Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 22. 1973
China Through Students' Eyes
China Through Students' Eyes
When the 1971 Student delegation to China returned to New Zealand. Bob Wellington of Craccum conducted an interview with three of them: Paul Grocott, Kitty Haywood and Frank Hogan. What follows is part of that interview.
Bob: Has any one of you come back with an overwhelming impression?
Frank: What impressed me most is the coherence, the stability of the country: they have a Marxist—Leninist ideal and Mao Tsetung has applied this to Chinese history.
Paul: Everyone is actively involved.
Frank: I got the same impression; the masses, the great multitude of the people were generating the revolution themselves.
Genuinely? You felt that they were living the way they felt?
Frank: Yes — since the Cultural Revolution their political consciousness has been heightened. They're just wrapped in the whole idea and they want to purify it. The values of the revolution are perhaps incarnate in Mao Tsetung's life and thought and they want to renew it.
Presumably you contrast this with a country such as New Zealand which you would feel does not have one single principle as an impetus?
Frank: Our characteristics are mostly individualistic and that has led to a fracturing of .................social harmony.
Kitty: They're involved, totally involved, and we aren't. That's just it.
And you're implying that this is good?
Kitty: Well, it is I think. There's a fantastic feeling of unity and community that was everywhere. There's tremendous enthusiasm. You get a great feeling out of being with these people; there was just no alienation at all. They were involved with doing something, they had a purpose. They had a future which is something.... out of fashion in our society, I think. You live for today.
Yes, I hate to ask what may seem a trite question, but: they have a united guiding purpose but would you say the individuals are happier, more contented?
Paul: In my view they certainly were. Because the purpose we were talking about in very general terms is a commitment to a community ideal and everything that takes place, takes place within a framework of the commitment of the individual to an ideal of community service. And they do not see a role for the individual outside that of benefitting the whole community. The benefit and satisfaction for the individual is in working for and within the community.
This is an ethos and in a way it is obviously not an ethos of freedom. In Western countries we value individual freedom highly. Where a total population espouses one principle or national idea, it perhaps doesn't leave room for any other ideas or principles. Would you agree?
Frank: It's a very good point but it has to be seen in the context. In our society the individual becomes ego-centred. We think of the individual as doing something for himself.... or perhaps for a small group of people — his family. In Chinese society today the distinction is not important. A person ploughs all his efforts into the community, but so does everyone else. So the individual's progress is enhanced. It's not as though he's wringing all his efforts out and getting no return. Morally they seem to be a much healthier, much finer society. It's just that the terms of freedom as we understand them lead to self-centredness.
Paul: The freedoms you're talking about, the freedoms that we in our society would refer to under the general heading of Civil Liberties, they do not see as liberating the whole community. In a sense I feel they are quite right, and I didn't need to go to China to learn this. They are interested in freedom from exploitation. In a sense our society is interested in the freedom for the individual to do what the individual likes; I personally have never been convinced that this is an ideal worth pursuing. You see what the Chinese are saying is something which the Negro militants in America and also the Woman's Liberation people have been saying: That until all people are free, until the whole community is free, none of us, none of the individuals within the community, can be free either. And so individual freedom follows community freedom, it docs not precede it.
Will it ever be possible? If everyone works together with one aim which would seem to require a certain lack of suppression of individuality, are they going to be able, when they've achieved their unity or ideal to become free individuals or are they going to be completely lost as free individuals?
Frank: The don't lack or suppress individuality. We had discussions with people on the streets and they were articulate, and this is an important thing. The could argue, reason and answer tricky questions that we'd pose.
Paul: There were disagreements in some of the discussions we had with students, particularly at one of the universities in Peking where they were quite open about the disagreements and differences that the students have had during the Cultural Revolution. This is just one example that comes to mind. And people were very open in their admission of past differences and past disagreements among themselves. What impressed me most and I wonder if you'll agree with this Frank, was that there seemed to be common agreement about the need for unity; not necessarily a previous agreement about the particular direction that they would end up taking but an agreement that whatever that direction they would be there together.
