428b Youth & ageby Don Franks

Below are some reflections on a recent short trip to China, nearly forty years since my first visit.

That two-week tour was a stunning experience, but, for several reasons, I never thought I’d ever revisit the country.

In 1976 I was, as now, a Marxist-minded person; back then, a Marxist greatly impressed by the Chinese Communist Party. From an initial gathering of just twelve comrades, the CPC had, in very tough conditions, grown into a powerful force, remaining intact after huge repression and massacre of its members. After incredible effort, the party’s goals of sweeping away feudalism and foreign imperialism were finally realised and in 1949 the CPC united the country under its leadership.

The national democratic revolution carried out by the party did not follow the model of the previous Russian revolution. Many of the CPC’s working class members had been killed in struggles against imperialists and local reactionaries. The party which took power was a largely militant peasant force led by intellectuals. That composition was to influence the party and country’s future.

Chairman Mao had died a couple of months before our 1976 trip took place. Roughly half the local population was wearing a black arm band in mourning for the dead leader.

We visited several cities, factories, kindergartens, an army base, a hospital and a couple of neighborhood communities. At each site we went to there would be a sit-down for green tea, cigarettes and a ‘brief introduction’. That meant a talk of at least one hour about the history of the workplace we were visiting, its output and its attention to the current campaign of the Communist Party. We then had a question and answer session, followed by a meal.

The people we met were friendly, happy looking and very attentive to our our well-being. They spoke with enthusiasm about their goals and projects and showed much interest in overseas revolutionary movements. We sang old union songs with our interpreters while traveling along in the bus. It was a jolly time and most inspiring to be at what seemed to be the forefront of an international revolutionary movement of the working class.

Our hosts were fond of declaiming slogans. Some were specific to the then current campaign to criticise Lin Piao and Confucius, others were more general. Such as “the road is torturous, but the future is bright!” That one appealed to me, it still does.

Back in New Zealand after the 1976 trip I subscribed to the Peking Review and closely followed Chinese developments.

As the years rolled by it seemed that the fire of CPC’s revolutionary internationalism was dying down. With diminishing keenness, I still supported China as a compromised workers’ state. Then, in June 1989, came Tien an Min and everything changed. The Chinese Army murder of democracy protesters in the square where I’d once dreamily wandered came as an horrific shock. I renounced the Chinese Communist Party forever and took no part in any sort of politics for several years.

Then, a quarter of a century later, I fell into the company of some Wellington Chinese musicians. Playing a mixture of jazz and traditional folk music, their band included a pianist who was sometimes required elsewhere. I learned a little Chinese music and substituted occasionally for the piano player. After a while the thought came to me that maybe one day I’d be playing this music in China. And so it turned out to be.

One of my Chinese friends said he’d like me to play the piano at his wedding in Wuhan; if I was up for it he’d fly me over and put me up for ten days. On returning to New Zealand I posted seven short essays on Facebook, here is the concluding entry.

Return to the Middle Kingdom, coda.

This will be my last report from the People’s Republic. In just a few days, from a very sheltered, privileged position, it’s only possible to superficially glimpse a few facets of the vast conundrum that is modern-day China. It’s difficult to make sense of the few things you do see, because so much in China is writ so large.

You drive past sky-scraping tower block after tower block and it seems impossible that there can be so many of them and so enormous, but there they are.

Hundreds and thousands of people’s flats that must be small and modest, yet they function.

Despite the pollution, most of the folks we saw in the shops, parks, trains, planes and streets looked healthy, and, as far as it was possible to tell, happy. Teenagers texted away like they do here, wearing similar clothes, down to those silly pre-ripped pre-faded jeans. Old retired workers hung out together in parks, lolling in the shade of big trees, chatting, listening to radios, eating, smoking, dozing. Many were playing cards, usually gambling for what looked like small stakes.

Over the whole duration of our stay I noticed a total of five people begging in the street; most days you can see that many on a stroll from Cuba Mall to Lambton Quay in Wellington. The Chinese beggars have an almost opposite style to Wellington beggars. Instead of sitting looking miserable, Chinese beggars tend to jump around grinning while waving a small coin-filled cup under your nose.

