Closeup/The Far East

The Second Great Leap

Notes on a China that was never there before

Michael Enright April 17 1978
Closeup/The Far East

The Second Great Leap

Notes on a China that was never there before

Michael Enright April 17 1978

The Second Great Leap

Closeup/The Far East

Notes on a China that was never there before

Michael Enright

Canton, the first night of the Chinese new year, the Spring Festival. In the humid, darkening evening, seven Canadians move through the choked streets staring at the crowds staring back at them. It seems as if half the known world is moving in the street but there is no pushing, no feeling of enclosure. It is a night of sounds, with bicycle bells and car horns blending with the burst of firecrackers thrown into the streets by kids on rooftops. The poster shops are open and jammed. The big sellers are, typically, gentle renderings of the pudgy chairmen Mao and Hua. Everyone is carrying flowers and the children are up late. More than 250,000 “overseas Chinese”

have crossed from Hong Kong to spend the festival with relatives. They stand out from the resident Cantonese by their dress; bright shirts, jeans and skirts and long, styled hair. As the Canadians pass a small, crowded house, a Chinese man waves them inside. The foreigners go in slowly through the narrow door and are given chairs in the tiny front room. About 25 passersby push into the doorway to stare or peer through the open window. Everything is tentative. The man smiles at the

strangers, offering them cigarettes and glasses of clear tea. Coming from the radio in the back room is the sound of Brahms’s Violin Concerto. Everybody smiles at everybody else. The Canadians are more than slightly stunned by their reception. Not because the Chinese are unfriendly, but because an invitation to a foreigner to come into a Chinese home is never made.

One Canadian diplomat spent nearly three years in Peking without ever seeing the inside of an ordinary Chinese house. What in any other country would be an act of simple hospitality is, in China, an act of personal politics. A year ago, it could not have happened.

Liu Shih-kun is now 39. He is tall and slim, very quiet, with fine features that exude passivity. He plays the piano and probably plays it better than anyone in China. In 1958, he came second to the Texan Van Cliburn at the Tchaikovsky piano competition in Moscow. The next year

he won a worldwide Liszt piano festival. His father-in-law is a man named Yeh Chien-ying, an old military friend of Mao Tse-tung and a prominent member of the Politburo’s standing committee. At the height of the cultural revolution, Marshal Yeh incurred the wrath of the reactionary faction now known as the Gang of Four. Supporters of the faction questioned Liu about his father-in-law, Marshal Yeh. When the pianist refused to cooperate, his fingers were broken. He spent six years in jail. Liu has a son, now 14. He wanted to teach the boy the basics of classical piano but the six years in jail deprived him of that chance. Liu Shih-kun is now back performing in public where he belongs. He will not talk politics or about those years in jail. But when he plays, something inside him lights up and he attacks the keys with murderous dexterity.

A year ago people couldn’t buy a ticket to a concert or line up for a movie or buy a Chinese volume of Shakespeare. A year

ago Beethoven—called a “class composer”—was not allowed public performance. A year ago, even the mutest criticism of the regime was unthinkable. Now, they will tell you, everything has changed. This is the relaxed China, the opened up, new China. It is said that this China is slowly, attentively reinventing itself after the 11 dark years of anarchy spawned and nurtured by the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The Central Philharmonic Society of Peking which, in 11 years, played no Western music and only three Chinese pieces, is allowed to perform. The poster war, it seems, is over. Public denunciation is reserved for the sublimely notorious Gang of Four and the haranguing public deification of Chairman Mao has let up. Young couples can now show some affection in public without fear of vilification by their peers or “leading comrades.” A woman can buy a bottle of hair dye without being accused of surrendering to “cos-

mopolitan influences.” With some restraint, writers can once again write, dancers can dance, composers can compose and musicians, like Liu Shih-kun, can again perform in front of Chinese audiences. It is spring in China in this Y ear of the Horse and the country of 900 million is in thaw. But to the foreigner traveling in China this spring it is difficult determining what is concrete and what is chimera. If the Westerner carries around with him his old habits of analysis to reason things through in precise geometric formulations, the frustration creeps in under the door. To the foreigner, traveling through China is like being hustled through a strange, dimly lit city in a bell jar. Images and sounds ping off the sides of the glass, but hard contact with the outside reality is uneven and infrequent.