Frank: Yes, it was clear that they had chosen a line — they were on the revolutionary line and it was becoming more clear which values promoted the revolution and which one didn't. Many of the systems we studied were in a process of struggle, criticism and transformation, which does demand differences of opinion, but out of these they will get a unity.
Would they align themselves with American blacks and other oppressed or so-called oppressed peoples? I was just thinking that Eldridge Cleaver for example takes the line that the American black people should work with any other oppressed peoples they can find.
Paul: Yes, they feel a unity with other oppressed peoples of the world because they feel that they themselves were oppressed for so long and they are still throwing off the last remnants of that oppression. But one comment that I would like to make — it's a moral commitment to other oppressed peoples, and time and time again particularly at the higher levels, it was made clear to us and I certainly felt very convinced by the sincerity of the explanations, that the Chinese are not interested in the export of Chinese Revolution.
No prosely tising?
Paul: Not at all and the reason is very straightforward and very simple. The Chinese revolution is a Chinese revolution and it will not have application in India or Indo-China or in New Zealand. These people are going to have to work out their problems for themselves. As far as change in these countries is concerned the Chinese are not interested in exporting their model at all. Their model is totally applicable only to the Chinese situation and the emphatic way I am presenting this is simply the emphatic way it was presented to us. So their commitment to revolutionary struggles elsewhere is a moral commitment, not in anyway an indication that the Chinese are interested in spreading their particular ideas of revolution into any other country.
Do you think it could conceivably happen, as Eldrige Cleaver might like to hope, that various oppressed peoples of different skins, of quite different races could come together in a revolutionary mood? Could it happen from a Chinese view do you think?
Kitty: The important thing is that they believe in a People of the World. And they'll support anything that to them is a people's movement. They are forever stressing international unity and the rising of oppressed peoples against imperialism. But for them to actually export Chinese revolution would be imperialism; they've got to give moral aid and sometimes material aid, like they're giving to the North Vietnamese, but they can't give anything else — that would be imperialistic because it would be intruding on other people's movements, and trying to influence them would be morally wrong.
Paul: Right, and these ideas of expansionism or imperialism are to them the worst possible characteristic that could be applied to anyone. Incidentally, there is one other very good reason too; it is not only their hatred of imperialism in any form, whether American imperialism or Soviet imperialism (they see them in a similar light even though the ideologists see them as different), but the Chinese themselves are very convinced of the need for what they call a policy of self-reliance and in a crude way you could say this
On a national level, that is?
Paul: Yes, and you could say this, that unless one is able to do this for oneself it is not worth doing. This idea of self-sufficiency has been ingrained into their whole way of thinking so they would say, even if by aiding a revolutionary people of one country we can help them to bring about their revolution, it would not be worth it unless they can do it for themselves, because if they don't do it themselves it will not be totally successful. So one has to wait until the revolutionary spirit is strong enough to run the country for itself. The reasoning behind the Chinese outlook is fairly clear. A characteristic that is well ingrained is not only the idea of self reliance, but the idea of the close connection between theory and practice, and they would. I think, regard the speeding up of these ideas as allowing theory to get ahead of practice; that's only one step away from the collapse of the revolution. So theory and practice have to be very closely in touch with each other. These two ideas, the proximity of theory to practice and the need for self reliance are.... pillars of the Cultural Revolution, and it is these ideas that dominate China today, I felt.
You visited schools and universities. Would you like to compare and contrast, or at least give a few impressions. You visited a primary school, Frank?
Frank: Yes.... the primary school in Nanking. A central feature of the education there is to ensure that no streaming occurs, that there is no preference, no advantage or privilege for those people who we would call in our terms 'bright'.
