Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 16. 12th July 1973
Report from China
Report from China
Only 29 hours after leaving Auckland we arrived in the People's Republic of China. To think that only yesterday we were in New Zealand in mid winter is quite unbelievable.
Of course after only a few hours in the People's Republic it is impossible to write more than a few fleeting impressions. As we spent only one evening in Kowloon, Hong Kong it was difficult to get much impression of the place or to get beneath the surface of one of the last outposts of the British Empire. But a few general comparisons can be made with Canton.
Walking the streets of Kowloon last night in a frantic effort to buy cameras, tape recorders etc we were struck by the great number of cars on the road. With the humidity, the stink of petrol fumes made it quite unpleasant. Most of the cars, including the taxis, were very modern makes. And we passed a couple of car dealers, with the windows packed with brand new vehicles — just like home.
Caltex,Ford,Coca Cola — you can see all the familiar names in Hong Kong. Only the environment is different. With block after block of multi-storey tenement apartment buildings and beggars in the streets you realise more clearly than in New Zealand the colonialist nature of these multi-national firms.
After arriving at Canton Railway Station my first impression was, that in a city of about three million people, there were hardly any cars. The roads are full of bicycles, and buses, cars and trucks weave their way through the bikes and the people, tooting madly all the time. God knows what the official road code is (if it exists) because the main idea seems to be to avoid hitting anyone or anything rather than sticking to the right or the left hand side. At night bus and car drivers seem to have the very courteous habit of turning off their lights when approaching bicycles. Motorised transport in Canton appears to be strictly functional; open trucks and buses (a few of which are packed) and very few cars.
Another comparison between Kowloon and Canton is that here there are numerous political slogans on the top of buildings and on hoardings rather than large commercial advertisements.
Driving from the station to our hotel the slogans we noticed were interesting. Yesterday (July 1) was the fifty second anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921 and so then were several slogans relating to that. Internationalist messages are also prominent.
On one sign we read: "Support the liberation struggle of the African, Asian and Latin American People", while on top of the large Canton Sports Stadium is the slogan: "Long Live the Unity of the People of the World". One particularly striking hoarding warned against Liu Shao- Chi and all "political swindlers". The recent reopening of the trade unions was welcomed by several other slogans.
Since crossing the border we have received extremely good treatment from our hosts — China International Travel Service. Travelling on the train to Canton was an extremely comfortable experience. Very cool and roomy carriages with tea being served at frequent intervals. The food is so good that you feel as though you're going from banquet to banquet.
The hotel we're staying in — the Tung Fang — has an interesting political history. It is now used for putting up foreign visitors to the city, but it was built to house Russian technical experts. From the outside the building looks fairly functional but some of the ornamentation inside is quite amazing. Obviously the people who planned this building had high regard for the needs — aesthetic as well as practical — of their Soviet experts; and expected that the Russians were going to be around for a long time. Built as it was on the principle of excluding foreign experts from the masses and providing them with excellent quarters, the Tung Fang Hotel is a monument to Lui Shao-Chi's political line of relying on experts — including foreigners for economic and social development rather than relying on the creativity of the masses.
The first people we saw after officially crossing the border were members of the People's Liberation Armed Forces (PLA), who are very distinctive in their uniforms. I noticed quite a few PLA soldiers in the streets of Canton, and although they were unarmed it struck me that a foreigner could very easily get the impression that People's China is ruled by the military. Of course many western observers at the time of the Cultural Revolution claimed that the struggle was no more than a takeover by the army.
I have no doubt at all that understanding the political, economic and social role of the PLA in Chinese life will be one of the most difficult things for us to grasp during our visit. The concept of an army which serves the people has always been one of the main principles of Chinese socialism and of Mao Tsetung's writings; and that concept is totally alien to western capitalist countries.
However tonight we found out something of the role of the PLA in serving the masses. We went to what was billed as an exhibition of acrobatics at the Sun Yatsen Memorial Hall — a very impressive piece of architecture. This turned out to be far more than a display of gymnastic talent.
Acrobatics by Soldiers
Artistically the show was very good. The acrobatic feats were of a very competent level, and combined a high level of gymnastic training, physical strength and all the grace of traditional ballet. The interesting thing was that the performance was given by members of the Canton PLA unit, who were only parttime performers. Just imagine a graceful performance of acrobatic feats by soldiers from the New Zealand army.
"An army without culture is a dull-witted army, and a dull-witted army cannot defeat the enemy."
On reflection however, the performance did have a political message, especially for foreigners. Firstly it emphasised in an unexpected way the role of the PLA in serving the people, by providing very enjoyable mass entertainment. Competent as they were, the performers did not put on a piece of 'professional' art. Several of the acts were clearly designed for amusement, sometimes at the expense of the performers, and I didn't get the impression that the performers were showing off their skills to demonstrate perfection. Secondly the performance suggested that cultural activities are useful for the army not only to stop it from becoming "dull-witted", but also as a means of developing the potential members of the PLA unit and testing their ability to master complex skills as a group. For example one of the most difficult acts was performed by a young girl riding a bicycle on a trip wire. The first time she fell off, and was rather ungraciously caught by her companions. I was waiting for the curtain to fall and the girl to disappear, but she climbed onto the wire again and, with a great effort, successfully completed her act. To do that was no small act of courage and perserverance in front of a large hall packed with about five thousand spectators.
There already appears to be a large number of foreign visitors to China, of all varieties. We crossed the border at the same time as a delegation from New York State University and a couple of correspondents of the "Far Eastern Economic Review".
One of these correspondents confided to a member of our delegation that he'd been sent to the People's Republic in a big hurry and that he knew nothing about the country. So the fellow spent a good part of the train journey from Shum Chun (on the border) to Canton listening to members of our delegation converse with our interpreters. The fact that a correspondent for a weekly journal that boasts about its authoritative comment on Asian affairs, openly admitted his ignorance of the country shook us a bit. Only a few weeks ago the "Far Easten Economic Review" was saying that China was on the verge of famine. If all their correspondents in the People's Republic are as ignorant as the bloke we met then its no wonder the Review comes out with such predictions. During the train journey to Canton we passed miles and miles of closely cultivated land, and saw no signs of impending famine.