As pro-democracy demonstrations intensified in China in the spring of 1989, scholar Alvin Magid of Niskayuna was in Shanghai, where he had long conversations over two lunches with a man named Wang Huning. Today, Wang is one of the seven most powerful people in China.
But this story actually starts nearly five decades before Magid met Wang, who is now one of a handful of members on the Politburo Standing Committee, which is China’s highest decision-making body. Its members shape policy and have the ear of Xi Jinping, who is president of the People’s Republic of China, head of the Chinese Communist Party and chairman of the country’s Central Military Commission.
In the early 1940s, Magid was a Jewish kid from the Bronx wedged between his mother and grandmother on the New York City subway. Magid recalls two men boarding the empty train. At the time, Magid didn’t know anything about China or Mandarin. All he knew was that, to his 4-year-old brain, the two men seemed to be singing.
“I could hear no question marks, no commas, no semicolons,” Magid recalled. He asked his mother and grandmother, who had been going back and forth in Yiddish, what the two men were up to. Magid’s mother told him the men were speaking Chinese, which is a language that comes from a faraway country called China.
“I thought, ‘what a wonder,’” Magid said over tea in his living room on Grand Boulevard this week. “In that country, people talk to each other by singing.”
Magid, now nearly 85, has been in tune with China ever since.
Magid eventually became a political science professor at the University at Albany. And a connection he made while teaching a class on Chinese politics in that role ultimately led to an invitation to spend two months in the spring of 1989 as a visiting professor at Fudan University in Shanghai.
“The Chinese word is ‘guanxi,’ Magid said. “Guanxi means ‘connections.’ Nothing politically or otherwise of any consequence in China happens without guanxi.”
Magid arrived in Shanghai in May 1989 during a fraught period. The infamous Tiananmen Square crackdown, in which elements of China’s People’s Liberation Army massacred a still unknown total of demonstrators in Beijing, occurred on June 4. The current protests in China against the Chinese Communist Party’s “zero Covid” policy are being compared to 1989, when people were rising up against corruption and economic disparity and pressing for deep reforms.
‘Chance of a lifetime’
Magid, ever curious, had happened upon a front-row seat to China’s civil unrest. Almost as soon as he arrived, classes were boycotted at Fudan University and many other Chinese institutions. So Magid spent his time at the mass pro-democracy demonstrations in downtown Shanghai and bussing and biking all over the city, gathering first-hand accounts and reactions.
“This was the chance of a lifetime,” said Magid. He wasn’t deterred by the safety risk because he’d been in violent areas in the past, including while conducting research in Nigeria. “I’d wanted to connect more deeply with China since I was 4 years old.”
What he found were warm people eager to connect. A graduate student Magid knew invited him to have lunch with Wang Huning, then a noted political scientist and research scholar at Fudan University. Magid had heard of Wang and was happy to chat with a fellow professor. The two met for lunch at a restaurant in a Shanghai hotel.
Wang was different from other card-carrying Chinese Communist Party members, Magid said. Wang wasn’t a screamer, but he was forceful in his anti-democracy views and steadfast in his belief that the arc of history favored China under the rule of its communist party.
Wang had come of age during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, and his own family had suffered. But rather than reject the party, Wang stood firm on the need for order and stability, and he saw America, as well as the rising pro-democracy demonstrations in China, as sources of instability and chaos. He eventually wrote a book called “America Against America.”
During their lunch, Magid pushed back against Wang’s tendency toward authoritarianism, paraphrasing Winston Churchill who said democracy may be flawed, but it’s better than any alternatives.
“We went back and forth,” said Magid. “It wasn’t a Q and A. It was a conversation over a long, wonderful, multi-plated meal.”
The two men met again for a long lunch about a week later. That would be the last time they would see each other.
Following the Tiananmen Square bloodbath on June 4, word spread in Shanghai that troops may be heading there next.
Back home, Magid’s wife, Sally, was terrified, and over the phone she begged her husband to return to Niskayuna and their two young children. (The couple now have three children and eight grandchildren.)
Magid resisted. On the ground in Shanghai, nothing had really changed. But about a week after the massacre in Beijing, the graduate student who had introduced Magid to Wang told Magid he should leave Shanghai and go home.
“He said the rumors are flying, and we’re getting it from credible sources that they may be sending tanks,” Magid recalled. “If that happens, we can’t protect you.”
Magid wanted to say goodbye to the many contacts he’d made. The graduate student told him, no – Magid needed to leave immediately.
An hour later, the student returned with a Jeep and drove Magid on backroads to Shanghai’s international airport.
The terminal was bedlam, crowded with thousands of people desperate for a flight out.
