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.

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Six Places to Visit in Red Petrograd

St. Petersburg may boast many sights, such as the Hermitage Museum and its Rembrandts, the bustling stretch of Nevsky Prospect, the stunning theatres with ballet and opera, or the Orthodox Cathedrals. But a very different city beckons anyone who is interested in its red history. This was the place where the Russian Revolution first happened, the home of massive strikes, protests, the overthrow of the tsar, counter-revolutionary and revolutionary waves, especially the victory of the Bolsheviks in October 1917. What parts are ‘left’ of Red Petrograd, as it was known?

Finland Station

Arrive by train from Finland, or simply walk over the Neva River. Finlandskii, the Finland Station, will greet you. Or rather, Lenin’s statue will greet you – with his arm outstretched, addressing the gathered crowds as he did on his arrival at the station in April of 1917. He and other Bolsheviks had returned to Russia from exile in Switzerland in the ‘sealed train’. They were stunned by the sheer enthusiasm of the massive crowds, including many soldiers, who greeted them on arrival. But Lenin was to stun the crowds in return, calling on the people to complete the revolution that had merely begun in February of that year with the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II. No one was persuaded at the time, but by October he had done so. The rest, as they say, is history. If you are prepared to search more diligently, the original train engine that hauled their carriages into the station may be found in a glass shed and the armoured car from which he delivered his speech is held in the Russian Museum.

Smolny

Slightly away from the centre of town lies the Smolny Institute, now the residence and offices of the governor of St. Petersburg (one of two cities in the Russian Federation, the other being Moscow). But Smolny’s claim to fame is that it was the buzzing nerve centre of the October Revolution. At that time in 1917, cars and trucks would race off and back, with urgent messages, leaflets, posters, Red Guards, equipment and what have you. Armoured cars stood guard, lights blared, people barely slept, keeping up a frenzied pace as the revolution unfolded.

Here too Lenin stands at the foot of the steps leading into the institute. He is poised in a gesture of urgent speech, clothes swirling about him, intense look on his face. Behind his back, in the institute itself, is a Lenin room, his office during the revolution. It still has many of the memorabilia from the time, but you need to make an appointment. But he faces the Square of the Proletarian Dictatorship, which stretches before Smolny. Walk down the wide avenue through its centre and you meet Engels, framed by the cupolas of the Smolny Cathedral. Engels looks across to Marx, who stands there in eternal reflection. Beneath them both children play with each other.

Aurora

On the Neva sits the cruiser Aurora at anchor, a ship more than a century old. On board you will find that it was the ship that came up the river in support of the revolution, firing the shot that was the signal for the storming of the Winter Palace, where the government (Provisional Assembly) was holed up. Its crew was run not by officers but by a soviet (council) of sailors, which made all of the decisions. The ship itself came from Kronstadt naval base, the radical core of the military that had gone over to the Bolsheviks (and a reminder that any successful revolution needs to win over the military). Wander the decks, stand by the gun that fired the famous shot, ponder how 570 men made a small ship their home, and encounter item after item that commemorates its role in the revolution. Flags, medals, plates, insignia, all with hammers and sickles aplenty.

Peter-Paul Fortress

Crossing the Neva you cannot miss the stunning gold spires of Peter-Paul fortress. It was a place of dread for revolutionaries before October 1917, for here they were incarcerated while awaiting sentence (usually to Siberia). With little warmth, dreadful food and over-crowding, it took a sturdy soul indeed to hold up under what was regarded as ‘normal’ punishment at the time. Siberia was a holiday by comparison. Every single one of the Bolsheviks spent time here, Lenin included.

But come the revolution and Peter-Paul became a vital point, for here was the all-important Petrograd military garrison. Would they come over to the revolution or not? They met and met again, discussing the question endlessly. Members from the communist movement would address them and so would opponents. In the end, some of the garrison went over, while the rest decided not to assist one way or the other. (At this decision, the Aurora, which has trained its guns on the fortress, swung them over to aim at the Winter Palace.) When the revolution was won, they all joined in to defend the new order.

Mars Field

Less known but well worth a visit is Mars Field, where political protests would first gather before marching out on the streets. In the centre of the vast open space is square a surrounded by a two-metre stone wall. An opening in the middle of each wall, three fir trees and a red flag in each corner, an eternal flame burning in the centre in memory of those who fell in the October Revolution and in the ‘civil’ war that followed for some four years – ‘civil’ since the White Armies were funded, equipped and assisted with troops by the international forces opposed to the new communist state.

Each entryway has poetic texts engraved in stone, using religiously inspired language of  martyrs, seeds sprouting from the fields of the fallen, the new world that was being created, the sheer moments of grandeur to which their grandchildren would bow down in awe. But who was the author of these texts? Look carefully and you will find the plaque that tells you they were penned by Anatoly Vasilyevich Lunacharsky. He was the ‘poet of the revolution’, but also a ‘God-builder’, playwright, polemicist, gifted orator, romantic, art and literary critic, prolific writer, expert on the history of religions, revolutionary, inspired first Commissar for Enlightenment in the new Soviet government, key to winning over the intelligentsia to the new project, and even the one who coined the term ‘cultural revolution’.  He was hailed by admirers throughout the new Russia as ‘a true apostle of enlightenment’.

Leningrad

St. Petersburg may have returned to its former name after 1989, but is Leningrad still to be found? Arrive by plane and look closely at the international airport code. LED it is, short for Leningrad. And go into the country outside the city; there you will find that it is called Leningrad Oblost (region). But the greatest surprise is to depart the port by ship. Not a passenger ferry or liner, which leaves from the other side of the port, but the container terminal Ro Ro. If you are lucky, a container ship carrying passengers may be about to set sail (I took a Finnlines ship, full of Russian truck drivers with massive guts and huge, bristling moustaches). If it is winter, or even on the edges of winter, the port and the Gulf of Finland in which it lies may be frozen over. So as the ship crunches its way out of the port, keep a watch for the headlands. There, in massive letters, welcoming and farewell sailors and their ships, is the word ЛЕНИНГРАД.

Berlin, Between East and West

‘Berlin – oh, what a great city! I’d rather not be anywhere else’.

Mention Berlin to most people and they will respond in some such fashion.

