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Last updated: 02 August 2019. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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China - A personal impression

China is the subject of much political debate on the left. Point correspondent Steve Mowat, visited there recently.

China has unique media coverage. Last year it hit the headlines for among other things, corrupt Maoist officials, assassinations, brutal clampdowns of horseback riding independence campaigners in Tibet and Ugur. Not to mention provocation of regional rivals, construction of immense aircraft carriers and a seemingly unflinching and powerful Communist Party elite. Some could be forgiven for being fearful of the world’s newest great power. Scenes from the recent James Bond movie Skyfall back this up. Skillfully, the picture portrays demons of a cyber-warfare raging silently between China, (notorious for its internet monitoring) and the west. Seductive and callous bad Chinese guys feed their enemies to pet Komodo Dragons, and shootouts among the corridors of Shanghai and Macau’s gambling dens are breathtaking cinema. 

But just how much does this reflect the reality of Western – Chinese relations and life in China?

The vast bulk of Chinese citizens seem to live a peaceful existence in a nation which is prospering, and growing at breathtaking speed. I recently got a sneak preview into this giant on a visit to south China for my brother’s wedding to his Chinese fiance. This article is an account of that experience shared with several other Scots from my home town and my own family. Needless to say the locals were treated to a rendition of Flower of Scotland by their unique guests. Response in kind was with traditional revolutionary melodies, including the international and a full recital of one of Pavarotti’s greatest hits sung in Italian by our most remarkable host. The experience was not at all what I expected.

China, renowned for its vast population and booming economy is as rich today with tradition and culture as it is with gold and locally produced international commodities. Cities of the South within easy reach from Indonesia may be an entire continent away from Beijing in terms of how Europe measures distance. However they boast durable facets common to all Chinese. Travel to the urban areas of Guangzhou, Chenzhou and Zhuzhou in southern Hunan province comes complete with sumptuous meals, and a myriad of efficient transportations including bullet trains and subways. Not to mention the delights of the Pearl River, Olympic stadiums, vast public housing projects and the kindness of the local populace.

This ancient oriental nation, a historical centre of innovation and culture in global terms, retains a sturdy Chinese pride. Out-with the primary tourist spots of Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai locals only speak Chinese. Exceptions may lie with a few airport staff and an occasional hotel manager. On the whole restaurants, ticket offices, and local amenities in the gigantic city of Guangzhou and Hunan province promote their services exclusively in Chinese, both in spoken and written form. One challenge for the intrepid explorer may include ordering delightful indigenous cuisine. Without resident contacts, a phrase book or flash cards are recommended for basic communication. Occasions of theatrical performance, such as my instance of doing a chicken impersonation in a restaurant can thus be avoided. Funny as those are for all parties concerned, acquiring a few phrases of Chinese is a delightful experience. Tones of the words resemble the ups and downs of short melodies it becomes easy to forget that it’s spoken language, rather than reciting the verses of song. The onus is on travelers to make arrangements for communication in Chinese, not on the Chinese to communicate in English.

The vast subway network of Guangzhou is perhaps the one exception to this rule. From the basement floor of the cities Baiyun international airport carriages cover enormous distance in short spaces of time. This metropolitan spread must be around forty miles (over 60 kilometres). Stations and announcements are in Chinese and English.

Citizens of Guangzhou strut the pavements here in the latest designer fashion. A plethora of shoe shops, selling their wares at hugely discounted prices. Clean streets and depleted traffic levels match the opulent commercial buildings, low pollution and gigantic high rise public housing. Slums are not evident. Community parks abound where tourists and locals alike gather. One such leisure space at Haizhu square was ominously populated by a strong police and military presence. Officers sat chatting and smoking with their party political bands wrapped obviously around their arms.

