The newspapers seem to be full of stuff about China, most of it querulous, if not hostile, and this applies perhaps more to Canada than most other countries, because of our government’s unfortunate and unnecessary arrest on December 1 of Meng Wanzhou, the senior Huawei executive, at the behest of Donald Trump’s United States government. The latest news hot off the press is that our Great Leader Justin “Happy Days” Trudeau, who, a few months ago was dreaming of concluding a free trade agreement with the fast-developing Asian economic giant, has recently hardened his attitude, no doubt in response to the negative things constantly appearing in our press.
I haven’t mentioned China in these Chronicles since the beginning of March, but I make no apology for returning to the subject now. It seems to me there are two ways of looking at China. The one that is promoted by the corrupt government of the United States, supported by many western world nations, and it would seem slavishly followed by our government, is that China is a repressive society, careless of human rights, brutal in its repression of minorities either of race or of opinion, and that it is trying to foist these attitudes on the rest of the world., and that, hence, it is a country that should be shunned whenever and wherever possible.
Second viewpoint, however, is one that I embraced when working for three months in China in 1978 making films. It became obvious to me then that ever since at least 1949 the Communist government had been doing its damnedest to improve the lives of the more than a billion people over whom they had won control after a long-running and brutal civil war. They were arguably the poorest people on Earth, and were certainly living on one of the most thoroughly degraded landscapes on Earth.
Clearly, some of their methods were harsh and unforgiving (Mao Tse Tung had frankly written that there would be ten per cent at the top who would support their programme, but ten per cent at the bottom would oppose them, and they had to be eliminated, a pitiless doctrine that only a convinced ideologue could espouse). But it led to their getting control over a chaotic society, and setting it on the path to improvement. In the 1970s, such methods were still being tried in the more developed nations of eastern Europe, but they were unacceptable in developed societies, and were abandoned in 1989. It seemed to me then that the epic nature of their struggle, covering one out of every four people alive, made it of major significance to every one of us. If the Chinese could be lifted from the scourge of poverty, we would all benefit.
In those days, the Canadian government was a leader among western nations in facing the reality of Communist China, and in working to establish relationships with it that could perhaps lead to a better world.
By 1978, the evidence was clear before our eyes, as we travelled through the Chinese countryside for mile after mile, surrounded as far as the eye could see, by hills that were terraced by human effort, and behind which terraces green crops were growing in a profusion that was amazing to witness. I remember a Dutch-born member of our crew who had grown up under the Nazi occupation, and was certainly not a supporter of Communism, remarking after a day of such travel that “that was the best journey I have ever taken.”
I returned to China in 1983 to research a film about child services, travelled even more widely, and witnessed anew the phenomenon of the huge piles of food that were available for sale on the streets of every city.
No one could claim that the Communist government solved the immediate problems of every Chinese community, but so far as we could tell, they had succeeded in providing clothing, food, shelter and employment for most of their people. The commune in which we filmed in 1978, Wushing, that lay on the North Chinas plain (described at the time by a prominent western expert as the greatest collection of agricultural communities on earth), the poorest place in terms of income I had ever seen, but yet every child was in school, every resident had a job, and they maintained a standard of health that appeared to be almost equivalent to our own in Canada.
It happened that 1978 was a pivotal year in the history of modern China. Mao had died 18 months before, the Gang of Four, responsible for the repressive and lunatic Cultural Revolution, had been arrested, and the government had embraced the programme of the Four Modernizations (in agriculture, industry, defence and science and technology) that had been enunciated by the number two man in the hierarchy, Chou En Lai, towards the end of the 1960s. By the end of the year, a few months after we left the country, Deng Xiaoping, the hand behind the throne, as it were, enunciated a new idea, that it is glorious to get rich, and set the nation on the path to what has turned out to be almost pure capitalism. By lifting hundreds of millions of people out of the dreadful poverty to which most Chinese had been condemned, this new path has resulted in one of the greatest transformations ever witnessed in human history. This appears to have created a middle class whose ostentatious grasping for the baubles of wealth seems to have reached new levels of vulgarity.
If you doubt this, you should watch the programme done by the late Anthony Bourdain, the food expert who made a life traveling the world, and using his interest in food to open up a view of the societies he visited. On Netflix, Season four, episode one, he makes clear his bewildered view of the new China, which he was able to judge against his love for the place gained from many earlier visits. He found, he said, an ancient culture that seemed to have been driven mad by “a wealth that was unimaginable by the most bourgeois of capitalist imperialists.”
He said: “The one thing I know about China is that we will never know China.” Like myself, though in very different circumstances, he was prostrate before the ancient history of the country, seemed always conscious, as I had been, that his hosts had inherited thousands of years of unbroken culture. At one feast after another he was served magnificent dishes, native ingredients --- ginger, crab, scallops--- supplemented by oysters and shrimps from the Southern Ocean, Australian beef that cost $150 a pound, French wine, of which one 30-year-old host, a real estate developer, boasted that he had a cellar of 4,000 bottles, which came from every wine-growing area of France and Italy. Bourdain said the Chinese had cornered the market on red wine, of which they had imported two billion bottles.
Such ostentatious vulgarity staggered even Bourdain who had seen everything the world of wealth had to offer, from almost every country.
Today comes word that as the vulgar and meretricious Trump is racketing up sanctions, tariffs and penalties against the Chinese economy, Xi Jinping, the Chinese president has visited a factory producing Rare Earth, a mineral of which China produces most of the world’s supply, that is needed in every chip made for use in the technological gadgets that are now indispensible parts of the business armoury.
That seems to me like one of those subtle Chinese hints: don’t mess with us, or we will strike back with the weaponry that lies at hand.
As the western press rings with warnings against the danger of Chinese subversion, only the occasional commentator recalls that China has one overseas base, and the United States 840 of them, or according to another count, more like 1,100. That the United States in 2016, according to the New York-based Council of Foreign Relations, dropped 26,171 bombs on Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. Comparative Chinese total apparently --- 0.
It does seem to me that the western press should ease up on the attacks on China, whose record as a member of the world of civilized nations at least bears comparison with that of the United States.