When Peking’s Public Security Bureau expelled Italian journalist Tiziano Terzani in 1984, the West lost one of its most able observers of China. Fluent in the language, enamored of everything Chinese, Terzani had roamed widely through China for four years for the West German magazine Der Spiegel. What he produced were stylish and very opinionated commentaries on the Communists’ desecration of the country’s cultural treasures, the failings of China’s agricultural system, the regimentation of its schools and the way the party, even today, forces citizens to tattle on one another. At least once, the Foreign Ministry summoned Terzani and reprimanded him for “distortion of the Chinese reality.”
But, in this account of his China years, he writes that he was still surprised when he was arrested at Peking Airport in February, 1984, beaten by security men and escorted to his apartment, where the place was ransacked. Ultimately, threatened with a prison sentence, concerned that all his Chinese friends would also be interrogated, he made the necessary “self-criticism” and was ordered out of the country. His crimes? Smuggling antiques out of China, though he says the evidence against him consisted of a small Cambodian Buddha given to him before he went to China and a poster of Tibetan art, printed in London.
His account of “being swallowed inside the belly of the whale” is a compelling one. But, after last month’s expulsion of New York Times correspondent John Burns, sometimes one wishes for a little more introspection from Terzani, some examination of why the Chinese seem increasingly willing to make examples of a few journalists, at least some speculation about who in the Chinese hierarchy calls the shots on such incidents.