1970s >> 1974 >> no-843-november-1974

Eyewitness: A Socialist in China

Ten months in China, October to August. Peking Language Institute, study Chinese, play table-tennis, holiday to Shanghai, visits to factories, May Day celebrations, Peking University, meet Heath, trip to Sian, back to Britain.


Thus the story of my stay in China. Among the first students to go to China since the Cultural Revolution, we were able to get closer to the Chinese people than other visitors, but even so a Wall (little rather than Great) remained. We could get beyond the pat phrases and slogans, but not to the extent that we wished.


No doubt a fair amount of this lack of familiarity is because visitors to China (the Chinese prefer to call one a “foreign friend” rather than a “foreigner”; or, if they are being polite, a “foreign guest”) are a race apart, receiving different treatment from that accorded to the Chinese themselves. It works two ways. To be served first in shops and given seats on crowded buses is all very well (and a “privilege” that it is impossible to refuse), but it does not make up for total exclusion from Chinese political processes and being unable to buy local newspapers and reference news-sheets.


In Hangchow, a friend and I were reading some wall-posters about local problems when a man came up, asked us which country we were from, and then insisted very firmly that we move on, saying, “Big-character posters are an internal affair of the Chinese.” The sometimes hysterical campaign against Antonioni’s film on China made the atmosphere particularly uncomfortable for anyone who walked around the streets with a camera. To walk about in Peking was to attract the attention of passers-by, while in some of the smaller towns rarely visited by tourists, where we were allowed twenty minutes or so to look round the shops, a crowd assembled to stare open-mouthed at us as if we were inhabitants of another planet — which perhaps we were. Chinese claims to be “internationalist” ring a little hollow after exposure to travel restrictions and to the intensely nationalistic cast of so much of Chinese propaganda.


Connected with treatment of “foreigners” was one of my deepest disappointments — the running of the Language Institute, where the “leadership” acted in a very highhanded, undemocratic and intolerant manner. Any action which they objected to was met by rejoinders that we must “obey the rules” and “respect Chinese customs” (which could clearly be interpreted to mean almost anything). Although we had been promised one when we first arrived, they refused to provide any kind of common room, or even a place for students to meet and discuss problems. They also refused to open up more than a small part of the Institute’s library — and would not believe that overseas students in Britain had the same library facilities as British students. They were quite happy to meet students’ “reasonable requests”, but reserved for themselves the right to decide what was “reasonable”.


I was therefore extremely glad to move at the beginning of May to the nearby Peking University to follow more specialist courses in Chinese history and literature. Here, in an environment enlivened by the presence of Korean and Vietnamese students of English, we were treated as adults rather than children, and covered much interesting ground. Language teaching at the Institute had been marred by an unwillingness to go far outside the texts studied, and with the emphasis merely on increasing one’s passive vocabulary, many students become bored, lazy and very disillusioned.


Fortunately there was more to life than study. For a start there was Peking itself, a city with centuries of history and many fascinating places. We went on coach trips to the Great Wall (which is truly unbelievable), the Ming Tombs, and other tourist spots. We could wander round the city’s parks and streets, searching out good restaurants and bookshops. Restaurants, by the way, provided one of the few chances to talk with Chinese from outside the academic world. Two holidays, to Shanghai, Hangchow and Nanking in winter, and to Sian, Yenan and Tachai in summer, included visits to beauty spots and also to factories and communes — these we visited in Peking too, and this enabled us to form in at least some detail a picture of how the Chinese live and work.


An average visit to a factory was organized as follows. First, an introduction to the factory, usually with statistics of size and production, by a member of its Revolutionary Committee. Then a more or less conducted tour of the workshops, followed by a session of questions and answers. Too often it was impossible to elicit satisfactory replies, but information on wage rates was easy to come by. Average wages, I should say, are less than £15 a month, while apprentices will earn half of this amount and technicians and highly-skilled craftsmen may earn three times as much. Wage levels should always be borne in mind when one reads correct, but misleading, statements about the cost of living in China — such as that a reasonable meal, including beer, can be had for 15p, or that a warm padded jacket costs £3. It is also worth noting that many different qualities of goods are available, and naturally enough they are on sale at different prices. So in China, as elsewhere under capitalism, one gets what one pays for, whether it is a matter of food, clothes or table-tennis bats.


Trade unions, which disappeared in the late ’sixties because they were found to be following the policies of the disgraced Head of State Liu Shao-chi’i, have been reconstructed in the last couple of years. But they bear little resemblance to trade unions as existing in the West, their main functions being to help solve production problems and organize the study of “Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung thought”. Thus, like other organizations such as the so-called democratic parties (which still exist but play a very minor role) they are mainly “transmission belts” by means of which Party directives and policies reach various sections of the Chinese working class.


In many factories one sees schoolchildren, perhaps only thirteen or fourteen years of age, working, for many if not all of them have to spend one month a year in a local workshop. At a knitwear factory in Peking, I asked if they received wages. The answer was no, and then another cadre interrupted to say, “But they don’t work on the night shift” !


