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REPORT FROM CHINA

Posted by Indian Vanguard on August 27, 2007

Some members of WPRM-Britain recently travelled to China and were able to observe various aspects of the lives of the Chinese people. This is their report of their experiences although limited in time. WPRM-Britain hopes that comrades and friends can also write reports on their travels abroad in order to deepen our understanding of the lives of the people in different countries around the world.
We would be very happy to attend meetings and do presentations and slideshows of our experiences in China. Contact us at wprm_britain@yahoo.co.uk and check out our website at www.wprm.org.
Arriving in Beijing
Driving from Beijing capital airport the first thing we noticed were the huge 16 lane roads clogged with traffic. Air pollution was also evident straight away, making it more difficult to breath. Tall, modern apartment buildings were in various stages of construction all over the place, but we were staying in an ex-state built residential area. Everywhere was dusty but tall trees lined the pavements. Elderly Chinese wearing clothes reminiscent of the Mao era sat in groups playing chess or mahjong, or exercising in an enclosed area of fitness machines, a sight that would be unbelievable on a British estate! One woman sold quarter pineapples on a stick, peeled with an angular knife, selling at 1 yuan each (about 6.5 pence). We were renting a room in a bed-sit with no kitchen and poor sanitation, though with central heating. The daily rent was 80 yuan a day. Very old bicycles and tricycles lined the streets, interspersed by the sight of a dark coloured car with black tinted windows.
The Great Wall and Tian’anmen Square
On the second day we visited the Great Wall, symbol of China and a top destination for foreigners and Chinese alike.
Apart from the stunning spectacle of the wall snaking up and down the mountains, we were struck by the number of people selling all kind of merchandise to tourists. One 65 year old woman described herself to us as a farmer, unable to make a living except for lugging goods up the slopes in the already warm sun, marking the coming of summer.
The next day we visited Tiananmen Square . Travelling there on the bus cost us 1 yuan and on the underground 5 yuan, and we saw the real state-led effort of construction before next year’s Olympic Games. While now there are only 3 lines on the underground, by next summer there will be 13. We heard from the people that a fortnight before, one of the tunnels of a new line had collapsed, killing half a dozen workers, evidence of the importance of speed over people’s lives. Walking out of the underground we caught our first glimpse of Tian’anmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, with the portrait of Mao sitting in the centre. On either side of the portrait are two giant size slogans: “Long live the People’s Republic of China ” and “Long live the unity of the peoples of the world”. Lining up in front were dozens of Chinese waiting to be photographed in front of the portrait of New China’s first Chairman. South of this was the square itself, the largest in the world, flanked by the Great Hall of the People, Mao’s mausoleum standing in the centre, though closed at present for renovation.
Everywhere we were approached by hawkers, mostly quite old, selling Mao watches, badges, postcards and even bilingual editions of the Little Red Book. Hawkers sell their goods starting at least 10 times higher than the final price we agree on. We guess this is a combination of the disparity between the economies of the West and China , as well as because of financial desperation. Unlike most places, the toilets here were obviously catering for foreigners, with clean Western style toilets. In the Summer Palace in Beijing , which was plundered and destroyed by the colonialist powers of Britain and France on more than one occasion, we also came across clean and hi-tech sanitation, in stark contrast to the sanitation in most of the parts of the country we saw.
Interview with Lao Zhang
One of the biggest problems in Beijing at the moment is the destruction of the local housing and the reolocation of its residents, providing a great opportunity for corruption. We met up with one man who was living in an area which was to be demolished, and in fact every house except for his had already been demolished by a private construction company. The compensation given does not match the local housing prices, but the man we met, Lao Zhang, who had lived here for 23 years, was refused compensation because he is not from Beijing . The local government has not only failed to issue a residence permit for Lao Zhang before but is also now turning a blind eye to the company carrying out the demolition. Lao Zhang is living in a rundown house in a former residential area and all other houses have been reduced to rubble. They are offering him no compensation and trying to use scare tactics to make him either move out or accept inadequate compensation.
“Inside I feel completely chaotic. At the moment I feel like I am having a battle with the company, but they have a machine gun and I only have a pistol.”
