Tuesday, February 14, 2012

No foreign devils

A friendship with the daughter of one of Mao Zedong's generals gave me an insight into some aspects of recent Chinese history and culture. Her political perspectives (for example, on Tibet – which her father helped to 'liberate' – or on the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square) often struck me as naive, but they were always sincere and apparently based on humanitarian values. She was probably more conservative than many of her contemporaries, having been educated in classical Chinese culture by her maternal grandmother who had been a concubine in the old China. Her views were a mixture of Confucianism, Buddhism, socialism and nationalism.

I was reminded of my friend when I read a piece recently about the Children of Yan'an Fellowship, a political association comprised of children of party leaders of earlier years. Hu Muying, the daughter of the chief speechwriter for Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, gave a speech at a recent gathering in Beijing which had an almost religious flavor:

Thirty years of opening and reform have achieved remarkable economic achievements, but those brilliant achievements were followed by class polarization, a public spiritual vacuum, chaotic thinking, moral decline, prostitution, drugs, triads and so on... These evils that were exterminated at the founding of New China have made a comeback and may even have grown worse.

We, the children of veteran party members, keep thinking, "Is this the New China our fathers sacrificed their blood to fight for and establish?"

According to Geremie Barme of the Australian National University, Hu Muying's organization represents the first attempt since the 1980s to establish a 'loyal opposition'. "They matter because in China today the only legitimate form of critique is from within the party's own heritage, which is a socialist-Maoist amalgam." It is easy to overlook China's deeper search for meaning and to forget its capacity for abrupt policy changes. According to Professor Barme, China's red culture is far from over.

And it is well to remember that the Chinese radical tradition – drawing on much older traditions – incorporates nationalism into its very core.

As a child my friend – despite her privileged background – had been sent to stay with peasants as part of her education, and I was struck by her genuine sense of solidarity with the poor. But her point of view was certainly not a universalist Marxist one.

Once she made a strange sign as we were walking down an ill-lit street after dark. When I queried her she admitted it was a gesture designed to keep spirits away. She was reluctant to talk about these matters, but I did discover that her view of heaven was very exclusive. The celestial paradise had places for her family and fellow countrymen but not for me. No Europeans. Or as she put it, "No foreign devils."