Chapter 7c

Cultural Revolution Realities

My 1971 visit and the two 1973 visits had taught me much about the shambles caused by Beijing's disastrous Cultural Revolution.

I suspect that my writing about them was also to do little to endear me with the Dragon Club people, many of whom also thought the Cultural Revolution was a great idea.

The Face of Chaos

But the facts were undeniable, and I had to write them - factories more interested in producing Maoist slogans than goods; demoralised, poorly fed, badly dressed crowds gaping suspiciously at any foreigner in sight; constant stories of Red Guard idiocies and brawls; the persecution of technicians who had studied abroad and had wanted to bring their skills back to China ....

At the annual trade fair in Canton I was shown a rather primitive machine for making zippers. It had been developed by the workers at XX factory, I was told proudly by two cheery young ladies trying vainly to sell it to the world outside.

I asked where it was being sold in China, only to be told that Chairman Mao had decreed self-reliance, that the machine had been developed solely for use in XX factory, and that other factories would be inventing and producing their own zipper machines.

(To anyone who knows anything about production scale economies, the insanity of this approach should have been obvious. Yet back in Australia some were very willing to praise this sturdy emphasis on independent local initiative.)

(Fortunately the China of today has got rid of that nonsense.)

In the countryside I had seen even worse - decrepit factory-shacks that were supposed to be producing independently the chemical fertilizers needed for each commune; the debris of the backyard steel furnaces which had to be fed by valuable pots, pans and needed farm implements, simply because the Chairman had decreed that everyone had to produce their own steel.

China in those days was also determined to impress us with its medical skills. The highlight was being taken to see a badly-burned Shanghai worker receiving acupuncture while shouting long live Chairman Mao.

Sometimes the nonsense could turn sinister.

On a walk through the Shanghai slums a large crowd gathered behind me. Someone started shouting that I was a capitalist intruder. Fortunately, and just as the mood was turning ugly I turned a corner bringing me onto the main Nanjing Road thoroughfare.

The relief was considerable.

Elsewhere I was to see similar Cultural Revolution degradation of Chinese society, though not as dangerously as in Shanghai. I assume the journalistic China-glorifiers at the time had little of that experience, staying as they did in their comfortable cars and hotels.

(Experience with the brittle hostility of Chinese crowds was to give me the clue to understanding the 1989 Tiananmen incident.)

(Needless to say, my interpretation has little in common with the Western determination to see the incident as an unprovoked massacre of thousands of innocent students, despite the now-unclassified reports from the US embassy in Beijing at the time painting a very different picture.)

Western China-watching

Collective idiocy in those days was not confined to China.

For years the Western media had portrayed China as an evil dragon breathing fire and fear over Asia.

Now thanks to ping-pong diplomacy and the frantic rush by Western journalists to get visas, China had overnight become a model of peace and contentment.

One writer - a Tokyo-based colleague unable to speak a word of Chinese but who had been able to persuade the world that a brief meeting with Mao in 1943 made him an expert on all things Chinese - spoke gushingly about the amazing honesty of the Chinese under Communism.

Little did he realise that the hotel employees trying to return discarded razor blades which he and others praised so highly were under strict instructions to do so.

If they wanted to know something about Chinese honesty, all they had to do was look at the bicycles parked outside their hotel. All of them would have been carefully locked by owners.

In several weeks traveling China in 1973 I did not see a single construction crane. And I wrote that.

But my journalistic colleagues from the US and elsewhere were writing happy reports about China's great economic progress.

Few seemed to realize that the steel mills we were shown in Beijing and Anshan were parodies of steel mills. (Maybe few of them had even seen steel mills before.)

Trying to report for The Australian on the still very backward state of China’s economy without seeming to want to encourage the anti-China crowd back in Australia was not easy.

But it had to be done.

I suspect that to this day I am still on some kind of Beijing warning list as a result. Certainly the Chinese authorities have never gone out of their way to be as welcoming to me as they have been to a quite a few journalists happy to write glad stories at the time.

Ironically, the same media were later to turn anti-China again, as we were to see with the Tiananmen Square massacre myth.

The Causes of Chaos

After the first 1973 visit we (myself and two ABC correspondents) had a gap of six weeks to fill before the Cairns visit was due.

The authorities agreed to our request to be allowed to travel around China to fill in the time.

We got to see quite a lot – across to Xian in the west, by train then to Loyang and then down to Shanghai before returning to Beijing.

Once again it was the same pattern of inefficiency smothered with Cultural Revolution propaganda.

I set myself the task of trying to find the logic behind it all. Helping me were our two minders - she, an intense CR devotee from Shanghai which had always been in the forefront of revolution in China; he, an easy-going fellow from Beijing willing to admit there had been mistakes.

As our train wandered over the Chinese countryside I could eavesdrop on their constant debates.

Clearly both took their politics very seriously.

And so too did the rest of China.

Almost at every visit we would be told how this CR faction had attacked yet another CR faction.

What were they arguing over? No one seemed to know for sure.

But ‘being struggled against’ was the order of the day for anyone who seemed in any way to deviate from the official line.

Back to Japan

Returning to Tokyo, I tried to regain perspective.

The Chinese were not a stupid people. Many of the officials I had met in Beijing were intellectually more supple than most of their Japanese or Australian equivalents.

Our minders were unusually smart, intelligent, caring people.

Yet even they had been overcome to some extent by the fanaticism and obscurantism imposed on them.

It was my first real lesson in the power of ideology to warp a nation and a people.

I could also relate it back to the anti-China ideological hysteria I had tried to battle in Australia.

And to some extent it matched what I had seen in the USSR, though the Chinese versions was much more intense.

We are all vulnerable - not just the Chinese.

But the Chinese were especially vulnerable because they were such a highly ideological nation. So they were susceptible to argument and reasoning, even if distorted.

The Australians were vulnerable for a very different reason, namely the lack of the intellectuality needed to counter distorted reasoning and logic.

That insight in turn was later to give me the clue I needed to understand the very non-ideological Japan.

And that clue in turn was to open a new and completely unexpected chapter in my life - one which would make the traumas of the past seem irrelevant, almost.