There were few opportunities to see Chinese people at their work, apart of course for the service industry. Hotel and restaurant staff were mainly friendly and attentive without being servile. As a former cleaner I would have loved to have had a yarn with the lady who did our hotel room out in Wuhan. The housemaids did not look rushed and took quite a long while to complete a room; their work was impeccable.

I haven’t the equipment to speculate on the greater questions of politics and economics in China, although I now have some renewed interest. With the vast crazy discrepancies between rich and poor, there must be all sorts of turmoil below the social surface.

There is certainly more access to a range of ideas in China today. Bookshops carry a huge range of titles and the TV in Wuhan offered a total of 92 channels. Much of this was the same sort of televised rubbish we get at home – game shows, adverts, soaps, talent quests. Sport, of course, and many violent historical docu-dramas, usually showing the Red Army fighting off Japanese invaders. None that I saw of anyone fighting capitalists.

In all sorts of areas there is evidence of nationalism having replaced socialism.

I saw just one TV show with English subtitles and it was very interesting. An up-to-the minute report on the conflict between Russia and Ukraine separatists. There was a linking reporter, all sorts of live footage and two political commentators. These guys detailed the conflict from both combatants’ points of view and in depth. After 25 minutes I had to turn the programme off and go out; it looked set to roll for much longer.

I’m sure there are many events that don’t make the official TV screen, but it seems Chinese coverage of international affairs can go beyond the soundbites we’re used to.

When I told friends I was revisiting China after a 40 year absence almost everyone was like: “Oh, it will have changed so much.” And, of course, it has, but that repeated comment got me thinking about the state of my own homeland back in the year I first flew to Chin in 1976. It has changed too.

Then, there were plenty of jobs, jobs that mostly went on as long as you wanted to work them, not two- or three-month contracts. Jobs for people without degrees or computer literacy, jobs for people without any literacy at all. Just about every worker was in a union, some of them not very good unions, some very good indeed. On well-organised sites workers frequently stopped work over health and safety issues and other issues too. We stopped to support other workers in strife, over sexual harassment, nuclear ship visits, apartheid, the SIS Amendment Bill.

If a workmate was sacked he or she was not left alone to be fobbed off in a mediation room. If a fellow worker’s dismissal seemed unfair we took matters into our own hands and struck for reinstatement.

There wasn’t much talk of ‘vulnerable workers’ in 1976, there was more talk – and active practice – of worker solidarity.

There were also much higher worker expectations and sense of collective purpose. On one occasion I recall, the Ford motor company I worked for gave us a paid hour off in the cafeteria to hear a guy selling private medical insurance. One or two ‘company men’ showed an interest, the bulk of us gave the guy a proper roasting. Free or subsidized medical care we felt entitled to.

The socialist wheel is waiting to be reinvented in many places, so I’ll knock off the travelogue and try to get back to trying to help look for a few answers.

  1. I was interested in your post Don. Brought back memories of my own dual trips to Beijing. In my case they were in the 90s and 5 years apart.

    The first time I went, I was offered the chance to fly a kite by a friendly local in the middle of Tien an Min square. I accepted. It felt quite touching and a little surreal. The second time I visited,the same thing happened in exactly the same location. There was a small but symbolic difference, I was only allowed to fly one if I rented it!

    You mentioned the massacre in the square. I remember joining a small demo in Wgtn a day or two after it happened. Apart from 2 other locals, the others among the 20 or so protestors were expat Chinese students, some of whom had lost friends in the crackdown. We marched to the embassy after we had (pardon the pun) donned some bandanas with slogans on. An effigy of Deng Xiaoping was burnt, people cried etc. Very powerful stuff. What worried me though was the political outlook many of them had. They were all rabid Rogernomics advocates. It was as if the only way they could cleanse themselves of one form of totalitarianism was to overcompensate by adopting another form of it.

  2. Don Franks says:

    They do kites well over there eh.

    I was at another small demo at the embassy, probably a few days later. WCL comrade David Steele had the idea of a protest of socialists. He called all the left groups in Wellington and they all sent representatives, they all collected for a single purpose for maybe the first and last time. All except, probably the last one you’d expect – the Socialist Unity party, who ‘didn’t want to be slagging off the Chinese at this time’.