The visual splendor of the Pearl River are a necessity for the curious wanderer. From Haizhu square various neon signed boats navigate passengers past the China gold company to the spectacular glowing Canton Tower. As a symbol of the Chinese amalgam of capitalist/communist progress and power this area must rank among some of the most impressive. Bentleys and Aston Martins park up at riverside restaurants. Canton Tower rests just a few yards from a ship launching site. The entire district along this stretch of river is lit up with monuments to wealth flashing their adjusting lights for the world to see.

It is nothing short of spectacular.

Guangzhou East railway station is home to a collection of fine bullet trains. Each carriage manufactured in China at two locations for domestic use and export. These engines are powered on electric lines and are a becoming a vital lifeline for economic development in rural areas. The locomotives, though capable of around three hundred and fifty kilometres per hour are limited to just over three hundred for safety reasons. Speed of this kind is more than enough to tour vast tracts of land in comfort. Ample seating space, luxury and efficiency are the hallmarks of this service. Complimentary drinks, meals and rotating seats are available for first class at very little extra cost. Scenery dashes past at lightning speed. Within minutes the plains of Guangzhou yield to rural alpine communities. Sub-tropical foliage begins to fade away replaced by mountain pine trees, scattered villages and rapid infrastructure building on every corner.

This locomotive service is not regularly frequented by non-Chinese. Nevertheless occasional foreign visitors and business people stray north from Guangzhou’s notorious Canton import and export fair. Such nomads are rewarded with a glimpse into rural Chinese life. Again the language barrier can be a trial when traveling in these areas.

Arrival at Chenzhou station I had with the first glimpses of family in two years. My brother had arranged a fleet of cars to meet us at the pristine entrance. From the station an hour or twos drive to the ceremony location passed several small villages and rural mountain farmland. A brand new road network was more than adequate for the voyage. Other vehicles were rare, all cars being large and modern. Absolutely no rusted old automobiles were to be found. Most of the traffic consisted of gigantic construction trucks containing ton upon ton of building raw materials. The entire landscape was dotted with labouring machines driving Chinese economy and society into the twenty first century at breakneck speed.   In two years’ time the panorama here will be unrecognisable.

For the meantime, almost each building in these rural communities is of characteristic drab Stalinist design - bars on all the windows, often dirty, and always uniform in style. It seemed a sharp contrast with the strides in public infrastructure development. In the town we stayed in a sewer and drainage system was being installed on a massive scale. Municipal service construction seemed to be proceeding in the region at an almost reckless pace, perhaps compensating for the relatively poor condition of some inhabitants.

Our welcome to Hunan was second to none, making us feel like very special visitors, with earsplitting fire crackers announcing our arrival at local houses, hotels and restaurants. Vibrations from these toys of celebration set off car and motor cycle alarms along entire street blocks. Smoke from these drifted across the otherwise immaculately clean and cool air.

A further visit to one of Chinas immense train terminals beckons the sightseer ever northward. This time to Zhuzhu: the final stop in Hunan province. As the brisk carriage drew to a halt in this marvelous municipal miracle our Buicks purred patiently. A tour through the district capital revealed a picture of developed modern extravagance. The local Olympic stadium blew past as the car accelerated on. What a fine structure the arena is, unique, elegant yet strong. Monuments of the five Olympic rings continue to stand proud from the two thousand and eight games until this very day.

Wide uncluttered streets and quiet pavements disguise the fact this is the most populated nation on earth. Vast oceans of colossal public accommodation dominate the skyline even from the highest vantage points. These structures though clean and well serviced are in extraordinary close proximity to one another. Communal housing in this place dominates the commercial district where commerce and home-grown cooperatives thrive almost as an afterthought. Local hotels and corporate do not lack opulence. The city as a whole seems rather magnificent.