The student left Magid in the terminal and told him not to go anywhere, no matter how long he was gone. Magid waited for more than an hour. Finally, the student returned and told Magid the Australian government had set up a commercial flight to airlift diplomats and others out of Shanghai.
There was one seat left on the plane.
Back home in Niskayuna that summer, Magid got a letter from Wang dated Aug. 14, 1989. The letter was friendly and respectful, and in it, Wang expressed hope that the two men might someday collaborate in research.
“I would like to inform you of my willingness to have some kind of cooperation with you in Chinese political studies,” Wang wrote. “I believe that we can execute a research program, if we find a subject in which we are interested. I wait for your further consideration.”
Wang and Magid exchanged a couple more letters, and Magid returned to Shanghai to teach at Fudan in the springs of 1991 and 1992. But he never saw Wang again. That’s because as Magid remained in academia, Wang rose to the heights of political power.
In Shanghai, Wang connected with Chinese Communist Party leaders, including Jiang Zemin, the eventual supreme leader of China, who died a few days ago. As Jiang and others ascended, so did Wang.
Wang’s prominence would survive the administrations of three supreme leaders in China, through the present day. At 67, he’s currently a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, putting him squarely in the center of Xi Jinping’s tightest inner circle. Magid says Wang is an “eminence grise,” a figure who wields tremendous influence out of view of most of the 1.4 billion Chinese, including the 100 million members of the Chinese Communist Party.
Magid, who had a notable career over nearly four decades, including completing five Fulbright Scholarships and publishing scholarly books and articles before retiring from UAlbany in 2002, has closely tracked Wang’s career from halfway across the world.
I’m sharing Magid’s story not just because it’s engaging and especially relevant amid the current protests. I’m sharing it because I think it’s remarkable.
It’s remarkable that Magid, a kid from the Bronx, once exchanged ideas with such a powerful figure long before that figure truly came into his own.
But chance encounters happen all the time. Why is this one special?
To start, I think you have to look at Wang Huning. He’s not just a powerful political figure. He’s arguably one of the most influential political actors in the world. China holds immense elevated status on the international stage — even if that status is often as an antagonist. And its government operates so secretly, with so much authority given to so few, it’s remarkable that Magid ever engaged in candid, free-flowing conversations with a man who now has direct access to China’s supreme leader, Xi Jinping.
Perhaps it’s too simplistic of a reading, but Magid and Wang’s meeting to me points to how small the world really is. Think about it: Magid, who lives all of seven minutes from The Daily Gazette’s office, met Wang for multiple lunches in a city nearly 7,500 miles away. It was a lifetime ago, except it wasn’t. It happened in this lifetime.
In our current moment, the smallness of the world matters more than ever. Just think about a top theory explaining how the pandemic may have begun. A microscopic virus in a bat in a Wuhan street market jumped to a person in China, and the entire world as we knew it changed. As epidemiologists know all too well, there’s nothing quite like a public health emergency to prove just how small the world is.
Then think about the fact that current demonstrations in China are a response to Xi’s “zero Covid” policy, which very well could have been a policy Wang helped to develop. The demonstrations have a potency now that the 1989 demonstrations lacked because technology brings the world closer together. Despite censorship efforts, current demonstrators can much more easily compare what’s going on in their country to what’s happening outside China. They can see injustice and determine for themselves whether authoritarian rule continues to hold up its end of the bargain in regard to its purported offering of economic prosperity. Signs suggest that tradeoff is no longer working out in the Chinese people’s favor.
Still, from what Magid recalls of Wang’s firm beliefs in the trajectory of Chinese Communist Party rule, he doesn’t predict that today’s demonstrators will have more success than those engaged in the effort when he was on the ground in ’89. Xi’s desire to hang onto power, and Chinese leaders’ unwavering beliefs in their own system, tell Magid that change is not likely to come anytime soon. At least not easily.
Plus, the same technology that shrinks the world magnifies the power of authoritarian rulers, who have no qualms about creating a surveillance state to keep order among their ranks.
Magid says he doesn’t have any plans to reach back out to Wang, though Magid thinks he could conceivably get a letter to Wang, and Wang would likely read it and remember him. The two men are simultaneously strangers and former colleagues who might have collaborated on research had circumstances been different. Meanwhile, leaders such as Xi and Wang in China, and President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the U.S., can at once be trading partners and military adversaries.
As leaders in China watch protests unfold and decide whether to roll in tanks as happened in 1989, and as U.S. leaders look on from afar and ponder what sort of countermeasures might be appropriate, they’d all do well to remember that decades ago two professors twice had lunch and then exchanged convivial correspondence.
Leaders should remember that in this interconnected world — in a world where guanxi can mean so much — it is all too possible to meet.
Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite