In 1971, Jaime FlorCruz boarded a flight to China. The young Filipino planned to spend a few weeks in the country on a study tour, seeing the Cultural Revolution with his own eyes, before returning to college in Manila.
He wouldn’t see his home again for 12 years.
Days after arriving in Beijing, FlorCruz discovered he was among a group of student activists who had been blacklisted by Ferdinand Marcos’ government. The then-20-year-old was stranded in China — a political exile in a country he barely knew.
It was the beginning of a remarkable journey, as FlorCruz recounts in his new memoir “Class of ’77: How My Classmates Changed China,” which is set for release next week.
FlorCruz would be trapped in China for over a decade, living through the grim final years of the Cultural Revolution, the tumultuous transition to the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, and then the country’s embrace of market reforms.
In the process, he would become part of Peking University’s famous class of ’77 — the first cohort of students to enroll at China’s most prestigious college after the end of the Cultural Revolution — studying alongside many of the country’s future leaders, including current premier Li Keqiang.
The experience would later propel his career as a journalist for TIME magazine and CNN, where he became a legendary correspondent documenting China’s transformation into a global power.
“I went through struggles,” FlorCruz tells Sixth Tone. “But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I ended up with a front-row seat to China’s evolution.”
When he first arrived, FlorCruz never imagined his fate would become intertwined with China’s. As a child, he’d known almost nothing about the country. China and the Philippines — then a close ally of the United States — had been enemies throughout the Cold War.
But, like left-leaning students all over the world, FlorCruz had been captivated by images of the Cultural Revolution — and the protests they’d inspired in Paris and elsewhere. When China moved to repair ties with the United States and its allies in 1971, and offered 15 Filipino students the chance to visit the country, he knew he needed to be on the plane.
“I was curious and young and foolish,” FlorCruz laughs. “It was all, ‘Gee whiz.’ We thought we were looking at the socialist utopia.”
Left: FlorCruz’s original luggage tag issued by the China Travel Service on August 21, 1971; Right: FlorCruz’s portrait taken in 1970-71, when he served as editor-in-chief of Ang Malaya (The Free), the college newspaper of the Philippine College of Commerce. Courtesy of FlorCruz Library
His joy at making it to China didn’t last long. Within hours of his arrival, a bomb exploded at a political rally in Manila. The Marcos government began rounding up hundreds of activists, and later declared martial law. It quickly became clear that FlorCruz and four other students on the tour would be detained — and possibly tortured — if they returned to the Philippines.
And so the five students began a strange new existence as refugees in China. Keen to earn their keep, they told their hosts they wanted to do something productive. Within weeks, they found themselves on a state-run farm in central China’s Hunan province.
The following months were a crash course in the realities of the Cultural Revolution. FlorCruz, who had grown up in a middle-class family, found the romance of “learning from the masses” quickly wore off. The work was back-breaking, the winter nights bone-chillingly cold, the tedium mind-numbing.
“I came face-to-face with the real China,” FlorCruz recalls. “In reality, China was in fact quite poor and it was a hard life being a farmer, using basic implements to try and coax rice from these rice fields.”
After a year on the farm, FlorCruz was transferred to a fishing company in the eastern Shandong province. He spent the next two years working on trawlers in the East China Sea, dropping and hauling in heavy fishing nets. In his spare time, he studied Chinese by copying out an English-Chinese dictionary filled with Maoist slogans — and tried to control his feelings of isolation and homesickness.
By the time he returned to Beijing in 1974, FlorCruz had changed utterly. He’d discarded his bell-bottom jeans for baggy blue pants, and smoked a pack of Zhengzhou cigarettes a day. He spoke almost fluent Chinese. He’d also started looking at the world in a different way, he says.
“After going through that, it seemed like nothing could defeat me,” he says. “And that experience of the past conditioned my way of viewing China … I tend to look at China as a glass half full, rather than glass half empty, because I’ve seen the old China as a virtually empty glass.”
The years of toil paid off. Back in Beijing, many elite schools had finally been allowed to reopen, and FlorCruz was able to enroll in a Chinese program at the Beijing Language and Culture University. Then, in 1977, he won a place to study history at Peking University — one of China’s most prestigious institutions.