The global financial crisis appears non-existent, except as a memo to falling European trade. Construction is everywhere. The western perception of poverty and conflict in the interior seems to be matched with a Chinese pragmatic approach to resolve the situation. The government itself is an essential engine of production, directing cash and manufacturing further and further inland, whilst frantically building vast infrastructure to sustain immense commercial development. In this sense the Chinese seem to realise that the market approach to trickle-down economics doesn’t necessarily hold true. So the state is rolling up its sleeves and getting its hands dirty with the work required to move forward. I think the official slogan is “state-led capitalism” rather than free market capitalism which UK leaders promote. This Chinese engine of progress is undoubtedly having a rapid transformative effect.  But not without costs and contradictions.

Stalinist or Maoist perceptions of Chinese culture are outdated and not in as much evidence as western media would have us believe. Local culture and tradition doesn’t either seem restrictive of expression, or anti-religious, any more than other places I’ve been. Buddhist scholars host faith based talk shows on Chinese television, which are broadcast to hundreds of millions of people. Their popularity is certainly higher than Songs of Praise back home!  Work still has to be done on coming to terms with the tragic, bloody, wasteful years of the Cultural Revolution, and discussion is beginning. However it is limited by a Communist Party fear of letting out a can of worms. This is especially the case as China’s new leaders were of the generation of Red Guards from those dark days. Facebook is still off limits, and there is a perceptible anxiety by the authorities of blogging.  Happily it’s possible to view The Point magazine in China, but I’ll bet you won’t be able to post a comment from her home soil. 

Criticised in ‘the West’ for its single party state model, China has been undoubtedly been prone to corruption and human rights abuses. The very notion of not being capable to vote for more than one group at election time would fill most westerners with dread. Memories of totalitarian regimes in World War II and the Cold War are still fresh in the collective memory.

The other issue which is the pertinent dark side to Chinese growth is the exploitation of local and migrant workers. Traveling on the bullet train vast towns of ramshackle housing and decrepit factory yards did indeed rumble past as a counterpoint to the evident narrative of growth, arousing both indignation and curiousity. Although I’ve tried to write this as an article which is about first hand direct experience, rather than an in depth political analysis, and I had no first experience of it while I was in China, I was aware throughout that exploitation of wage labour underlay the whole picture. This is the nature of capitalism, and is a moral and political disgrace in its rawest form. Production costs are notoriously low in China, one reason profits are so high. Entire ranks of workers exist on little more than bowls of rice. Added to that, the work often involves back-breaking long hours with, little or no entitlements. This is not something about which there is a blanket denial. Reports that throngs of low paid employees operate in China stream into the press. Entire armies of wage slaves exist in poor conditions.

The Chinese government would argue that in most of Asia (Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Malaysia are perhaps exceptions) these same legions are building empires which they do not own any stake in, whereas workers in China are building up the capital of their own future state. Some say the situation in these other Asian capitalist states puts China under some pressure to keep costs low. NevertheIess, independent trade unionism and workplace organisation appears to be developing in some areas. 



There is a hypocrisy here. Western leaders regularly visit south east nations, praising them as fine examples of democracy. The local armies of impoverished wretches don’t register on their political spectrum then.  Then there are the vast quantities of discount weapons sales from the west to these same regions which surround China.

I’d argue this geopolitical situation does not help China overcome problems of poverty. It is a vastly complex circumstance, and the blame for this is partially laid at the feet of a neo liberal global economy by the regime. This has some justification, but the monolithic state, corruption and the use of capitalism in the drive to growth and modernity are also unquestionably part of the picture. 

The usefulness of competition has a limit, whether with regard to workers’ rights, resources or weapons. Consensus, dialogue, ownership, participation, and a sincere commitment to the principles of human rights decency are vital in respect of overcoming poverty, and breaking the cycle of wage labour exploitation.

If you ever go there, prepare yourself for the language challenges, but above all else, enjoy China and approach it with an open mind. If you embrace it, its people will embrace you. It truly is a land of contradictions, yet to be resolved, but of marvelous potential.

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Laurie Penny

New Left Project

Newsnet Scotland

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Socialist Unity

UK Uncut

Viridis Lumen

Wings Over Scotland

Word Power Books

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