After interviewing Lao Zhang we went for dinner. Lao Zhang would hardly eat anything until making sure everyone was full, very different from the customs in Europe . We found out that the greeting here, instead of “hello” is “have you eaten?” Below is the transcript of the interview:

Interview with Lao Zhang
26th April 2007, in Jishuitan, Deshengmennei, Beijing .
Q: Where are you from and why did you come to Beijing ?
A: I am from Jiangjiazhuang Village in Dingxing County , Hebei Province. I came to Beijing following my marriage to a Beijing resident.
Q: When did you come to Beijing ?
A: In the spring of 1985.
Q: What job did you have before you came here?
A: I was a farmer (nongmin). The reason my problem is still unresolved is mainly because I don’t have a Beijing residence permit ( hukou).
Q: What was life like in your village?
A: The life of a farmer in China is very difficult. Every day I was working in the fields and there was nobody to help me, I didn’t have any family except for a brother but we never worked together.
Q: Are you employed now and what sort of work have you been doing in Beijing ?
A: I am not working at the moment. I have never had a job with a contract and have never worked for more than 4 months at a time. I have always been working for other people, usually doing business like selling fruit and vegetables on the roadside.
Q: How much could you earn over the course of a year?
A: My wages would average out at about 600-700 yuan per month (about £40-£48). Now I have to live on savings, but they are nothing to talk about.
Q: How did you get this house?
A: It was given to me by my wife’s family when we married. Now we are no longer together, but as part of our separation we agreed I would keep the house.
Q: When did you hear about the company offering compensation for everyone to leave?
A: In April or May of 2006.
Q: What was the reaction of the neighbours?
A: They were mostly happy and signed contracts quite quickly.

Q: How much compensation did they get?
A: It was different for different people. Large houses and small houses did not get the same, and it depended on how many family members there were. If you argue with the company then you can get more. A house like mine could get around 300,000 yuan (about £20,000), but others got 800,000 or even one million yuan.
Q: What did the company say to you?
A: They claimed the house belonged to my ex-wife and not to me, and that I didn’t have a residence permit. I think that according to law the house belongs to me. The company told me they had compensated my ex-wife but my son, who lives with my ex-wife, told me she had received nothing.
Q: As you were married to a resident of Beijing , shouldn’t you have been eligible for a residence permit?
A: I am not sure, I think so. I know of others in the same situation as me who were give one, but I never followed it up.
Q: What have the company offered you?
A: They haven’t offered anything, they just asked me to tell them how much I think I should get.
Q: What have you asked for?
A: First I asked for a house in the same area and of a similar size. When they refused I asked for the money equivalent, about 25,000 yuan, but they rejected that as well and have not said anything else to me.
Q: What do you plan to do about this?
A: The only choice I have is to stay here. The government has a policy that no-one can be evicted without compensation, so I have the law on my side.
Q: Have you talked with government officials about this?
A: No. They are useless because I don’t have any money to offer them or any connections ( guanxi), so they won’t even bother talking to me.
Q: Are you worried about being evicted without compensation?
A: Extremely.
Q: Have there been any threats?
None yet, the company would need to go through all sorts of legal processes before anything could happen, such as bulldozering my house.
Q: Have you heard of any other people in this kind of situation?
A: Not many, but I have heard of others, and I know one person in the same situation as me, without a residence permit, who has the same problem.
Q: If they evict you without compensation how would you survive?
A: I would have no way to make a living, I could rent somewhere but my savings are not enough.
Q: How do you feel about the situation?
A: Inside I feel completely chaotic. At the moment I feel like I am having a battle with the company, but they have a machine gun and I only have a pistol.
Still in Beijing
Behind the façade of new, modern tower blocks lie warrens of houses along alleyways. The areas were run down and dirty and lacking in natural light, but solar water heaters adorned some roofs. People made their living selling street food or repairing bicycles. We were able to find that the average wage for a worker in Beijing in McDonald’s is 6.5 yuan per hour (about 40pence), while a security guard can earn around 1200 yuan per month, (about £80).
One interesting conversation occurred over dinner, when the owner of a small restaurant we ate in started talking to us about his love of philosophy, especially dialectical materialism, which he saw as a tool to help analyse society and solve people’s problems. He praised Mao’s thinking and lamented that this is not taught in universities anymore. We also found that traditionally China has had no bars or pubs and eating out is a luxury for most Chinese. Next to the restaurant was a hairdresser’s, which at night became a brothel. People told us that prostitution and AIDs are widespread and growing fast and that the government largely ignores both issues.