FlorCruz arrived on campus at an historic moment. Months earlier, Deng Xiaoping had established himself as China’s paramount leader — outmaneuvering his ultra-leftist opponents — and signaled that China needed to move on from the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.
As part of his modernization program, Deng had reintroduced China’s college-entrance exams, known as the gaokao. FlorCruz’s classmates — the famous class of ’77 — were the first students selected to study at Peking University based on merit, rather than political loyalty, in over a decade.
The class of ’77 proved to be an extraordinary cohort. Most of them had been “sent down to the countryside” during the Cultural Revolution. They arrived at university after years of manual labor, viewing the gaokao as their final chance to change their destiny. Many had prepared for the exam using their old high school textbooks or banned “bourgeois” literature, which they had somehow kept stashed away for years.
But these experiences had given the students a drive that set them apart, according to FlorCruz. They would go on to become the “shock troops” of Deng’s reform drive. Some, like Li Keqiang — who FlorCruz knew as a gregarious law student with an obsessive desire to master English — would even rise to the very top of the Communist party hierarchy.
“They had spent years doing practical work, so they knew Chinese society up close … They knew the ills of a closed-off China,” says FlorCruz. “So they brought with them all these questions: What went wrong? Where should China go? What does it mean to reform and open up?”
Beijing was an exhilarating place to be at that time, FlorCruz recalls. Society was undergoing rapid change. During the Cultural Revolution, “book learning” had been viewed with suspicion. So had music, fashion, and any form of extramarital dating. Now, those old controls were gradually fading.
Peking University students became obsessed with ballroom dancing. Then, FlorCruz secretly introduced them to disco. People ditched their Mao jackets, and some daring women even began wearing fitted dresses. FlorCruz was finally able to date a Chinese woman without fear of severe punishment. (In a sign of the times, she would soon leave him to go study in the United States.)
FlorCruz’s diploma from Peking University, issued in March 1982. Courtesy of FlorCruz Library
FlorCruz and his classmates eventually graduated in 1982, leaving the sheltered Peking University campus to find their way in the new China. The school’s unofficial motto — “conquer or die” — would serve them well in the years of upheaval and breakneck growth that followed.
FlorCruz found a job at Newsweek, then moved to become a reporter at TIME magazine’s Beijing bureau, realizing a long-held ambition. Not long after, the Philippines’ ambassador to China brokered a deal to allow him to travel back to Manila safely.
But by that stage, China was in FlorCruz’s blood, and he would spend the next 40 years covering the country as a foreign correspondent. Of the five Filipino students exiled in China, three would ultimately rise to become Beijing bureau chiefs at major Western media outlets. Among the foreign press corps, they were affectionately known as the “Filipino mafia.”
FlorCruz retired as head of CNN’s Beijing bureau in 2015, before returning to his beloved Peking University as an adjunct professor. Throughout this long journalistic career, his experiences — and contacts — from his early years in China were a continual source of guidance, FlorCruz says.
Speaking with Sixth Tone by phone from his home in Manila, FlorCruz discusses the legacy of the class of ’77, the lessons of the Cultural Revolution, and China’s trajectory today. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
FlorCruz records a segment for CNN at a giant panda sanctuary in Sichuan province, southwest China, 2003. Courtesy of FlorCruz Library
Sixth Tone: You arrived in China as a left-leaning student who wanted to learn about the Cultural Revolution. But after some time, you write that you came to see the China of the 1970s as a “socialist dystopia.” How did this transition happen?
FlorCruz: After we got there in August 1971, it was all, ‘Gee whiz.’ We thought we were looking at the socialist utopia, where even though people weren’t prosperous, they were enjoying a stable life. No policemen visibly carrying guns. Roads were clean and wide, at least in Beijing. So, I acknowledge that I romanticized the red China that we first saw. Then, of course, we ended up having to stay longer than the three weeks, and that’s when we came face-to-face with the real China.
