“We think too small, like the frog at the bottom of the well. He thinks the sky is only as big as the top of the well. If he surfaced, he would have an entirely different view.” Mao Tse-Tung
It’s 60 years today since Chinese Communist Party set up the People’s Republic of China, but the well-springs run deep. The party princes and the military toads will be able to see clearly, now the rain has gone, the intimidating display of military firepower and fireworks from the top of the biggest Beijing wells later tonight when the Anniversary cranks up.
The view from further down the well will be increasingly more constricted for those who have been shafted. Well-being in the People’s Republic depends very much on your place in the respective party, army, and economic hierarchies. Several family dynasties have hit the trifecta. Chairman Mao would be spinning in his grave today if his embalming arrangements were less constraining.
It’s been a monolithic regime of two halves, with the referee firmly in control. The first 29 years, from the 1949 earthquake and tsunami, included the not so Great Leap Forward of 1958 and the Great Leap Backward of the Cultural Revolution for a decade from 1966. The second half has seen the young Red Guards replaced, with impeccable timing, by geriatric new and true blue capitalist theorists who made political capital out of economic and social necessity and saved the country from falling apart under the weight of its socialist aspirations and inefficiencies.
New Zealand-and especially Canterbury and Otago- connections with China are historically strong. They started with the arrival in the South Island of Chinese miners and merchants during the ninetenth century gold rushes. But the strongest reciprocal link was forged by Rewi Alley, Springfield-born old and new China hand . Alley was a writer, educator, social reformer and potter and probably wrote more than any other foreigner about 20th century China before and after the Communist revolution.
He dedicated 60 years of his life to the cause of the Communist Party of China, well before it took over in 1949 and was a key figure in the establishment of Chinese Industrial Cooperatives, and technical training schools, without university pretensions.
He was named after Rewi Maniapoto, a Maori chief famous for his resistance to the British military during the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s. Alley’s father was a teacher, and Rewi attended primary school at Amberley and Christchurch Boys’ High School. His mother, Clara, was a leader of the New Zealand suffrage movement.
In 1916 Alley joined the New Zealand Army and served in France. While there he met some Chinese men who had been sent to work for the Allied Armies. This piqued his interest in China. After the war, Alley tried farming in New Zealand. In 1927 he decided to go to China. He moved to Shanghai and became a fireman.
It wasn’t long before he was fuelling political conflagration. He gradually became aware of the poverty in the Chinese community and the racism in the Western communities. After a famine in 1929 made him aware of the plight of China’s peasants, his politics turned from sentimental imperialism to urgent social reform.
In the words of Edgar Snow’s job on Alley’s work: “Where Lawrence brought to the Arabs the distinctive technique of guerilla war, Alley was to bring China the constructive technique of guerilla industry….”
Following the Communist victory over the Nationalists in 1949, Alley was urged to remain in China and work for the Communist Party of China. He strengthened his ties with the famous Yangste downstream swimming champion. Alley didn’t just go with the revolutionary flow; he helped irrigate it by pumping out political and vocational tracts praising the Party and the People’s Republic of China.
Alley remained unaware of-or blind to- China’s problems, including the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese peasants from famine during the brutal Great Leap Forward. This was reflected in his increasing isolation from the mass of China’s population as he lived in a special neighborhood and was specially looked after by the Party. Although imprisoned and “struggled with” during the Cultural Revolution, Alley remained committed to communism and bore no grudges. (His practical vocational instincts could have sparked some interesting discussion at the Jobs Summit earlier this year where a sense of urgency and a bit of gung-ho wouldn’t have gone amiss).
Gerald Hensley met Alley in China in 1973: “He was in his seventies, a bald, pink-faced man with bright blue eyes, and an inexhaustible flow of conversation. We sat and talked for most of an afternoon, with Rewi occasionally jumping up to fetch a book or check a point. He had, he said, lost the best of two libraries, once to the Japanese and again to the Red Guards, who had thrown out his collections and torn up his pictures in front of him. He was still bitter over their behaviour.”
On a more personal Wikipaedia note: “Anne-Marie Brady in Friend of China claims that Rewi Alley was a practicing homosexual. This is highly controversial, with people who knew him well saying they would have noticed.”[!]
Despite his amazing China Odyssey, Alley is probably less recognised in his birthplace Springfield than the couch potato odysseyist Homer Simpson, in whose dubious honour a pink donut statue was erected quite recently. That’s the way the historic cookie crumbles.
Today Chinese economics is a well grafted hybrid of Karl Marx and Adam Smith, with military crony capitalism in the ascendant. Former peasants still work for peanuts. The Little Red Book of Mao would blush to see what is being served up today in terms of economic orthodoxy in the The Little Blue Book. A new Green Appendix was even launched last week in New York.
Green bamboo shoots and economic and military tendrils are snaking down into the South Pacific and elsewhere. There’s not only a green elephant in the ward-room, you can see where it has been elsewhere. China has a pachydermic carbon footprint, but doesn’t want to be a carbon copy of any country in its response to Kyoto and Copenhagen. It does want to flex all its muscles and they’ll be bulging tonight after all the bulking up. Big powers will be powers.
At home the economic floor has certainly risen, but it is hard to get a foothold on the escalator to the penthose, which is inhabited by sons of the old military/party club. Today it’s a much more unequal game of Snakes and Ladders for most than when Mao took over in the wake of World War II and everybody shared the poverty burden. The average per capita income is still only US6,000, one eighth of the US figure.
60 years since the revolution, Mao’s stocks have fallen, though young male bridegrooms often wear a Mao tunic for the great matrimonial leap forward. The PRC is still politically very PC, while at the same time permitting new capitalist initiatives. However, the People are still awaiting Liberation from The Army and the other forces of the state.
Western business interests have had a big part to play in opening up the minds of China’s leaders, but business relationships, as Fonterra found out to its cost , can be too cosy and complaisant and lacking a clear articulation of Western values. It may be no use crying over spilt milk but clever Kiwi companies on the China watch need to learn from this milk run and keep their powder dry.
Christchurch’s regional academic links with China, forged by the University of Canterbury and the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology, include those with Hunan, Mao’s home province.
With the ageing gerontracocy still in power, the search is on for a new upstream Yangste swimming champion to take over the leadership. The last power transition was bloodless. What are the chances for a smooth transition to the next? The next decade is China’s-if it can resolve its internal tensions.
Doors are opening for those who, unfroglike, open their minds to new possibilities. New Zealand’s pioneering bi-lateral trade deal with China, put in place by the last Labour Government, was built on the equally pioneering New Zealand connections of Alley and a range of diplomatic initiatives and other contacts since the post-Korean years, when the red elephant was not just in the room, it was under the bed.
In the meantime, as bankers to the Yanks, in US Treasury Bonds They Trust. Despite the new confidence last year’s Olympics brought, a handy dry run for today’s celebrations, China is still porcelain fragile. The unresolved tensions are between a ruling and corrupt elite, worker rights and internet freedom. The key is democratising access to economic resources and fostering the growth of personal freedom and rights.
China’s own unique internal tensions are like the Pacific Tectonic Plate rubbing up against the Indian Plate. With a decent sized shake, the porcelain could still be split asunder and a new tsunami of political change unleashed. Then it would really be Red Sails in the Sunset.