Heat, Dreams and Solitude

Perhaps it was the heat. Perhaps it was the solitude. Or perhaps a combination of the two, but they seemed to provide me with many friends – friends in thoughts (or were they dreams?) and even in person.

Heat

Long had I been wanting to ride again from Newcastle to Canberra, some 500 kilometres. Down the coast I would go, then through Sydney and the southern highlands into the high plains and sheep farms of the Monaro Plateau.

A week offered itself, albeit a week in February, in the midst of a long and hot summer. I’ll be fine, I thought. After all, I have ridden often in hot weather. Up to 35 degrees is fine. Somewhat warm, a little discomfort, but not too much. Occasionally, one can manage a few degrees above that mark. Drink more water, rest frequently … I knew the drill.

I was simply not prepared for what was to come. The numbers: over seven days the maximum temperatures on the bicycle were 41, 33, 38, 48, 39, 40, 41. Yes, the average was 40 degrees, with the highest a staggering 48!

Needless to say, such heat can wear you down, no matter how much water you drink and how much shade you seek. Maximum distances per day decrease – at least in theory – and heat exhaustion is a risk and a reality. As I was to find.

Thoughts … or Dreams

When your legs go throughs thousands upon thousands of revolutions on the pedals, when you are on your own doing so, and when the heat is relentless, day after day, thoughts tumble and surprise you … or are they dreams? How can my brain store so much random information? How in the world did that thought get triggered? Let me give a random sample.

Example 1: When I tire, I argue with imaginary and real opponents, manifestations of the ever-changing beast on my shoulder. And I tired more often than usual on this ride. Sixty kilometres in the heat seemed to be my limit, beyond which I hit my ‘wall’. On three of the days I did indeed hit my ‘wall’, with some force. After that moment, one cannot think much, for one is focused entirely on getting through the revolutions of the pedals. The time before is another matter.

With whom did I argue?

Well, when you have been a job for a decade or so, you build long-lasting common ground with some and you find equally long-lasting lack of common ground with others. My preferred approach is to have nothing to do with the latter. A preferred approach … but hardly practicable. I prefer to forget and move on. Others prefer to hold grudges for many a long year, waiting for their moment.

Add to all this the turmoil of a wholesale restructure that made all and sundry profoundly anxious about the ensuing chaos and you have a situation ripe for the re-emergence of gripes, the origin of which had been half-forgotten in the passage of time.

So, I imagined scenarios, enacted confrontations, wondered whether my new bosses understood my idiosyncratic way of operating – or as some point out, my tendency to ‘go rogue’.

Only after the ride did my wiser half ask whether the real question is whether I need to move on, to say farewell to one job and develop another. Good question. It went right to point and identified exactly what I had been seeking for a year or two, but without being able to name it.

Being on a ride away from a place is obviously symbolic at so many levels …

Example 2: A decade is long time. Almost ten years ago I rode these roads, but in the opposite direction, from Melbourne to Newcastle. With each push of the pedal, I was saying farewell to a well-nigh forgotten phase of my life.

Back then it was another time and another departure. Then, I was on an old red tourer that did not like the loads I put on it. It thought of itself as a racehorse and I treated it like a workhorse. Now I was on a true workhorse, a Surly Long-Haul Trucker that enjoyed as much as you could load on it. A strong, uncompromising bicycle that took on any task without complaining. I wish I had used it earlier. But it was not available at that time, perhaps waiting for me to reach this phase of my life. Then, I still pushed myself to the extreme, wanting a little extra in the competition of life. Now, I am content with a gentler pace, savouring what passes and knowing my limits a little better – although I occasionally give into the temptation to bust myself even these days.

Example 3: The mysterious Lake George, a place for thoughts and dreams. Mysterious? The lake has no streams that feed into it, so the water that appears from time to time is somewhat of a puzzle. Some suggest it relies on the trans-continental aquifer for its water supply, while other suggest it has something to do with the alignment of the planets. Others have more hare-brained ideas. I prefer not to speculate, but to enjoy it as it is – with or without water. The latter is often the case … which makes one wonder why it is called a ‘lake’.

Out of Goulburn and onto the Federal Highway (which would take me to Canberra at last), the lake gave me a tailwind. For 50 kilometres along its edge I ran, using the big chain-ring on the front. But I was not so interested in skipping by the lake too quickly. Often I found an excuse to stop, for a drink of water, a feed or a piss. I lingered, looking out over the flat land, the low hills on the lake’s edge, the big sky with its few clouds towering above. A kangaroo stood under a solitary tree, seeking shade from the heat. It looked out over the lake flats, until it saw me and bounded away. Like the kangaroo, my smallness was palpable, completely lost to the rest of the world. I turned my phone off, so that no trace of my passing would be noticed. The only way to find me was by the primitive mode of sight.

Solitude … of Sorts

My only companion for most of the ride was myself. Usually, I am good company, able to keep up a lively conversation with myself. But one cannot avoid other human beings … from time to time.

At first, it was a woman or two, albeit of my own demographic. Two women sat at a café in Ourimbah on the second day. I had stopped for a rare coffee and ‘sausage’ roll. They were obviously not of these parts, having come up from the southern metropolis for the day to scope out the area. One was amazed that I was riding to Canberra, fascinated that I should be getting back on the bicycle to pedal further.

