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.

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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.

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.

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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In Search of Communism

It began in Scandinavia, for I heard rumours that communism – or perhaps socialism – had been achieved in that part of the world by stealth. As Warren Zevon would have it, the deal was done in Denmark on a dark and stormy day.

Or it seemed to be. True enough, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland have built impressive welfare states. Social-democratic regimes have seen to this since at least the Second World War (although a belated liberal turn is systematically dismantling bits and pieces of the system). And true enough, the so-called ‘happiness’ surveys indicate that Scandinavians are among the happiest and most contented people in the world – although how one quantifies happiness is beyond me.

In the end, I was disappointed. Do not get me wrong, I love being in Scandinavia, out in the countryside, cycling and hiking. But socialism it is not. They are bourgeois democracies and aggressively capitalist. As for the much-hyped welfare state, it is designed both to keep everyone consuming and generates a distinct type of xenophobia: the welfare is only for citizens of each state.

I kept looking. Perhaps I could find something in Eastern Europe – a memory perhaps, a cultural framework …

I dwelt longest in eastern Germany, for it embodied the recent history of Europe as a whole. Germany had been two parts for a while, a communist east and a capitalist west, until the east was annexed in 1989. The majority of East Germans were not in favour of the disappearance of their country.

Here at least one could find traces of communism past, strong traces. People over 40 years of age could speak a little Russian; the Free Youth organisation continued, albeit somewhat smaller than in its heyday; well-designed and constructed crockery could be found in any flea market; streets named after Marx, Engels, Ernst Thälmann, Thomas Münzer and others could be found in every town; grand communist-era architecture – Stalin baroque no less – was everywhere, from Karl Mark Allée in Berlin to the small garages found in almost every village. Coupled with this was a conscious effort by the Western Germans to erase any positive memory, associating East Germany with repression and greyness (even the photographs are black-and-white), if not seeking the dubious connection with Hitler, oinwhat may be called the reductio ad Hitlerum

In response, many East Germans push back, noting the destruction of their economy, the deindustrialisation and high unemployment. They remain suspicious of those from the West, while trying to find a place in the ‘new’ Germany. Above all, they have a strong sense that the collective identity they had has not been replaced by anything, whether religion or the nation. So they speak of ‘post-communism’.

While I was there with my partner, we began digging deeper into the history of communism, way back before the arrival of its modern form after Marx. We found that Czechoslovakia had championed Jan Hus, the first real reformer from the fifteenth century. And we found that the German Democratic Republic had made Thomas Münzer, the ‘theologian of the revolution’ (so Ernst Bloch), a hero. Films were made, the East German five-deutschmark note bore his image, and the five-hundredth year of his birth was elaborately prepared and celebrated – just before the DDR was dissolved and colonised by the western parts. Still, the monuments are there, in Zwickau and Allstedt and Frankenhausen and Mühlhausen, tracing the path of the ill-fated yet proto-socialist revolution of the peasants in 1525.

Meanwhile, she dug deep into the Moravian Brethren, the Herrnhutter Brüdergemeinde, who traced their history back to none other than Jan Hus. We dwelt long in the village of Herrnhut, deep in the far east of Germany, in the Oberlausitz part of Saxony. The feel is still there, the peace and collectivism of the village, where Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf und Puttendorf breathed new life into the movement in the early eighteenth century. So much so that the smallest of collectives became a great global missionary movement, emphasising practice of the collective Christian life over against dogma.

I could no help delving into Karl Kautsky, for all his faults (in criticising and dismissing the developments of the Russian Revolution). Yet, Kautsky had taken up the mantle of Engels by writing a full account of the history of the ‘forerunners of modern socialism’, which ended up being a four-volume work – Vorläufer des neueren Sozialismus – that he was unable to complete in his lifetime (he manged only three volumes, so others completed the fourth). Among the many, many movements of ‘heretical communism’, the early days of the Moravians could be located. They focused on communal living, trying the recall the early church, when ‘everything was held in common’.

I also moved eastward, of one thinks of the Eurasian landmass, following the successful socialist revolutions that seemed to escape the Atlantic corridor. I ended up in China, the People’s Republic no less. The word was that China had followed the ‘capitalist road’ since the late 1970s under Deng Xiaoping, overturning all that Mao Zedong had tried to construct. So when I arrived I did not know what to expect.

At first, it did not look like the socialism that one so often heard touted. According to that version, everyone is equal, paid the same, living simple lives in communes, having property in common, and so forth. Invariably this turns out to be the equality of poverty, for everyone is equally poor. We might call this populist socialism. In China it cannot be found.

Instead, I found a place full of energy, constantly changing as old buildings and old factories were knocked down and new ones constructed. I found people full of energy, keen to learn from experience overseas, but even keener to return to China and enhance their skills. I found people who are experts at self-criticism, never happy with the state of things, always seeking to improve. Endless are the discussions concerning the main problem, the main contradiction in China, and the best way to solve it. And as they do so, they begin to leap ahead of the rest of the world, transforming what they have learnt to becoming the leaders.