After visits to a number of factories and conversations with Chinese students and others, the conclusion is that in China the worker is an instrument of production, a mere producer of wealth. A man will decide whether a woman is a suitable marriage partner largely on the grounds of how well she works at her job. A Chinese student told us that it is all right to have a “good time” on a Saturday night, but not on other evenings since this may interfere with production.


But only a minority of the Chinese live in cities or work in factories. Perhaps 80 per cent. of the population live in the countryside, in small villages organized into the people’s communes, which are themselves divided into brigades (normally of village size) and production teams (with several tens of families in each one). The economic status of commune members requires clarification. The Chinese call them “peasants”, but they are not peasants in the sense of agriculturalists who produce primarily for their own consumption on a family farm (owned or rented). For a start, the basic unit of production is the production team, not the single family; secondly, most land is “owned” by the collective not by the individual family; thirdly, their income is a mixture of cash and payment in kind. It is true that many commune members, besides working on collective land, also have their own private plots, where they produce for their own consumption or for private sale. But the importance of such plots varies considerably — for instance, in Hangchow we visited a brigade whose main crop was a particularly famous brand of tea, much of which is exported. Private plots and payment in kind were of minimal importance here, since it is after all difficult to live on tea. Income in communes is mainly allocated on the basis of work-points — a form of piece-work which means that commune members are more correctly described as rural proletarians.


On the communes women are not paid on an equal footing with men. Indeed the model brigade of Tachai were quite open about, and even proud of, the system they employ: for a full day’s work a man can earn up to a maximum of eleven work-points, but the most a woman can earn is eight and a half points. We were given two reasons for this. Firstly, women are physically weaker than men, and secondly, they work shorter hours since, for instance, they have to go home early in order to do the cooking!


One of the most striking discoveries after visiting several communes is the differing standards of living displayed. The tea-producing brigade mentioned above, with a crop which is dependable and much in demand, is comparatively well-off, its members living in solid two-storey houses built by themselves at a cost of about seven hundred pounds; while the inhabitants of the arid and mountainous Tachai have just one small room per family. This stark dependence on local soil conditions is chiefly attributable to the much-acclaimed policy of “keeping the initiative in our own hands”, which effectively maintains the distinction between poorer and richer areas. Chinese boasts as to their lack of reliance on outside help — whether at the local or national level — should not be taken at face value. At the Red Flag Canal in Lin Hsien, we went to a hydro-electric power station. This was held up to us as a fine example of “independence and self-reliance”, but inside was equipment from Austria, Switzerland and Czechoslovakia . . .


But inequality is apparent not merely between different areas, but among different people at the same place, say Peking. Quite apart from the wage differentials mentioned earlier, there are also startlingly different life-styles observable. It is quite common to sec people riding bikes that are literally falling apart with rust, or wearing clothes that have been patched again, while university professors wear smart suits and army officers ride around in big cars. As to the life led by the top rulers, one learns nothing.


When we arrived in China, there was a campaign taking place to “criticise Lin Piao and rectify one’s style of work”. It did not seem that this was being pursued very energetically, and so it was a great surprise when the movement against both Lin Piao and Confucius erupted to dominate newspaper front-pages and demand a great deal of time from the Chinese students. On the face of it, it is pretty unlikely — though not entirely impossible — that Lin, the former successor-designate to Mao Tse-tung who allegedly perished in 1971 after an unsuccessful attempt to kill the Chairman, was in reality a secret follower of the philosopher who lived and died in China two and a half millennia ago. If it is true, it speaks volumes for the lack of Socialist consciousness within the Chinese Communist Party. But the Chinese workers denounced Lin Piao on the sole basis of what the government had said about his deeds and beliefs. It would of course be naive to expect the Chinese authorities actually to publish the plans for Lin’s coup or extracts from his diary, but without such hard evidence it is not possible to accept the official account of the heresies claimed for him, which is what the Chinese appeared to do.


The above account is intended to be a straightforward description of some aspects of China today as seen through the eyes of a Socialist. No doubt supporters of China will object that a lot has been left unsaid, and too much emphasis placed on negative aspects. What, they will say, of the claimed achievements of new China — no homeless, no unemployed, the conquest of famine, education for all, health services where there were none before, engineering feats such as the Nanking Bridge ?


One could not deny that life in China now is far more secure than it was in 1949 after decades of civil war and Japanese invasion. Since then there have been twenty-five years of internal peace, ten years of aid from Russia, the opportunity to buy advanced technology from other countries — and a great deal of toil and suffering on the part of the Chinese working class. But while China can build bridges and huge gymnasia, negotiate to buy Concorde, and explode atomic bombs, it cannot provide decent housing and sanitary facilities for more than a tiny percentage of its population or allow its workers more than sixty non-working days in the whole year. And the basic question, surely, is how the wealth of China is produced, and the answer is that it is produced by exploited workers for accumulation and profit, just as in any other capitalist country.


Paul Bennett