Down the road at Marulan (between Moss Vale and Goulburn), I stopped for a lunch of sardines, baby spinach and bread rolls. Before long, a middle-aged woman stepped out of her automobile and began reminiscing about the rides of her youth. She had moved to these parts anticipating a high-speed rail connection. Of course, in Australia with its woeful politics, such projects are promised from time to time during election campaigns, only to disappear in the too-hard-too-expensive basket afterwards. She had been waiting for 30 years.

More often I encountered ‘grey nomads’, old fogeys trying to make the most of retirement before the various ‘medical conditions’ took their toll. At the wonderful Campers’ Kitchen at Moss Vale, when I was still recovering from heat exhaustion, a couple laid out a tablecloth, carefully cooked a meal and sat down to eat. We talked, of journeys taken and journeys planned, of places visited and places in one’s dreams.

At Goulburn, a couple of old men arrived late, well after I had pitched the tent, eaten and had a couple of beers. Each drove his own car, each was obviously keen to get on the road, and each was intrigued by my simple gear and bicycle. Who knows: were they old mates seeking to live a dream that might soon escape them? Did they imagine other ways to travel apart from the comfort and ease of their vehicles?

As for me, I wondered why more and old fogeys found they could talk with me. Was it because I too was on the threshold of that phase of life? If so, I would continue to pedal, albeit a little more slowly and for more modest distances.

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Share bicycles and cultures

Why do share bicycles work in China but not in Australia?

I have witnessed them first in China and then in Australia, but I have been struck by how differently they are perceived and (ab)used. Let me tell the story of share bicycles first, before returning to what is really a cultural question.

A couple of years ago I returned to Beijing to find the city festooned with millions of share bicycles. The idea: by using one of the universal payment platforms on your mobile phone (this too was another relatively recent phenomenon), you could unlock a bicycle wherever you found it, pay a small fee, ride a shorter or longer distance, and then leave it locked again for the next rider. Favoured locations were metro stations, shops, schools and so on, but they really covered wherever people needed to go. It did not matter which company produced the bikes or which of the two major payment platforms you used – Alipay or Wechatpay – for the process was incredibly simple.

Initially, a range of start-ups offered bicycles, but soon enough it boiled down to two or three: the ubiquitous yellow bicycles by ‘Ofo’ and the orange and silver ones by ‘Mobike’. While Ofo went for cheaply produced bicycles on a massive scale, Mobike took more time, designing a robust bicycle that is nearly indestructible and of course more expensive to make. Given that Mobikes are more reliable, they have become the bicycle of choice wherever possible.

The idea itself is not so old: a thought bubble by Hu Weiwei – now president of Mobike – in 2014 led to plans for developing the scheme. Apart from the usual questions for a new company, the project assumed a technological and logistical level not found elsewhere in the world at the time. Technologically, the simple yet universal payment scheme, using QR codes, had to be developed and fine-tuned first (Tencent and Alibaba had already done so). Logistically, the ability to produce and distribute millions of bicycles in the largest country in the world required a whole new level of logistics, if not future-grade infrastructure.

However, technology and logistics is only part of the story, and a relatively minor one at that. The real reason they work in China is cultural.

A few examples.

1. If a share bicycle is damaged in some way – a broken seat, a buckled wheel, a malfunctioning brake – you simply take a photograph with your smartphone and send it to the Wechat account of the company in question. Soon enough, the bicycle will be picked up and repaired (since its location can be identified by GPS).

2. If you find a row of bicycles parked in a designated area at the end of your ride, you park the bicycle in the same area. In this way, they remain organised and avoid the clutter that comes from simply dumping them. And if someone is there to ensure the bicycles are indeed so organised, you listen to what they say.

3. Since you would like to find a bicycle in working order when you need it, you leave the bicycle you have used in such a state for the next person. It certainly does not mean that you throw it into a river, damage it, or try to toss it onto a roof. Someone else’s benefit is also your benefit.

Now to Australia. More recently, a couple of share bicycle companies have attempted to establish a foothold there. I assume this is the case in other countries, but I have not as yet been in other places to witness the process.

The story could not be more different. Again, a few examples.

1. A share bicycle is left in someone’s ‘private’ front yard. For days and then weeks, the bicycle remains there, until the person in question calls the local government to have it removed.

2. A number of share bicycles are retrieved by maintenance people form the Yarra River in Melbourne. People had thought it would be ‘fun’ to toss such bicycles – which cost much more than the rental fee – into the river.

3. Piles of damaged and mutilated bicycles began appearing around the major cities. People seem to think it is perfectly fine to destroy the bicycles in question after using them and then create an ‘artwork’ of bicycles in a similar state.

4. Local governments (councils) begin measures to control the ‘messy appearance’ of share bicycles scattered through their jurisdictions. The councils tell the companies that they need to ‘manage’ the bicycles, whether tossed in rivers, thrown over traffic signs, or mutilated and piled high. It is, of course, the fault of the companies and not of the wilful individuals who use them.

What is going on here?

It seems to me that a place like Australia lacks an overall sense of the common good. Compare it to graffiti or vandalism of ‘public property’, whether trains, buses or public buildings. To be sure, the share bikes are not quite the same, since companies offer them. But there is a strong dimension of the ‘public’ or the ‘common’ about them. So they become targets for vandalism and destruction. Above all, there is little – if any – sense that someone else might benefit from your care for the bicycle: ‘I will do with it what I please and to hell with the rest of you. I might even take a picture and put it on Instagram’.

