HONG KONG – In 1897, an Irish missionary named Frederick O’Neill set sail on a two-month journey to China to spread his Presbyterian gospel among Chinese countryfolk.
Reverend O’Neill remained in remote northeast China for 45 years. In fact, so devoted to his mission were he and his wife that they withstood the loss of two of their five children to childhood diseases – diseases they contracted from their living environment.
“Meaning, they wouldn’t have died if they’d been in Ireland,” says the reverend’s grandson, Mark O’Neill.
When Mark told me he was writing a book about his grandfather, I figured the man had inspired his grandson’s lifelong fascination with China. Wrong.
(See, dear students, this is why we journalists should never assume.)
In fact, Mark stumbled onto it in 1978, when an acquaintance in London suggested he try reporting from Hong Kong – a British colony where he’d have a leg-up getting hired. He eventually latched onto Reuters, then on to the South China Morning Post.
Thirty-two years later, Mark is best described by that charmingly antiquated term for veteran reporters, diplomats, scholars and spies with geographical expertise: “old hand.” Sounds so Cold War. “Old Soviet hand” … “Old Vietnam hand.” (How long before I graduate to “old Central Europe hand”?)
Mark has seen China from virtually every angle that a foreigner can. He’s lived in its two greatest cities, Beijing and Shanghai. He’s peered in from stations in Taiwan and Hong Kong. He’s even lived for stints in two of China’s regional rivals: India and Japan. Mark married a Hong Konger, and speaks fluent Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese. (Given my linguistic foibles, you’re damn right I’m impressed.)
Mark is the type who carries a plastic container of cookies with him, to avoid arriving empty-handed. Mark, who wrote the 2007 book “Serving With Compassion” about the Taiwan Buddhist community, also thanks you in the Buddhist style: palms pressed together, with slight bow.
His voice rises when describing how Chairman Mao Zedong imposed the “common” language of Mandarin on his people: to simplify the complex, ancient characters and spread literacy; but also to cut people from earlier sources of wisdom, obliging them to read only Party-produced propaganda.
Today, says Mark, few can write these characters.
The Chinese of Taiwan, however, are committed to preserve the calligraphy of the historic characters. (My only first-hand evidence is a Taiwanese artist – Sunny Wang, a faculty colleague here in Hong Kong – who incorporates some of these characters into her stunning glass-blown pieces.)
When he brings this up with mainland friends, says Mark, they respond with indifference – or hostility. “Why do I have to learn them?” said one. Another snapped, “We’re trying to talk about something positive, like how to improve the banking system, and what you talk about is in the past.”
Mark is also full of insights, like this beauty about the Hong Kong Chinese:
“If you get into a taxi here and ask the driver who the Chinese foreign minister is, I’d say 90 percent wouldn’t know,” says Mark. “But if you ask them for a stock tip – ‘What would you advise?’ – that would take up the rest of the journey.”
Mark has such a unique perspective on China’s three-decade economic miracle – and its foot-dragging on political reforms – that I eagerly accepted his invitation: to join him for his teaching day at arguably the most independent university on the mainland.
(See Part III, below.)