“Can we walk with you and practice English?”
This was the polite question of two Chinese university students who stood in the twilight in front of the Kwangchow Hotel complex for foreigners in September 1979.
My wife and I had gotten used to the request during a journalists’ tour of ancient China, the week President Deng Xiaoping opened the door to foreign visitors. This followed a 30-year blackout imposed by former Chairman Mao Zedong.
We readily agreed to walk and speak in English. We walked to the steps of the nearby Kwangchow University. We sat for hours in the dark, with the lights off due to power shortages, discussing the future of China and America.
This memory recently flooded him during a private lunch hosted at the Holiday Inn in Punta Gorda by retired United States Senator Iowa Roger Jepsen.
He kindly invited Sun editor Derek Dunn-Rankin and me to share bread with three distinguished members of the China Association for International Understanding.
They were Zhang Zhijun, an adviser appointed by the international department of the Central Committee; Ms. Jiang Lin, Director of the US Division, International Department of the Central Committee; and Zhou Yongming, a member of the board of International Understanding.
They paused here, on a trip from Brazil to Canada, to renew Zhang’s long friendship with the Jepsens. The senator became involved in Sino-American relations while serving in Washington, DC He and Mrs. Jepson have a winter home here in Riverwood.
As I wrote in 1979 after my visit to China:
“Chairman Mao Zedong closed all schools and universities for a decade during his Cultural Revolution in 1966. He tried to erase all memories of China’s 5,000-year imperial past and curb the rise of private enterprise.
“Over a decade, millions of teachers and ‘capitalist tramps’ were murdered and millions more sent to labor camps. Universities were closed. Not a single student graduated. Ownership of agricultural land was abolished.
“Deng Xiaoping succeeded Mao after the latter’s death in 1976 and reopened the schools. He allowed one person to have a small” private plot and a private pig “for personal gain.
“Deng surprised the country – and the world – by ordering all students from first grade to college to learn English. It was a subtle recognition that the language of commerce is English.
Speak in the dark
“Our visit is the first opportunity the Chinese have had to use their new language skills.
“Li and Chang are typical of the new generation. They are excited about the official program of the Four Modernizations: progress in agriculture, science, technology and defense.”
“They are convinced that through” socialism, the populous China will catch up with the “capitalist” nations.
“‘When?’ I asked.
Chang, who just entered university at age 26 due to Mao’s cultural revolution, believes that his people expect modernization too soon. “There will be a change for the better, but not as fast as most think.”
“Li is younger and has been relatively untouched by past ideological struggles. He believes that China will jump into the modern world overnight.”
“‘What do you expect from modernization?’ I asked him. He replied: “A nice family, a well furnished flat, a refrigerator and a car.”
“‘What if you haven’t gotten these things when you have kids your current age?’
After a thoughtful silence, he replied: ‘The revolutionary spirit is strong in the Chinese people!’
“Modernization is a great challenge for the Chinese, but the high degree of voluntary compliance is an indication of their determination to succeed.
“‘It will be a triumph for socialism,’ Li declared.
“‘Don’t forget the Cultural Revolution, I warned.’ You can’t modernize without a lot of capitalism. ‘
Once again, there was a long pause in the conversation. Chang replied, ‘I’ve thought about this a lot, and sometimes I think capitalism isn’t that bad.’
“As we said goodbye, I gave our young guides my business cards for their English instructor. On the back I wrote: ‘Give Li (or Chang) an A in English’.
“The genie is out of the bottle. Change is coming to China. The question is whether millennia of customs and decades of brainwashing can be adequately reformed.”
“If – big if – China can get the capital to harness its natural resources – and it moves away from communism long enough to fully use its enormous human energy – it will dominate the world.”
Since those memorable early days of a reborn China, that nation has emerged in the modern world, but not without work.
The first point of interest on our tour was the five-block long “Wall of Democracy,” where Chinese were allowed to post posters expressing political views.
We were not allowed to go near the wall because the week before our arrival a Chinese student was killed there during a political discussion.
Democracy Wall was just one block from Tianamen Square, where a mausoleum containing Mao’s embalmed body is located. Four long lines of visitors, continuously day and night, swiftly passed Mao in a glass coffin.
As we were foreign guests, Chinese visitors to Mao’s grave opened the line for us with a smile.
When university students released in 1989 staged their pro-democracy rally in Tianamen Square, with their makeshift statue of the “Goddess of Democracy” modeled after the American Statue of Liberty, it gave me goose bumps. .
I remembered what young Li, 10 years earlier, said would happen in 10 years if economic progress took too long to arrive.
President Deng broke the communist mold, but in 1989 he ordered the People’s Liberation Army to massacre several thousand protesters in Tianamen Square and imprisoned hundreds of ringleaders.
Today, political dissidents in China are still confined in labor camps without legal recourse. Yet American-style capitalism, which my friend from Kwangchow Chang didn’t think too badly, has made China an economic power second only to the United States.
With 1.3 billion people, the largest standing army, and the second-largest economy after the United States, China is a de facto world power.
China and the US are each other’s best customers, although this year China sold us $ 103 billion more goods than we did.
This translates into the relocation of millions of American jobs to China. State banks make low-interest loans to export industries, subsidize Chinese currency, and apply high tariffs on imported products.
Japan succumbed to this type of subsidized banking and money management until its economy collapsed ten years ago. A vacuum was created that China was quick to fill. The storm flags are flying.
American and Chinese economists are working to balance trade and labor issues that are clouded by political / cultural differences.
Technology created your problems, but it can also solve them.
China invented the wheelbarrow and the windmill, but until recently it had lagged behind in technology. Now this has changed with the successful launch of astronaut Yang Liwei for 14 Earth orbits. Plans are well advanced for Chinese satellites and a trip to the moon.
Senator Jepson’s recent guests are a new generation of Chinese leaders with global insights. May they herald a new Chinese policy of mutual cooperation with the United States and other Western nations.
Socialism is waning in a new China and democracy is winning, like Hong Kong and mass communication. The largest country in the world, like a giant ship, turns slowly but inexorably.
As the famous American statesman Benjamin Franklin put it when we embarked on a journey of democratic capitalism in 1776: “We must all be together, or surely we will all come out apart.”
December 14, 2003
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