Heading to the North West
For Mayday many Chinese are given one week of holiday, and that week we planned to travel to Yan’an and to try to see what life is like in the countryside. Later we found out that during this week 46 million train tickets had been sold in that week, and more than 400 million bus tickets were sold! Most of the people travelling were students returning home for the week. At the time though we were not really aware of this, and queued for an hour to buy tickets for the 12 hour journey to Xi’an, eventually unable to get sleeper tickets and having to make do with a hard seat. Tickets can only be reserved 5 days in advance, producing more of a rush to get them, and you can only buy tickets leaving the same city you are in, with no way of getting a return ticket. What’s more touts line the queues in the stations, buying and selling tickets. This backward ticket selling system contrasted completely with China ‘s technological advancements, such as their recent capability of shooting down one of their satellites in space.
On the way to the train station to catch our train to Xi’an we had an interesting conversation with a taxi driver, most of whom always seem very eager to talk and very open. He works 10-12 hours per day, 7 days a week for a monthly salary of 3000 Yuan (part of which he has to use to pay for the petrol he uses as a taxi-driver). This is compared to the owner of the company who the driver claimed owns 2000 taxis in Beijing and has a monthly salary of about one million yuan! The driver compared his own financial gains since the start of the 1980s with the social losses. In 1980 he only earned 35 yuan per month, while working for the government. But at that time he didn’t have to worry about health care or the education of his children. He also enjoyed cultural activities along with his wife, organised by the state, such as film showings and operas. Now he hasn’t seen one film in the last three years, health care and education are expensive, and all their money goes into saving in order to afford this when it is needed. As we were pulling up to the station, he said that Mao was a great leader who cared about the masses, unlike the corrupt leaders today.
On the train, travelling through Beijing municipality, Hebei , and Shanxi provinces we observed run down areas as well as numerous high-rise blocks and numerous construction sites. Out of towns and in the countryside, from our modern, electric, double-decker but over-staffed train, we could clearly see that agriculture was not mechanised, farmers were mostly working by hand, often with hoes. The problem of overstaffing seems to be endemic; in shops, banks, restaurants, train stations and on trains there were usually at least twice the number of staff necessary.
Xi’an
Xi’an is the capital of Shaanxi province, a big city but not as developed as Beijing . Whilst we were waiting for a space in the youth hostel we went to rest in Revolution Park . There were many people singing and playing music there for leisure, but also a relic of the not-so-long-ago collective past. Amusingly we fell asleep on the grass and before long were woken up. I expected to be told off by a park worker for sleeping on the grass, but in fact we were woken by three elderly women warning us that sleeping that way we could develop joint aches in later life!
The youth hostel adjoined a museum, the former command centre of the Eighth Route Army. The hostel was decorated with photos of Zhou Enlai as well as Edgar and Helen Snow and Norman Bethune, the revolutionary Canadian doctor who gave his life working with the Communist Party during the anti-Japanese war.
In the bar there were ornaments depicting Mao and a Cultural Revolution era poster with the slogan in Chinese of “Grasp Revolution, Promote Production!” The hostel mainly catered for foreigners but many middle class Chinese were also using the hostel. The workers were wearing Eighth Route Army uniforms while serving Western food, playing Western music and showing Hollywood films every night to please foreigners, mainly Westerners. In the evening we sat round playing guitar and many people joined us in the music. One person who joined us was a middle-aged man from the US who had put all his belongings in storage in Colorado to travel around the world. Interestingly for us, on the issue of the occupation of Iraq, which he seemed to have some sympathy for, he believed that it had gone wrong because the US government mainly relied on British intelligence! A long debate ensued…
The museum of the Eighth Route Army was free and we just had to write our names and country in a guest book. The rooms where the leaders of the revolution in China stayed were decorated with their pictures and a conference room was decorated with large pictures of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao. There was an exhibition room on Helen Snow, celebrating her life and exhibition on foreigners from Canada , India , Germany and the US who had helped the revolution in China .