Is this socialism? Some in China would say no, holding to some ideal from the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Some would say maybe, feeling that China has still a long, long way to go. And some stress the term, ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, deriving from Mao Zedong and championed by Deng Xiaoping.

What in the world does this mean? One may fill the meaning in one’s own way, from dismissal to appreciation. But I suggest it bears the other sense of socialism, which was always about improving the economic wellbeing of all. This is Marx’s famous unleashing of the forces of production, which entails using and refining what can be used. It is the basis of a Marxist approach to human rights, in which the right to economic wellbeing is the basis of all other rights.

For some strange reason, I continue to find it a great relief that the communist party is in power in China. Why? Not only is the party in charge of the strongest socialist state in world history, but it is, after all, the communist party.

2017 April 011

Shandong Village

‘I grew up in a small village’, she said.

An open face and a tentative lip, a direct manner and a shy blush, but above all a question mark in her eyes: why had I come? Why was I so full of questions? What is a ‘foreign’ friend really like?

But I was interested in something far different: her life growing up in a small village in Shandong Province. I had been to other villages in China, up in the mountains or out west, but I had not visited this one. The image relied purely on her words.

‘Where?’ I said.

‘Near the big lake in Shandong province’, she said. ‘Zhaoyang Lake’.

‘The one on the border with Jiangsu province?’ I said.

‘Yes, that’s the one’, she said. ‘We lived on the north side’.

‘How many people are in your village?’ I said.

‘Oh, maybe a couple of hundred,’ she said.

‘Do you come from a big family?’ I asked.

‘I am the youngest of five children’, she said.

‘Five …!’ I paused. ‘That’s not what I am used to seeing in China’.

‘Obviously, I was born before the one-child policy came into effect’, she said. ‘I am the baby of the family, born when my mother was already forty’.

‘A big family!’ I said.

‘Many nieces and nephews’, she laughed. ‘When we all get together for spring festival, my parents’ house is very full and very noisy (renao)’.

‘Does any one of your brothers or sisters still live in the village’, I said.

‘One brother and his family’, she said. ‘They help with my parents – who are in the eighties now’.

‘What do they do for a job?’ I said.

‘They are farmers’, she said. ‘But the way they farm has changed much, with technology, computers – you know, all the modern stuff’.

‘But tell me what it was like to grow up in a Chinese village in Shandong?’ I said.

‘I was born in 1970’, she said. ‘I remember we had to go to a well in the middle of the village to get water and everyone worked on the land’.

‘A well?’ I said.

‘We used it for drinking water (after boiling) and washing water’, she said.

‘Does your village still have a well?’ I asked.

‘Yes, of course’, she said. ‘But each house now has running water. At first – I remember the moment when I was a teenager – we had hand held pumps in the house. Pull up and down and the water would come out. Taps and basins came later’.

‘What about the well?’ I said.

‘Oh, we believe the water is very fresh’, she said. ‘But we must make sure we drink it all if we take some’.

‘Why?’

‘The local dragon will get angry if we waste it’, she laughed.

‘What did your father do?’ I asked.

‘He was a teacher in the village school’, she said.

‘Did he teach you too?’ I said.

‘Of course’, she said. ‘He taught my brothers and sister, as well as my cousins. He was the only teacher’.

‘What did you learn?’ I said.

‘Many people think it was still a traditional time, before the reform and opening up’, she said. ‘But it was already after the revolution of 1949, so we learnt about the Long March, Chairman Mao, along with reading and writing’.

‘At a young age?’ I said.

She laughed. ‘Yes, our textbooks for reading and writing told the stories of the revolutionary struggle’.

‘And Confucian teaching?’ I said.

‘That was more at home’, she said. ‘It is Shandong Province, after all, where Confucius was born. We are very serious about his teachings’.

‘But why at home?’ I asked.

‘Well, you know …’, she said. ‘During the Cultural Revolution, Confucius’s thought was not so popular. It was seen as part of the old, traditional China that had to be overcome. So we learnt it only at home’.

‘Since then, a new form of Confucianism has flowered, hasn’t it?’ I said.

‘Yes indeed’, she said. ‘But it is a bit different, since it works together with Marxism, or rather, socialism with Chinese characteristics’.

‘What did your family experience during that time?’ I said.

‘Since my father was a teacher, he was seen as one of the intellectuals’, she said. ‘Part of the old tradition in China, held up by the intellectuals. So he was not able to teach’.

‘What did your family do?’ I asked.

‘We farmed like everyone else’, she said. ‘But we were very poor … again, like everyone else. And I remember as a child eating endless baozi, steamed buns made out of wheat’.

‘Not rice?’ I said.

‘No’, she said. ‘Shandong is towards the north and is famous for its wheat’.

