Early SACU Tours

There was a time in the 1960s and 1970s when travel to China by Westerners was very limited. At this pivotal stage of its modern development, SACU offered one of the only ways of going on a tour to China. Strange to say now, participants needed to pass an interview before being to considered to go on the tour, so it was a rare opportunity. Neil Taylor, a founder member of SACU and an expert on tourism, relates his experiences.

It is hard to realise quite what a commitment joining a SACU tour involved in the early 1970s when it had the virtual monopoly on tourism from Britain. However, as a student caught up in the revolutionary fervour of the late ’60s it was not hard to convince the SACU tours committee of my devotion to Maoist China. China at that time presented a very favourable image to the visitor from abroad; food was sufficient in the markets and the department stores offered an array of goods unavailable in most of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Communes, factories and schools all ticked over happily and the shortness of the visit prevented cultural sterility arising; revolutionary opera is seductive for two or three weeks. Colour too helped enormously; even the most polluted town exuded optimism and satisfaction, bedecked in red flags, yellow bunting and massive pictures of smiling national minorities. The picture was the same in 1972, hardly changed by the fall of Lin Biao, the Nixon visit or the Chinese entry into the UN.

Sometimes our details were noted by diplomatic messengers on their way back from Ulan Bator to Beijing (the trans-Siberian was a popular route for SACU groups). This was discovered by a tour participant who could not understand why a messenger was reluctant to give up an old newspaper until it transpired that it had been used as an impromptu notebook.

At the time the Foreign Office could hardly be expected to look positively on China. Only four years previously the embassy building had been burnt down by Red Guards. However, such was our enthusiasm for China and SACU that we were willing to sacrifice many potential careers. Many businesses were clearly jealous of the success of the ‘icebreakers’, a trading group of 48 British companies and individuals who had managed to initiate and sustain unique and profitable links with China during the Cultural Revolution. Taking on a SACU member was seen as openly admitting failure. Other businesses were so frightened of ‘disruption’ spreading from the mines and the universities that taking on an employee who had willingly visited ‘Red China’ was out of the question, however neatly cut his hair or well-cut his suit.

I expect the dogmatic advice given to participants could have stayed the same from the beginning of the SACU tour programme in 1970 until the downfall of the Gang of Four in 1976; never give tips, never contradict the guides, never show any signs of intimacy, never ask for free time and never ask what happened to the local landlords after 1949. Choosing a tour leader often caused the Warren Street office headaches; sometimes a leader would emerge naturally from the group, sometimes the office was forced to impose the position on a tour member – the success of which tended to vary. Sometimes groups elected leaders at their briefing weekend, the final compulsory hurdle before being sure of a place on the tour. Even this procedure was not foolproof; one potential candidate resigned when another participant claimed that a SACU tour could not be led by a member who admitted religious belief.

Unrewarded leadership

Leaders throughout the tour had a tough time and no recompense. Every visit required a farewell impromptu speech which had to avoid offending the hosts and yet be intellectually credible to the group. For Chinese hosts the speech was a rare and long planned special occasion. For the tour participants it was yet another predictable diatribe. Only the most nimble of sinologists could benefit from them, observing which phrases were omitted or added. In 1972 such experts could follow the ambiguous official line on Lin Biao and similar wavering on Deng Xiaoping in 1976. The best leaders resorted to irony in their speeches, which was lost on the hosts as it could not be translated.

The Chinese expected firm leadership but could never get it. The compulsory ‘rest’ after lunch and the time before bed was used for plotting tactics. If the transport buff sacrificed a railway station visit to the art fanatic wanting to see peasant paintings, the favour would need to be returned when debate turned to a library or a cadre school. Should the group turn down a third kindergarten visit or agree to it thanks to the children who had long prepared for their ‘foreign friends’? Tension ran high; a newspaper commission with ultra capitalist reward could await a successful story. China was a once-only visit so anything missed would never be seen again.