The contrast with a place like China could not be sharper. Despite all the things you might read about a selfish generation or two, the over-riding sense remains one of the need to think and act in light of what is good for all, rather than what is good for me. This reality has as much to do with the ‘benevolent humanism’ of Chinese tradition, in which the world is basically a good place in which to be, and the socialist tradition, in which the collective is primary – so much so that the individual is defined through the collective.

A final note: lest I risk idealising the Chinese approach to the share economy (which also works in other places), let me point out that share bicycles have had their teething problems. The initial clutter of bicycles around hubs was a problem – think of a sudden influx of millions upon millions of them in major cities. And the quality of some the first ones produced left much to be desired. But these problems were not seen as insurmountable, not a reason to dispense with the whole approach in light of some myth of individualism. Instead, they required practical solutions to make the system work better.

Stepping into the Future

‘It really feels like I am stepping into the past’.

She had recently arrived in Australia, with part of a family in tow to spend a year overseas. ‘You don’t have so many things we are used to now in China’.

‘And every time I return to China’, I said, ‘I feel like I am stepping into the future’.

Our observations surprised us both, since it seemed a reversal of the usual assumptions. ‘Advanced’ economies like Western Europe, North America and even its erstwhile satellites are supposed to set the benchmark for what a place like China would like to become. From the time in the not-too-distant past when it was one of the poorest countries in the world. China would slowly and – in bursts – more rapidly ‘catch up’ in the long run.

Instead, China had already leapt ahead in so many respects.

How so?

At first it was the little signals. For example, the Chinese online map system, Baidu, has integrated a whole series of possibilities on a reliable basis. If one looks up a place and wants to travel there by train, then you can link to the standard train booking location. If by plane, then a link takes you to flights and tickets. If by taxi, then the available taxis and ‘dididache’ would appear on your map. Indeed, the taxi companies and uber-like operators had themselves simply become integrated. If I go to a place where one can use ‘google’ maps’, then none of this applies. Or, if there are indeed bus or train options, the information is so chaotic and unreliable, one is hardly able to trust them (and I leave aside the unreliability of ‘google’ maps itself).

This approach to maps is but one of an increasing range of examples. Mobile payments? Enmeshed instead of willy-nilly offerings by private companies that will not share. Accommodation? Every imaginable form appears with ease as part of a larger whole. Electric vehicles? Almost overnight, charging stations have appeared throughout China, so much so that petrol-driven vehicles will be phased out before long. Internet? More powerful and seamless than elsewhere.

But these are all symptoms. Other items point to a deeper pattern. Last year, 1.3 million patents were lodged in China, which is more than the United States, Europe, Japan and South Korea combined. An increasing number of students identify China as their first country of choice to study. Indeed, since the emphasis of Mao’s time on education, Chinese students and scholars know far more about the rest of the world than the world knows about China. Job-seekers increasingly find that a direct comparison between employment in one of the so-called ‘advanced’ countries pales by comparison to the opportunities available in China.

What in the world has happened and is happening?

China has not ‘caught up’; it has leapt ahead in a classic dialectical leap.

This is a long story, but I will have to keep it brief. The assumption a while back was that by and large one main path led to industrialisation and prosperity. This was the classic capitalist path mapped out in Western Europe and then spread sporadically in other parts of the globe through colonialization. Such a path included neo-classical economics, the rampant individualism of liberal ideology and the peculiar political form known as liberal or bourgeois democracy. Adopt this path, many countries were told, and you can be like ‘us’. Global institutions were set up after the Second World War to enforce this path on every country, with very mixed results

For a while, even some in China believed this approach was the only one. I used to find more of them about a decade ago, but now they pretty much fall into the group of ‘dissidents’, a euphemistic label for colonial-minded people with treason on their minds.

But those with wiser heads in China realised already a while ago that it was not for them. Each country, each location – they continue to insist – has its own history, tradition and culture. You cannot simply impose a system bred elsewhere into a foreign environment. Instead, the Chinese have developed a distinct path at the creative intersections between Chinese culture and Marxism, where tradition actually means creative adaptation.

It is far more integrated and enmeshed, as one sees at so many levels from the very local activities of ‘start-ups’ and blogging (individual blogs really don’t happen), to the macro-level of state and private enterprise in a way that breaks down the very distinction itself – a socialist market economy, they call it.

This path, with a distinct social framework, a fostering of innovation that is so different from private individual ‘start-ups’, a level of public security that is the envy of the world, an overwhelming confidence among the general populace that China is on the right path, a government that is in the very pores of society, or indeed a society that is in the very pores of government – this path has provided the conditions for what can only be described as a leap into the future.

That said, I must admit to being somewhat ambivalent about the amazing times in which we live. Let me explain.

On the one hand, I am all for the most powerful socialist country in human history leaping ahead and showing an alternative path to the future. I am all for the disintegration of the United States and its ‘allies’ as their social fabrics tear asunder. I cheer on the real story of the twenty-first century, which is Eurasian integration. I understand why more and more countries blighted by the colonialist myth of ‘development’ are looking to the Chinese model as an alternative.

On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoy losing myself in – for example – the countryside and mountains of Germany (not the USA!). Here many a village is barely on the internet, a pension or a guest-house is to be found upon pedalling into the village in question and knocking on the door. A place to eat must be located by asking the locals. And one pays only by the age-old anonymity of cash.

Currently, I immerse myself in both worlds, seeking to understand the former and losing myself in the latter.