It is the hip place to be. No matter whether you seek the ultimate shopping experience, a weekend party, a worthwhile property investment as part of your portfolio, or revel in its anti-capitalist reputation, everyone seems to be able to find a reason to go to Berlin. After all, Berlin is now harmoniously one. The monstrous wall – the symbol of the iron curtain, of communist repression – was pulled down more than two decades ago. And so Berlin has at last been able to recover its historical place as a major, global city, with something for everyone.

But live in Berlin for a while – as I did for some months in 2012-13 – and a different picture emerges. Almost every day you are bombarded in an ideological war that seeks to cast the former DDR, East Germany, as a grey, repressed place. The standard of living was low, there was no industry or initiative, people were not free, all they wanted to do was escape. Throughout the city, plaques and denkmale – points of interest – seek to peddle the official, western narrative, the narrative of the victors. Westerners continue to resent the east, spinning a narrative concerning the cost of integrating the east, resenting the tax that still applies for ‘redevelopment’, while rapidly attempting the gentrify to inner city that was part of east Berlin. In the east, they resent the way ‘reunification’ has been a one-way process, steam-rolling a Western, capitalist agenda on an east that has lost nearly everything. And they fume at the misrepresentations of the east. Why is it that photographs of the former DDR are nearly always in black and white, often grainy and grim and grey? Did the sun not shine occasionally? Did people not enjoy and make the most of life?

So I set myself to find out a little more about a city that is still very much struggling over these tensions between east and west.

Denigration

Three people, three conversations, each an instance of denigrating the east. One concerned dialects, another focussed on ideology, and third simply on discrimination.

Dialects

‘Were you born in Berlin?’ I asked her after she sat down next to me on the train to Berlin. Thrilled to find someone from Australia since she had lived there recently, she was keen to talk.

‘Yes’, she said.

‘So do you speak the Berlin dialect – Berlinerisch?’ I said.

‘Only when I am angry’, she replied. ‘My mother is from outside Berlin, so she made sure that I did not grow up speaking the dialect. But my father, he is from Neukölln and he speaks it well and truly’.

‘But why do you speak it only when angry’, I said.

‘It’s not a good dialect’, she said.

‘But why not?’ I said.

‘It’s a working class dialect’, she said. ‘In the west, it was very much the dialect of the lower class, while the upper class looked down on it’.

‘What about the east?’ I said.

‘There it was the official language, spoken by everyone’, she said.

‘Is that still the case?’ I said.

‘Of course, east and west no longer exist as such’, she said. ‘But these differences are still present’.

‘Yeah, I guess such deeper differences don’t disappear overnight’, I said. ‘But do you think that’s a result of the emphasis on workers in the communist east? The language of the lower class becomes the official language’.

‘I suppose so’, she said. ‘But now that difference, between a capitalist west and communist east, is overlaid by the difference between middle class and working class’.

‘So a double condemnation’, I said. ‘It marks one as either from the old east or from the working class, or both – at least in terms of the ruling class’.

‘Yes’, she said, laughing. ‘But it’s still not a good dialect’.

Ideology and Science

‘I could have left’, he said. ‘I could have gone to the west, but then I would not have seen my family for a long time’.

In a modest apartment we sit and talk late into the evening. He was a professor of theology at one of the universities, but grew up in the east.

‘Where did you study?’ I asked.

‘Leipzig’, he said.

‘And why?’ I asked.

‘It was an obvious development’, he said. ‘I was one of the few who showed an interest in Christianity and went to church. So it was assumed that I would study theology’.

‘Did you work in a parish?’ I said.

‘Yes, around my home in Saxony’, he said. ‘I had five small churches in villages. The congregations were small, but now they are even smaller. We would apply for money from the state to maintain or restore the churches. And then everyone in the village would join us to work on the church, for even if they didn’t go to church, the people felt that the church was very important for the village. People forget that about Germany. Even in the east, the church was so much part of the culture that is was inconceivable not to have one in a village’.

I mentioned a theologian from Amsterdam, who had been called as a minister to a Reformed parish in the DDR. The congregation was quite left-wing and wished to provide resources for a renewal of the DDR.

‘Yes, we had those in the theological faculties’, Stefan said. ‘They were the ideological ones, working for the state and for the Stasi, and not the “scientific” scholars. The state took two approaches. At Humboldt, they took over the faculty, ensuring appointments by those who were left-wing. But at Leipzig they took a different approach: every second appointment was made by the state, while the other one was made by the churches. So at least we had a few “scientific” scholars where I studied’.

‘But were not the church appointees also “ideological” in their own way?’ I asked.

‘Not at all’, he said. ‘They carried on “scientific” research. You need to understand that anyone who was in some way employed in the public service of East Germany, who cooperated with the government, who was an enthusiastic supporter of the DDR – they were all ideological. It was the same as working for the Stasi’.

‘Easterner’

‘I have just lost my court case’, she said. Dejected, she sat across from me at a table in a minuscule shop, imbibing the other beloved beverage of Germans – coffee.

‘You, a court case!’ I said. ‘What was that about?’

‘Discrimination’, she said.

‘Sexism?’ I asked. ‘Homophobia? Age?’

‘None of the above’, she said. ‘Political discrimination’.

‘Political discrimination?’ I said. ‘How so?’

‘I recently applied for a job’, she said. ‘But I did not get it’.

‘But that happens all the time’, I said.

‘Yes, but I was reasonably sure that I was the best qualified for the position’, she said. ‘So – against my nature – I wanted access to all the documents, you know, associated with the application and decision’.

‘Freedom of information?’ I said.

‘Exactly’, she said. ‘And you know what: scrawled across the front of my application in large red letters was the word “Ossi,” Easterner. It gets worse, since throughout my application every single one of my qualifications was circled in red’.

‘What in the hell for?’ I said.

‘I gained all of my qualifications in the DDR’, she said.

‘But what about the other applicants?’ I asked.

‘As I suspected’, she said. ‘Their qualifications and experience were quite inferior to mine’.

‘So you were denied the job simple because you were from Communist East Germany’, I said.

‘Exactly’, she said. ‘That’s why I took the case to court’.

‘That didn’t work either, by the sound of it’, I said.

‘No’, she said, ‘but I wanted to test the system. They have all sorts of anti-discrimination legislation: gender discrimination – tick’, she drew a large tick in the air. ‘Racial discrimination – tick; discrimination of the basis of sexual orientation – tick; age discrimination – tick; discrimination due to disability – tick …’

‘But not political discrimination’, I said. ‘Especially against former communist countries in Europe’.

