Core Socialist Values

At every turn, there they are: banners, posters, signs, neon displays, videos … promoting ‘core socialist values’ (shehuizhuyi hexin jiazhiguan). On bridges or trains, in sculptures or on buildings, in restaurants and toilets, they are simply everywhere. So ubiquitous, in fact, that at the moment you cease to notice them, you have absorbed them into your deeper consciousness.

I am, of course, speaking of China and the most recent socialist publicity campaign – or in good old socialist parlance, propaganda. Such campaigns have certainly gone to a whole new level since Xi Jinping became chairman.

But what are the core socialist values?

Prosperous and strong (fuqiang)

Democratic (minzhu)

Civilised (wenming)

Harmonious (hexie)

Free (ziyou)

Equal (pingdeng)

Just (gongzheng)

Rule of law (fazhi)

Love of country (aiguo)

Dedicated (jingye)

Honest and trustworthy (chengxin)

Friendly (youshan)

What do they mean? Are they just words, government rhetoric perhaps? Do they take on a different meaning in a socialist context? In other words, are they rooted or contextual universals? And how do they relate to other contexts?

I leave aside the supposed challenge of words like ‘democratic’, ‘free’, ‘equal’ and ‘just’. These words may have been distorted by liberal-bourgeois geopolitical games, but they have always been central to the socialist project. Instead, I would like to begin with their adjectival form. The majority do not appear as abstract terms, but as adjectives.

This begs a question: what is the noun that is being qualified?

Perhaps an initial hint comes from one of the two terms that actually includes its referent: love of country (aiguo). Instead of seeing this as some nationalist replacement of Marxism, a careful study of anti-colonial struggles shows that national independence was a major feature of communist parties (fostered actively by the Soviet Union). One can see it today, in another version, with China’s emphasis on sovereignty, on other countries minding their own business and not interfering in China, or the DPRK or any other place. And you can also see it in the Belt and Road Initiative, which stipulates that Chinese engagement with infrastructure and economic development does not demand any changes in governance or social structures.

So at least one referent for the adjectival terms is China itself, as a prosperous, strong, democratic, civilised, harmonious, free and friendly country.

We can go further: it is not any China but socialist China. A number of the values can immediately be seen as consistent features of the communist tradition, but others may be a little more obscure. What has ‘prosperous and strong’ got to do with communism? The key is that socialist construction also entails the ‘unleashing of the forces of production’ and not merely matters relating to social relations. This unleashing was the crucial emphasis of Deng Xiaoping and those who followed, leading to forty years of ‘reform and opening up’, with stunning results. As I write, there is an added dimension, for the targets of a ‘moderately prosperous society [xiaokang shehui]’ by 2020 and a ‘strong modern socialist country’ by 2050 are embodied in what it means to be prosperous and strong.

What about harmonious, civilised and friendly, let alone being dedicated, honest and trustworthy? The first three are crucial to the long cultural tradition of China, especially as it is infused with Confucian values. Responsibility and respect for others is indispensable, although this is also connected with the Marxist emphasis on ‘non-antagonistic contradictions’, which need to be managed carefully. As for being dedicated, honest and trustworthy, these are not feel-good adjectives to which everyone may assent. The ingrained cultural sense of a good communist entails that such a person is reliable, transparent and completely committed to the cause. Anything less is a fall from grace. These values underlie the most comprehensive anti-corruption campaign since the time of Mao.

A further question is why it is precisely the government, and especially the communist party, that is promoting these core socialist values. Are they not individual and cultural items, concerned with ‘changing one’s attitude’, rather than the task of government. If one accepts a decadent liberal approach to these matters, then one might entertain such an approach. But not in a socialist context, where ethics and politics are inextricably entwined. Actually, this socialist emphasis reveals the truth of ethics as such, which is always political and cultural at the same time. In a Chinese situation, part of the ubiquitous promotion of these values is connected with the comprehensive anti-corruption drive mentioned above. It has been underway for more than five years. Initially, some thought that it would pass quickly, like similar efforts in the past. They could lie low for a while and wait until the situation returned to ‘normal’. Not this time. The seriousness of the endeavour was marked by some very high profile cases, where former members of the politburo were caught up in the sweep. And there is no tokenism in the process, with hundreds of thousands of lower-level local officials disciplined for minor financial breaches.

But negative reinforcement can go only so far. Soon enough a new series of guidelines were produced, focusing on encouraging people to reform behaviour and avoid hedonism, formalism, extravagance and autocratic work styles. Party members are expected to exhibit the honesty, trustworthiness and directness of communist ethics, focused not on themselves but on the people. And if this is good enough for the party, it is good enough for the whole population.

Another part relates to the Chinese tradition, in which responsibility and respect for others in paramount rather than mere care for the self. This dimension goes back to Confucius and Mencius, for whom it was honourable to focus on the collective good and petty to look out only for oneself. Indeed, the term I mentioned earlier, xiaokang shehui or moderately well-off society in all respects, comes straight out of the Confucian tradition. It was first picked up and redefined in a socialist direction by Deng Xiaoping and has become a core marker of what China plans to achieve in not a few years.

