The Meng cousins worked for a small illegal offshoot of a state-owned mine, in the hills outside of Beijing. I learned that the miners had spent six days underground because the local Party chiefs had imprisoned their fellow workers in order to prevent them from rescuing the Mengs. The Meng's survival would mean the illegal mine would need to be reported, which would benefit no one. Just a few dead miners, on the other hand, would be easier to cover up. The cousins dug through 40 feet of collapsed tunnel and emerged, half dead -- only to have officials chase them out of town.
Li was determined to restore them some dignity. She jumped on an overnight train to the miners' hometown in Inner Mongolia, in north China. What had been a wake had morphed into a week-long homecoming celebration. Readers of my newspaper sent a considerable sum of money after learning that one of the miners named his son Tsinghua, to symbolize his dream of affording the kind of education that might gain his offspring entry to one of China's most prestigious universities.
Meanwhile, in our cozy diplomatic compound near the center of Beijing, a Pakistani neighbor, Shahid, introduced us to a warm and bright lady from the province of Shandong to help look after our kids. Our three-year old boy entered a bilingual pre-school, developed asthma from the smog and fell in love with Shahid's daughter. Our one-year-old daughter modeled herself on Dora the Explorer and followed her brother into his new school and refused to leave. Tara immersed herself in the world of Chinese film, writing scripts and studying what makes Chinese audiences laugh. When the kids got home she would take them to catch frogs and tadpoles at the beautiful lotus ponds of Ritan Park, a short walk up the road from our apartment. Our bathtub filled with amphibians and our balcony with assorted mammals, just as my parent's Beijing apartment had 20 years before.
I closed out 2007 getting detained while reporting on a land dispute on the frozen black-soil plains near the Russian border. The local city government had appropriated nearly 100,000 hectares of land belonging to more than 15,000 farmers -- for a phantom investment project. Over time the officials had transferred the land titles into their own names and rented it straight back to the peasants, effectively recreating the feudal arrangements that the communist revolution was dedicated to destroying. To make matters worse, the officials had brought in armed mafia-like groups from southern China to pacify the angry peasants and to prevent them from filing their complaints with higher levels of government. I hadn't yet learned how to communicate secretly, or to meet in safe houses under the cover of darkness. I'd hardly opened my notebook when six police cars pulled up.
My heart beat like a sparrow's until I learned to follow the lead of my colleague Mary-Anne Toy's news assistant Sanghee Liu. Squashed in the back of the police car, Liu sat serenely beside me. An island of integrity and good judgment in a nation traveling at hyperspeed, Liu had been in this position many times before.
Chinese history is often seen to move in 30- and 60-year cycles, in line with the contours of the zodiac calendar. After the communist revolution of 1949 and the post-Mao decisions to reform in 1978-1979, the year 2008 arrived with momentous expectations and a tinge of dread. My focus began to shift from economic progress and grassroots struggle to the mysterious workings of the Party machine.
In March, deadly riots exploded in urban centers of the Tibetan plateau. The Party-state's immediate response was restrained, but at a deeper, more primordial level, it kicked into a more unforgiving mode of self-preservation. The Propaganda Department helped transform the ethnic catastrophe into a nationalistic triumph for the Communist Party, defending ethnic Han pride and national honor against "hostile forces" conspiring with the Dalai Lama to dismember China. The Beijing Olympics, just months away, morphed from a celebration of China's arrival on the global stage to something harder and more defiant.
On May 12, the hanging lights at our Beijing office began to tremble. After turning on the TV news, we bolted toward the southwest province of Sichuan, where the carnage had struck. In the town of Beichuan, near the epicenter of the 8.0 magnitude earthquake, we learned to tread carefully over bodies camouflaged by dust. Some were well-dressed and still intact. Others were torn and smashed like insects. One man was hanging upside down; his pelvis squashed between two boulders. Yet he was alive and had the strength to speak. I told him that if he was brave enough to hang on, the rescue team would come for him. That proved to be a lie. On the highway above, battalions of People's Liberation Army soldiers sat in trucks, eating watermelons and occasionally staging mock-rescues for the benefit of the camera teams that were beaming propaganda footage across the country.
A week later, I returned back home to Tara, who was pregnant with our third child; she took me that same day to a resort at Yalong Bay, in south China's Hanian Island. I couldn't bring myself to talk, or look at the kids, but I could swim -- and I did, as far out as I could physically go. I cried like I've never cried before, or since.
In August 2008, as world leaders arrived to applaud the Beijing Olympics, the price of iron ore collapsed and financial crisis struck. I paused, as Tara gave birth to our third child.
Australia felt the force of China's rise earlier and harder than most other rich nations, thanks to high levels of Chinese immigration, geographical proximity and China's voracious appetite for its resources. In 2009, the Communist Party awed the world by reflating the Chinese economy, and Australia's too. China's top aluminum producer Chinalco made a $19 billion bid to invest in the British-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto, while Canberra infuriated Beijing by calling on it to be more transparent about its military. The investment deal failed, a Chinese admiral blasted Australia's Mandarin-speaking Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and relations plunged to their lowest point since the Tiananmen massacres of 1989.
In July, I found myself in the northwest region of Xinjiang, covering an even bloodier round of race riots than Tibet, when a contact rang to ask what had happened to a friend of mine, the Australian-Chinese Rio Tinto iron ore executive Stern Hu. I learned he had been arrested, and that disagreements over iron ore had been elevated to a matter of Chinese national security. Each night my head reeled with the implications of information absorbed, but not fully digested. Where was China going? Was I doing justice to the story and getting the balance right? Gray hairs appeared, the skin under my eyes grew darker, and I would often find myself jolted wide awake, bathed in sweat, in the pre-dawn hours. With every road trip and each deep interview, I discovered afresh how little I'd known before.