‘No, that is acceptable’, she said. ‘It doesn’t count as discrimination, since my training was obviously tainted, “ideological,” and therefore not acceptable. It smacked me in the face how the very framework of the anti-discrimination legislation is determined by Western, capitalist assumptions. And you sure as hell can’t challenge these “natural” and “universal” categories.

Origins

With these conversations in mind, revisited from myriad angles, I decided to dig a little deeper into the history of east and west. Of course, that difference goes back much further, to the emergence of capitalism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the small variations in economics and social realities (land shortages in the west, labour shortages in the east) that led to significantly distinct paths. Or perhaps it goes back to the split between eastern and western Christianity in the early centuries of the Common Era, along with the successive waves of peoples who invaded the east during the massive shifts in populations over the centuries. But I was particularly interested in the specific history that followed in the wake of the Second World War.

East and West

How and why were the two Germanies divided after the Second World War? Was it because of Stalin’s aggressive policy to put under the Soviet yoke as much of Europe as possible? Was it a defensive act on the part of the occupying powers in western Germany against communist world domination, all of which was embodied in the ‘Berlin blockade’ of 1948-49?

Not quite. Let us go back to the Potsdam and Yalta conferences, where Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt had agreed to three key items in post-war Europe:

  1. The four Ds: disarmament, demilitarisation, denazification and democratisation of Germany.
  2. Reparations, vital for the USSR’s recovery.
  3. German unity.

Stalin had even agreed to three occupation zones, with each symbolically represented in Berlin, despite it being deep in the Soviet zone. (How the French ever managed to get a toe in was beyond many, since they had embraced the Nazis a little too enthusiastically.) This was despite the fact that the USSR had exerted by far the major effort and lost the most in winning the war.

How did these three items fare after the end of the war?

  1. The four Ds. Only in the eastern, Soviet sector was there any significant progress on these items. The occupying forces in the western areas were too keen to rearm Germany, which already began by the early 1950s. They found ‘ex-’ Nazis willing participants in the anti-communist struggle, and they fostered pliant governments. Of course, Stalin too favoured a government sympathetic to the USSR’s concerns, but he believed this would happen through popular groundswell.
  2. Reparations. Soon enough, the occupying forces in the western zones reneged on the earlier agreements. The last thing the Anglo-Americans wanted was for significant resources, technology and money going to the USSR, so they stalled and blocked reparations from the west of Germany.
  3. Unity. In contrast to the standard narrative, Stalin favoured political unity, the Anglo-Americans did not – this is perfectly clear from the increasingly rancorous discussions over what was to be done with Germany. Whenever Stalin or Molotov or other Soviet representatives pushed for a unified German government, the Anglo-Americans countered by arguing that the economic situation had to be addressed first. In other words, they wanted to axe reparations and keep Germany divided.

Why? The Americans and British could see that communist parties were becoming extremely popular, not only in Germany but across Europe. For his part, Stalin hoped that this ‘new democratic’ wave would continue in a united Germany and lead to a government favourably disposed to the USSR. In March 1948, Stalin urged the east German communists to draft a constitution for the whole of Germany as a beginning point for discussion with western politicians. He was even prepared for a non-socialist government as long as it was ‘democratic and peace-loving’. Yet he was realistic enough to see that the Americans in particular would not agree since it would threaten their desire to control western Europe. On that point he was correct: the Anglo-Americans were certainly not interested in such a united Germany, for then it would risk falling out of their control. So they preferred a divided Germany.

Events unfolded. In June 1948, the UK, France and USA issued a communiqué stating their intention to form a western German state. A few days later a new currency was introduced in the western zones. By the end of June, Stalin ordered restrictions on access to West Berlin. Despite all the western propaganda concerning the ‘Berlin blockade’, it was not a blockade. Air access was permitted the whole time, for the purpose of supplies. Stalin’s reason for the restrictions was simple: he wanted to get the former allies back to the negotiating table. As soon as they agreed, the restrictions were lifted in May 1949.

Despite clear Soviet desires for unity, the fours Ds and reparations, the Anglo-Americans were simply buying time. By this time NATO had been formed. In September 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany was declared and the first formal meetings of government held. The east had no option but to respond, reluctantly, with its own state soon afterwards.

Representing the Wall

A little more than a decade later the wall went up, reinforcing the perception of vast divide. Its remains were not far from where I lived in the east. A few sections stand still, perhaps preserved from the wrecking balls at the last moment because someone in the west realised their tourist and propaganda potential. The Mauerpark, with its museum, plaques and tastefully sprinkled sculptures of wall-parts, or the ‘East-Side Gallery’, a collection of murals along the River Spree, or the tackiness of ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ – they all work a little too hard to assert that life in the east was grey and grim and deathly. The ‘wall of shame’, Willi Brandt – the West German chancellor – called it. For Winston Churchill it was the clearest marker of the ‘iron curtain’.

At first sight, the finality of the wall’s fall is marked by a double-row of bricks – cutting across roads, footpaths and intersections – that traces the path of the former wall. Bronze plaques appear regularly, at least through the city: ‘Berliner Mauer, 1961-1989’. Contained, interpreted, neatly packaged – all in order to present the perspective of the supposed ‘winners’. Yet at nearly every point along the former wall, one finds more ambiguous dimensions of a memory and a project that cannot so easily be contained in this fashion.

Soon enough, in my search some facts emerged from the mists of that narrative. First, the wall does not cut the city in ‘half’, between a communist east and a capitalist west. Rather, the centre of Berlin is mostly in the east, with the suburban rump of the western part left to the occupying American, British and French forces after the Second World War – a deal to which Stalin had graciously agreed even though the Red Army had captured Berlin.

Second, it actually circles the whole of west Berlin, covering some 155 kilometres that includes canals, lakes, villages, fields and vast forests. Far from the grainy pictures purveyed by the ‘official’ history of the wall, towards the south-west it skirts the holiday playground of the Wannsee. Here inland beaches where nudists still frolic in summer – for nudism was fostered in the DDR – sit cheek by jowl with extensive forests and their tracks. I can imagine the pleasure of the builders as they cut through the areas where mansions of the rich and famous are found, isolating some – in the western part – from the water and thereby their source of value, and turning others – on the eastern side and beside the water – into places for all to visit on holidays, subsidised by the government.

But who did the wall seek to stop? In western mythology it was the whole population of the DDR, desperate as they were to flee to the land flowing with milk and honey. According to this story, a good number had already left the DDR due to communist ‘repression’, so the wall was built to prevent more – neglecting the facts that most of the border had no wall at all and that many of those who did leave had connections with the Nazis. But let us look more closely and see precisely who was preventing whom from crossing over in the early days of the two Germanies.