They give students... an appreciation of the ideology, the revolutionary thoughts of Mao Tsetung so that they can be applied in everyday life. The way this is reflected in their actual system now is in everyday life. The way this is reflected in their actual system now is in workshops where the children learn (among other things) techniques of production. The question was raised that this was sort of slave labour, a way of keeping production high; but the answer is no. The aim is to teach the methods of work, to teach skilled techniques (and to give everyone an appreciating in their early years of how it 'feels' to be a worker). There was (also) crop growing and seed planting. They go out to the countryside for about a month and a half every year. To live, to learn.
They were enjoying a good practical education?
Frank: Yes, marrying of practice with theory is very important.
What about classroom methods?
Frank: Well, we only saw one classroom in practice. We just sort of looked through the window. We couldn't find the teacher at first. She was sitting right down the back and there were kids getting up and giving talks about their living application of Mao Tsetung's thought, how they'd applied different ideas. But the most fascinating part for me was their exams. The ideas behind their exams. Formerly they had a similar approach to ours, but they recognised the error in this. Teachers were treating students like they would an enemy. That was the term they used. Because it wasn't assessing the pupil fairly, there was a lot of pressure on him, unnatural pressure. They still have exams, but they exist more as a form of assessment of the efficiency or effectiveness of the teacher the success of his teaching methods and whether he can get his idea across. That's the idea behind the exams.
This is tough on the teacher.
Yes, that's what they said. They said that before, the teachers saw themselves in a position of privilege, authority which they did not always earn. They got it without earning it........ While on the exams, to complete the picture: they will have the exams and then the teacher will gather up the papers and give them an initial mark and hand them back to the class. The class will discuss whether the marks have been fairly given and in discussion they will toss this around.... Then the teacher will listen to their criticisms then take the papers back for final marking.
Kitty: Another thing which might be mentioned, about the middle schools which are their colleges or secondary schools, is their discipline, in contrast with the caning and detention in our school system. The first step (in discipline) was criticism and self-criticism in the classroom. And the most serious thing that could ever happen to anyone was a warning from the school revolutionary committee. No one was ever expelled, they emphasised this to us — they must have heard about it happening here.
What comprised the school revolutionary committee?
Kitty: It was made up of students, teachers, and the local parents and workers.
Frank: Bringing it back to the New Zealand situation, we have the teachers, the Board of Governors, parent-teachers association, then we've got..... school councils. Over there all these three arc wrapped up, they're co-ordinated, whereas in New Zealand they're working on different levels for different objectives and therefore they're breaks on each other. It's just the difference in values. Here we've got the structure, we just haven't got the unity, the aims.
Talking about the free discussion idea of exam papers and so forth, you obviously approve, and I think the point may now be raised that if as many people seem to think, Chinese education is indoctrination or inculcation, this idea of free discussion which could satisfy the people and give them a feeling of being in command of their own destinies could be a fob, could be in fact a specious freedom. Indoctrinating people from the word go, you then, when they are eight or nine, give them some responsibility of discussion, being pretty well assured you're only going to get back what you have in fact inculcated into them. In other words you're fobbing them off, you're keeping the masses happy. Have you an answer to this?
Frank: Let's put it this way. They are not free to be destructive. They're not free to tear down the progress that they've been making. What they are taught is not formulas and answers, they're taught a method of critical analysis. There is a lot of room to manoeuvre with this critical analysis. They know the values and they know what seems to promote revolutions...... Indoctrination we think of as coming from a central thing and being imposed right down, but in China the revolution is very much a self-generating thing.
Would you say that there was any more indoctrination or inculcation than, say, in the New Zealand system?
Paul: Well, I didn't feel there was. When we were being entertained by some primary school students I couldn't help thinking of what we called (and perhaps still call) Sunday School... and it was the same sort of thing. Sunday School children sing particular hymns and chant particular slogans or particular verses. I found it really familiar. It didn't seem to me that there was any greater indoctrination than what I had experienced in my upbringing.
Frank: I had a religious education too and I felt that there were a lot of irrelevancies, a lot of unnatural pressure created by that. In China there seemed to be a healthy education system.