The centre of Xi’an is very modern and westernised including McDonald’s and Starbucks. In the Drum Tower there was a furniture museum showing many original designs of much of furniture still used around the world, showing just how creative the Chinese people are. Away from the centre is the Muslim quarter where people are densely packed along alleyways with very dim or no light. There are many small restaurants and many more street sellers. Unlike other areas people are not allowed to play cards or drink alcohol in restaurants. One woman told us that under Mao there was more morality but now girls walk around wearing virtually nothing. We asked the young workers in the restaurant how they felt as Muslims about the War on Iraq and the attacks on Muslims in the West. They answered that they are too “small”, meaning that they are the lowest level of society and don’t think about these things.
Lopsided Development
Huge modern buildings dominated the main roads heading north out of the city, but only a short distance behind was the contrast of smaller, old blocks and maze-like streets hiding badly-lit courtyards. In one area the workers were working in very unsafe conditions, balancing on bamboo scaffolding without hard hats. They wore no masks even though the air was thick with dust and some workers welded on the roadside with no goggles. Some workers working up high had no safety harnesses at all. We often saw elderly people going through rubbish bins looking for bottles, and around the rubbish dumps we saw children working through the rubbish as well.

Prostitution
In each area there are public bathhouses, which include hot and cold baths and saunas. This is mainly due to the lack of facilities at home which left most people having to rely on going to public baths, especially during the winter when the water was too cold. The more upmarket of these public baths also serve as places for prostitutes to congregate. Prostitution is mixed in with daily life. Shops act as hairdressers during the daytime and brothels at night, switching the red lights on as dusk falls. One street of shops in Xi’an were displaying cold drinks outside, but the women sitting on the steps made it obvious what the real purpose was. One woman ran up to tug the sleeve of one of our group, showing just how open prostitution is. We had read a few months back about a government effort to prevent prostitution in Shenzhen, a city in south China . Their method was to break into many different brothels at the same time and seize prostitutes and customers alike, dressing them in prison tunics and marching them round the city in an effort to shame them, an unbelievable response to a problem which has spiralled out of control since Mao’s time, and which ends up as the last resort of the migrant workers who find it a better opportunity than the almost slave-labour conditions in factories in south China.
Banpo Neolithic Village
One sight in Xi’an which we visited was the site of Banpo Neolithic village, said to be 6000 years old. The museum stressed the fact that at that time society was matriarchal, surely a fading reference to Engels’ Origin of the Family, State and Private Property. The museum was badly preserved, and the local area was heavily polluted, the air being thick with dust which made us all short of breath by the time we had walked from the bus stop to the museum.
Journey to Yan’an
On the bus trip from Xi’an to Yan’an we had hardly left Xi’an bus station before we were held up in a traffic jam for an hour or so. The cause soon became clear, a van had hit into the rear end of a car. The only damage caused was to the cover of the rear indicator, so very minimal. However, the policy in this situation is to leave the two cars in the position they stopped and to wait for the police to arrive, even though this blocked up the traffic completely. The police arrived after 10 minutes but spent another 40 speaking with both parties of the incident. Eventually they moved the two vehicles to the side of the road. This incident really showed the power of the police, they are able to decide on whose fault the accident was at the scene where it took place, giving tremendous opportunity for bribes and corruption where the person least able to bribe will be found guilty.
The road to Yan’an soon left the flat plains around Xi’an and entered a very hilly area, making us all imagine the soldiers arriving at the end of the Long March, and settling in a place suitable to continue People’s War. The most remarkable thing about the journey was just how modern the infrastructure was. Yan’an is not a large city, but the roads from Xi’an were large and well constructed, frequently passing through tunnels and going over elevated roads, with electronic signs on the roadside. We passed industrial towns, where workers’ houses were situated right next to the factories and the air again thick with dust.
Yan’an itself is situated in a valley in between steep mountains, but high-rise buildings now hide the natural environment. On one side a factory and power station were visible, and at the centre of the city was a huge bridge over a river that only produced a trickle of water. A huge department store four floors high stood in the city centre, selling designer clothes at western prices, and standing in contrast to the small local market which stood opposite, selling goods affordable to most Chinese.