The Heat Exhaustion Ride

The difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke seems marginal. Both are caused by the body’s inability to cool itself. Internal moisture becomes scarce, sweating stops, and the body temperature starts to rise. The signs: dehydration, lack of sweat, faintness and dizziness, red skin, exhaustion, vomiting and diarrhoea, leading to muscle cramps and potential collapse. The last few are more typical of heat stroke. What is the difference between the two? Heat exhaustion entails a rise in body temperature between 37 and 40 degrees, while heat stroke is above 40 degrees. More importantly, heat stroke requires immediate hospitalisation, since it is life threatening.

Why was I interested in such matters? Over a week in February, in the midst of a long, hot summer, I had set out on my bicycle for a week’s ride, from Newcastle to Canberra – some 500 kilometres. Loaded with a tent, some clothes and food, I was keen to get away.

I had checked the forecasts before departure and they seemed bearable enough. Somewhere around 30 degrees – no worries, I thought, forgetting that such measurements apply to the shade, not to long periods in the direct sun. On a bicycle over a long day, anything below 35 degrees is endurable. Drink enough, rest when needed, and you are fine.

Alas, only one day was in this comfort zone, at 33 degrees. The rest were well above, pushing into the high 30s and low 40s. And one day would simply blow away any previous record, rising almost to 50 degrees and taking me into a zone I had never experienced before.

A Gentle Beginning

The ride began gently enough. On the first day, I aimed for a coastal camping spot slightly less than 50 kilometres from home – at Munmorah.

Suburban streets, a rail trail for some 20 kilometres, some hills and I would be done. Perhaps as a forewarning, the temperature on the bicycle peaked at 40 degrees. The only relief was a stiff headwind – so stiff that it produced whitecaps on the usually tranquil Lake Macquarie to my right. By the time I arrived at Munmorah, after 47 kilometres, I felt as though I had ridden double that distance.

The next day – from Munmorah to Narara (to see my mother) – was genuinely gentle. I have camped at Munmorah National Park on quite a few occasions over the last few years. Each time I am told I should pay the ranger in the morning. Strangely, the ranger has never appeared before my departure. Of course, I would fully undertake to pay aforesaid ranger should she or he make an appearance. But the ranger in question seems to be somewhat mythical … or perhaps it is due to my preference for leaving before 8 am.

A gentle ride it indeed was. A little over 50 kilometres, along bicycle paths that skirt Budgewoi Lake. No stress, a mild 33 degrees, a twist and turn and I was at my destination.

Into the Mountains

The route for the next day I knew well: the old road from Gosford to Sydney, long ago abandoned by traffic that now prefers the freeway. It had been a while since I had tackled this old route, although my memory always focuses on the three long and winding climbs through rugged bush. Tough climbs. In between – or so my memory tells me – are relatively flat sections, giving me time to catch my breath for the next assault. Memory really is an untrustworthy faculty: the parts in between rise and fall, rise and fall, rise and fall … sapping your energy before you realise.

I was to feel their effect after cresting the second tough climb, up from Moonie Moonie Creek to the top of Mount White. Thus far I felt as though I had paced myself well, climbing with some reserve, enjoying the old bends and the sounds and smells of the bush. This would have been a good place to stop, replenish liquids and energy sources, rest a while and then ride on. But no, I had my mind set on a stop further along, after the relative ‘flat’ section through the Mount White area and then down to the Hawkesbury River. The sun bore down at 38 degrees, the relentless rises and falls wore me down, moisture was scarce and my energy was soon gone. By the time I descended to the Hawkesbury I was spent – with one massive climb to go.

A pile of soggy cheese and pickle sandwiches disappeared in no time, tasting like a veritable feast. Litres of water followed, from the local rainwater tank that one is not supposed to drink in these times. And a rest, so that my body could begin to replenish itself before the last effort.

By the time I finished the day at my resting place near Parramatta, I felt as though I had been pushed well past my comfort zone. The fitness gurus say that one can improve fitness only by extending oneself, by going beyond the limit. Today, I had been well and truly past that limit. Surely it would be easier from now on.

Through the ‘Desert’

Out of Parramatta is a marvellous piece of bicycle engineering – a veloway. Swinging west and then south, it runs some 40 kilometres to Casula, on the outskirts of southern Sydney.

Why call it a ‘veloway’? It is a purpose-built cycling freeway, following the route of the western orbital motorway (now mundanely called the ‘M7) that enables through traffic to bypass Sydney. The veloway was constructed as part of the larger project, using the latest designs and techniques for safe, dedicated cycling. More than a decade has passed since it was first unveiled and it remains one of the best examples of what Australian planners and engineers can do for cycling if they set their minds to it – not that they always do so.

Needless to say, I was much looking forward to it, with the thought that I would perhaps be the only ‘through cyclist’ for the day. To be sure, a good number use the route, whether for training runs or as a convenient means to get from A to B. But I was passing through, not wanting to dwell too long in any one place, always drawn to the road once more.

But the road so often changes without notice.

The morning may have been a glorious ride, largely on my own, along this stunning piece of bicycle engineering. But the afternoon was another story. With the veloway coming to an end, I paused for lunch. It had already become warm enough and I was feeling it. Nothing like what was to come.

I pedalled out onto the shoulder of the motorway. Normally, it takes me a while to become used to the noise of trucks and other traffic. This afternoon, I hardly noticed the trucks, for my attention was elsewhere.