Since I have already traced the origins of the two countries, let me begin in 1950, when Konrad Adenauer was chancellor of West Germany, with massive army bases manned by American, British, French and many other troops. In that year the Korean War was underway and rabid McCarthyism was dominating not only US politics but all those parts of the world now under its imperial sway. So Adenauer proposed a combined European force with a German contingent, which would be sent to attack the communists in the east. With hardly time to draw a breath, after the Second World War, West Germany was on the path to rearmament. Back home, the West German government announced a new decree concerning ‘Anti-Democratic Activities by Public Employees’ – a McCarthyist code for anyone who was vaguely left. Actually, anyone who was not openly and vocally anti-communist was subjected to defamation and discrimination. For example, the Roman Catholic writer, Reinhold Schneider, wrote a couple of articles urging public debate on rearmament and the need to come to an understanding with East Germany. Given the repression of public debate in the West, he published them in East Germany. After that ‘mistake’, most West German avenues for Schneider to express his views were closed to him. Newspapers, magazines and radio refused to deal with him.

Further, the police were deployed to prevent West Germans from making contact with the East. In 1950, the police arrested more than 10,000 young West Germans at the border. They were returning from a meeting in East Berlin and were held at the border for over 24 hours until they agreed to register their names and undergo a ‘health’ examination. The following year, in May, the police arrested another large group, again over 10,000, which was returning from a ‘Meeting on Germany’ in East Berlin. This group refused to register their names, so they were held under arrest for more than 48 hours. Another event was on the calendar later in the year, the ‘Third Youth and Student World Peace Festival’ (5-9 August). The West German government ordered the police to close the border, which was at this time open and through which free passage was possible. And in May of 1952, a member of the Free German Youth was shot dead by police during a banned protest in Essen.

So the movement was very much from the west to the east, especially by young people seeking a way forward for a united Germany. The western powers were less than keen on the idea, so they did their best to block such movement. Not a story that is told in the lead-up to the wall’s construction.

But what is the wall actually like? My initial impression of the sections left standing was, ‘How low it is and how thin!’ Western representations of the wall presented it as a massive fortification, towering to the heavens. But the reality was less than the political spin. It was barely two metres high and perhaps 20 cm thick, a rather flimsy construction really. I was therefore surprised at the foundations that had been too difficult to remove, that were now used as the basis for other constructions. In quiet corners I encountered unexpected slabs of concrete, a twisted piece of cement reinforcement, a run of foundation blocks that proved too much to remove. In some cases, the line of bricks and concrete at ground level merged into a newer wall that had been built – behind an apartment block, a warehouse on the outskirts, a house that needed some sturdy grounding. Solid foundations it would seem, which can still be used in order to build again. Perhaps that effort at socialism was not so fragile after all, its foundations running deeper than one might have expected.

Denazification (Entnazifizierung)?

The wall’s real name is as telling as it is little known: the Antifaschistischer Schutzwall, the Anti-Fascist Security Rampart. Was this merely hyperbole in the face of western aggression? Was it really a screen to keep east Germans out of the western rump of Berlin? Or was there some truth in the name? In order to find an answer, we need to revisit I some more detail one of the four D’s, denazification, since it has become a hot issue once again.

Spend a little time in Berlin and one of the standard lines you hear trotted out these days is that East Germany never went through a proper process of ‘denazification’ (Entnazifizierung), unlike the good people in the West. Instead, goes the narrative, nearly all the ex-Nazis in the east simply joined the new communist government, which explains the ‘totalitarian regime’, the dreaded Stasi and now the supposed burgeoning of neo-Nazi groups in the east.

The problem with this convenient story is that it ignores a rather inconvenient fact: communism was and is implacably anti-fascist. Stalin’s victory over Hitler’s Germany (for which the western front was a diversionary tactic of limited success) was explicitly celebrated as a victory over fascism. As soon as the war over, virtually all the Nazis in the east were arrested, banned from any involvement whatsoever and put in ‘re-education camps’. And in good old Stalinist fashion, a goodly number of them were granted an early funeral.

Meanwhile in the western occupation zones, the Americans made a show of denazification, with a massive censorship program that spent most of its time censoring criticism of the occupation. At the same time, the Americans shipped out most of the Third Reich’s leading nuclear scientists, ‘intelligence’ officers and whatnot, in order to bolster their anti-communist struggle. Not a few of them were awarded prestigious US medals. The British and French didn’t even bother with the show of denazification. They wanted people to run the civil service and since a significant number of the intelligentsia and the civil service had been Nazis not long before, they were simply reappointed. The British and French made some token arrests of a few elite members of the Nazi party.

But even the Americans gave up on their efforts by the early 1950s, under pressure from Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. In one measure after another, ‘former’ Nazis were released from prisons and pardoned. Those pardoned included Nazis responsible for dragging people off to prison, for shootings, executions, causing bodily injury and so on. Above all, ‘article 31’ removed restrictions on persons ‘incriminated’ with the Third Reich, since they had suffered so much since the end of the war. In an early example of anti-discrimination laws, they were given preferential treatment for government, educational, medical and many other positions. Thus, whenever a vacancy occurred, the committee was instructed to check with a list provided by the Ministry of the Interior to see whether someone with this past was available so that he or she could be given preferential treatment for the post ahead of better qualified candidates. Once in positions of influence, these ‘ex-’Nazis worked hard to ensure their buddies gained posts elsewhere. Why? The new enemy was communism and who better to fight the good fight against communism than unreconstructed fascists.

Benefits of ‘Reunification’

What is the German economic secret, especially since a capitalist West Germany overran the east? How has a ‘reunified’ Germany managed to become the economic powerhouse of a once again crumbling Europe? Is it due to the good, solid, hard-working Germans, putting their shoulder to the wheel of commerce? Is it because they have been prudent with their finances, not letting the welfare system get out of hand, unlike those lazy and profligate Mediterraneans? No, it is due to the internalisation of western and eastern Europe. Despite all the complaints from the western side, ‘reunification’ – a euphemism for a capitalist west overrunning the east – has been immensely beneficial for German big capital.

