Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 24. 26th September 1973
Chinese streets ~ the centre of People's Government
Chinese streets ~ the centre of People's [unclear: Government]
Perhaps the greatest difficulty facing a visitor to the People's Republic of China is the shift in mental attitude needed even to get an approximate understanding of what is observed.
For a visitor from a small, western-orientated, capitalist country such as New Zealand, the problem is even more acute. Adjustments have to made to a vast, Asian, socialist nation whose economic development runs the gamut from communal, labour-intensive agriculture to heavy industry plants that dwarf anything this country has to offer.
One of my major interests while in the People's Republic was to attempt to gain some understanding of the human relationships engendered by a socialist means of production. Accordingly, I considered Shanghai, the largest city in the world with its population of more than ten million, should be able to provide me with some answers to the questions I was asking.
Naturally, in a city that Size, one quickly adjusted to the sight of hundreds of thousands of people thronging the streets at most times of the night and day, engaged in virtually every form of human activity, with the exception of one or two that might spring easily to the reader's mind. The significance of this common sight, and its relevance to my interest, did not become apparent to me until much later, after a visit to a Shanghai housing resettlement area and after much reflection on what I'd seen.
At the housing settlement, a vast residential area filled with high-rise blocks of apartments (though not to the same heights as western apartment blocks), three or four of us were invited into the home of a woman who had just finished her shift at a nearby cement factory. She told us that her husband was still working at the cement factory, that her teenage son was due home from work any minute and that her younger daughter was still at school. That comprised her family and she freely gave us details of the family income, cost of living expenses and other household details.
Looking around the flat, I could not suppress a feeling of surprise and some disappointment. Although it was extremely tidy, with colourful decorations, books on the shelves, bright curtains and a generally airy, cheerful aspect, it was so small. There were only two medium-sized rooms, with toilet facilities and a kitchen that appeared to be shared with the family in the next flat. I couldn't understand it. It all appeared far too small for a family of four.
Having been raised in a family of 13 and subsequently having lived in various flats with populations ranging from two to ten, I had some understanding of the domestic disagreements and petty irritations that can so easily sour close relationship.
What about the obvious one, the house-work? Who does that? "No trouble," she said, "Whoever happens to be in the apartment just does it."
"No rosters, no assigned duties, nothing like that?"
"Oh no, whoever happens to be there. Sometimes the family next door does ours and we do theirs and we all help to clean the hall etc."
"Does your husband help?" A bright laugh. "Yes," she said, I was left with the impression that sometimes the old man was a bit slack about cleaning up but his wife looked quite capable of keeping him up to scratch. (On another occasion, we were told of one woman who objected to her husband's laziness about housekeeping. She solved the problem by leaving home to live on a people's commune. The husband complained, the neighbours told him a few home truths and eventually he realised where he'd gone wrong and managed to persuade his wife that she could safely return home without being forced to do more than her share of the housework.)
"What about the cooking? Does each family cook separately or is there a gommunal kitchen?' Another laugh and the information that each family cooked separately. (At least another bizarre western myth about China had been disposed of.)
The problem still appeared to me to be unsolved. It was apparent that little or no tension existed within the family, but that didn't square up with the apparently cramped home. It was only later that I realised where the extra living room was. It was the street.
Since the weather in China is generally warm and humid, there's no obstacle to spending much more time outdoors than New Zealanders, do. It's a common sight to see whole families eating their evening meal out on the footpath. Washing in a basin and many other domestic chore are frequently done on the front doorstep.
The community feeling this fosters is very strong. Street lighting is often used to read or play cards by, and neighbours and friends stroll up and down the footpath, stopping for a chat now and then.
Since every home has its own electricity there's no real need to use the lights for reading. I concluded that the companionship of neighbours was the reason so much time was spent outside the house.
This sense of community, so vital in such huge cities, is strongly reinforced by the Chinese system of local government. The basic unit of local government is the street revolutionary committee. Elected by the community, which can number around 50,000 people, this committee employs staff who organise the study of Marxist classics by the people. And it organises study and discussion of national and international policies and the implementation of Chinese Communist Party decisions.
It establishes small factories and other enterprises that fit in with the state plan. It also operates nurseries, schools to supplement those run by factories, restaurants and household service shops which do laundering, mending, hair cutting and other tasks. The workers on the street revolutionary committee spend at least one day a week working in a local factory or other unit to keep in contact with the people.
Apart from that, they go out as much as possible into the street to talk to the residents and find out about local conditions.
Working under the revolutionary committee is the neighbourhood committee This is a people's organisation, not a unit of government.
Generally, the most active on the neighbourhood committee are those who work in local enterprised and are what the Chinese call neighbourhood people". They are either old, retired or have to stay at home to look after the kids. The neighbourhood committees cover between one to eight lanes, about 2000 people on average They act as a link between street revolutionary committees and the people. They inform the people of the decisions and policies of the Government and organise discussion on how to carry these out. The neighbourhood committee also passes on the demands of the people to the street revolutionary committee.
Translate all this structure into terms of human relationships and one begins to see how flexible it is. It must be difficult to become alienated and remote from your neighbours and friends when the person working next to you may be the chairman of the street committee, when the shop you take your laundry to is run by the same committee, when the old man sitting in the sun as you go to work may call on you in the evening to ask you to a meeting to discuss some point of China's foreign policy.
In addition, friendship and understanding must arise between you and you neighbour if you have a chance to chat each evening as you both eat the evening meal of play cards under the street lighting. If you have a complaint about the way things are being run, it's not necessary to write a letter or call at any office, you're more likely to meet someone who'll pay serious attention to you complaint just walking in the street or working just down the road.