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China relations

Times change - thank goodness! And attitudes change with them. I was reminded forcibly of this when I read a few days ago on The Baron of the American CEO of Thomson Reuters, James Smith, having a formal meeting at the agency’s New York City HQ with China’s consul-general there Sun Guoxiang [Thomson Reuters commits to bolstering ties with China]. An internal communique on the meeting issued afterwards said Thomson Reuters was “committed to bolstering co-operation and strengthening economic links with China”.

I suppose my eyebrows went up slightly at first on reading this. The undertaking by Thomson Reuters at first sight seemed more appropriate for a sovereign nation to be making, rather than a historically famous independent international news agency.

However, having represented Reuters in Beijing single-handedly during the chaotic days of the Cultural Revolution - and therefore presided personally over a relationship nadir when Reuters and China were anything but close allies - I am on reflection genuinely glad to see this very different 21st century harmony growing between them now.

I’m not sure exactly what “bolstering co-operation and strengthening economic ties” will involve. But it will certainly be infinitely preferable to my time when I was held in solitary confinement cut off from the world for two years and two months in a Reuters house daubed with painted Red Guard slogan close to the Forbidden City of China’s imperial emperors. This innocent incarceration was in reprisal for the British colonial authorities in Hong Kong arresting and imprisoning after trials some New China News Agency employees and other Chinese “news workers” who had been involved in mass riots in the colony inspired by Mao’s Cultural Revolution on the mainland.

I first discovered a couple of years ago just how radically things had changed in Beijing from my days there. A good friend and ex-Reuters staffer Michael Bland phoned me on his mobile from the Square of Heavenly Peace just for the fun of it. He is now a crisis control PR man and was there giving lectures to audiences of Chinese government officials on how they should publicly handle flood and earthquake disasters, train crashes and the like. Out of curiosity I asked him how many employees Thomson Reuters had in China these days. He promised to find out - and next day called me again to give me a figure that instantly left me speechless - the agency, he told me, now had about one thousand employees across that extraordinary nation of 1.3 billion people!

So it was a case, was it, I asked, of “having got rid of Grey, they had to replace him with a thousand others?” Michael’s chuckle was clearly audible in my Norfolk home from the Square of Heavenly Peace. The thousand staffers were not all employed in Beijing of course, he added helpfully - and I immediately envisaged an army of stringers and local representatives spread across that vast and fast-developing nation supplying price and other local financial, economic and news information at the drop of a cone-shaped hat.

In 1988 I had gone back myself to China for the first time 20 years after my extraordinary hostage experience to make a BBC TV film Return to Peking - and check on how much China had changed by then. To my delight the Foreign Ministry hosted a small banquet for me at the No 1 Peking Duck Restaurant - and the official who had placed me under house arrest initially before the Red Guards invaded me sat at my side throughout a very cordial evening. I was formally declared to be “an old friend of China” and it was all very unexpected - and indeed gave me a great and helpful sense of closure on the earlier unpleasant experience. The official in question, Mr Chi Min-tsung, even agreed to be interviewed on camera for the film.

Curiously and coincidentally now, I am just publishing on 11 April a new expanded edition of my latest book containing verbatim transcripts of the secret shorthand diaries I managed to keep hidden from my guards during those two solitary years. It is entitled The Hostage Handbook - and perhaps in keeping with the latest communique from New York City and those snippets of information telephoned to me by Michael Bland in the Square of Heavenly Peace, its conclusion could possibly also be seen by some as surprising and positive along similar lines.

After four decades of analysis, reflection and review of the consequences I end the book by saying I now see my time in solitary in Peking as “a huge delayed action privilege”. Why? Because it radically changed and transformed my way of seeing and approaching life over the past 45 years - and most importantly triggered a lifelong journalistic search for what I call “truths greater than those which make daily international new headlines”. I am alluding largely to the spiritual insights it eventually led me to, which revolve very much around the value of each of us consciously focusing on our own individual internal harmony, peace and feelings of forgiveness. And on the back cover of the book in large letters I now quote Lao-tzu, prophet and keeper of China’s imperial archives 2,500 years ago, who is believed to have authored the Tao Te Ching, the Book of Tao.

“Man was made to sit quietly – and learn the truth from within,” he wrote in 500 BC. And that now very neatly sums it all up. I certainly did “sit quietly” beside the imperial Forbidden City in the heart of China for what seemed a very long time. And the photograph on the book’s cover shows me in a very disturbingly lifelike mock up of my slogan-daubed “cell” which was built on my return home at the behest of a national newspaper by a West End theatre designer.

So on reflection I very much welcome the recent unusual China-Thomson Reuters “communique” from New York. It’s a truism that “Jaw, jaw!” is always infinitely preferable to “War, war!” And I am convinced that when more of the world learns in addition to focus individually on internal peace, forgiveness and loving friendship to the exclusion of their more familiar opposites, the better it will be for us all.

As another old Chinese proverb I discovered soon after my release also very wisely puts it: “To regret the past is to forfeit the future.” ■