“Yan’an today is not the same as the Yan’an before”
Mayday Parades
On May the First there was no celebration, we asked around but there was no special event being held on that day. By mid-morning we heard drums in the street and looked out expectantly, hoping to see some sort of demonstration. Instead, we saw a parade with a large banner at the front proclaiming the name of a mobile phone company, urging people to choose China Unicom and showing the discounted prices available during the Mayday holiday. We saw further parades like this through the week, but this first one was the strongest, holding up the traffic on the main road. One Chinese friend had said to us before we set off, “Yan’an today is not the same as the Yan’an before”, but we had expected nothing quite as blatant as this.
Farmer’s Houses
We had heard before arriving in Yan’an from Chinese friends that is was possible to stay in the houses of farmers in the countryside just outside the city. While investigating this possibility however we discovered that the so-called farmer’s houses were really nothing but semi-smart hotels in the countryside inhabited by Chinese tourists and visiting cadres. After some more investigation we were able to find a family further up the valley side that were happy to put us up. The family consisted of a man who was a road-sweeper, his wife, his mother-in-law and his small baby. We were given a kang to sleep on, a huge stone bed that can be heated in the winter. The family had two rooms, one of which served as a bedroom and a kitchen. They had electricity, a television, a landline telephone and also mobile phones. A poster on a wall outside advertised a “farmer’s mobile phone” and displayed a picture of a smiling farmer. However, the village lacked running water, and they had to walk down the steep mountain slope to fill up two buckets of water, carrying them back on a pole over the shoulders. There were two public toilets on our slope, each of which was a small hut with a hole in the ground dropping half a metre into a maggot-infested pit. The smell was unbearable, but we heard that this human waste would be used as fertiliser in the fields. The village was in stark contrast to how most people live in the West, as well as to the middle class areas in the large cities, showing the real lopsidedness of China ‘s development, with some modern appliances available but still no access to running water.
Today’s Communist Party in Yan’an
The family cooked for us, usually consisting of noodles or steamed bread with some pickled vegetables or cucumber and potato. While we were eating, we noticed they generally ate plain noodles sometimes with a bit of cucumber. This contrasted sharply with our experience in one of the official “farmer’s houses” where we had lunch one day. On asking for a meal which the farmers normally eat, we were recommended buying the most expensive dish of mutton on the menu. This really demonstrated that the façade of “farmer’s houses” is used by the Communist Party cadres to show that they are intent on understanding the farmers. In reality however, they end up missing the target completely. The car park outside was full of black cars with tinted windows, the sign of the party cadre, but 50 metres up the steep slope seemed too much for them. That the Communist Party in China today lacks a revolutionary character was already obvious to us, but the reasons they need to maintain a pro-Mao and pro-masses line soon became more clear to us.
Mao amongst the Chinese masses
We spent one day looking around the revolutionary sites of Yan’an, including various former offices and residences of Mao, Zhu De and Zhou Enlai, as well as the site of the 7 th Party Congress, the rooms where Mao wrote On Contradiction, On Practice and On Protracted People’s War, and the place where Mao delivered his famous talk at the Yan’an Forum of Literature and Art. One of the most striking things was the number of Chinese tourists visiting the area.
While we saw not one westerner, we spoke to Chinese who had come from different parts of the country, including as families but also youth. There was a real respect for the revolutionary heritage of the CCP and especially of Mao himself. Youth dressed in old Eighth Route Army uniforms and lined up for photos in front of statues of the old leaders and portraits of Mao, shops were filled with Mao badges, busts and posters. Some visitors left un-smoked cigarettes on Mao’s old bed as a token gesture to the Chairman, but in general the museums were not kept well, with objects not encased and rubbish left in the rooms by some people.

However, the atmosphere was exciting, and it felt a real privilege to be in such a place. To see so many Chinese tourists in such an atmosphere really helped us understand the pride with which the Chinese people think about Mao, as well as their closeness to their former chairman. One of our members was wearing a Mao t-shirt and was frequently given thumbs up signs by passers by. Ultimately, we realised that this deep respect and love for Mao and the revolution is the main reason why the Communist Party needs to maintain a veneer of ‘serving the people’ and visiting “farmer’s houses”.