Earlier this year, the Toronto Symphony spent two weeks in China traveling 1,200 miles to three cities and performing before capacity audiences. It was the largest and most important cultural exchange ever made by Canada to China. While on the surface it was a cultural tour, the 92 musicians brought with them an urgent curiosity about the country and its people. What they saw was not the new China or the “real” China but a refracted image of what China hopes to become in the post-Mao era.

That image is bathed in contradictions. In a country which presumes egalitarianism, leadership is a cult. Western decadence is shunned yet leading comrades ride in chauffeured cars and foreign capitalists are given big, intimidating bourgeois-mobiles to ride around in. Chinese art is a perfect gemstone of delicacy, yet blunt politics is a part of every cultural event. Tour guides who pride themselves on their straightforwardness with strangers rarely answer embarrassing questions. The ordinary Chinese is supposed to be xenophobic but in reality is friendly and courteous to the point of obsession, offering a foreigner his seat in a bus or place in a queue. The Chinese have a wondrous way of dealing with large groups of visitors who move from place to place around their country. They run the tourists ragged from early morning. There are banquets, cocktail parties, visits to tombs, temples, stores, schools, factories, more temples, the Great Wall, more banquets. By the end of the day, the foreigner’s nerve endings are suffering a sensory overload. He has seen what official China wants him to see and he is probably too tired to go looking for anything else.

Peking, a starting point, is indelibly ugly, in winter. Whatever light there is becomes clouded over by the blowing dust which whirls in from the deserts of Inner Mongolia, near the capital. The cold is marrow deep. The main streets run for miles, at right angles, to every horizon. Prior to 1911, no building was allowed to be constructed higher than the emperor’s palace

in the Forbidden City. Peking is as flat as a coffee table and consequently nothing breaks the perspective, save the occasional ugly mass of a building thrown up by the Russians in the late Fifties. Ch’ang-An Avenue, which runs past Tien-An Men Square, seems built for nonexistent car traffic, its wide lanes packed with bicycles. In the city of seven million there are two million bicycles and the only spontaneous thing about Peking is the ardent ringing of their bells.

Peking is a company town with government its industry. The people have a stony, austere presence about them. In their drab blue greatcoats, grey pants and fur hats, they look like some lost conclave of secular monks. In South China, people stare and smile at foreigners; in Peking they merely stare. The houses in the dark streets are all one-storey, squat, behind grey walls. The sea of grey, in the houses and the people, is punctuated only by the colorfully dressed children or the green tunics of soldiers in the People’s Liberation Army.

Every few blocks, the Chinese, whether out for a stroll or on his way to work, is confronted by the omnipresent political talisman of his life; yet another Chairman Mao quotation. The intriguing vastness of TianAn Men is marred by huge portraits of that other gang of four, Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, and a Maoism: “Support the people of the Third World in their struggle against Imperialism and Colonialism.”

The people of Peking seem to be more aware of “the enemy”—either foreign or homegrown—than Chinese in other cities. Vide, the Gang of Four. Before it was broken (smashed is the official buzz-word) in October of 1976, it constituted a genuine threat to the leadership of Hua Kuo-feng. Led by Chiang Ching, the widow of Mao, this ultra-left faction attempted, in effect, a

coup d’etat and a return to the good old days of Red Guardism. Now under house arrest somewhere in Peking, the Gang is the focus of public opprobrium. If the rhetoric is to be believed, the gang wrought more devastation in a few years, than centuries of marauding war lords. In the argot of the Politburo, the gang was guilty of revisionism, conspiracy, factionalism and something condemned as “splitism.”

The external enemies are the “social imperialists” in the forms of the Americans and the Russians, who are called “the hairy old ones.” According to one local cadre guiding foreigners through Peking: “The Russian revisionists have very, very long arms.”

