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Journalist explores the history of communist China through his family’s heritage

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

I am the son of two empires. That's a line from early in the new memoir by New York Times reporter Edward Wong. Wong was born in one empire here in the United States, grew up in D.C.'s Northern Virginia suburbs in the 1970s and '80s. Wong's parents were born in China. His father was in the first class from his high school to graduate into a China governed by the Communist Party in 1950. The book is an attempt to tell two stories and how they intertwine - the story of Wong's family and the story of modern China. It's titled "At The Edge Of Empire." Edward Wong is in our studios. Welcome.

EDWARD WONG: Thanks, Mary Louise.

KELLY: You write about many members of your family here, about both your parents. But you chose mainly to track your father's journey, and it's quite a journey coming of age during World War II, joining the People's Liberation Army, flying to Hong Kong, eventually making his way here to the U.S. How did you settle on your father as your central character?

WONG: My father's story tells in greater detail the arc of China under Mao because he became entranced with the Communist Revolution when he was in high school. And as you say, he graduated in 1950, which is the first full year of Communist rule in China. And he believed that Mao and Mao's compatriots would rejuvenate China after how it suffered during World War II. It would strengthen China after the corruption of the nationalist government.

And so in Beijing, when he entered university, he actually marched in front of Mao in Tanaman Square in a parade made up of soldiers and students and workers on the first anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic. And then very soon afterwards, he decided to apply to join the military. At that time, the Communists were calling for young people to join the military because the Korean War had just started, and China was aiding North Korea and trying to repel the American forces on the Korean Peninsula.

KELLY: Yeah.

WONG: So my father felt that he had to do his duty for the nation. He believed the propaganda that Americans were intent on invading China after they seized the Korean Peninsula and that they would eventually topple the Communist government. And so he joined the air force and started training at a military academy in the Northeast.

KELLY: It was many years before your parents went home - and I'm using your word home meaning back to China - after they had left. Why? How did they explain that to you?

WONG: When they moved to the U.S., my father and mother felt very ready to leave a lot of China behind them. It was at the height of the cultural revolution when they both settled in the U.S. I think my father also was very intent on trying to start a new life because of what had happened to him under communism in China. He had spent his 20s in China. He felt he had sacrificed a lot for the revolution and for the military and that, in the end, they had betrayed him or they hadn't seen his potential. And then he had seen the famine that took place under Mao. He had witnessed the famine start. He also worked very hard in restaurants and worked very long hours while I was growing up and had very little vacation time. And so I think he really put China out of his mind for those many years of my childhood.

KELLY: So I mentioned you grew up just outside D.C. in Northern Virginia. I'm just thinking you had such an interesting perspective. As you were an insider, you can move around in China looking the way that you do in a way that I never could as a reporter - and I don't have the language skills you do - and yet as an outsider who was born and grew up in a totally different country. How did that inform your reporting?

WONG: Well, in some ways, the book is about how everyone I knew closely - my parents, myself - we were all in a way outsiders to the Chinese Imperium. My father came from the far south, from Hong Kong, where he was born, and then he grew up in Guangdong. And in many ways, that area of China is itself a frontier area. The people who live there, the language they speak, the ideas that they form and their constant contact with Western nations really places them in a different environment, in a different cultural mindset than other parts of China. And so I felt, in some ways, me going to China as a Chinese American and then reporting on it was an extension of the way that my parents had approached China, too - that they were coming to Northern China, to Beijing as outsiders.

KELLY: I mean, to make the obvious point, China is an enormous country and a vast and complex one. Was there a story that, in your decade or so there for the Times, you struggled to get your arms around and try to convey it in a way that Americans would understand or would feel is relevant?

WONG: I think that one of the very difficult things to convey through newspaper articles for Americans is how a lot of Chinese citizens have this great hope in what their government will bring to them. Even if they often thought local officials were corrupt, they would think that Hu Jintao or Xi Jinping or whichever Chinese leader was in power at the time would lead them into a brighter future. So I think that contradiction, that dichotomy that they're grappling with there in China is something that's hard to convey to American readers.

KELLY: This is a big question. But if I were to ask you, Edward Wong, what you wish Americans understood about China and its people, what would your answer be?

WONG: I think that nowadays, when we talk about China, we conflate what the leaders of China are doing with the beliefs and the drives of the people. I think it's important to keep that separate in our heads. China has become shorthand for this authoritarian state that is intent on dominating militarily and economically Asia and maybe other parts of the world. That's the way that China is framed now in a lot of discourse in America.

But when you talk with Chinese citizens, you find that a lot of their thinking, a lot of what motivates them in their daily lives is very similar to Americans. They see China as a great power. They know about its history as a great power and as an empire, and they believe firmly that the country should retake its rightful place in the world order. And so I think that that's something that Americans have a hard time grappling with because they don't see that pride in China as an important part of Chinese citizens, either. And I think that...

KELLY: It's seen more as a threat.

WONG: Right.

KELLY: Yeah.

WONG: They see it as a threat. But in a very real sense, the way that Chinese feel about their country is the same way that we feel about America.

KELLY: Well, then let me ask you the flip question. What do you wish China and its leaders understood about the U.S.?

WONG: Nowadays, when Chinese talk about America, you hear a lot of questions about whether America sees China as a hostile power and whether it's intent on perhaps assaulting China militarily at some point. It's not just Chinese officials or leaders who think that. When you're in China, as I was last year, and you're talking to ordinary Chinese citizens, many of them ask, oh, does America want to go to war with China? I think it's important that they understand that that's not the case. These two countries are grappling with an intense rivalry that arises from the fact that China has grown economically and militarily and that it has its own vision for what its place in Asia at the very least should be. And I think America itself has to grapple with that in figuring out where the balances between its power and China's power in the Asia Pacific region.

KELLY: New York Times correspondent Edward Wong. His new book is "At The Edge Of Empire: A Families Reckoning With China." Thank you.

WONG: Thanks, Mary Louise. This was a great conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICK WIZ'S "XYLOPHONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Mallory Yu
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Mary Louise Kelly
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.