Wednesday, April 27, 2016

My Log 515 April 27 2016: Thinking about freedom: and how my experience in a Chinese commune in 1978, challenged many of my assumptions, and fits into the current transformation of the globe

Some elements for M├ędecine chinoise in Xi'an
Some elements for Chinese medicine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Aerial view of the Barrio Norte section of Bue...
Aerial view of the Barrio Norte section of Buenos Aires. Callao Avenue is visible at right. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In a life during which I have wandered across the globe rather extensively, I have seen plenty of places in which the world’s poorest people have been living the most impoverished lives I could imagine. After leaving my native New Zealand in 1950, I arrived in India early in 1951 at a time when millions of people were sleeping in the streets under pieces of cloth or cardboard, or crowding railway station platforms on which they lived permanently, and I saw children dying on the streets, their bones being almost all that was left of their under-nourished bodies. One of the images I have never been able to forget came one day as I was walking down a hill in Kashmir when we came to an intersection where a small boy of about nine was sitting on the sidewalk rocking in his arms a dead baby, and giving vent to the most piteous wailing of distress that I had ever heard.
For a few months I lived in an Indian village, and witnessed close-up the tough lives of the peasantry. I can tell you, for a kid fresh out of well-endowed New Zealand, that was a hell of a lesson in how the majority of Earth’s inhabitants are forced to live, without medical care, adequate shelter, minimal sanitation, poorly-paid work (if any) and no education.
Later I visited Africa, where I saw the degradation of life in Kibera, often called the world’s biggest slum, alongside the glossy capital city of Kenya, Nairobi; I visited  an Ecuadorean favela built by poor people who illegally moved on to a mountain overlooking Quito, the capital city, there to establish their improvised shacks that served as the best homes they had ever known; I have glimpsed the terrible conditions of life for the poor in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, where formerly magnificent old homes had been occupied by hundreds of people, with each family carrying on its life behind dividing curtains and blankets hung from the roof.
And in 1978 I spent six weeks as part of a National Film Board crew engaged in filming the life of a Chinese commune. I spent a lot of energy trying to gather the basic information about the lives of the 15,000 people occupying that 3,000-acre commune in four separate villages. And my conclusion from the information they provided me was that, in terms of income, whether reckoned in money or in work-points, this was the poorest of the many poor places I had been in and observed during my life as a journalist.  As closely as I could figure it, the income per capita in that commune was around the equivalent of $60 a year. And yet, unlike the Indian village, the African slum and the Latin American favela, the people in this commune were all employed, their children were all in school, each family had a house, the poor benefited from welfare payments, there seemed to be adequate food readily available (although the country had emerged only 18 months before from the disastrous so-called Cultural Revolution that created chaos everywhere and brought almost all gainful activity to a halt), and they had a functioning, successful medical system based on the famous concept of the barefoot doctor.
It is true that the Communist system of government that had achieved all this for the poorest people was an authoritarian system. That was evident in every aspect, and it affected the way we were allowed to carry out our work. It is true that freedom of thought, in our western sense, had been stifled, and that answers to philosophical or moral questions tended to be repeated as if by rote. And yet, how could one not be impressed by the results, compared with the fate of the poor I had seen in other systems and in other countries?
 I have been accused many times by those around me of having been too much influenced by that Chinese commune. But the fact is, when considering the knotty question of freedom, of comparative freedoms especially, I came honestly to believe that the Chinese peasants of the Wushing commune enjoyed more freedom to exercise their innate talents and abilities than the poor, overburdened peasantry I had observed elsewhere ---- half-starved, uneducated, sickly, their labour exploited by a governing class that owned them lock, stock and barrel.
Any child who showed unusual abilities, whether it be in academic endeavours, music, gymnastics or whatever, was immediately spotted, and the best of them were transferred to special schools ---- several of which we saw in action ----where they were given specialized training in their discipline. It is true the conditions of life in these special schools were rigorous by our standards, but the quality of the work being performed by these students was astounding, to such a point that when the Chinese eventually emerged into international competition, I had no difficulty in believing that they would immediately  rank among the world’s best, as, in fact, they did.
Perhaps the thing that impressed me most of all was their care to use everything available to them in their small commune, their determination not to waste a single thing that they could put to use. This was obvious every time there was a high wind that broke off branches from the recently-planted trees that lined their roads. Those branches lay on the ground no more than a few minutes, being  gathered up almost immediately as the peasants emerged from their houses and carried them off to make some use of them.  They didn’t bother to show us many of these impressive practices: for instance, we discovered for ourselves that when they pruned their apple trees, they used the prunings to make baskets in which they sent the apples to market in the nearby town of Chengting. Similarly, when the school children, following the harvesters who had cleared away the wheat crop, gleaned the stalks that had been left behind, those gleanings were used by a group of 20 or so young women to weave hats that were essential in the high summer of the North China plain for shelter from the sun. Between the apple trees in the orchard were planted the herbs they gathered for use in the Chinese medicines they used in their health system, alongside the Western practices that they also used. Every used bottle and piece of discarded paper or cardboard was sold to the recycling plants, and the crops were sustained by the organic manure each peasant produced from the pig-pen that most kept in their backyard. Some of the businesses they established were based on using discarded materials. For instance, one such business used the small squares of discarded  metal bought from a city factory, and, in the commune, used to stamp out a small piece of a certain shape that was later used in the manufacture of a transformer of some kind.
Mother and son: typical commune shot of 1970s
Typical shot of commune in late 1970s: Photos by Michael Rank
I have always regarded it as a great irony that, at the very time we were there, in 1978,  the formerly disgraced leader Deng Xiaoping managed to take over the reins of government within the Communist party, and to set in motion the changes that have since resulted in the abandonment of the commune system and the institution of a full-scale, apparently closely managed, capitalist system of production that has transformed the face of China, and already made it one of the major financial powers in the global scene. Deng was apparently impatient of the slow rate of improvement of Chinese life. I remember him saying something to the effect that one American worker could produce as much as 10,000 Chinese workers. I thought it a remarkably silly observation, since, if the power required by the American worker had been compared with the power required by the Chinese workers, the advantage might quite possibly have lain with the Chinese. Nevertheless, he succeeded in imposing this general world-view on China, with results that have since astonished the world. And along with the remarkable  production capabilities of capitalism, of course, China has also imported the rest of the package --- prostitution, homelessness, unemployment, alienation, huge migration from countryside to city slum, and all the rest of the delights of capitalism that, in the Western world, have so crucially deformed economic and social life in our societies.
It appears to be a major fear of the governing American class that China is forcing its way into a position of equality on world terms, producing works --- railways, ports, infrastructure, as it is now called, of all sorts ---- in Latin America, Africa and elsewhere in Asia that our system has long known how to produce but somehow has just never gotten around to doing, our measurement being always the so-called bottom line --- profit, and all its ramifications.

It really is an interesting world we live in. Only this week China has proposed a global effort to produce the materials, solar panels, that will transform energy production in ways that will be needed to save the planet. Will this, too, be regarded by the Americans more as a challenge to their hegemonic ambitions, than as an opportunity to save the world?

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