Deeper into the Countryside
One day we hiked from the village where we were staying along a dirt track into the countryside. Again we crossed a river that was hardly flowing, but there was a good water system up in the terraced fields as well as some agricultural machinery. In general, however, there was a lack of mechanisation that showed the necessity of human labour. Arriving in villages we would find them empty but for the very elderly and the very young. In the fields the farmers were planting watermelons, digging holes and filling them with water, placing the melon in and then rolling polythene sheets over the top, which would act like a mini greenhouse. Some of the farmers worked on collective land that belonged to the village, while others told us they owned the land they were working on. While most of China’s farmland was de-collectivised from the early 1980s, we were left wondering how agriculture could be mechanised with farmers working on such small patches of land. Again, the villages were all electrified, with large pylons crossing the hilltops. There were no safety measures around them, and sometimes the lines were very close to the ground beneath, with no precautions taken by farmers working on the land below. The villages were also without running water, although the road system was quite good. On a hilltop there was a field where ten farmers, men and women were working in a blazing sun. They greeted us with respect, gave us water and told us that they grow watermelons and sweet corn. The field was a collective field 6 “mu” (1 mu=approximately one-sixth of an acre) in size where everyone including farmer’s children worked. They told us that they had to “work very hard everyday, like all farmers in China”.
In a nearby village we met a couple, who told us about conditions in the village. They said that people in general in their village work 11 hours a day, every day without break but the couple we were speaking to worked less (7 hours )because they are older.
Also the male in the couple said that people in the village near Yanan had no meat to eat and ate mainly sweet potatoes and eggs. They told us that they got electricity in the village in 1978, and a 6 metre wide road was built in 1984. They grow melons but mostly eat potatoes and never eat meat or rice. He said the only hospital is in Yan’an, which is very expensive. His children are working or studying in Yan’an. The woman farmer had a pair of pliers in her hand and she explained that she was repairing the pipe work in their house. They told us that they have a mobile phone and television, but that the programs were rubbish and stupid. He described Chinese people as having “bad thinking” now, that they have become individualists and they cheat each other to get money. However, we said that we believe Chinese people are clever and he agreed that a Chinaman, Chairman Mao, was a great thinker.

“You can speak against them, here we are just scared of them.”

After this conversation, as we were winding our way up a small track, a young boy aged 15 invited us to his house. He told us that he is a Junior Middle School student in Yan’an and wants to be a teacher. But at home he works in the field and has no activities outside work except watching the black and white TV. He said he would remain in his village once he finishes his studies. When we asked him what he did for leisure, outside of the time he was studying or working and he made clear that actually he gets very little leisure time at all as when he is not studying the only thing he does is help his family in the fields. His father came in and started talking to us as he was having his lunch of noodles. He offered us lunch and when we declined he gave us delicious fresh apples. He said that working and living in a village is very hard, and that we from the West wouldn’t be able to cope with the hardship. He said that production was good and thought that this period is better than in Mao’s time because they can keep their own chickens. However, he said there is now rampant corruption everywhere, especially among local officials, which has grown in recent years and which is significantly harming the incomes of people in his local area due to demands for corrupt payments. He said the national government is also corrupt and rich people can buy their way into official posts. When we said officials in Britain are also corrupt he said yes, “but in your country you can speak against them, here we are just scared of them.”
Back in the hotel in Yan’an we were again struck by the lopsidedness of the development, in a high-rise building with modern facilities, call-girl agencies phoned the room at night. The KFC was packed with middle class chicken lovers, who could pay 23 Yuan for 2 pieces of chicken and chips, while most others who ate outside the home ate in street restaurants for less than 5 yuan.
“You can speak against them, here we are just scared of them.”
Returning to Beijing
The train journey back to Beijing lasted 16 hours but seemed to pass quickly. One man was keen to speak with us. He sat down next to us and the university students we were sitting with and started to tell them that they don’t understand anything about the Cultural Revolution, which had its good points as well as its bad points. He talked to us mainly about the equality for the people during that time, as well as the development of rural China such as the countryside around Yan’an which benefited from educated youth being sent down there. Later he told us that if China had a system like US or Britain the whole country would be reduced to chaos.
On returning to Beijing we took a taxi back to our hostel. The driver asked us where we had been travelling and when we told him Yan’an he squeezed the leg of the man in the front seat and loudly and enthusiastically exclaimed “ah, Yan’an!” He described Mao as the greatest leader China has had, committed to equality and improving the living standards for all unlike the current government which only serves the rich, “a tiny proportion of the population” he said, pinching his fingers together to demonstrate just how small. We asked him about the traffic in Beijing , notoriously congested, and he complained about the government policy of encouraging private cars and individualistic consumption, only benefiting the rich while the poor had to cope with worse public transport. He complained about the lack of education and health care, which he claimed was too expensive for the ordinary people. He worked one day on and one day off, 14-hour shifts, and could earn around 2500 Yuan per month.