Unlike the increasingly racist countries in other parts of western Europe, Germany includes the cheap labour of eastern Europe and the exploitation of western Europe within itself. While others focus on racialised class conflict, with desperate and ugly efforts to keep out those dreadful Poles, Balts, Slovaks, Balkans, Romanians, Hungarians and Bulgarians who both take jobs and drain their welfare systems (no contradiction there, of course), Germany has much of it nicely within. This has enabled the suppression of wages for the whole of Germany for the last couple of decades. For example, the university system is in tatters, living on reputation alone. Public services are minimal, a non-computerised labyrinth that repels even the doughtiest. People work harder for less pay – apart from the unemployed owners of capital. As a result, the other countries of western and southern Europe find themselves outmanoeuvred, for German manufacturing is cheaper, wages are lower, profit margins higher.

Further, the German banks ensure that the capital flow from the rest of Europe is centripetal. Interest rates for the whole Eurozone suit Germany. And while they may tout their loans as benefitting all, prophesying dire warnings should a cash-strapped country exit the Eurozone, the reality is a little different. They need everyone stay in the Eurozone to ensure a steady run in their own direction.

In fact, I had my own experience of how the German approach to debt operates. At one point I purchased a ‘Bahn 25’ card: at 25 Euro it gives you 25% discount on all travel on the German rail network for three months. The German network is adequate, not brilliant, but the deal sounded attractive. Soon enough, the outlay seemed to be returned. Generous buggers, I thought, especially if you book early, get a 29 Euro ticket for anywhere and then an additional 25% off.

But … when the initial period of my Bahn 25 card ran out, I was sent a friendly looking notice about renewing it, now for a year. This time it was over 60 Euro. Since this one wasn’t worth my while, I simply ignored it. Before I knew it, a stern letter arrived in the mail. Pay up, it said. You have seven days or the debt collectors will call, with leather straps, pliers and chains, in order to extract that amount. A flurry of inquiries ascertained that I had automatically, without any acquiescence on my part or even notification, been signed up for the year-long contract and that I was now – without warning – indebted to the German state.

A small insight into the experiences of Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, let alone all those countries in eastern Europe?

Resistance and Persistence

Is the story all grim? In the midst of the denigration and overdone efforts to assert the narrative of the victors, is there not any sign of resistance? What about ‘Ostalgie’, the various efforts to recall life in the DDR? Trabiworld, close by the Brandenburg Gate, offers Trabi Tours, parties, hire cars, even a Trabant limousine. Ostel, near Ostbahnhof, presents an ‘authentic’ DDR experience, should you wish to stay there overnight. The DDR museum gives a hands-on display of life as it was supposedly lived. And the DDR shop, which sells all manner of items from before 1989 – from egg cups to school textbooks, salt shakers to writing paper. Plenty of material, to be sure, but is it really a form of resistance? Not really, for it fits within the larger narrative: the DDR is carefully contained, sealed off and located in the past. Relics, kitsch, flotsam and jetsam – all that left from a failed experiment in communism. No resistance here.

But find resistance I did, in some unexpected places. Some are small glimpses, moments that one may pass over without noticing, signals of an approach to life that offers a better possibility. I think here of the cups, jugs and plates that turn up occasionally at the flea markets. Not any crockery, piled in the worn boxes hauled out of trucks every weekend, rain, snowstorm or shine. No, the ones marked ‘Made in the DDR’ are of a simple, functional design. Each milk jug is of the same dimensions as the other, with perhaps different decoration. And each fits neatly within the other so that they may be stacked compactly and efficiently. So too with the cups, plates, saucers, bowls and so on. The same dimensions, the same curve, the same size. So what is so spectacular about that? In the false ideology of choice under capitalism, one finds all manner of designs and shapes, most of them useless, all of them faux variations on what should be a simple, functional item. Simplicity, function, efficiency, singularity – when you have the right item, why change it?

Second is the Ampelmann, the little traffic light man. The West tried to abolish this one, but the innovative design from Karl Peglau, the traffic psychologist, has become more popular than ever. Introduced in 1961, the Ampelmännchen became extremely popular in education, children’s stories, television and so on. Soon they were joined by the Ampelfrau, sometimes sitting on a bicycle at special crossings. After a failed effort by the West to remove the Ampelmännchen and enforce their own images, the Ampelmann and Ampelfrau had the last laugh, since now they even adorn western parts of the city and parts of the rest of Germany. As Peglau put it: ‘It is presumably their special, almost indescribable aura of human snugness and warmth, when humans are comfortably touched by this traffic symbol figure and find a piece of honest historical identification’.

Third is the truly stunning ‘Stalinbauten’ or Stalin baroque of Karl-Marx Allee. At once grand and very human, elaborate and restrained, these are true examples of the availability of decent accommodation for workers. After the victory of the Second World War, Stalin was handed a gift – a ruined street (previously called Große Frankfurter Straße). His response was to launch an architectural competition for the construction of what would come to be called ‘Europe’s last great street’ (Aldo Rossi). The result was something that draws me back again and again. Stone and architectural tile, metalwork and high quality timber, frescoes and grand stairways, facing facades with traditional Berlin motifs, open spaces and theatres, restaurants and shops, matching towers at either end (Frankfurter Tor and Strausberger Platz) – all of it constructed a distinct sense of proportion that is very welcoming indeed. Everywhere are opening and walkways, leading out to back streets that contain yet more award-winning examples. Apart from celebrating the boulevard, or allee, itself, the Stalinbauten also provides wide green spaces in squares and fields (although one or two of these have been filled in by dolts since). Completed in 1962 and running more than two kilometres along (and back) from Karl-Marx Allee, it became one of the models for Stalin Baroque or socialist classicism – works of architecture that still stand and are acknowledged from east Germany to Siberia.

Fourth, there is nudism. Nudism? Like Lenin and many of the leading Bolsheviks, the East Germans were and remain much more enthusiastic about nudism, or FKK (Freikoerperkultur). Stemming from the naturalist movement in the 19th century, the communists were much more advanced on this score and fostered the tradition. Indeed, they were more relaxed about bodies and sexuality more generally, so much so that the first sex change took place in the DDR, paid for by the state. Probably the best area for nudism still is the Mecklenberg Lake District, particularly the beautiful Müritz National Park. Here one engages in nude camping and hiking, for there are nude beaches and holiday places for the whole family. But one also continues to find nude trains and airlines. My love is nude cycling, not merely since it means you need carry less with you. The trick, as I have found, is not to stand up in the pedals too often, especially when people are behind you.

