Ironies of China
Deaglán de Bréadún
Was it Isaac Deutscher who wrote a book called The Ironies of History? There can be few greater ironies than the fact that two states established on avowed principles of Communism – China and Vietnam – are probably the most successful exponents of capitalism in the world today.
These lines are being written in Beijing where your humble scribe is still covering the visit of Taoiseach Brian Cowen to lead an Irish trade mission and attend the Asia-Europe (ASEM) summit.
Like everyone else, Cowen is pretty well awestruck at the progress and achievements of this country in the economic sphere over the past 30 years. The summit deliberations are taking place in the Great Hall of the People, which is right on the edge of Tienanmen Square, infamous as the scene of the bloody massacre of peacefully-protesting students in 1989.
The surprise at Tienanmen is that it covers a relatively small area. One expected an agoraphobia-inducing wide space but, although it ain’t tiny, it is far from enormous. I have been to the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana which is much, much bigger – this is where Fidel Castro used to address the crowds, whether they liked it or not, for hours on end before he took ill.
Needless to say there are no monuments to the victims of the Tienanmen Square massacre although a colleague pointed out the spot where the students had placed their imitation Statue of Liberty and a poignant memory still lingers in my mind of a young student couple who got married there, just prior to the tanks rolling in. I wonder was their honeymoon cut short by bullets – no doubt it was.
Yet the same repressive, un-elected regime has achieved undreamt-of and unimagined economic progress in a short period of time. Capitalism in the West and the democratic countries stagnates in the meantime. When you think about it, the golden age of raw capitalism was also an age of fairly significant repression. Unions were less-powerful, there were fewer legal protections for workers, fewer health and safety regulations, and the planning laws, insofar as they existed, caused little concern to entrepreneurs intent on launching a major moneymaking project. Ironic the communism, or this version of it, apparently provides so little protection to the workers.
In the past week I have also been in Shanghai and certain images stand out. The Maglev is a high-speed train that takes you to the Shanghai’s Pudong Airport. As I sat in the carriage with my colleagues, we noticed that the mainly-young Chinese passengers had their camera-phones focused on the speedometer over the door. They were “filming” the speed as it rose and rose – if memory serves, – to more than 400km per hour. There was much laughter and merriment as this was taking place. One fellow in particular was acting the clown and revelling in the attention of his friends. There was no sign of the “dogface” demeanour one associates with totalitarian regimes: people terrified to show emotion in case they attract attention from the authoriies. In years to come maybe our “clown” will take a serious turn and become a politician.
In Beijing, the red flags flutter in profusion over Tienanmen Square as if somebody is making a point. Mao’s portrait still looks down on everyone. As we waited yesterday morning to be admitted to the summit, several squads of besuited young men marched in military formation up the steps of the Great Hall of the People. At first glance they appeared to be civil servants and one could not help imagining the reaction if, say, the Department of Finance back home were obliged to march to work in the morning like this: doubtless some of the public sector’s vociferous critics would enjoy the spectacle. A colleague said later that these young fellows were actually members of the military or air force who were helping on the administrative side with the summit and had donned civvies for the occasion.
The summit itself is quite stage-managed with most of the sessions closed to the media. Yet one feels that China is loosening-up. Last time I was here in 2004, I tried to link to the Amnesty International website on my laptop but couldn’t get it on the screen. I was in the press area at a conference on poverty and, as soon as I tried to get the website, a group of helpful young men surrounded me, asking if everything was all right. Mar dhea (Irish for the ironic, ‘Yeah, right!’) This time http://www.amnesty.org came up, no bother. That was in my hotel, it might not be so easy in other locations in China: the techno-bods can perhaps advise?
China is still a one-party state but that party is changing and many among the new layer starting to rise to the top have received liberal arts educations in western universities. Huge problems still remain and human rights is the elephant in the room at the ASEM summit. Meanwhile China is one of the few places that has – so far – remained largely exempt from the perfect storm raging in other parts of the world economic stage. To repeat one of my favourite semi-ironic Dublinisms – I hope it keeps fine for them.
Postscript: Courtesy of a search-engine, I see that the full title of Deutscher’s book was, Ironies of History: Essays in Contemporary Communism. I’m not sure I ever read it, although I have read Deutscher’s excellent biographies of Stalin and Trotsky – he was that unusual combination, a good scholar who wrote like an angel. A Polish dissident communist himself, Deutscher ended up in England, writing for the Observer and the Economist.
Ironies was published in 1966: Deutscher died the following year and missed the Prague Spring, the Gorbachev era and of course China’s current incongruous combination of communism and capitalism. He would have been fascinated by it all, not least the way blogs have replaced samizdat, the wrinkled handbills and other literature secretly distributed by dissidents in the Soviet era.
Deaglan de Breadun, Political Correspondent, The Irish Times