Speaking to a Former Red Guard
One day we were eating in a small restaurant in central Beijing and started speaking with a man and his wife who were working there. The restaurant was run collectively by three families because the rent and other expenses are so high, and this couple were one of the three partners involved. The man was also a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution and later proudly recounted to us being part of the one million strong crowd in Tian’anmen Square which was greeted by Chairman Mao. After the meal they invited us back to their house to continue our discussions and we had to pass through a very narrow alleyway full of junk. The house was very basic, and like most of the houses in this area, and like most working class areas in the city, there was no toilet, forcing the family to use the public toilet outside on the road, which, according to a news report on China Central Television, are extremely unhygienic with an unbearable smell, and are going to be replaced by new ones before the Olympics, renovation for foreigners and not for the local people who are forced to use them all the time. The house was very small, with one bedroom, a storeroom, and a living room of about 5m by 2.5m. It was situated in an old alleyway right in the centre of the city. Some of the workers also sleep in the restaurant after it is closed. Below is a transcript of our discussion with the couple:
Q: How has the position of women changed in China after the revolution?
A(Woman): Under feudalism many women were not even allowed out of the house, there was a definite division of labour and women’s place was in the house. This was signified by the practice of binding their feet. Women had no chance for education, but all of this changed after the liberation and women gained equality.
Q: What about after 1976? Although there was equality for women after 1949, from watching television here and seeing advertising it seems like women are still treated as commodities. What do you think?
A(W): No, by looking at my family you can see there is an equal division of labour and men and women are equal. My husband has to do as much work as I do.
Q: You said that you were a Red Guard and you once saw Mao on Tian’anmen, can you tell us what happened in the Cultural Revolution? (The answer was a long but very patiently explained talk about the chronological progression of the Cultural Revolution but below are the main points)
A(Man): If we look at why the Cultural Revolution happened we need to look far back in Lao Mao’s thinking as well as the history of New China. Firstly in Mao’s writings we could see a development leading up to the Cultural Revolution, such as from his essay On Contradiction. He said that everything divides into two. Then we can look at the rectification campaigns, the 3-anti and 5-anti campaigns against corruption and bureaucracy, and eventually, in the mid-1960s there was the discovery of the corruption of some top leaders in Tianjin city. This was alongside the realisation that capitalist restoration had taken place in the USSR . This is why the idea of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was developed. The movement started from the students who were encouraged to write big character posters and to travel around the country, we had free journeys on the train system at that time. We went to see the situation in the country for ourselves and to learn firsthand from the people there. In every factory and place of work people split into two camps, those supporting their leaders and those opposing their leaders. This led to some fighting, sometimes using guns. As a Red Guard I went first to the city of Lanzhou in Gansu Province in the northwest. When we got there workers factions were fighting and even though we were unarmed we set straight in to prevent the fighting. However, at this time workers stopped working, students didn’t attend classes, and peasants also stopped working. In Shanghai some workers kept on going, and Mao used them as an example. He advocated non-violent struggle above all else, saying that we should rely on our mouths, our brains and our pens. But in some cases the army was called in to stop the fighting. Eventually the top capitalist-roaders from the party were kicked out, like Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping and Tao Zhu, some other leaders had notices hung from their necks and had to attend sessions where they would be criticised by the masses. Deng Xiaoping’s son jumped from a window and broke his leg, now however he is an important government official. At that time, government officials earned the same or even less than the masses, now corruption is so common that they earn countless times more than most of us.
Q: How did the Lin Biao affair affect people’s thinking during the Cultural Revolution?
A(M): At that time Lin Biao was criticising Mao from the left, saying that he was not paying enough attention the point of view of the masses. But his words made no sense to us, everything he said was not played out in practice, and so we couldn’t understand it. His coup failed, and we found out that although he was left in form, he was really a rightist in essence, not relying on the masses. One interesting thing was that the government always claimed that his plane crashed in Mongolia because of a lack of fuel, but most masses in China think that it was shot down by the secret services.