On the trans-Siberian route, the trickiest task of leadership was allocating berths on the return journey. Five compartments of four berths can only be divided in a finite number of ways. Does the leader take account of liaisons that started during the tour but which may have waned? Is it sexist or practical to divide the men from the women? Will the evangelical non-smoker accept the aftermath of a corridor cigarette smoked by a neighbour? Toleration of fellow travellers lasts two weeks, a SACU tour usually three or four. A mistake made in Beijing cannot be remedied until Moscow and may never be forgotten. At this stage the shrewdest leaders opted out completely by staying with the company that awaited them in their compartment.

Breaking ranks

Rebellion did occur; after all Mao himself did assure us, ‘To rebel is justified.’ Much of this behaviour was juvenile, but perhaps excusable. After three days in Jingganshan, where Mao’s every movement was lectured to us, one participant wondered out loud; ‘We now know everywhere he sat, will they tell us where he “shat”‘. Attendance on all visits was of course compulsory but we gradually took it in turns to ‘have diarrhoea’ which allowed four hours for revising notes, a short solitary walk and surreptitious reads of Stuart Sharm’s biography of Mao. We invented a new verb; to ‘b.i.’ An abbreviation of ‘brief introduction’ which was the misnomer that began all visits.

The most dramatic breakout occurred on the last day of our tour in Beijing. A psychiatrist, fed up with being told for three weeks that mental illness was only a capitalist problem, plotted his escape with the collusion of one of the Chinese speakers in the group. He had some details of a mental hospital and using various maps, its location was found. Lingering at the back of a walking tour, the two convinced a taxi driver that he had an appointment at this hospital. The ruse worked then and also on arrival; surely no foreigner would turn up without permission? His surprisingly positive report on treatment at this hospital would be the first report on mental health in China for several years.

Sycophancy, by contrast, also gave tours their amusing moments. The Russian revisionists were always fair game and the best compliment to a chef was to contrast his food with that in a Russian hotel.

As the Conservatives had resumed power in Britain and the Republicans in America, the Chinese were constantly told of imminent revolution in both countries. Graphic descriptions of the plight of the Kent peasantry were regularly supplied. It is a pity that no British group was in China in January 1974 when it now transpires from their memoirs, British Government ministers were genuinely, if only briefly, worried about such a scenario.

Winds of Change

Change came slowly from 1975 and then quickly from 1977. Tour operators who had some links with SACU were granted an occasional group under their own auspices. There was no discussion on the dates, the itinerary or the price. We happily took what was offered for the prestige of being ‘first into China’. If that meant three days in Shijiazhuang, so be it. It meant no single rooms, those who had never shared in their lives suddenly had to do so. If it meant only three months notice to tour dates, we were willing to live with that too.

Whilst such operators felt rightly privileged in 1976, with the sudden opening of China in 1977, they soon became lost. To some extent, SACU had a similar problem: on the one hand, their expertise could enhance a tour to China as a role for a specialist can always be found. On the other, suddenly having to compete against enormous operators willing to cut every corner in order to dominate the market meant either a withdrawal from the field or a high-risk strategy of massive promotion. It is to SACU’s credit that in the 1980s, a decade that saw endless travel failures and an increasingly tight legislative environment, the tour programme was successful for so long. Specialist groups who travelled with SACU in the early ’80s had the benefit of some positive elements from the old days remaining; impeccable organisation, no corruption and little crowding at the major sights. But this was linked with necessary changes; restaurants willing to serve dinner after 19.00, guidebooks written in an apolitical manner, and the availability of coffee.

What is perhaps sad now is how ordinary tours to China have become. For our tour leaders the problems are identical to those anywhere else. The participants will probably have amongst them the usual travel bore, a secret alcoholic, a lecher or a hopeless timekeeper. On the hosting side will appear the rapacious guide, the chain-smoking driver and the long wait outside a commission shop that nobody wants to visit. A case will not appear from a flight and toiletries will disappear from bedrooms. One cannot blame China for these problems but it is sad that China can no longer be sold as a unique destination.