We had ignored the invitation from the mainland Chinese mission to the UN. It was Spring 1989, and the Dean of the law school and I had gone to other dinners at the Chinese mission. They were large affairs with steam-tray food and had not been particularly enjoyable. We assumed that the latest invitation was to another similar open house and did not respond. Then an urgent message came from my student. He was a translator for the Chinese diplomats at the UN, and because of his urging, the law school was planning to put on a program with the Chinese mission. The translator told us the day before the scheduled dinner that the dinner was a private one because of our joint program, and it would be a huge insult if we did not go (and perhaps a blow to the translator’s career). The Dean and I started scrambling to get sufficient attendees.
I implored the spouse to go. She mentioned this to her associate, a Chinese citizen with an American green card, trained in China as a medical doctor, now helping the spouse to do biological research. He was one of those forced into the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, an experience about which he did not want to speak. Chinese students were at the time holding Tiananmen Square, and no one knew what was going to happen there. The spouse’s associate quietly said that we should not go to the Chinese mission because it would be an act of support for a regime that did not deserve support. But we did.
It was a memorable evening on many fronts. We had our images of Chinese officials spouting a party line, but the diplomats were professionals, not political appointees. The ambassador and his wife got into an argument about her work for women’s rights at the UN. A number of the diplomats talked quietly against their government. One of them had a son who was in Tiananmen Square. That father had not had contact with his son for days and was clearly scared. I realized that my views of Chinese government officials were simplistic.
And then there was the food. It was unlike anything I had eaten before or since. This was not a Chinese restaurant meal. It was prepared by the ambassador’s personal chef, and it was dish after dish of exquisite things presented at a round table where we were served lazy-susan style. One course consisted of only a single, hard-boiled quail egg. The spouse was proud that she got the slippery little morsel into her mouth with chopsticks, while the Chinese diplomat next to her failed.
A few days later the slaughter in the square occurred. The translator came to me almost crying and asked that we call off our program. The program was to be about how China was operating under the norms of international commercial law and was entitled something like “China under Law.” The translator choked out that we could not have a program like that because we had all seen that China was a lawless place. (We did eventually have the program.) Tiananmen Square was not mentioned, and we never learned what happened to the diplomat’s son.