Another “a ha” moment came in 1975, when I was a language student. One time, I was in the dormitory chatting with a Chinese classmate — a party member, a mature man. And he said, ‘You know, Jimi, they’re criticizing Deng Xiaoping now as a capitalist roader in the papers and on campus. Actually, I think he’s a good man and trying to do good things for China.’ To me, that was a shock, because he was a party member — a loyal one. From then on, I kept reminding myself to keep an open mind.
Sixth Tone: Working on the farm and the fishing trawlers sounds like a grueling experience, especially for someone with no previous experience of manual labor. What did you take from it?
FlorCruz: It was physically hard, but even more difficult mentally. We were very homesick. We were often lonely, especially when we weren’t yet fluent in Chinese. But on those lonely nights when our trawler boats would anchor out at sea, I felt like I was a monk in a temple. While all my fellow workers slept, I had time to reflect and to just focus on improving my Chinese. I’d hand copy entries from an English-Chinese political dictionary. I filled three notebooks with around one-third of the entries.
The book cover of “Class of ’77: How My Classmates Changed China.”
Sixth Tone: When describing your classmates from the class of ’77, you write that they were “survivors of the Cultural Revolution … a perspective that colors their approach to power, politics, and the meaning of life.” What did you mean by that?
FlorCruz: Unlike the generation of college students who followed them, many of whom went straight from high school to taking the gaokao, these cohorts from ’77, ’78, ’79 had spent years on the farm, in factories, or serving in the army. So, they knew Chinese society up close, they knew what worked and what didn’t work. They knew the ills of a closed-off China — closed-off in society and closed-off from the rest of the world.
So by the time they got into Peking University, they brought with them all these questions. What went wrong? Where should China go? What does it mean to reform and open up? I saw that in my experience studying with them, with all the debates inside the classroom and especially outside the classroom. They were passionate about education and about turning China around. And they knew this was their last ticket to change their lives, change their careers.
Sixth Tone: As you show in the book, this generation would play a key role in driving China’s transformation over the following decades. Today, however, the younger generations have no memory of the Cultural Revolution — and often know very little about it. What will that mean for China’s future?
FlorCruz: Well, I hope the younger generations will learn about China’s recent past. There is a learning gap now. I hope their parents will tell them more about their personal experiences. It’s important, because otherwise I think the next generation will simply end up feeling entitled. And they will lose the direction that my classmates from the class of ’77 had. I’m also curious: what’s the next generation thinking right now? Where will they want to take China from here to 40 years from now?
FlorCruz waves the Philippines flag while attending an event at the Asian Games in Beijing, 1990. Courtesy of FlorCruz Library
Sixth Tone: Today, there is a lot of discussion about the rise in nationalism among young Chinese. As someone who has seen many Chinese youth movements over the decades, how do you think this generation compares to previous ones?
FlorCruz: I feel that China’s challenge now is there’s a kind of spiritual void among many Chinese. In the recent past, there were political campaigns to destroy the “four olds”: old religions, old traditions, etc. Then, after the Cultural Revolution, communist ideology was, in many ways, discredited, and so many Chinese are now left with a void. And then, to fill that void, there’s nationalism, especially among the youth. There’s nothing wrong with it per se. But if it turns into an against-the-rest-of-the-world nationalism, then I think you’re playing with fire.
Sixth Tone: At the end of the book, you identify the “common prosperity” campaign as representing another shift in China’s trajectory. How significant do you think it will prove in the long term?
FlorCruz: The current leadership has done a lot, but they also face a host of challenges. Prosperity has come at a big price: corruption, regionalism, lawlessness, inequality, and the rising costs of living, education, and health care. That’s why many women who are now allowed to have more than two children are reluctant to do so: rearing children is expensive. And that’s where the common prosperity concept is coming from — it’s addressing all these nitty-gritty issues.
The question, of course, is are they the right solutions to what obviously are valid problems? Will they align with the aspirations and goals of Chinese families, especially the emerging middle class? This will really require the leadership to be adaptable and nimble in making appropriate changes. China is changing very fast, society is changing very fast. And the leadership needs to be attentive to those changes.
Editor: Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: The Philippine youth delegation pose for a group photo while visiting Chairman Mao’s birthplace in Shaoshan, Hunan province. Third from left, FlorCruz. Courtesy of Florcruz Library)