‘What about today?’ I said.

‘It is both the same and very different’, she said.

‘How so?’ I said.

‘The village is still very traditional in its outlook’, she said. ‘I am a traditional woman. It is very important to me. But much has changed. Farming has been modernised; the school system has been reformed a few times; my old home now has running water, electricity, internet …’.

‘And you now work in a modern Chinese city’, I said. ‘What is it like to visit your village again?’

‘We all return for spring festival’, she said. ‘At least those of us who do not live in the village’.

‘And your parents?’ I said.

‘They are very close now’, she said. ‘In their eighties’.

‘Why do you say “now”?’ I asked.

‘Well, it was an arranged marriage’, she said. ‘My mother is one of the last of her generation to have small feet. She came from a big peasant family and the marriage was arranged by her family and my father’s’.

‘Really?’ I said.

‘Yes, and they did not really like each other for a long time,’ she said.

‘While all five of you were born’, I said.

‘Yes’, she said. ‘I remember they argued all the time. But then, some time in their sixties, they fell in love with each other. And it has been that way ever since!’

Chinese Marxist Ethics

Lunli, they call it in these parts, or Gongchanzhuyi daode – ethics or communist moral principles. These are by no means abstract terms, debated by philosophers with little connection to real life. I encounter it day to day in a very concrete fashion.

Here Chinese tradition meets Marxism in a way that continually amazes and bewilders me. To begin with, the dushuren or xuezhe, the intellectual (literally ‘book reading person’) and scholar has a venerable place in Chinese society. The intellectual is simultaneously expected to devote significant time to reading, thinking and writing – whether scholarly works, moral maxims, poetry, or a range of other genres – and to the good of public life. This expectation is embodied in part in the word yiwu, which means both to volunteer and a duty. One volunteers to contribute in some way to the greater good of society, but this is simultaneously a duty or obligation. Although it is manifested as many levels of social relations, for an intellectual it means service in or for the government, or perhaps work that contributes to solving a commonly recognised problem.

Further, the first character in yiwu is yi (义), a significant aspect of Confucianism. Its literal meaning is ‘justice’ or ‘righteousness’, but it also includes ‘human relationships’ and ‘meaning’. Thus, yi involves the intertwining of justice and relationships, in a moral framework of doing good and the understanding of how to do so in a sensible and fit manner. In other words, one must know the underlying reason for such righteousness and not simply follow precepts.

For a scholar, especially a professor, this means that one is engaged and not engaged. Or rather, when one is engaged directly, one longs to be disengaged, to find the tranquillity to think and write and identify the deeper framework. But even in this situation, one does so with the public good always in mind.

By now it should be obvious that the ethics of a scholar are somewhat high.

What about communist moral principles? By now, they have been etched into Chinese culture, distinct and yet meshed with Confucian ideas. A communist is expected to be honest, direct and trustworthy, not concerned with personal gain and focused on the public good.

This morality appears at many levels. For instance, an ethos first developed at Ruijin in the early 1930s – during the first Chinese soviet – focused on providing poor peasants not with communist ideas, but with enough food, clothing, and shelter. They should feel secure (anquan) in life – a fundamental desire of Chinese life. When people find they have such things through the communists, they will flock to join the movement and become revolutionaries.

Or it can be seen in Mao Zedong’s urgings for party members (cadres) after achieving power. In 1949, Mao wrote: ‘I hope that the revolutionary personnel of the whole country will always keep to the style of plain living and hard struggle’. Again, in 1957, he wrote that party members must not lose the revolutionary spirit of wholeheartedly serving the people. Instead, they must ‘persevere in plain living and hard struggle’, ‘maintaining close ties with the masses’.

Chairman (or president) Xi Jinping has been consistently evoking these admonitions from Mao over the last few years, especially in terms of uniting and strengthening the party through the ‘tigers and flies’ anti-corruption campaign – the most thoroughgoing and pervasive in modern Chinese history. As he does so, he and the leadership evoke the deep chords of communist morality.

Already five years ago, a new ‘eight rules’ were promulgated, echoing the ‘eight points for attention’ from 1927. The new eight rules focus on how leaders and party members should reject extravagance and reduce bureaucratic visits, meetings and empty talk. Crucially, the purpose is to strengthen ties between the people and officials, which had been eroded through corruption and power abuse.

That this approach resonates deeply with people shows up in complex surveys, with 80 percent or more of people supporting the measures. Why? Communist morality has become deeply ingrained in Chinese culture and society. If one is a communist, which means a party member, one is expected to live up to these ideals. If one fails, the fall is even greater.

What if you are a Marxist and a scholar? By now it should be obvious that the ethical standards are higher still. The combination of Confucian and Marxist ethics entails an expectation of almost impeccable morality – speaking plainly and directly, being honest, living simply, avoiding any sign of personal gain, and substantially focused on the public good.