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A LETTER FROM CHINA

The first impressions I had of Red China was from reading the “China Reconstructs” propaganda news-magazine periodically sent by the Chinese Embassy to my father. The magazine featured cherubic female workers and heroic male counterparts leaping forward in revolutionary pirouettes. The workers’ paradise in the making had happy looking peasants tilling the soil, a sickle in one hand and the ubiquitous Red Book of Chairman Mao for inspiration in the other. There were photographs of factories producing steel, giant excavation works leveling mountains, digging tunnels and damming the mighty Yangtse River.


Having been schooled in the English medium St. Xavier’s Godavari School run by Jesuits, I knew that what the magazine purported to show was probably not true. China was most likely a backward developing country producing shoddy goods and shameless utopia. After all we could see what was available at the state run National Trading Corporation’s warehouses and shops in Kathmandu. Mao’s thoughts were the only balm for the Chinese people who were deprived of their culture, history and religion.

I remember the aggressive Cultural Revolution exporting small Mao-head lapel pins to Nepal like to many other countries. They were distributed in friendship by the Chinese Embassy. For no rhyme or reason many people started wearing them in public. Shortly thereafter similar pins started appearing of King Mahendra and the Panchayat body politic started wearing them proudly - as a counter to the Chinese my father winked at me. I remember we had copies of Chairman Mao's ubiquitous Red Book at home too, possibly gifted by the Chinese Embassy but I found them boring. The consequences for Nepal could not have been foreseen then, but surely there were some other kids of my age who must have found all this enrapturing. We were to witness the consequences of this over three decades later in a colossal upheaval nearly as potent as the Chinese Cultural Revolution.


The Great Leap Forward had brought famine in China where millions perished due to ill-managed state planning. The Cultural Revolution had taken care of the skeptics and daring naysayers by labelling them "Capitalist Roaders". In those dangerous times we were perturbed by King Mahendra's hand at realpolitik building bridges to Communist China to counterbalance the ham handed Indian policy towards Nepal. People ominously started whispering that the Arniko Highway from Tibet to Kathmandu could bring in military tanks to occupy the valley within a couple of hours. What we probably did not realise was that the Chinese wanted Nepal as a buffer against India; there was no question during Chairman Mao's lifetime of Nepal's sovereignty being compromised by Chinese expansionism.

I visited China for the very first time a year after the Tienanmen Square episode; hundreds of students had perished when Deng Xiaoping made sure that the Chinese Communist Party would remain firmly in power even as he liberalized the economy. The Chinese version of Gorbachev's Glasnost and Perestroika would not be allowed to derail the party's hold on power as would soon happen in the Soviet Union. Arriving in Beijing from Hong Kong I was to behold the unforgettable spectacle of thousands of Chinese men and women pedaling to work in a sea of bicycles. The broad avenues of the capital city had very few cars. The Mercedes Benz stretch limousine placed at my disposal courtesy of the President of China International Travel Service Madame Lu Fenyan was quintessentially Orwellian; the leaders there too enjoyed all the trappings of any Capitalist leader. I was put up in a hotel designated for foreigners and my guide could not enter the hotel lobby but needed to call me from a telephone booth to ask me out.

Lots of water has flowed in the Yangtse since. China has overtaken Germany to become the world's third biggest economy. Even last year's economic meltdown has not significantly deterred China's growth as has those of other leading countries. As I view the Shanghai cityscape from the luxury of the Portman Ritz Carlton executive suite, a stay I won in a lucky draw organized by China National Tourism Administration, I see more skyscrapers coming up to meet the expected demand for the World Expo to be held there next year. The hotel itself is located in the Shanghai Center, an ultra-modern complex housing chic branded international boutiques with impossible prices. There is Louis Vuitton and Prada, Balenciaga and Giorgio Armani, Cartier and Piaget in a kaleidoscope of Capitalist vanity and incongruously in a giant screen in the foyer they were airing an old revolutionary documentary of Chairman Mao's exploits to mark the coming 60th Anniversary of the Peoples' Republic. China has reconstructed in ways Chairman Mao could never have predicted!

Shanghai by night


Comments

  1. Subodh, greatly entertaining and somber too. Many people not only put the Mao pin on their lapel but also took the Mao book to heart. Little did King M at the time realize that getting cosier with China visa vi India ( which his son G would fully execute) would sound the death knell for the Shah dynasty.

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  2. "Man does not live by bread alone".China has advanced materially at great cost to its soul I think.
    Govind

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