Further, there has been a pervasive sense – especially 7-8 years ago – that with the rapid process of the reform and opening up, as China carved a path to a strong socialist country, that people had been cast adrift from the social values that have been so crucial to Chinese culture over thousands of years. The fear was that the old values had been cast aside, with nothing to replace them. I have noticed that in the last few years there has been a great emphasis on the dimensions of justice and equality from the Marxist tradition. Indeed, the forces of production may have been unleashed (as Deng Xiaoping hoped), but the social relations have been somewhat neglected. I would suggest that the emphasis on core socialist values is a new turn, or rather, a recovery of an older ethos of communism for a new era. There may be old cultural values in China, but there are also socialist values that are finding their place in that tradition.

I had originally planned to say something about the contrast with the ‘western’ European assumption that one needs religion for social values. But I do not see the need now, for it is abundantly clear that not only Confucianism, but also Marxism, have values aplenty for a society like that of China.

I would like to close on a related but different matter. The promotion of these core socialist values in China has many dimensions, some of which I have explored here. But I am also struck by the way they touch on what may be called the ‘warm stream’ of Marxism. This is the Marxism of the heart, of emotions and hopes, of commitment to a cause. It should of course not be separated from the ‘cold stream’, of cool and calm scientific analysis. As many have argued, we need both. When one side dominates, Marxism becomes strangely skewed. Perhaps I can illustrate it this way: of late, Xi Jinping has been stressing ‘faith’, ‘belief’ or ‘conviction’ in socialism. Or, more fully, ‘belief [xinyang] in Marxism and faith [xinxin] in socialism and communism are the political soul [zhengzhi linghun] of Communists’. The core socialist values may be seen as a way of providing some content to the emphasis on faith and belief, and not merely for communists.

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How to Trust a Newspaper Interviewer

Recently, I had an in-depth newspaper interview. The occasion was the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birthday and the interviewer was keen to find out what a foreigner thought about all of this.

Throughout the whole process, I had a strong sense of trust that the interviewer would do a proper job. The resulting publication justified this sense.

But the experience set me thinking. Why did I trust this particular interviewer and her newspaper? Why do I not trust other news outlets? How does what counts as ‘news’ and ‘analysis’ differ from context to context?

Let me give a little more detail. The news service in question was Xinhua News, the official government-funded media provider for China. Some would call it a ‘state-run’ operation, with the implication that it merely parrots what the Chinese government says. I would call it ‘state-owned’ and – as will become clear – am fully in favour of such operations. The interviewer, based in Beijing, was keen to find out why a foreigner is so interested in Chinese Marxism, especially on the occasion of Marx’s anniversary.

She managed to get clearance for me to enter the restricted space where they work. After a tour and explanation, meeting a number of journalists, seeing the hospital, school, accommodation and eating in the famous dining hall, we settled down in a quiet corner and spoke for about an hour. She asked many questions and we ranged over Marxism, Chinese socialism, the ‘reform and opening up’, Xi Jinping’s reassertion of Marx at the centre of China’s future drive, and so on. She recorded the whole discussion and I had no qualms whatsoever. I felt perfectly comfortable speaking about socialist human rights, socialist democracy, justice, and the poverty alleviation campaign. Much of this material made it into the published version of the interview.

To return to the question: why did I trust this journalist?

I have been a daily reader of Xinhua News (among other Chinese and DPRK outlets) for a number of years. After some time, I began to notice a pattern: they do not engage in ‘gossip’, which increasingly passes for ‘news’ in many corporate media outlets. To give a recent example, Xinhua News does not simply repeat Donald Trump’s latest ‘tweets’, nor indeed salacious stories about his dalliances with porn stars. I asked about this practice and I was told that they prefer to study and analyse what is going on. The conclusion: Trump uses this approach to keep his opponents wrong-footed. A deeper pattern can be ascertained, which enables a more sober and robust response.

Further – and this really answers the third question – journalists do not simply turn to various ‘experts’ for analysis of a situation, which gives media-hungry intellectuals too many opportunities for spouting forth their half-baked opinions. Instead, the journalists at Xinhua (or indeed the People’s Daily and the Global Times) are expected to study, read widely, and actually think. And when they do engage with intellectuals like myself, they come through as intellectuals in their own right.

The second question: why do I not trust other news outlets?

For some reason, I have recently been contacted by a few news outlets for comment. Let me be clear: I normally make a point of not engaging in such practices. The other outlets in question are corporate operations, seeking opinions on Xi Jinping’s focus on Marxism or developments in the DPRK (North Korea). My immediate reaction was to turn them down. But I did check with a few people in China, some of whom are rather critical of current situation in this country. They immediately responded that I could not trust these operations, but I could trust Xinhua News.

I am led to this conclusion: corporate media outlets, run by business conglomerates that need to make a profit and therefore engage in sensationalist gossip, cannot be trusted. They will twist your words and misrepresent what you say for the sake of their own agenda.

By contrast, properly resourced media outlets like Xinhua News can be trusted. More sharply: corporate media cannot be trusted; ‘state-run’ media can be trusted. They take you seriously, are careful to represent what you say accurately, and prefer in-depth analysis. This is their job and they do it well.

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.

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.