Chapter Sixteen

Tides and Eddies

When a great tide is turning, the undertows can be dangerous and confusing. Eddies cloud the water with sand. Some creatures drown, and others are stranded on the beach. Scavengers may grow fat picking through the debris.

Communists and their critics alike, during 1978-83, would often attribute China's problems to `feudal thinking', left over from the past. It was a century since Chinese political thinkers had begun trying to bring their huge, lumbering state onto a forward-looking course, a course that would enable China to survive in the context of a larger world which, after centuries of exclusion, had finally managed to force itself upon the Chinese nation. Conservatives of the Imperial Court resisted it, and the Imperial system collapsed - whereas in Japan, the Imperial system had accommodated modernisation and has survived in modified form. Chinese Republican democrats, harried by an expanding Japan and by warlords fattened on the carcass of the Empire, failed to overcome the contradiction of their dependence, for support and administration, on a landlord and urban capitalist class accustomed to untrammelled privilege. China's new identity would only be forged in the

white heat of a huge catharsis, drawing on the ancient tradition of peasant revolt. Mao Zedong's monomania, his Class War against China's own past, struck a chord with those whose personal history had left them little but misery. It promised restored dignity to a haughty nation humiliated by `barbarian' foreigners.

But during Mao's thirty years of ascendance the revolutionary enthusiasm had become hysteria, the ideology had become a mystic Cult of Mao, and the furious energies of revolt had become self-destructive. This was the tide that was turning during my years in Beijing, giving way to a system of national government that was increasingly consistent, stable, and in the overall interest of the people. This did not mean that it was always rational, fair, or humane to individuals.

To be a foreigner in China was a position of privilege, and of challenge. China's rulers were determined to get from foreign countries the things they needed for China's own progress and security, to which purpose they promoted a wide range of developments in relations with foreigners and foreign countries. With the promise of their huge potential market, they attracted thousands of foreign salesmen to display their wares and offer inducements. Often, the `free sample' would be the end of the negotiations, and Chinese factories would labour to copy the foreign design. I lost count of the number of foreign businessmen who would assure me, flushed from a Beijing Duck dinner and a trot up the Great Wall of China with their hosts, that they had been promised specially favourable consideration in final negotiations.

I was present in the Great Hall of the People in 1981 when the world president of the Coca-Cola Corporation, Robert Goizueta, hosted a sumptuous banquet reception to celebrate the opening of a Coke-bottling plant in Beijing. Spurning the customary maotai for his toast, Goizueta asked the assembled senior cadres and politicians to join him in raising the familiar-shaped bottle to his lips, with the words `This is a great moment in the history of the world'. I had later bought a crate of Chinese Coca-Cola from the Friendship Store for a party, only to find that not one of the two dozen bottles had any gas in it.

I was also present at the first Public Dance held in China since the Cultural Revolution, a quaint affair under paper streamers in the Chinese-run International Club of Beijing, but charged with an electric excitement for its breaching of taboos. For a few months, foreign diplomats and businessmen danced with Chinese waitresses in increasingly elaborate hair-styles, as the craze spread like wild-fire through the urban youth of China.

There was dancing in the Great Hall of the People. An underground disco, with the latest Hong Kong tapes, sound system and flashing light-show, opened in the Minorities Palace of Culture in Beijing, where, for a time, foreigners and Chinese danced together. State cultural troupes imported electric guitars and amplifiers from Hong Kong. I myself played bass guitar, for two years or so, in a part-time scratch band of foreigners, the Beijing All-Stars, to mixed audiences and dances. We gave a `demonstration' rock concert at a teachers' college, and were showered with requests, on scraps of paper that I have kept:

`Please play the Village People's "In the Navy"'

`A song by the Eagles'

`Please "I'm forever Blowing Bubbles"'

`"Nobody Knows the Trouble I Seen"'

`Please play anything you know sung by Mao Wang (Elvis Presley)'.

I was taught to dance the Tango at a Spring Festival party in a small apartment where only one couple at a time could pace the floor. At bohemian parties, I had seen `liberated' foreign students teaching their more adventurous Chinese colleagues how to smoke the marijuana which grows in such wild profusion on the outskirts of Beijing and is prescribed in local medicine as a cure for bronchitis. I had seen female European students cycling through the peasant markets in shorts and singlets that Chinese would consider immodest as underwear, and I had heard of the Chinese executed for rape committed outside the Foreign Languages Institute.

The standard of living has risen visibly, year by year, and young Chinese have sloughed off their shapeless work-clothes. In 1978, a woman merely wearing her blouse tucked in at the waist would earn sour looks from the dowdy. In 1983, tight jeans wiggled in every main street, China was exporting fashion garments bearing international designer labels, and I covered the sensational first parades of China's own home-grown mannequin corps.

Marriage between any Chinese and a foreigner was a sensational event in 1978, achievable only through political interference at the very highest level. By 1983, there were dozens of such marriages each year in a greatly expanded foreign community, which faced no obstruction unless the Chinese partner was considered a valuable asset (such as a graduate) or was connected to a unit, such as a Ministry or the PLA, where the Party saw security implications. The basic rule was to be extremely discreet in courtship, for while marriage was not forbidden, courtship was very close to `hooliganism' in the eyes of the Public Security Bureau.

Tourism had developed from the limited itineraries of timid `Friendship Association' delegations to a wildly accelerating mega-business, stirring up long-somnolent guest houses across the country, rearing glass-walled tourist towers in the major cities, churning the dust of scenic mountains with convoys of air- conditioned buses, and profaning the Emperors' retreats with the squawks and flashes of wealthy foreign crowds. Thousands of young people marched into expanding handicraft souvenir factories, and China earned hundreds of millions of dollars per year in precious foreign exchange.