The thermometer on my bicycle jumped to 48 degrees! Before lunch, it had registered 40 degrees already. Tough enough. But 48? I had never in my life experienced such heat. The wind felt like a massive blow dryer stuck on ‘super-hot’.

I began to notice that the animal carcases on the side of the road – inevitable sights on a bicycle in Australia – were merely skin and bone, if not bones alone. Usually, I encounter carcases in various states of slow decay, depending on how recently they had been unfortunate enough to encounter a vehicle. Not now. They looked as though some alien predator had sucked them all dry. I felt as though I was riding through a desert.

After 10 kilometres, I pulled over and drank a litre and a half of water. But I could not urinate. Was the lack of sweat normal, I wondered? Was the involuntary drip of moisture at the corner of my mouth just the result of exertion? Was the faint feeling and slowness of thought simply the result of extreme conditions? And was the deep weariness normal after four hard days on the road?

Within a few more kilometres, I came across a sign: ‘Cyclists prohibited on motorway due to roadwork. Please take a bypass’. Clarity of thought was needed, but clarity was hard to come by, let alone shade. I paused long on the side of the side, pondering my options in the sun. I had planned to camp towards the west, but was this a viable bypass route? Not really, it turned out, since the road – the old highway – wound its way through ‘Razorback’. Not what I felt like in weather like this. How about eastwards? This was closer to the railway line should I need it, or the other bypass through other mountains. Caution came to the forefront and I opted for a hotel a few kilometres back.

Upon entering the simple room, I cried out in relief. It was cool, the bed clean and inviting, the cold shower a blessing. I drank and drank and drank – water. Indeed, I had become aware of how much I was focused on water. I was constantly on the lookout for water, seeking to replenish my supply of four litres. Usually, this amount is more than enough, but on this ride I ran short time and again.

By the next morning, I realised I had a slight case of heat exhaustion. Not heat stroke, thankfully, although the ride as a whole turned out to have an average temperature of a ‘shade’ under 40 degrees – actual temperatures on the bicycle, out in the sun (minimum 33 and maximum 48). It took me until lunch time to feel as though I was once again hydrated to normal levels. And I realised I would not be riding much on that day. A short ride to the railway station saw me on a local train to Moss Vale and its camping area. Here at least the evening was cool, so much so I had to zip up my sleeping bag.

A Decade is a Long Time

A rest day is a mighty blessing. I have not always taken rest days, pushing on day after day. But of late I have come to appreciate a pause, to rest, eat, drink and rest. The day afterwards, one feels renewed.

So it was when I set out from Moss Vale, to ride 75 kilometres to Goulburn. I took my time through the hills, drinking plenty, managing now the relatively “cool” 38 degrees. And by now I was once again aware that the rhythmic working of one’s body enables the mind to run where it will, if not to completely unexpected corners of memory and bodily associations. The thoughts become one’s friends, especially when such a ride is a solitary experience.

Today I began to recall a ride of almost ten years ago when I rode these parts. Saying my last farewell to phase of my life that I have largely forgotten (for we forget what is unpleasant and traumatic). I was riding from Melbourne to Newcastle, with each pedal down a push away from that life. Obviously, I was riding the other way on that occasion, northwards, but moments recalled the earlier ride. The camping area slightly north of Goulburn had not changed so much. New owners perhaps, but the singing ants were still there, as well as the outdoor model railway – requiring daily maintenance. The old internet station too was there in the campers’ kitchen, requiring a coin for an incredibly slow connection. I had used it then, to check on email – which the next generation or two regards as very ‘traditional’. Now one can – in theory – access Wi-Fi throughout the campsite, to be used one’s ‘smart’ phone. I did not use it, since I am not into the incessant checking of social media, let alone email messages that people may want to send me since they know of my social media aversions.

All this is to frame the changes of a decade in terms of technology fetishism. Truth be told, the technology we now have is clunky and unreliable, geared to become obsolete by the time a year is out. The changes were more in terms of a life. Then, I was on an old red tourer that was not quite up to the loads I liked to put on it. I treated it like a workhorse, but it preferred to think of itself a racehorse. It popped two spokes on the ride. Now, I was on a true workhorse, a Surly long-haul trucker. A strong, uncompromising bicycle that took on any task without complaining. I wish I had used it earlier. Paradoxically, it was not available at that time, perhaps waiting for me to reach this phase of my life. Then, I still pushed myself to the extreme, wanting a little extra in the competition of life. Now, I am content with a gentler pace, savouring what passes and knowing my limits a little better.

So why am I planning almost 100 kilometres to Canberra tomorrow?

Dreaming of Food

I had longed for this day, for it was to take me along the mysterious Lake George.

Why mysterious? The lake has no feeder streams, relying purely on the continental aquifer than runs across the breadth of Australia. When the aquifer is saturated elsewhere, the lake fills up; when it dries out, the lake empties. As a child in Canberra, I recall the lake being full quite a bit. But for years, decades even, it has mostly been empty. Only once in recent years do I recall it being partly full. Is this because the aquifer has dried out somewhat of its own accord? Or is it due to the bottled water companies having unrestricted access?

After a few hills out of Goulburn, one turns onto the Federal Highway, the road to Canberra. A wide shoulder, few trucks and sweeping views of Lake George took me in for the next 50 kilometres. It helped that I had a mild tailwind, enabling me to use the big ring on the front and ride at a good clip. Often I paused to look out over the flat land, skirted by a few low hills.