Finally, the memory and practice of communism still runs deep. Many in the DDR supported it to the end. All the activity during the ‘Wende’ (turn) of the 1980s indicates as much – by groups in the new civic movements (Bürgerbewegungen: Neues Forum, Demokratischer Aufbruch), the Church and the sections of the government working for renewal. They produced a manifesto, For Our Country (Für unser Land), which was signed by no less than 1,167,048 signatures. And it was one effort among many, seeking to renew the socialist project from within.

What is that project? I mean not an ossified government that faced the inevitable difficulties of maintaining legitimacy, that made many mistakes such as restricting travel by its citizens. I mean the assumption of communality, that we are all – especially workers – one. I mean the assumption that each gives according to ability and to each is given according to need. I mean the assumption that whenever oppression and exploitation arise, people will desire liberation. And I mean that a far better way to live is not to produce much, but to desire little. It assumes a simple life shared by all, without the obscene acquisition of useless wealth.

Believer Without Belief: Two Levels of Party Membership

What does it mean to be a member of a communist party? Should one ‘believe’ in Marxism in order to be so? But what if one does not ‘believe’?

Over lunch in Beijing, I spoke with a reflective younger member of the party. He knew full well what he was doing, why he was the local (student) branch secretary, and what it meant to be a member of the largest communist party in the world today.

‘What was the process of joining the party like? I asked.

‘It’s a long process’, he said.

‘So it’s not just signing a form and paying a membership fee?’ I said.

‘Ha ha, it needs a bit more than that’, he said. ‘You might be invited to join if you have shown leadership or performed well in school or shown some other potential. And you have to do some study and training beforehand. It can be a bit of a long process’.

‘Tests?’ I said.

‘Yes’, he said. ‘But the most interesting experience is when you speak with an old cadre’.

‘Really?’ I said.

‘Yes, I had to have a number of discussions with an old man who has been a member for decades’, he said. ‘After that, he had to fill out a report on our discussion’.

‘Did you have to give all the correct answers?’ I said. ‘So he could tick the boxes?’

‘Oh no’, he said. ‘He spent most of the time telling about his misgivings about the party, where it is falling short, about how he is sometimes embarrassed by it’.

‘What did you say?’ I asked.

‘I listened and nodded’, he said. “I was not quite sure why he was doing it’.

‘Unburdening? I suggested. ‘Testing you?’

‘Perhaps’, he said. ‘But I wonder whether it wasn’t more than that’.

‘Go on …’, I said.

‘I think he was trying show me what being a party member means’, he said.

‘To prepare you for disappointment?’ I said.

‘Not really’, he said. ‘Let me put it this way: the only real way to be a party member, a dangyuan, is to have misgivings about it, to be critical of it’.

‘Criticism and self-criticism!’ I said.

He laughed: ‘yes, a good socialism tradition. And we Chinese are very good at criticism and self-criticism!’

‘So it’s not a matter of belief’, I said.

‘I don’t like the word “belief”’, he said. ‘It has too much of a religious feel about it. In fact, the whole idea of “believing” in Marxism, or “believing” in a cause is – it seems to me – deeply influenced by Western patterns of thought’.

‘You mean Christian ideas of commitment?’ I said.

‘Yes’, he said. ‘Don’t get me wrong; there is an emotional part to joining the party. It has to touch your passions. But Marxism is not a creed in which you believe. Or, as we like to say: I am a believer without belief’.

‘So he was trying to show you that the best way, or indeed the only way to become a member was to be a critical one, with your own hesitations – a believer without belief’, I said.

‘I think so’, he said. ‘It actually helped me. I could be comfortable about joining the party’.

‘What about now?’ I said.

‘Well, I am the branch secretary here at the university’, he said.

‘So you are clearly more involved!’ I said. ‘Do you approach that task in the same way?’

‘Of course’, he said.

‘Would there be any situation in which you leave the party? Or let me put it positively: what keeps you in the party?’

‘It’s got nothing to do with a better job, promotion, or anything like that’, he said. ‘In my assessment, the communist party offers the best, if not only way forward for China. It may not be perfect, and nearly all members admit that. But I cannot see any other path that would not lead to major disruption and chaos’.

‘You said that at the end of your discussions with the old member, he had to fill out a report’, I said.

‘Yes’, he said.

‘I am intrigued’, I said. ‘What did he write down?’

‘Oh, he said that he needed to put down the correct answers, reflecting the accepted narrative’.

‘Two narratives’, I said. ‘Two levels: the official one and the critical one’.

‘Yes indeed’, he said. ‘The only way to be a member: a believer without belief’.

On Visiting a Museum to the ‘Victims’ of Communism

I had come to Transylvania for the last time, for life was calling me to other realms. Part of this visit entailed a return to one of the museums nearby dedicated to the ‘victims’ of communism. I had been taken here some years before, so this was my second visit.

The museum is located in a former prison that had once been a monastery. It is laid out in white paint, with pictures, cells, sculptures, and a distinct story, concerning both the master narrative of the evils of communism and various micro-narratives that are meant to fit within the larger whole. One may spend a few minutes or a few hours perusing the neat and well-designed display. Who could not be swayed by such a depiction, of the misery experienced by those who had simply, for the sake of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, opposed the communist ‘regime’ in Romania?

On the first occasion, I was somewhat confronted by it all, wondering whether such treatment of enemies of the state, aided and abetted by foreign powers, should have so. Did it not breed more resentment and resistance? Would it not have been wiser to follow a gentler, but no less firm path?

However, on the first occasion I had noticed a few anomalies in the smooth narrative. To begin with, those who had actually died in the prison were of reasonably advanced age, between their late sixties and into their eighties. Reading between the lines, one gained a sense that they had died of natural causes. And I could not help notice that there was a reasonable number of former politicians (from before 1947), military leaders and church figures. Common people, such as workers and farmers, were distinctly under-represented. How to make sense of all this?

Not until the second visit some five years later did the pieces begin to fall into place. Four features stood out in stark relief. To begin with, the museum is clearly modelled on the style of a Holocaust Museum, with portrait walls of those imprisoned, brief biographies, copies of hand-written materials, and individual cell experiences. One could stand before a touch-screen and select an individual from the picture and read very briefly about his or her experiences. One could go outside and pause for thought among the sculptures and trees of the remembrance garden. One could be brought up-to-date on the destruction of cultural artefacts (actually, only a cathedral) by the communists. Indeed, one could enter one cell and find a display of communist-era activities, such as newspapers, posters, young pioneer clothes and so on.