Paul: A comment which I would like to add: Frank said there is room for mancouvre within the framework in which things are taking place. This appeared to me to be so, time and time again. When we met students from one of the universities in Peking they told us about some of the disagreements they have had in the early part of the Cultural Revolution, and that the grievances had been very strong ones and it took them sometime to talk them out. And still today they have disagreements over the application of theory, the way in which theory is going to be put into practice. This was something they were quite happy to talk about; it was part of their social progress. There were other forms of disagreement, e.g. perhaps where one person found himself out of touch with what was going on around him. Well, in New Zealand the general response, and this applies to me as much as anybody else, is to think there must be something wrong with society and merely to look outside ourselves for the source of the problem. The Chinese do exactly the opposite. The immediately turn to themselves, and they say 'if I'm out of touch there must be something wrong with me. What is it that has caused me to be so indifferent to what is going on about me?' and the result of this attitude is not to put the blame onto something external, impersonal... but to recognise that it is within the person's own ability to adjust or to understand what is happening in his own environment. Everyone recognised this and when someone was in such a position other people helped, they also felt they were responsible for his dissatisfaction; so they were all helping each other and it is this community ideal, this way in which they are constantly aware of the need to work together to solve their common problems which constitutes their unity.page 7
This contrasts very much it seems to me, with what is current in NZ, America, England, etc., where many young people hold widely differing views from those which they've been brought up. Now can this happen in China or are they not the kind of students we have here, who protest, who can espouse radical views which contradict established policy ? Do people become like this in China or do they not? You said they disagreed, but you seemed to imply that they disagree very peacefully, that they all understand unity at the end of their disagreement.
Paul: Well, they certainly didn't disagree peacefully during the Cultural Revolution and from what we were told I would say some of their disagreements were as active as they have been anywhere else in the world. Really, the answer to your question, I feel, lies in the dynamics of the society; the reason they are prepared to work for unity is because there is a process of dynamic social change taking place and for university students, for example, there is a constant process of reforming the educational system, reforming the universities: this is part of their life and they (and this is extremely important to understand the situation) have a direct chance to influence the changes that are taking place. You see, the idea of change is built into the system, not the idea of an established method or an established form. The idea of continuous change is built into the system and the students are guaranteed an opportunity to affect the directions which this change is to take. These two points make the situation so very different from that which I have experienced in New Zealand. And it was to me very understandable that even though students found themselves in a minority from time to time they were happy to accept the enlightened line that most of the students were able to agree upon.
Lastly, there is an apparent paradox that people like yourselves who have been brought up in New Zealand in what we might term a more open society or at least in a certain sense of the word, a more free society, having visited China, have obviously been impressed. You see a lot of good in the society which you've just visited, which you tend to contrast with your own. In a sense there is a paradox here because you're in a position because of your environment, the one that you've been brought up in, your educational system, to judge and assess what you've experienced. It may be because of the education you've received, that you can take the rational and open and free view that you take of Chinese society? Could that be correct?
Frank: I don't think it is because of, but in spite of.
Can we see it the other way round Would a 19 or 20 year old Chinese now be able to make the same free assessment of another society that you have made of theirs?
Paul: Well I certainly think so. They're doing this indirectly through the information they get. They are making assessments very similar to our own in many cases. I won't try and comment as I would like to in detail on your question because it seems to me to be predisposed to lots of things which I do not regard as being correct and valid. To me there is no paradox, even in the terms you have presented, and I don't actually agree with your terms; but according to your terms I still do not sec the paradox, and the reason for this is very simple. To me the extent of equality in China is far greater than anywhere else I have ever seen, and to me equality is far more important than freedom. Indeed, without equality, for me there is no freedom. So in our country I see a large number of inequalities and in Chinese society I saw far fewer inequalities, and, therefore, in my mind they are much closer to the ideal of freedom than New Zealand has ever been.