I saw the inevitable clamp-downs, with public dances banned, and a string of criminal prosecutions for `lewd behaviour' of Chinese holding dancing parties in their own homes. Women who had made themselves playthings of a certain class of foreign diplomats vanished from the scene with stiff sentences of Labour Education. Yet I mixed with many young Chinese for whom pre-marital sex was normal, and divorce a common fact of life. To them, it was not a question of morality nor of foreign influence - simply of opportunity - and they had lived that way, as their parents before them, without any contact with foreigners. But it suited the leaders, as it had always done, to blame the weaknesses of human nature on pernicious foreign influence. To the older generation of Communists, loosening sexual morals went hand in hand with social irresponsibility or, even worse, with questioning of the Socialist Road and the Party's authority.

Traditionally, foreign things were considered inherently corrupting until proven otherwise. Foreign science was corrupting to the Imperial cosmology, until proven useful in agriculture and war. Foreign religions and philosophies were considered corrupting of Confucian values and the national way, until Marxism, from the mind of a nineteenth century European romantic, replaced Confucianism as the unquestionable orthodoxy.

Guardians of the portal had a weighty responsibility. In negotiation of an annual Cultural Exchange programme with a foreign country, which must remain nameless, a vice-Minister of Culture sought to reassure his opposite numbers of the country concerned by quoting Chairman Mao: `In relation to Cultural exchange, Chairman Mao told us "Let Foreigners Serve China"'.

Faces fell, across the table, at this rather ignominious invitation, and an aide quickly leant forward to whisper the correction in the vice-Minister's ear.

`I mean, "Let Foreign Things Serve China"'.

The caution could throw up unexpected obstructions. Negotiating a travelling exhibition of some of China's wonderful collection of dinosaur fossils, a foreign delegation found their was some dispute as to whether this should properly be handled by China's Ministry of Cultural Relations, or by the Academy of Science. At one point in the discussion, the senior Chinese official turned to one of his secretaries and enquired, in an audible whisper:

`By the way, are these dinosaurs alive or dead?'

It was my function, as a foreign correspondent, to report on these developments from a foreign point of view. It was the wish of my official hosts, the Information Department, that my reports should conform as closely as possible to their own official view of events, allowing for my incurably bourgeois viewpoint as representative of a bourgeois capitalist society. There were time after time when apparent obstructions to the coverage I wished to pursue would reduce me to an impotent fury of proportions I had not experienced since childhood. I lost my temper, unfairly and unwisely, with obstructive customs officials or interfering local busybodies, and had to be extricated by the intervention of my driver, Mr Cui, an expert negotiator who ran the very effective line that the Young Barbarian still had much to learn before civilised could fairly be expected of him.

Sometimes I would rail, to my friends or my unfortunate office staff, against the inequities or dishonesties I perceived to be going on in the land about me. Almost always, these issues came down to the one issue of absolute Party power - anathema to one who sees megalomania as the worm in the bud of all human politics, and the frustration of megalomania as an essential function of any good system of government. `Open' elections were held, in 1981, for the local level of China's multi-tiered Peoples Congress system. Nominations were open to all, and came in floods, encouraged by talk of `democratic centralism' in the preceding propaganda. But the large nomination lists became `impractical', so local neighbourhood committees were given the responsibility of pruning them to manageable size. Party members made up ten percent of the original nominees - more than twice as many as their proportion in the population overall. But in the pruned lists for voting, Party members made up two-thirds of the candidates. To nobody's surprise, that proportion was retained, exactly, when the votes were counted, and in higher levels of Peoples Congresses as the power chain continued upwards. `Parliamentarism', and `ultrademocracy' are in no danger of taking over the Peoples Congress.

What has happened, in China, is that while the Leninist system of one-party rule has been confirmed, grafted firmly onto the stock of the old Imperial mandarin bureaucracy, virtually every other principle of the Communist ideology had been thrown open to question. There are no deadlines or even specific programmes for attaining the Marxist heaven of pure Communism, once sought by Chairman Mao in his own lifetime. The new Party leadership have made clear that this is so far in the future that it is of no concern to themselves. There are no absolute precepts as to how much of the national economy should be under direct state ownership, how much should be collectively owned by participants, and how much should be left in the hands of individuals responsive to free market forces. Theoretically, China's `mixed economy' could develop for a thousand years on a convergent course with mixed economies based on capitalism.

The Communist Party has become, in power, an oligarchy of decisive influence at every level, and a jealous protector of its monopoly of ultimate power. But its official ideology is no longer Marxism, or even Marxism-Leninism. Mao Zedong Thought, gutted of mystic visions and hyperbole, is now little but a great red flag, kept aloft by the Party, but set to billow with whatever winds prevail.

Could true Maoism or something very like it, return to China? The answer must be yes, because anything is possible in politics, over time. Most China-watchers agree that the Party's control of the nation is such that a left-wing coup, strongly supported by the military, could still be a possibility within this generation. There will still be a vast, uneducated mass of population who could be led back into mob politics. But only, however, if the current economic programmes suffer some absolutely catastrophic setback, such as a devastating war with the Soviet Union or another powerful enemy.

In the longer term, China's rapid industrial development will make it year by year a more significant force in world markets. By early next century, China will be one of the world's major trading and military powers, very possibly in a position to control the markets now enjoyed by Japan and other emergent Asian industrial powers, not to mention the older Western industrial nations. Nobody, by then, will think of China as quaint and curious.

It will be a China in which better education has made opportunities for more and more individuals from that seething mass to rise into world view - sportsmen, scientists, performers, artists and writers. It will be a world in which more and more foreigners want and need to know more about China, and about the way China lives.