The intended effect was what might be called the reductio ad Hitlerum. This became clear when I overheard a discussion outside the museum. Three foreign visitors had just emerged from viewing the display, and one of them commented that it reminded him of Nazi Germany and the museums they had visited there. Another observed that they should go and see the graveyard where the victims had been executed and buried. In other words, the communist ‘regime’ was no different from the fascists.

As I stood by, I recalled the many names I had encountered inside, names of those who were released after two, three or five years. Indeed, the majority of those imprisoned had been released at some time (unless they died of age or illness). It was difficult to see how they could also have been executed and buried. Yet, this is part of the reductio ad Hitlerum, in which the fundamental difference between fascist concentration camps and communist prisons is conveniently glossed over. For the fascists, the camp was the first step to death for the majority of those who were irredeemable, whether for political (communist) or racial reasons (Jews and gypsies). For the communists, imprisonment was for the purpose of re-education and rehabilitation. No matter how much the process may have failed to live up to this motivation, it was reflected in the way many were released.

Perhaps more telling was the way fascism itself was airbrushed out of the representations and narrative. For example, the communist revolution in Romania encountered significant opposition from fascist forces, especially in the southeast near Bucharest. Romanian troops had fought with the Wehrmacht on the eastern front, many generals felt at home among the Nazis, as did politicians during the second world war. Yet all of these simply became the part of the ‘resistance’ to communism, a resistance that was recast as a desire for ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’. After all, fascists do make the best anti-communists.

And this brings me back to the former detainees of this monastery-cum-prison. Most, although not all, were what would count as the old ruling class: ancient nobles, landlords, political leaders, generals, priests, and bourgeoisie. They would have been pointedly disgruntled at losing their assumed power under the barbarian workers and common people. Indeed, the period of communism was too short in Romania, and the communists made too many mistakes – such as prisons like this – in their attempt to overcome entrenched assumptions about class privilege. In many respects, this old ruling class is now back in power in Romania, feeling the world is once again as it should be, that Romanian society is ordered for their benefit. And they are the ones who tell the story and build museums like this one.

Meeting Isabel Crook

‘Put that down, mum’, he said. ‘Someone is here to see you’.

He strode into the room, while I paused at the door and looked inside to see Isabel Crook for the first time. Books spilled out of ceiling-high shelves and were piled on the desks that surrounded her. Sitting in the only free space in the room, she had been reading. She did not look up at first, but focussed on putting the book in its place. She stood and walked to the door of her own accord.

Her 60-something son and began to introduce us, somewhat loudly.

‘Hello, I am Isabel Crook,’ she interrupted. ‘Pleased to meet you’.

I replied in kind, with a clear and strong voice.

She smiled. Her no-nonsense hair may have been grey, and she may have been slightly stooped and a little shrunken. But the sparkle was still in her eye and I immediately saw the origin of her son’s energy.

It was the middle of May, 2015, in an apartment built in not long after the communist revolution. They had lived there ever since the 50s, in Beijing.

In the common room – for eating, guests, discussion – she paused and pointed to a poster on the wall: ‘This is priceless’. A youthful Mao Zedong was watching over a long line of marching men and women, holding the red flag aloft.

‘You can’t read the writing now’, she said. ‘It has faded over the years’.

‘Why priceless?’ I said.

‘These posters were all over Beijing when it was liberated in 1949. I managed to get hold of one. It was amazing. We looked all down the streets … students all with red triangular flags waving … the incoming army … cavalry, which was very exciting. It was the most joyful event I’ve ever watched’.

Isabel Crook, along with her husband, David, had been with the Red Army on that victorious day. Most men and women had walked thousands of kilometres in order to get from Yan’an to Beijing But since Isabel was pregnant with their first son, Colin, she was provided with the comfort of travelling in the back of a truck. Given the conditions of the roads after decades of civil war and the anti-Japanese war, I am not sure an old truck in 1949 would have been so comfortable. But she was obviously a tough woman.

We – Isabel, Michael (her second son) and I – sat and talked over a cup of tea. We talked of Mao, Deng Xiaoping, China today, Marxism, as also of families and the initial matters of what one is doing and why. Later, a couple of other people joined us and we made the most of the spring weather to have lunch at a simple outdoor restaurant somewhere on the edge of the Summer Palace grounds.

Isabel and I gravitated towards each other – as we did on later occasions – given our common interests in Marxism and indeed religion. She was born to Canadian missionary parents in Chengdu, China, way back in 1915. While she was brought up as a Christian in China and attended a Christian school, she followed the path of so many, from Christianity to communism. Crucially, her parents – Homer and Muriel Brown – were Christians with a social conscience, although they looked askance at communism (and Isabel’s future husband, David Crook). They reconciled themselves to the fact that a social cause was better than pure self-interest.

After anthropological study in her parents’ home country, Canada, she returned to China in 1940, under the auspices of the National Christian Council in Sichuan province. By 1942 she joined David in England, where she joined the communist party and where they married. Further study ensued, only to return to China in 1947. She has remained there ever since, becoming a participant-observer in the communist revolution itself and especially socialism in power. Many are the jobs Isabel has had, from anthropological researcher, through language teacher to lifelong social activist. Indeed, her commitment was of the sort that led one to action – to supporting an actual communist revolutionary movement on the ground.

Her story has been told many times (as of David), from foreign sources to many outlets in China. Her 100th birthday was saluted by the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), her commitment to education and research is often noted (playing down her communist credentials), and even the Wall Street Journal managed to come up with a story. Of more interest are the accounts on CCTV and, above all, the website that tells her own story, simply called ‘Isabel Crook’. With all this information available, I do not need to dwell on all the details.

Her witness of socialism in power is, for a foreigner, second to none. In Shilidian (Ten Mile Inn), a communist area of Hebei province, she and David witnessed the profound effects of land reform already underway. She saw first-hand millennia-long practices being dismantled and replaced with socialist approaches. As she observes: ‘The land reform was obviously going to change the whole future of China’s history, because it would get rid of the feudal system … it would put the farmer in power, rather than going on with the old way’. The result was a hugely influential book, written by her and David, Ten Mile Inn: Mass Movement in a Chinese Village.

And of course, there was the teaching. The new China would need people skilled in English, so they were asked to stay and teach. Over the years, their work would become one stream that fed into what is now Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Over dinner one evening, I mentioned to Isabel that I had been to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). Her eyes lit up.

