At times I feel so separated from the general politico-social opinion that I wonder whether we are all living on the same planet. Take, for example, our situation vis-a-vis China.
I know, for example, that China is not a bright, shining democracy such as we are always claiming to be ourselves. But taking that into account, I still feel an automatic surge of understanding of almost everything the Chinese do.
I know I have been too much influenced by my experience of working in China for three months in 1978,which turns out to have been the very year they were turning away from Communism towards creating a fully capitalist economy. And I confess they often did things that drove me and my colleagues on the National Film Board crew pretty far up the wall. Still, I was fascinated and hugely encouraged by what I saw was happening in that remarkable country.
Let’s just consider this for a moment: in 1949, after a civil war lasting decades, complicated by a Japanese invasion and the depredations created by the Second World War, the Communist party under Mao Tse Tung arrived in power. They took over a nation that could reasonably have been described as the world’s poorest --- a nation of untold millions of people, saddled with an archaic social system, desperately trying to grind a living out of one of the most deprived and degenerated regions on earth. I don't think anyone could reasonably contest those facts, and when one adds to the mix that the Chinese people constitute almost one out of every four people alive on the earth, the scale of the challenge undertaken by the Communist Party can be described as immense indeed, of an almost superhuman scale, so large as almost to defy description. And, incontestably, theirs is a challenge the success of which is vital to every person on Earth.
By1978 they had passed through almost 30 years of transformational change, much of it tragic in its consequences, but overall, it seemed to me, beginning to yield positive results, such as the provision of work, housing, education, health care and the growing of food sufficient to provide an existence somewhat above subsistence level for hundreds of millions of people. I was in awe at the scale of this effort, and felt myself privileged to be allowed to examine how they were proceeding to meet the challenge at the level of the ordinary person.
With a remit to make at least two films on the situation we found in China, as part of a government-to-government agreement, we were placed in the organizing hands of their national documentary film studio, who decided we should be based on the city of Zhijiazhuang, a city at the centre of what one Western geographer has described as the greatest collection of agricultural communities on Earth. It had the additional interest of a connection with Canada as the burial place of the legendary Canadian doctor, Norman Bethune, who died from injuries suffered while working an innovative, just-behind-the-lines operating service to the revolutionary army, and whose sacrificial service was so highly regarded in China that a well-equipped hospital had been created and named for him in the city.
At the time ---- late 1970s, eighteen months after the death of Mao, a few months after the arrest of the Gang of Four (including Mao’s wife), who ran the so-called but brutal Cultural Revolution against all settled authority --- China’s agriculture was dominated by the commune system: production teams at the lowest level, gathered into brigades, which together formed a commune with an element of direction exercised at each level. The cadres responsible for our visit had chosen two communes for us to visit with a view to choosing one for our film-making, and in addition two cotton factories in the city with the same objective. The communes were obviously among the more successful although we did not get the impression they were completely unusual from the ordinary communes surrounding them. Anyway, we chose a commune called Wushing, and descended on it for the inevitable banquet of welcome. At the head of affairs was an elderly man attached to the county government, a man of high colour which seemed to betray a fondness for the bottle, but he was a charming, amiable old guy, introduced to us as a treasure of the Chinese people, by which they meant he was an old revolutionary soldier, whom we henceforth always referred to affectionately as the Old Treasure.
The commune was under the command of an amiable, stolid, younger man, with various sidekicks who approached their work with differing levels of intensity. His deputy was a Miss Liu, a young woman with a ready smile, and an evident fondness for working among her followers. Our daily movements were orchestrated by a Mr. Yuan, full of bonhomie, but a guy who, if he wanted to tell you no you couldn't do something, stuck to his word with endless smiling, and implacable determination. Here's a story about Mr. Yuan. When he told us that an elderly citizen had been given the job to cycle around the streets to watch out for the droppings from the horses, we asked if he could set up for us to film the process. Mr, Yuan demurred gently, saying he could not control the movements of horses. But eventually he suggested that after lunch one day we might try to set up our cameras at a particular place and hope for the best. We did so and quickly a horse trotted by pulling a cart and leaving its droppings behind. Immediately a little old man, dressed in his beautifully laundered white shirt, arrived on his bicycle, dismounted, picked up the offending material, and took it home to his house, where he had installed a pit in which he was manufacturing enough electricity to run his kettle and an overhead light in his house. In recognition of this success, before we left the commune I got together a certificate naming Mr. Yuan Director of Animal Functions of the commune, a joke that he seemed very much to appreciate
There were plenty of other apparatchiks attached to our enterprise, some from the city foreign affairs department, some from the county level, others attached from who knew where?
We chose a number of families around whom to build our story of the commune, including a lovely old guy who had suffered all the worst times his people had known. He was delighted with the new set-up, and appeared to be unconcerned about restrictions on his freedom of speech, something he had never known in his life anyway. At the end of his life You Lin Tchou no longer had to lug around those ridiculous burdens he had always been assigned. Now he had a comfortable room, enough to eat, and believed he was living the life of riley, if I may coin an expression. He was the first to speak at a meeting designed to ginger up the population for the coming harvest. The commune director spoke about their duties then invited the people to say what they were thinking, The old man hesitated a moment, then spoke: “Having heard my leader speak,” he said, using just the words his bosses were hoping to hear from him, “I’m excited.” When I told my kids this story, “having heard my leader speak, I’m excited,” became a regular response whenever they felt I was getting too pompous for my own good.