The Chinese, the leadership at any rate, seem to expect at any moment an attack from the Soviet Union and take great pains to show foreigners how a peace-loving people protect themselves. Underneath one of the shopping streets in Peking, there is an air raid shelter capable of housing 10,000 people. Entrance to the shelter is in the middle of a clothing store. At the push of a button, the floor recedes revealing 44 steps leading down to the shelter 15 feet below. There is much elaborate explaining and speechmaking by the comrade in charge who keeps emphasizing that the shelter was dug by hand by workers from the area in their off time. It strikes the visitor as odd that such civic pride is showered on a hidey-hole in the ground where the masses can huddle during an attack.

By any objective standards, the country is poor. But nobody starves. Health care is readily available and the stock of consumer goods is increasing. Rationing is still in effect in China. Coupons are necessary for instance, to buy cotton products. Before a man can buy a new battery for his radio, if he has a radio, he must turn in the old one. Yet the stores are usuallyjammed. The post-Liberation generation has now grown up and married and is looking for more consumer goods. One of the problems facing the regime, of course, is providing the goods and the money to buy them. Peking’s main shopping area is the Wang Fuching Street, near the Peking Hotel. The largest department store is poorly lit and not very warm. Most of the light comes in through large windows on each floor. On the first floor are hundreds of counters stocking household items like lamps, cooking utensils, toys, books, stationery. The most popular counters sell radios, watches, televisions, camera equipment and records. A television costs the equivalent of $400; a Flying Pigeon bicycle, built in Shanghai, costs about 150 Yuan or the accumulation of two to three months salary of the ordinary worker. Women are discouraged from marrying until age 24 and in rural areas ask their prospective husbands for “three things that go round”—a watch, a sewing machine and a bicycle. Shoppers buy with grave care and attention. A PLA soldier closely examines an expansion watch band; 10 minutes later, he is still studying it. In China, there is no haggling; the price is the price. Officials will deny that there is a black market in consumer goods. But a sign in Shanghai warns: “Let us resolutely put an end to all illicit markets. Let us support the rational order of the socialist market.”

Above all else, China is a working society. Whether on a commune, in a bank or driving a bus, people toil. They will work for instance in a handicrafts factory for eight hours a day, six days a week. Each craftsman has a quota to meet of so many cloisonné vases or pieces of carved jade or hand-painted bottles per day. For those who excel in their craft or go over their quota, there is usually an honors board posted prominently on the factory’s walls. In Shanghai, during Spring Festival, truckloads of comrades roll through the streets, with gongs beating, up to the house of an honored “advanced worker.” Everybody climbs out of the truck and, led by the band, marches to the advanced worker’s house and presents him with a symbol of appreciation.

More than 85% of the people work in non-urban areas. And nearly every visitor is taken to see a commune. Usually the commune is of the showcase variety whose inhabitants are used to inquisitive foreigners. The form runs like this: the tourists are bused out to the commune to be met by the Leading Comrades and an impromptu band of beautiful children waving colored

ribbons and singing welcome songs. Then the visitors are given a tea and have to sit through a 10-minute lecture from a leader on the increased production figures of the commune. Following this there is a seefor-yourself visit to one of the houses.

The commune of Ta-li, outside Canton, has 50,900 households and 69,000 inhabitants. It was begun in 1958. The workers are divided into 19 production brigades and 243 production teams growing and harvesting rice, vegetables, watermelons, peanuts and sweet potatoes. The leader of the commune is elected by the “masses” and everything is considered terribly democratic. The model home is comfortable, simply furnished and small. The floor of the main room is tiled and everything is clean. On one wall are two posters, Mao and Hua. Family photographs are clustered atop a chest. The woman of the house talks enthusiastically about her homelife, her husband and the commune. The husband quietly moves around the room handing out cigarettes and nibblies and beams at his ever-explaining wife. A few doors away is a not-so-model but more typical house. The floors are uncovered, the rooms smaller and more cramped, the lighting poor. The man who lives there proudly displays some carpentry work he has done upstairs. The guide explains that the second house “isn’t finished yet.”