The big sky towered above, giving me the sense of being in a vast expanse, lost to the rest of the world and its concerns. With my phone turned off, no trace of my passing could be detected by anyone – except by means of the old medium of sight.

Apart from the lake, my thoughts had begun to focus on food. I imagined what I would eat on arrival: fresh fruit piled high, cheese and tomato on toast, iced mineral water with limes, cold beers … on and on I dreamt. Why? Deciding to use up the last of my food stocks, I found that I had nothing more than two stale slices of bread and umpteen muesli bars. The bars are great energy packs, with quick release sugars and slow releases nuts. But they really function as a supplement to more substantial meals. By noon, I was thoroughly sick of the bars, even though I had no option but to keep eating them.

For the final run into Canberra I had to say farewell to the lake but not to the dreams of food. The dreams stayed even when the temperature climbed past 40 degrees – again – and when the long hills took their toll, leaving me exhausted and drained. Even then, the first thing I did in Canberra was stop to buy way more food than I could eat and drink. Only then did I pedal to my destination.

Friend or Foe? The Role of Criticism in China

A central aspect of democratic practices in whatever type of democracy we are thinking about is the role of criticism. How does criticism work in the Chinese situation of socialist democracy? A common international perception of China is that nearly all criticism is simply squashed down; it is censored and you cannot engage with it. This is actually not the case.

Criticism works in a number of ways in a Chinese situation. First of all, there is a long socialist tradition of what is called ‘criticism and self-criticism [piping yu ziwopiping]’. This tradition also meshes with Chinese culture in a way that is pervasive and productive. But there is a fundamental distinction between constructive criticism and destructive criticism. Or to put it another way, there are certain boundary lines. So it is very common to identify a particular problem, a shortcoming, and propose a constructive solution to that problem. But what is not accepted is a solution that would lead to the destruction of the current situation in China. So the boundary lines are there: forms of criticism and constructive criticism that are very much encouraged and fostered.

My experience in China as a foreigner, who spends more and more time in China, is that the range of criticism and debate is incredibly wide. But there is a really experience in China. Chinese people are extremely sensitive and can pick up very, very quickly the following: if a foreigner disdains or looks down on China and Chinese culture and Chinese people, they pick this up immediately. As a result the mode of engagement will change. You do not have to say anything, but they can sense it immediately. And you will certainly not get access to many dimensions of Chinese life.

But if people can discern that you are what they call a ‘friend of China’, then everything is different. The range of debate is much wider, the possibilities of constructive criticism are much greater, so much so that contributions from foreigners too are fostered and encouraged.

For anyone who is thinking of spending some time in China, it is very important to be aware of whether you are going there with an implicit attitude of looking down on China, or disdaining or dismissing it, or whether you want to go to China to understand, and at least to try and come through as someone who is open and is a friend.

The Melancholy of the United States

What a difference a year makes.

Last year in October (2016) I had taken a railway journey from east to west in the United States, this time on the beaten-up old ‘Empire Builder’. Travelling from Philadelphia to Chicago, and then to Portland in Oregon before the final run on the Coast Starlight to Los Angeles, I was in the United States in the last days before the presidential election that Donald Trump was to win.

On the trains from Chicago to Los Angeles, I met and talked long with a retired lawyer. A staunch democrat, he was full of foreboding. He and many of his Democrat friends were suspicious of the opinion polls that gave Hilary Clinton a comfortable lead. They would be voting, he said, holding their noses. Afterwards, they preferred to hide under tables awaiting the result.

Still they hoped. Obama had promised them hope, although it always seemed a hope for a Golden Age now past. In fact, the very idea of a Golden Age indicates an emerging consciousness that it is past. But Obama offered to recover it. As did Clinton, suggesting that ‘America’ was still great but that it needed to made whole again. But Trump captured this desire best: ‘Make America great again’ was his slogan. Industry would return to the United States, jobs would reappear, the economic might of the country would arise once again. But now it would be done by retreating from the rest of the world.

A forlorn message it was, for Trump has – not unexpectedly – failed to deliver. Or rather, he has failed to deliver on making ‘America great again’. Instead, he has delivered spectacularly in the ragged retreat of the United States from the world stage. But this is to give Trump the credit. In many respects, he is the symptom of a much longer process that began at least after 2001. Meanwhile, the Asian countries have begun to sort out their own problems, blocking the United States out of the process. Europe and China engage increasingly in cooperation, with the Belt and Road Initiative opening more and more paths of contact and exchange. The Chinese-Russian integration moves ahead vigorously, resetting geopolitics. And Xi Jinping has laid out a global roadmap of a common destiny for humankind, based on win-win cooperation.

Back in the United States – where I was again recently – many of these developments lie on the periphery of consciousness. For the few still continuing in privileged cocoons, what is outside the cocoon does not matter, whether in the world at large or in the United States. They perversely assume that what they say and do has world-historical significance. Except that the world is no longer listening or paying attention. Indeed, the majority in the United States has also ceased to listen.

But for those who had hoped with Obama or Clinton, another mood is upon them. A year ago, after the election, they were too shell-shocked to register anything but bewilderment and outrage. Now the mood is a growing melancholy. Hope has all but faded and Trump has brought the melancholy home to them. I mean not so much that Trump is their president, but that his victory had made it all too clear that this fractured and disintegrating society – with increasing class conflict, obsession over external interference, lost jobs and spreading rural poverty, rampant homelessness and endemic drug abuse – cannot be denied, cannot be repaired in the ways they had assumed.

