The life I’ve just described may sound extreme, but in fact it was a relatively free period in the 1990s, after the worst of our state terror and before Xi Jinping’s more recent crackdowns. We never had a democracy, but the 90s were as close to it as we ever got, and life was generally pleasant. The university where my mother taught arranged a one-room apartment for us in the city centre, within walking distance of the local Mao statue.
Compared with today’s Chinese academics we couldn’t have been considered rich, but we were always able to buy fish, bananas and peanuts, and even Sprite and other western-branded gifts for my teachers in the hope that they would treat me well at school. I wasn’t considered patriotic enough to be class president; however, the school did allow me a young pioneer uniform when it was my turn to raise the flag.