‘I have had students from North Korea’, she said. ‘Ten of them, sent by the government to study English’.

‘How did they go?’ I said.

‘They were very good,’ she said. ‘Although one struggled. I believe in giving marks for actual performance, so his grades were not so good. As they boarded the bus after the course, this student was crying. “Why is he crying?” I asked one of the others. “He knows he will be reprimanded for not doing so well in the course and failing his country.” I wanted to stop the bus and hug him’.

She also experienced socialism in power during the Cultural Revolution.

‘During the Cultural Revolution, I was suspected of a being a spy. So I was put in prison for three years’.

‘Did it make you doubt the communist movement?’ I asked.

‘Not at all’, she said. ‘My sons were on their own, but I knew they could manage’.

‘What did they do?’ I said.

‘They were teenagers’, she said. ‘And they knew how to take of themselves. One day, they realised their visas had run out, so they sent the youngest to the immigration office, hoping they would be deported. The woman behind the desk simply stamped the passports – another two years!’

We laughed.

‘Another time’, she said. ‘Before I was imprisoned but during the Cultural Revolution, one son was in hospital. I was on my way to visit him and the gardener out the front said, “Your son is fine”. In reply to my complete surprise, he said: “I’m the doctor. I am doing my duty as gardener now”’.

‘But what did you do in prison?’ I said.

‘I knew they had made a mistake and decided to make the most of it’.

‘How so?’ I said.

‘I asked for something to read’, she said.

‘What?’ I said.

‘The Selected Works of Mao Zedong’, she said. ‘I read the four volumes through many times. I even noted how many times laughter appears. Do you know how many?’

‘No’, I said.

‘Two!’

We laughed, with Isabel assuring me she remains as ardent follower of Mao Zedong.

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Only in China

Is it still possible to have a unique experience, one that you cannot have anywhere else? Or has the world become thoroughly homogenised? Sometimes it seems so. Wherever you go, it is the same experience, over and over again. A European city centre, a restored historical village, a hotel room, a museum, food, coffee, beer – in one place after another they seem eerily the same. Should tourism begin on Mars, it too would have the same experience.

I beg to differ. It is the unexpected moments that are unique, moments that can easily pass you by in the myriad events of everyday. To see them, you need a peripheral vision, a seeing out of the corner of your eye; or, as I prefer, a relaxing of the shoulders, a slowing of the breath and an easing of the mind so that you can catch them before they pass.

Mao’s Statue

We had been talking about a possible trip to Suzhou, a little up the road from Shanghai. She was keen to show me around the fabled town, with its canals and boats and cuisine. Indeed, beautiful girls come from Suzhou … or so goes one of the sayings.

As a neophyte to matters Chinese, I asked: ‘what time suits you best?’

‘How about Friday morning?’ She said.

‘Excellent’, I said. ‘Where shall we meet?’

‘I’ll meet you by Mao’s statue – the big white one at the front gates – at 9.00 am’. She said it as though it was the normal suggestion in the world.

Student party meeting

Over a simple lunch of long noodles, two students and I sat talking. Spring it was, after the first rains of spring in a cool Beijing. They had wanted to take me to a kosher dining hall, provided for the Chinese Muslim students. It had the reputation for good quality clean food. We had lined up to order our dishes and I tried to read the menu on the wall above. Some characters I could recognise, some not. They translated where necessary while we waited our turn. Soon enough, the dishes were ready, announced on the loudspeaker. We picked up our bowls, found some seats and slurped away.

The dapper student looked at his watch and made to move.

‘Excuse me’, he said. ‘I need to go to a student party’.

‘A party’, I said, thinking it was one of the regular student parties that happened with extraordinary frequency. ‘At lunchtime?’

They laughed.

‘No’, he said. ‘It’s the student branch party meeting. I am the secretary’.

It hit me: ‘Are you a member of the student branch of the communist party?’ He had not struck me as a typical member, but then what is a typical party member?

He smiled. ‘Yes, and I am the secretary, so I need to be at the meeting’.

Young Pioneers

Intrigued, I began to ask students about party membership. At an afternoon gathering some weeks later, we discussed reasons for joining the party. Some said it was for a better job, others because a grandparent was a member and had influenced them deeply, and others because they felt they could contribute on their own small way to the collective good.

‘What about young pioneers?’ I asked.

‘We have that in the schools’, a young woman said. ‘It is a mark of honour to be invited to join the young pioneers. It may be for academic achievement or for sport or even for some service’.

‘Were any of you members?’ I asked.

Nearly all of them nodded.

‘Do you have young pioneers in your country?’ Said the young woman.

Of course, every country should have such an organisation.

Foot Binding

A slightly older student, of about 30, had finally realised her dream to come to Australia and spend a year of study here. She spent a good deal of the time travelling and a little less on her study.

In one of our many discussions, she said:

‘When I was six years old, my grandmother said to me that I should have my feet bound, just like her. I was really frightened and lay awake at night’.

‘She must have been born before the communist revolution’, I said.

‘Yes’, she said. ‘But she was very traditional in her attitudes’.

I had thought that such a practice had been abolished with the communist revolutionary victory of 1949. Perhaps not in the minds of some.

She continued: ‘During the revolutionary war, women used to fight in the Red Army. They would have natural feet and cut their hair. When one of them was captured by the Guomindang nationalist forces, she would be shot immediately. They assumed that if she had natural feet, she was a communist. The practice of foot-binding goes back to the Qing emperors. Since they were Manchu nationality, they made the majority Han women bind their feet as a sign of subjection – or at least those of the upper class. It became a custom.’

‘Did your grandmother ever make moves to bind your feet?’ I asked.

‘No’, she said. ‘But it really frightened me, since children are supposed to show deep respect for grandparents’.

That’s Socialism

Another young woman and I were walking past a student dormitory, where washing hung in the windows.

‘How many students share a dormitory?’ I asked.

‘Six to eight for undergraduates’, she said. ‘Four for masters and two for doctoral students’.

‘Does anyone have a single room?’ I asked.

She laughed. ‘No, we all share’.

A little later we had eaten in a dining hall and were on our way out.

‘I usually eat there’, she said. ‘The food is cheap but freshly cooked’

‘Who else eats in a dining hall?’ I asked.

‘Everyone’, she said. ‘Students, professors, gardeners, maintenance workers …’.

She paused for a moment and said: ‘That may be socialism! I guess we have it in ways we do not realise’.