I’ve never seen anything like it since China in 1978.
Summer is over on the Canadian University campus, the beautiful girls in their little shorts have been replaced by amazons in scruffy jeans, and they ---- young women and young men, both --- have arrived in their thousands by bicycle.
The McGill university campus, through which I walk every day on my way for my morning coffee in downtown Montreal, has suddenly become infested with bicycles that are attached by strong locks to every available space to which it is possible to attach them. The university has provided lots of long bicycle stands, and not only is every one of these full, but it is overcrowded and so is every available fence, as bicycles are piled on top of each other by the young people as they hurry to classrooms where wise men and women are ready to transfer to them the wisdom of the ages --- at least, that is the theory of it--- a very moving thing to see as this hopeful self-selected elite embarks on learning something they think is so precious that it is worth plunging into masssive debt to acquire it.
But I’m not kidding, I have only once in my life before seen such a gathering of bicycles, and it was in the Chinese city of Shijiazhuang, known in those Communist days as the repository of the corpse of the famed Canadian doctor Norman Bethune, who, in 1978, was still being held up to the Chinese people as an exemplar of all that is good in humanity.
I was there with a National Film Board team to shoot some films that had been agreed upon by the two governments in an exchange of film crews. We filmed for six weeks in a nearby People’s Commune, the most fascinating working experience of my life; and when finished there we moved into the city to film everything we could find out about a state-owned cotton mill, which, as it turned out, happened to be a lot. It was there that I saw the bicycles. Shijiazhuang was an industrial city of the new China, full of wide streets, hundreds and hundreds of apartment blocks, and factories intermingled with them. I’ve forgotten how many people worked in the mill, but it was several thousands, and not many of them had far to travel to work. Some walked, some took the public buses, but most of them bicycled. Every morning, and every shift change, the streets were thronged with thousands of bicycles, intermingled with impatient drivers of the relatively few motorized vehicles honking and cursing their way through the throng. And one of the most important functions at the mill was the bicycle park which had enough space for 4,000 bicycles that turned over three or four times a day. I had never seen so many bicycles in one place, and it seemed kind of miraculous that each worker could find his own bicycle, when all were completely identical --- except, I suppose, for the ticket.
The city, which then had about 2,000,000 people, including its periphery, was a rough-hewn place, but it struck me as perfectly laid out to meet the demands put upon it. I would think, every time we sallied into the streets to get more shots of the incredible press of bicycles, that although it was working well under this pressure, they woud be in the deepest possible trouble if ever they adopted the Western world’s fascination with automobiles. Still, surely they would never be that crazy. After all, all the cycling, in addition to its town-planning advantages, was keeping people so fit that it was rare to see an obese Chinese person. In fact, put together with their massive production of food to feed that huge population, food that came from the Communes in the surrounding counties, producing markets groaning with piles of food, day after day, I figured anyone mad enough to suggest a switch to capitalism would get short shrift from the peasants, who simply wouldn’t allow it.
Well, what d-you know? The peasants didn’t have any say in it. The little guy who was running things there, Deng Xiaoping, said just before we left that one American worker could produce as much as 10,000 Chinese workers, so he concluded the American system was 10,000 times more efficient. Of course, he was not including the energy demand made by the American production system, and it struck me as being a silly thing to say, but how much did I know? Deng managed to foist the implications of his thought on to the Chinese economy, with the result that today, while producing enormous quantities of goods (most of which the world hardly needs), China today has imported capitalism with all its ills. Shijiazhuang today is an urban centre with 10,000,000 people, with, at last count, 387 hotels and is said now to have such severe pollution as to make life almost unbearable. Some improvement!
Dr Bethune is still remembered there, today memorialized by three institutions in the city, the Bethune Military Medical College, Bethune Specialized Medical College and Bethune International Peace Hospital. I remember the last of these fondly, because I broke my little toe while working in China, and had to go to the Peace Hospital every Saturday for treatment, where I was expertly tended by a little doctor who told me how satisfied he was with his iron rice bowl that guaranteed him his needs in life but would never allow him to rise above --- or at least not far above ---
other ordinary workers.