idea I am an American, I thought as I wandered back to my table, red-faced from my poor dancing?
"We've got four members of the Six Party Talks here [the grouping which has been meeting to try to stop the North from going nuclear]," I quipped to the Dangong trader. "North Korea, South Korea, China, and the U.S. Maybe we can solve the problems of the Korean peninsula."
Later I asked a second North Korean waitress if she liked her country. "Of course," said the 21-year-old, who has been working in Dandong for three years. "It's the cleanest, best country in the world," she said. "China is too dirty. Later, I definitely want to go home to live," she said.
A FREE FEELING.
No doubt Dandong, with its bustling streets and new buildings going up, is far dirtier than Pyongyang's broad and lifeless avenues, I thought. And of course she, like anyone else, misses her home and family. But would she ever be able to speak this openly to a foreign stranger back in her own country. And might she miss her relative freedom here in China some day?
For my European acquaintance and the North Koreans who flock to Dandong for trade and business, China offers a welcome blast of freedom. And for the young Chinese people watching World Cup soccer and the romantic couples strolling along the Yalu River at night, China usually feels pretty free too.
Of course, there is the constricting compact between Beijing and most Chinese citizens. China's Communist Party allows ever more economic and personal freedom for its people, but also locks up those who dare to openly challenge their rule. Far from ideal. But when compared with what lies across the Yalu, I thought as I departed Dandong the next evening, it's a pretty attractive alternative.
By Dexter Roberts in Dandong