China by Bicycle :: April - October, 1998

Subject: Shanghai'd in Shanghai.
Date: Sat, 02 May 1998 08:56:42 -0700

14:08 A laundromat in Beijing -- China :: 25 APR 98

Laundry day in Beijing. I'm still trying to catch up with all the writing. Actually, you'll probably all be receiving this with a mass of backlogged stuff. There's been a small mishap with my web space provider and the mailing list (along with a number of other bits and pieces) has been down since shortly after entry 4.004 was dispatched. Actually, as I write this all's not completely copacetic (sp?), but will be soon. Hopefully before there's a 4.011?

There's so much to catch up on with writing, with observations. (He says while yet another curious Beijinger sidles up, sits contacting his shoulder and gawks into the computer screen. Yes, so much to write about.) Beijing is not Shanghai, and neither very well represents the lifestyle lived in the countryside and smaller towns I've seen from train windows, or while pedaling. But I've been meaning to talk about Shanghai for some time now; it's been sitting at the bottom of the queue far too long.

Shanghai is, and has long been, a Chinese anomaly. If recollection serves it began as a fishing port near the mouth of the Yellow river. Then the European colonial powers transformed it into something of an economic free-for-all zone, building and dividing the city into French, English, German, American and Japanese enclaves. Typical of colonial rule, the locals did the dirty work while the spoils went to...well figure it out for yourself. The Chinese made a few attempts to throw the foreigner out, or at least gain some measure of control. Chiang Kaishek cooperated with the foreign police and military in suppressing military unrest.

17:33 Sanwei (Three Flavours) Teahouse, Beijing -- China :: 26 APR 98

Then came the Communists (again) in 1949. Just for starters they rehabilitated the prostitutes, gamblers and opium addicts. They also hung a big CLOSED FOR BUSINESS sign on the city gates and Shanghai sank quickly into oblivion for 40 years.

In the 1980s, capital--that Marxist nightmare--made a comeback. I have never in all my travels seen so much construction in a single city. There seem to be cranes, bamboo-scaffolded skyscrapers and streets torn up to install new infrastructure on every square block of the the sprawling city. Jay kept asking me, "so what's Communist about this country?" Well, besides the fact that the government continues to control/oversee every significant development, it would seem the answer is "Not much." Apparently, the Chinese Communist Party is bent upon building "a better Hong Kong than Hong Kong" here on the mainland. To do it, the West (and its investors) have been welcomed in.

I'm not sure the Chinese realize just what they're in for; Western culture comes pouring in with all that money. If there's a construction crane on every block, there's also a Titanic movie poster along with the musical accompaniment of Celine Dion's theme song. Deng Xiaoping started all this off nearly a decade ago by saying essentially, "To be wealthy is wonderful." That's got to be the single-most bourgeois statement ever made by the leader of a Communist country. I wonder if Mao did a somersault in his mausoleum?

What would disturb Mao the most, though, is the complete reversal of an age-old Marxist Revolutionary principle: autocratic state control of the population is a necessary evil in the transition to an idealised proletarian paradise. Until the enemies of the proletariat are subdued, until bourgeois thought is eradicated, a strong central government must exist to protect the worker's interests from those who would exploit them. With worker's heaven achieved, with the means of production placed firmly in the hands of the proletariat, centralized government becomes a burden on the common interests of the people so it is abandoned in favour of natural, communally democratic forms.

As far as Mao's concerned, Deng threw out the baby and kept the bath water.

Remember the '60s? Free-love, Peace, long hair, the anti-establishment and all that? The Chinese remember the '60s as a period diametrically opposed to the American experience. The Chinese remember the Cultural Revolution. Some might call it the Cultural Eradication but what it essentially amounted to was a fanatical attempt to eradicate the beourgoisie both in thought and fact. This is the core intent of Marxist-Lenist Revolution; make everyone think like a proletariat and there will be no one to exploit the proletariats. That's why intellectuals, artists, musicians, shop keepers, landlords--anyone showing the least slip of beourgeois sentiment--were sent into the fields and factories: to work with their hands, to understand labour from the point of view of a labourer, to become proletarian in thought and, therefore, an ally of the workers.

Whether you think the ideals and process are inspired, fanatical or just plain nutty is now moot in China. "To be wealthy is wonderful" superceded "from each according to his ability; to each according to his needs." Chairman Mao might say "The enemies of the people have stripped them of the means of production, and the failure left in place a centralised dictatorship now providing our enemies with the means of control and exploitation." What hasn't changed is who runs the show, the so-called Communist Party.