Q: During the Cultural Revolution, Mao called for many more cultural revolutions in the future, that one would not be enough to deal with the problem of capitalist restoration. How do you think about that?
A(M): Yes, if Mao was alive today he would certainly say that capitalism has been restored in China . Although at that time we were quite poor, we didn’t have any worries, everyone was equal and we all had enough. At that time we could earn about 40 yuan a month between us, now we can earn 4000 yuan. However, we didn’t have as many dishes on our table like we had tonight, but our values were different. We lived collectively, now everything is so individualistic, we have to fight against each other.
A(W) At that time we felt very safe, up until the end of the 1970s we still left our doors unlocked at night. Now we can earn more but we have so many worries, mainly paying rent and also health care, and education for our children. Now we have to really pay a lot of attention to our health care because it is so expensive. Before it was free and provided for us, but now it is different. The government provide a scheme for people who have retired, because there are no pension schemes for people like us. They ask for 1300 yuan every year in exchange for paying 85% of all of our medical fees. If we catch a cold or a fever then we will avoid going to the hospital, but imagine if we have a serious problem and need an operation that costs 30,000 or 40,000 yuan. There is no way we would be able to pay for it. But even the 1300 yuan a year is difficult for us, so what most Chinese people do is that they register one person for the scheme, and then many people will use that card when they get ill, that way we can save money. But our biggest problem is still rent. For example the rent of this restaurant, which we need to run to provide for our living, is so expensive that three families have had to work together to pay for it. Before we didn’t have to worry about questions like this, but now the rent is going up all the time, not to mention the fees for electricity and water.
Q: Do you keep up with international issues, like the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq ?
A(W): Now we talk mostly about local issues. Individual families don’t really talk about these things. You know we are so busy with other things that we never have the time to find out this kind of information.
Muslim Hui minority
With our trip to Beijing coming to a close we had an interesting discussion with workers in a small Muslim restaurant in a rundown area. Opposite the restaurant, on the other side of the road, was a thirty storey high skyscraper with marble facia. Outside was an extravagant water feature, surprising considering the water shortage in the country. The man was young and told us he was a Muslim from Lanzhou city in Gansu Province , ethnically a ‘hui’ Chinese, who are Muslims but are more integrated into Chinese society than the minorities who live in the border regions. They had moved to Beijing to start this restaurant. When we asked him if they drank beer he replied adamantly “of course not, but we have to sell it, there is no other way.” He explained to us that as Muslims in China they don’t really suffer any problems. Their religion and culture is respected and even encouraged, and the One Child Policy does not apply to them, they are allowed to have as many children as they like.
“We would all like to help the people of Iraq , but we just don’t know how.”
We asked him about the war on Iraq and the increasing persecution of Muslims in western countries, and what he thought about this. He replied that they keep up with news from around the world, and feel very bad about this: “We would all like to help the people of Iraq , but we just don’t know how.” We asked him about the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist and he was surprised, he hadn’t heard of this but said that of course it would provoke all Muslims. However, he talked of the inhumanity of Saddam Hussein’s execution, and that he had seen it on the internet.
Students
The area of Beijing we were staying in was the student quarter of the city, packed with universities and colleges such as People’s University, National Minorities University , Tsinghua University and Peking University . We spoke with one of the students from Peking University , one of the most prestigious universities in China . So prestigious it seems that it has decided to retain its imperial name of Peking University rather than modernising in line with the simplification of the Chinese language organised by the Communist Party in the 1950s. We spoke with a postgraduate student who was studying the history of the relationship between China and the USA in the 1970s after Nixon’s visit. A very well spoken man, the student told us he had access to all sorts of academic literature from the West. When we asked him if there was much discussion about government policies, and specifically whether anyone questions whether China is really a “socialist society with Chinese characteristics” he chuckled and replied that almost nobody believes that, almost everyone knows China ‘s economy is now capitalist. For students and academics in China this is a no go area, and if anybody tried to publish an article demonstrating that China was capitalist then they would be in big trouble. However, he told us that in academic circles questions such as these are regularly discussed and that there is great interest. Declaring himself against China ‘s capitalist development he told us about the stark and disgusting inequality in the country, especially in the countryside, and the corruption of the government. On hearing us give not dissimilar sentiments about the British government he lamented “it seems nobody will ever be satisfied with their government!”
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