I should mention that we had two interpreters assigned to us. The senior was a snarling, malevolent, indifferent fellow who had somehow gotten promoted to the job during the Cultural Revolution, a job for which he was totally unsuited. The junior member was a fellow called Wang Pu, one of the most delightful people I have ever known, who, when he came to the railway station to meet us on arrival, told me as we walked away from the train. “So you’re from Montreal? Yes, I know all the big cities of Canada --- Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Gravenhurst….” The latter of which was the birthplace of Dr. Norman Bethune. Wang Pu turned out to be a treasure, always obliging, always helpful, aways cheerful, and always remarkably friendly.
Taken to the top of the village water tower with the cameraman on one occasion, he seized the walkie-talkie, and sent messages to those of us left on terra firma a fraternal message. “Wang Pu and Mr Tony reporting down to the Canadian friends John and Boyce from the water tower.” I remember one day, as we were headed in our bus for the day’s work in the commune, we asked him, “Wang Pu, do you have a girl friend?” He confessed he did. Was she good-looking? we persisted. “Rough,” he replied. She was busy on some educational pursuit so unfortunately he would not be able to introduce her to us.
“I will never forget the Canadian friends,” he said, as we took a tearful farewell, following our shooting. “Tony, John, Boyce, and Hans. They will remain in my heart for ever.”
I didn’t set out to do it this way, but you will observe how this piece is turning out: first, before anything else, the people we met and interacted with during our three months of work together. This is consistent with our aim, which was to try to capture on film how it felt like to live in this system of highly-controlled governance, as nearly as we could come to discover that.
But there are more general lessons we all learned. First, we travelled extensively back and forth across the plain and into the foothills , and for mile after mile we could observe the results of what began to seem to us a possibly unparelleled work. Vast hillsides laid out in neat terraces, each one laboriously built by hand by the placing of one stone after another, holding back the waters which were now bringing to sparkling life beautiful crops as far as the eye could see. All along the way, especially across the plain, whether in daylight or halfway through the night, the roads were crowded with vehicles of every type, some of them hand-drawn, loaded down with produce, or stones being moved from one place to another, usually with weary peasants lying asleep across the top of towering piles of hay and other produce. I know we were always told to suspect Chinese statistics, but the evidence before our eyes was incontrovertible, that a huge effort of transformation was under way, powered by what seemed to be a willing workforce in which every single person was involved.
As I kept on persistently asking questions, gradually more and more details were unveiled, all of them confirming the evidence of our eyes. The Wushing commune had about 17,000 acres of land, on which some 3,000 people lived in five small villages. Although it was built on land that in Canada would be called marginal, and put to no use, the abundant wheat crop that covered it on our arrival in May had by our departure in July been replaced by a rice paddy, and between them they produced enough food for their personal needs plus a substantial surplus for sale to the nearby small county town. Each peasant home, following an earlier directive of Mao, kept a couple of pigs in their backyard, from which they prepared organic fertilizer for sale to the production brigades. With each brigade and the commune itself also raising pigs, there were probably more pigs than people on te small commune, and these were an essential part of the agri-ecosystem.
They had started many small industries each employing 20 or so people, making crude steel, making hats from the gleanings gathered by school children following the harvest, stamping out from discarded pieces of metal bought in from nearby city factories, small shaped pieces for use in the manufacture of transformers, so that every person on the commune who was capable of work had a job. In addition every family appeared to have a house, every child was in school, and the medical system, operated by so-called barefoot doctors with six months of training, seemed adequate to keep their health standards at levels that appeared at least comparable to our own in Western cities.
I have been in poor places elsewhere in the world --- in India, Africa and Latin America ---- yet as closely as I could figure, Wushing, in terms of its income, was the poorest place I had ever seen. Yet how could one explain --- except by a reference to political will --- how much superior it was to, for example, the horrendous slum attached to Nairobi, whose main street was so dominated by huge holes, and by the piles of uncollected garbage, that one needed a 4 x4 just to get by; or, in comparison with the confident activity of Wushing, the lassitude that encompassed those villages we saw in the Punjab; or the creeping decay observed in Quito, and Buenos Aires, where social problems appeared to have been simply left to rot and worsen.
I confess I thought the Chinese would never change their system, not if it was up to the peasantry; not if they realized that their cities, already clogged with millions of workers cycling to work every day, would, if they ever got into motor vehicles, simply create an unholy mess..
But now that they have changed, in the process lifting 200 million people out of abject poverty, who am I to criticize the direction they have taken? Evidently much of the criticism that has arisen following their immense economic development is based on racism. The recent kerfuffle about Huawei, and its supposed dangers to our sacred security, would be laughable if it were not serious. It seems more than obvious that the United States, especially, with its satraps tagging along behind, is worried not so much about its security as about the fact it seems to be in process of being beaten hands down by a newcomer among its economic competitors. So, by fair means or foul, they are trying to crush the newcomer. So much for their vaunted belief in the market place.
The arrest of Huawei’s Chief Financial Officer in Vancouver seems to be a particularly egregious and unnecessary action which a more experienced Canadian government might easily have avoided.
If the Chinese are supposed to be so suspect on security grounds, how come Canada has admitted 140,000 of their students to Canadian universities? Surely these young people must constitute the equivalent of a fifth column in our society. This idea is ludicrous, of course, as, in my humble opinion, is the fear that the Chinese are hell-bent on stealing our hi-tech achievements. The truth seems to be that already they are streets ahead of some of our products in some fields, and with their single-minded attention to upgrading the education of their people, that can be, and should be, accepted as an inevitable consequence of the great achievement of the Chinese people in the last half-century.