Are there any alternatives? One suggestion struck me: while Trump may have given voice to those who feel the system has ignored and exploited them, he has also energised right-wing activity. Bring it on, was the comment, for this can only lead to a real and viable left outside the present political system. At last, they may have some relatively real political conflict instead of the sordid business as usual.

Xi Jinping Thought

What a time to be in China! What a time indeed.

Happenstance would have it that I was in Beijing for the nineteenth congress of the Communist Party of China. Usually, such events barely raise interest outside China, except perhaps for the rare Marxist actually interested in the place or – that ambivalent term – a ‘China hand’. And if some foreign commentator happens to notice, they will trot out some rusty formulae concerning arcane language, obtuse signals and look for signs of a ‘totalitarian’ state – without trying to find out much real information.

Not this time.

Something big was afoot. Everywhere I went in China in the weeks leading up the congress I encountered banners, signs and posters. ‘Welcome to the 19th congress of the CPC’, one said. ‘Study carefully Xi Jinping’s writings’, said another. ‘The 19th congress will lead to a better life [meihua shenghuo]’, said a third, invoking an ancient Chinese saying.

Security was tight, very tight. Internet systems were down or slow. Foreigners found themselves asked for passports and even urine samples if they happened to frequent expat bars (I avoid them). Almost one million citizen groups in Beijing were mobilised to keep an eye out for suspicious activity. Let alone the party members in town who had plain-clothes guard duty rosters for the lead-up and duration of the congress. Even social networking was tightened up: you could not change any item on your profile on wechat until the end of October.

In this buzz I zeroed in on the many levels of information available.

On the 18th of October, the congress began, with Xi Jinping slated to give a speech. And what a speech it was: 205 minutes non-stop, or 3 hours and 25 minutes. Clearly, the most important speech in his 63 years.

But what did he say?

Marxism has roared back to the centre of Chinese thought, policy and direction for the future. Not a mean achievement, especially after it seemed to be somewhat soft-pedalled not five years or more ago, before Xi became chairman (zhuxi, also translated as ‘president’). Marxism would be – no, is – the guiding light, the beacon to the future.

Marxist political economy is setting the agenda for a very different economic approach. This is called a socialist market economy – and the Chinese are very serious about what is an increasingly clear alternative to a capitalist market economy. The speech outlined five main factors: 1) furthering supply-side structural reform; 2) fostering innovation at all levels to increase China’s global leadership; 3) rural revitalisation; 4) coordinated regional development; 5) further opening up on all fronts. And the institutional mechanisms for each are already established.

But let me emphasise the following dimensions underlying this socialist market economy. The model clearly being followed is an alternative to neo-liberalism, which loves financial speculation and estimates based on short-term profit yields. Instead, the Chinese model takes the long view. Infrastructure is the key, within China and without. Think of the Belt and Road Initiative, already to reshape the world, let alone seeking to reshape the uneven development of China internally (focused on the western parts).

Further, the simplistic opposition between ‘public’ and ‘private’ sectors of the economy is now obsolete. For example, any ‘private’ company of over 100 employees has a core communist party cell. Each multinational company that wishes to engage with China – and so many do – must have a communist cell within it. What do we call this approach? I prefer to call it an ‘enmeshed’ economy, in which the CPC is interwoven with an equally interwoven ‘public’ and ‘private’ sector. What appears initially to be a ‘private’ economic project is inescapably enmeshed with the CPC, while the ‘public’ companies (SOEs) are being revitalised by active interaction with the ‘private’ ones. Even more, the mighty SOEs, revamped and more efficient, are starting to become multi-nationals themselves through many projects. Obviously, this has significant global implications.

But Marxism is much more than economics. Let me give a few examples.

  1. The speech calls for an ‘ecological civilisation’, drawing deeply on cultural assumptions concerning the harmony of nature as ‘shanshui’, ‘mountain-water’, but also modern Marxist approaches.
  2. ‘Core socialist values’ is a key, stressing the fact that ethics is a crucial component of Chinese Marxism, which should permeate all levels of society even more.
  3. Strengthening the mechanisms by which the people run the country, which means developing further a distinctly Marxist tradition of socialist democracy.
  4. A ‘socialist rule of law’ (shehuizhuyi fazhi), in which everyone is subject to the law. Obviously, this has affinities with a European-derived ‘rule of law’, although that tradition really means a whole structure developed to buttress capitalism. This is why the speech emphasised a socialist rule of law. It is being developed as system to ensure the development of socialism, while at the same making it clear that no-one is above this law within this framework.
  5. Bold innovation by artists, writers, journalists, philosophers, social scientists and scientists, so that they not only contribute decisively to the country but also to the world.

Apart from the details in the speech, one of the more fascinating aspects for me was that it followed in its structure a familiar pattern from the Marxist tradition. Look back at Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Deng and others, and you will find that important speeches like this begin with an assessment of achievements (this one since the eighteenth party congress five years ago). While it identifies significant achievements, it also stresses – in the tradition of ‘criticism and self-criticism’ – where problems have arisen. The next two parts deal with national and international concerns. Xi’s speech on this occasion focused more on internal concerns, which is to be expected. But he certainly did not neglect the international picture: the armed forces would continue to be modernised for the country’s own security in an international context and China would continue to pursue the peaceful policy of a ‘shared future for humanity’.