The Chinese attitude toward foreigners is ambivalent. They are shy but at the same time are intensely curious. They want to know about Canadians, about Canadian weather, living conditions; they want to see baby pictures and ask what Americans are like. (“Us,” say the Canadians.) They know and talk about Norman Bethune and hockey. They do not like to make disparaging remarks about anything Chinese, yet will ask the foreigner for detailed criti-

cism of his visit. Collectively, the Chinese look to the world for technique but to themselves for application. They want to buy the world’s technology and bend it to their own use. A doctor in Shanghai admits quite candidly: “We are still a poor country, a developing country and we have to learn from you in the West.” Shanghai is the most outward looking of Chinese cities. Its 11 million residents are more used to seeing foreigners on their streets. The city still creates vestigial memories of the pre-1949 days when Shanghai was the plaything of the French, Germans and British. The architecture is mostly British. The streets wind and turn more gently than the perpendicular roads of Peking.

Politically, Shanghai is difficult to control. It has a revolutionary history—the Chinese Communist Party was founded here in 1921—and it was a stronghold of the Gang of Four. Its immense population and its contact with the trading ships of other countries make it more relaxed and cosmopolitan than Peking. In Shanghai the people tend to be more open and candid. At one point during a particularly inflating banquet, a young man asked me if Canadians were aware of a devastating series of stories about China by The Globe and Mail’s Peking correspondent, Ross H. Munro. (Last fall Munro explored and decried the lack of civil liberties in China. The series appeared in more than 300 newspapers around the world. Munro’s visa was not renewed by the Chinese.) The young man immediately switched from English to French and whispered: “The stories were very good; congratulations to Munro.” The fact that he knew about the stories in any other time would have been considered dangerous intelligence.

The Chinese like to tell foreigners that even in large cities like Shanghai there is very little crime, no thievery. While it is true that physical assault is almost unheard of, every Chinese locks his bicycle carefully and bicycle parking areas are often guarded. There is crime in China, but of course no attainable statistics. Law enforcement is carried out by the Public Security Bureau (the cops) and sometimes by the PLA (the army). The criminal justice system is a construct all of its own with little reference to common law societies. There are four courts; the Supreme People’s Court, which is national in scope; the High People’s Court; the Intermediate People’s Court and the Primary People’s Court.

A man accused of a crime is allowed only two trials. Most cases never get to court; they are settled at the work unit or neighborhood committee level. Judges are chosen from the masses and are picked for their “high political awareness.”

Most of the crimes that do get to court are offenses against property—theft, embezzlement and hooliganism. There are two types of capital crimes; one is an offense “which arouses the serious indignation of the masses.” The penalty is sum-

mary execution, by firing squad, usually within four days. The other capital crime is serious but does not gravely offend the masses. Someone convicted of this crime can be put under sentence of death for two years at which time the sentence can be commuted if the villain shows signs of remorse. If a foreigner gets in trouble with the law, the results can be harrowing. For instance, if a foreign resident of Peking accidentally injures a Chinese in a car accident, he is automatically at fault. If the Chinese dies as a result of the accident, the foreigner is kicked out of the country immediately and his company or embassy has to indemnify the government with a $50,000 payment.

Ruth Weiss is a tiny, dazzling woman with shining white hair, lazy blue eyes and vast pools of energy from which she fuels endlessly interesting conversations. She was born in Vienna 69 years ago and has lived in China for most of the past 38 years. She has two grown sons. She talks about China the way most people talk about their best friends. She sees the strengths and the many weaknesses in the system.

“I still remember the old China,” she says. “It’s so different now. Nowadays everything is done for the greatest number of people, not for one class or one group or even one man. There is a very real sense of pulling together. Now, we’ve made mistakes, many mistakes, but you must remember that in China everything is evolving, experimental.

“For a long time, the world told China what to do. But now no matter what course China takes it will be China’s way, not the world’s.”

China’s way, at least the latest version of it, is being hailed as the New Long March, a striding toward material well-being and modernization, named after Chairman Mao’s great military accomplishment in 1935. Whether this means more turning outward to the world and an internal relaxation of rigid Maoism, only the Chinese know.^