A Wall Street Journal reporter, expelled by Beijing, writes of generations of ‘red roots’ and the sudden end of her own long journey to cover the country

The author with her parents in Beijing in 1983.

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“Tell Lingling to quit. What’s so good about the United States these days?”
That’s what I overheard a family friend tell my mother in late March, as I was packing nearly a decade of my life in Beijing into boxes marked “keep,” “donate” and “toss.” The friend knew I had been expelled from my homeland, along with other journalists from The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Washington Post. Only U.S. reporters were targeted. As a naturalized American citizen, I was one of them.
Beijing called the eviction of American journalists a response to Washington’s earlier expulsion of Chinese journalists. “It’s not personal,” a Chinese official told me. But for me, it couldn’t have been more personal: I was being forced to leave my family. The expulsion also brought to an abrupt end my dream of reporting from the country where I was born and raised, and which I call my motherland.
In the fall of 2010, I became a U.S. citizen after 11 years in New York, where I earned a graduate degree in journalism and began my career. The following spring, the Journal dispatched me to Beijing to do what I’d always wanted: independent reporting in China. “We’ve never seen an application like yours before,” an official at the Chinese Consulate in New York told me when I applied for a journalist visa, referring to my Chinese background. Back then, I felt I symbolized the benefits of a close relationship between the two world powers.
My grandfather enlisted in the Red Army at age 13 and was picked to look after Mao Zedong’s health during the Long March.
By 2020, however, I had become collateral damage—what some Chinese call “bomb ashes”—in an intensifying political firefight. I felt frightened and helpless, and thought about quitting to remain with my parents, who are in their 70s. My family’s “red roots” go back almost a century. What would they think of me being expelled from China because I’m an American journalist?
My grandfather was born in the southern county of Xingguo, where the stubborn, rocky land makes large-scale farming difficult. Generations lived there in poverty; my grandfather’s family named him Fuchang, which means “wealth and prosperity,” as a way of seeking good fortune. In 1932, at age 13, he enlisted in the Communists’ Red Army, believing that he had a better chance of survival by joining the guerrilla force than by remaining at home. “I told him not to worry and I would take care of the family,” my grandfather’s cousin, now 98, told me, recalling their conversation before Zhong Fuchang took off. “Then your grandfather said, ‘when I return, I’ll build you a house.’”

The author’s grandfather in the 1960s as a senor military officer, two decades after he served as an aide to Chairman Mao.

My grandfather, who died in 1973 during the Cultural Revolution, never got to fulfill the promise. Soon after joining the army, he was picked to look after Mao Zedong’s health during the Long March, the 6,000-mile trek by the Communist forces that established Mao as the party leader. According to some official accounts, the young soldier at times shielded the Chairman from the Nationalists’ bombs with his body. 
Mao later changed his aide’s name from “wealth and prosperity” to Guang, “light,” to make it more reflective of the proletarian values of the party. He left Mao in 1946, soon after the Allied and Chinese victory over Japan, and took up a senior military post in central China.
Today, Xingguo remains an economic backwater. One-third of its population of 300,000 leave home to work in wealthier coastal areas. Many children are left behind to be brought up by grandparents. Some live on government support. 
But my family has focused only on the positive. They show off the brick homes that have replaced the mud houses they lived in for generations. One industrious relative even built a small hotel. Last year, the family made enough money to build a shrine in honor of its past, inscribing Zhong Fuchang’s name in the middle.
Over a dinner of noodles made from fish and sweet potato powder, a local delicacy, my grandfather’s aged cousin raised a glass of homemade rice wine to me: “Come home often.” Back home in Beijing, with weeks left before my departure, my mother had a similar message. “Don’t give up,” she told me. “Your grandfather chose a path he believed in. You should, too.”
I will continue to write about China, although now from New York. And I will visit my other home as often as I can.