In all these speeches, the last part deals with the communist party itself. Xi’s tenure began with a strong desire by party leaders that he would deal with significant problems: corruption, factionalism, brewing coups, lack of unity, inadequate theoretical knowledge. On all fronts, Xi has driven through major reforms, so that his statements concerning the party’s ability to govern and lead, and the need for full, rigorous and strict governance over the party were certainly not empty phrases. More work obviously needs to be done, which he stressed, but the communist party has begun to emerge as stronger, more disciplined, unified and confident. It will be even more at the centre of power. As Xi put it, the ‘defining feature’ and ‘greatest strength’ of socialism with Chinese characteristics is the leadership of the communist party. The party is the ‘highest force for political leadership’.

For some time now, Xi Jinping has been emphasising the ‘two centenary goals’ (2021 and 2049), the ‘Chinese dream’ and its concrete manifestation in global projects like the Belt and Road Initiative. These were in the speech as well, but with greater clarity. The first centenary goal – of the CPC itself – is still there, of building a xiaokang shehui, an old Confucian term infused with Marxist meaning and translated as ‘moderately prosperous society in all respects’. Given that this is around the corner, Xi’s sights are set further in the future. To achieve the second centenary goal, he laid out two steps.

2020-2035: Full ‘socialist modernisation [shehuizhuyi xiandaihua]’, or more fully a ‘socialistically modernised country’ [shehuizhuyi xiandaihua guojia]. This phrase captures all of the policies outlined in the speech, but it also marks a shift from his earlier pronouncements. He used to speak of socialist modernisation being achieved by the second centenary goal, marking 100 years since the establishment of the people’s republic. Now the aim has been brought forward to 2035.

2035-2050: building on the previous achievement and developing China into a ‘great modern socialist country’. This country will be strong, prosperous, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful. Only when this has been achieved can China begin moving beyond the ‘primary stage’ of socialism in which it still finds itself.

A tall and ambitious agenda indeed, but Xi and those around him as ‘the core’ have a reputation for getting things done. Crucial for understanding this revised plan is the observation, ‘based on a comprehensive analysis of the international and domestic environments’. Clearly, the rapidly shifting global situation, with the accelerating decline of the United States and ongoing turmoil and instability in Europe, along with world-shaping projects like the BRI and China’s increasing involvement around the world, the time has been judged right for the emergence of a ‘great modern socialist country’ by the middle of this century. It also means that China would become the most powerful country in the world, and thereby the most powerful socialist country in human history.

This is not to say that road ahead will be easy – far from it!

A crucial part of the speech identified a new primary contradiction: ‘What we now face is the contradiction between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life’. This is straight out of the ‘contradiction analysis’ approach that Mao first elaborated in Yan’an in 1937, showing that Marxist dialectics in a Chinese frame is still front and centre of government policies. Not only is there a primary or most important contradiction in any situation, but this contradiction may shift in terms of the weight given to either side, or it may become secondary as a new primary contradiction emerges. Thus, the earlier primary contradiction, articulated by Deng Xiaoping, identified a tension between the people’s social and cultural needs and the backward economic forces. With China’s forty-year reform and opening-up, it has been decided – through careful analysis – that this earlier contradiction has become secondary.

But what does the new primary contradiction mean? Unbalanced and inadequate development signals the complex problems of world-leading development in the more eastern parts of China and the lag in western parts, with resultant gaps between rich and poor, city and countryside. Obviously, the new contradiction targets these issues more directly. And the people’s every growing need for a better life – an old Chinese term meihua shenghuo – applies to everyone, especially in western parts. Hence the targeted poverty alleviation program that has been accelerated, hence the BRI, hence the focus on the full range of what a ‘better life’ means. But the need for a better life also identifies with the core idea that socialism is primarily about improving the economic, social and cultural lives of everyone. Until this contradiction is resolved, China clearly remains in the primary stage of socialism.

At the same time, it signals a profoundly new era. This theme came through again and again in the report: China and its socialism have entered a new era. The trick here is to indicate profound continuity with the past, while also taking it all into a new stage. It is not for nothing that it has been called ‘Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era [xindedai zhongguotese shehuizhuyi sixiang]’.

Or ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ for short. Only Mao’s thought has until now been designated with the description sixiang, thought. Even Deng’s important but briefer reflections were designated only as lilun, theory. Xi Jinping Thought has now been written into the constitution of the Communist Party of China.

I have spent some time with all of this, not least because foreign ‘China watchers’ have tended to focus on international relations, the strength of the communist party, and above all Xi’s own power. Obviously, this emphasis skews much of what the speech contained, both in terms of continuity with Xi’s earlier elaborations and the new directions. I leave aside the silly tropes of ‘jargon’, ‘coded’ language, or ‘grand theatre’ that are routinely trotted out.

But what was the response of people around China? I could mention the millions that watched the speech live, or the flurry of wechat and weibo posts about it. But one experience said it all for me. I decided to go to the local Xinhua bookshop, the official government one. At the front desk, I asked where Xi Jinping’s works were kept. The woman at the desk smiled and pointed upstairs.

There before me was a massive table laden with Xi Jinping’s publications. And at the forefront were various editions of the speech itself, only days after it was delivered. I struggled to find room to look at the publications, so crowded was the table. Eventually I managed to get hold of one copy, as well as a number of Xi’s other publications. For whatever reasons, people were snapping up the printed form of the speech. I simply could not imagine this happening anywhere else.

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