In Shanghai we see the West, or at least good old Western Capitalism. But we see a mirage, an illusion not so different from the world's dozens of autocratic capitalisms. Western capital floods into Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing while some fairly basic human rights continue to be violated. The US and the rest of the G7 nations keep China on their "most favoured nation status," arguing that sactions don't work anyway and, besides, the free market implies the free flow of ideas and the flow of western culture into China. Surely, this spells the death-knell for dictatorship in China, the clarion call for democracy, liberty, freedom?

Why? What of the examples we have in Indonesia, or the OPEC nations of the middle-east, or South America's "fledgling democracies" and their death squads? All these dictatorships exist, have existed, will continue to exist with the West's approval and support, whether tacit or explicit. Why?

A friend of mine recently returned from a trip through central asia. While sitting around a campfire one evening, jabbering with a group of travellers, one traveller explained he was a businessman specializing in the building of new manufacturing plants in the third world. Intrigued, another traveller asked, "where do you build these plants?" The response? "Anywhere we can get people to work for $3 a day."

15:48 Bailin Chansi (Pine Tree Temple), Zhiozhou; Hebei -- China :: 01 MAY 98

Oh dear. I did get on a ramble there, eh?

Let's close this off this way: I've been told a couple times that at one point recently 20% of the world's construction cranes could be found in Shanghai. All this growth comes through the influx of free-market capital into an infant market economy. But it's not a free-market here. Rather it's something of a hybrid, a command-market economy. The state owns all the land, which is administered by local government. It seems that all foreign businesses enter China in partnership with the Chinese government. The term to describe this relationship is "joint venture" though I'm still extremely unclear as to the terms of the relationship. On the surface, it looks like good old Capitalism at work, but the government maintains control over the means of production even if the profit is distributed as in a Capitalism.

Still, it seems to me (and some of the Chinese I've talked to) just a matter of time before government relinquishes ownership of the land. Already, many business lease the land on which their office buildings stand, with the stipulation that some number of decades down the line they will earn the option to buy it outright. Over time, I suspect it will gradually loosen its grip on economic decisions. This will occur due to economic pressures generated internally when growth inevitably slows. (Apparently, economic growth runs at the astounding rate of 9%. However, inflation stands at 10%. Read those figures as: The rich are getting richer; the poor are getting poorer.) External pressures from organisations and treaties such as the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade will also induce China to play the Capitalist game more in the laissez-faire spirit of the various free-trade agreements so popular with western economists now.

Eventually, what will remain of Communism in China is the Communist Party and its autocratic grip on power. Unless something else changes. More surpising events unfolded during the last decade.

~~~ Responses Sought ~~~
"Don't you want to abolish state power?" Yes, we do, but not right now; we cannot do it yet. Why? Because imperialism still exists, because domestic reaction still exists, because classes still exist in our country. Our present task is to strengthen the people's state apparatus -- mainly the people's army, the people's police and the people's courts -- in order to consolidate national defence and protect the people's interest.

  graphical element Chairman Mao
In "Mao's Little Red Book" published 1966
Quoted from "On the People's Democratic Dictatorship"
June 30, 1949


We have won the basic victory in transforming the ownership of the means of production, but we have not yet won complete victory on the political and ideologial fronts. In the ideological field, the question of who will win the struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie has not been really settled yet. We still have to wage a protracted struggle against bourgeois and petty-bourgeois ideology. It is wrong not to understand this and to give up ideological struggle. All erroneous ideas, all poisonous weeds, all ghosts and monsters, must be subjected to criticism; in no circumstance should they be allowed to spread unchecked. However, the criticism should be fully reasoned, analytical and convincing, and not rough, bureaucratic, metaphysical or dogmatic.

  graphical element Chairman Mao
In "Mao's Little Red Book" published 1966
Quoted from a Speech at the CCP's National Conference on Propaganda Work
March 12, 1957


Revisionism, or Right opportunism, is a bourgeois trend of thought that is even more dangerous than dogmatism. The revisionists, the Right opportunists, pay lip service to Marxism; they too attack "dogmatism". But what they are really attacking is the quintessence of Marxism. They oppose or distort materialism and dialectics, oppose or try to weaken the people's democratic dictatorship and the leading role of the Communist Party, and oppose or try to weaken socialist transformation and socialist construction. After the basic victory of the socialist revolution in our country, there are still a number of people who vainly hope to restore the capitalist system and fight the working class on every front, including the ideological one. And their right-hand men in the struggle are the revisionists.

  graphical element Chairman Mao
In "Mao's Little Red Book" published 1966
Quoted from "On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People"
February 27, 1957