Bill Johnson and Jerry Cooke, respectively writer and photographer, are a brace of inscrutable Occidentals. Almost as soon as their passports had been stamped and they were inside China with the U.S. basketball team last June, they launched a campaign to be allowed to do the story they really hoped to do and had thought about for months—the broad report on sport in the People's Republic that begins on page 82.
The Chinese were politely astonished at the idea. "We had a meeting at the hotel—10 of them and two of us," says Johnson. "Then we met with a different bunch of people. We drank a lot of jasmine tea. They kept saying that we were there with the basketball team, and that was all. We spoke a lot about friendship between our nations and how much we would like to see sport in all of China, in the factories and schools and so on." There followed more meetings, more tea and more friendship talk. Johnson and Cooke began to assume separate roles in the discussions—the old police interrogation technique. "Not deliberately," says Johnson. "It just worked out that way. Jerry would complain loudly and bitterly that we weren't getting any cooperation. Then I'd be the nice guy and try to smooth things over."
Ultimately things began to happen. "It was strange," says Johnson. "All of a sudden we had our own car, our own driver and our own sports expert from the government. But nobody ever said yes."
The big problem after that was keeping up. " 'We're going to that commune you asked about,' they would tell us," Johnson relates. "Or we'd hear that 500 kids were waiting for us at a kindergarten somewhere. At the end they were arranging full-day excursions for us."
September 23, 1973
Our investigators never felt that the Chinese were trying to conceal anything, and wherever they went they could ask all the questions they wanted. The hosts were ever gracious. But—and inevitably—certain things never did work out. "Nobody ever said no, but we never managed to catch up with any of the famous Chinese acrobats," Johnson regrets. "We never got into archery or bicycling. And we never saw any mass outdoor events, though we asked to." In all, Johnson and Cooke spent 20 days in China and felt they got as much as could be expected in a regimented society.
Johnson, looking back, is still faintly bothered by a sense of remorse. It derives from the ultra-scrupulous Chinese sense of honesty—and lotus root powder, principal ingredient in a delicious pudding he ate one day in Hangchow. Thinking he might whip up a batch when he got back to the U.S., he bought a box, which promptly leaked. So he left it in his hotel room wastebasket. It was returned to him at the railroad station. He left it on the train. It turned up in his Shanghai hotel room. He left it there. It was triumphantly restored to him on the way to the airport as he was about to leave the country. At that point Johnson faced up to the situation. He expressed his enormous regret that he could not take the battered box home. His apology was accepted, and that was the last he saw of the powder. But he still thinks kindly of the pudding.