Since I now live in a regional area (when I am in China), I meet farmers like this everyday. Only a few minutes’ walk away is a local market, where I buy fresh fruit and vegetables, beans, spices, and freshly made tofu. These photographs come from Sichuan, but you can see similar scenes all across China. They concern a special early morning bus route for farmers so they can get to the markets with relative ease.
In an earlier piece, I proposed that the dominant narrative concerning China in a small number of former colonising countries (usually known as ‘the West’) is like believing in ghosts. What is the narrative? It is the pure fancy that the Communist Party of China is a ‘secretive’ and ‘paranoid’ outfit, which is terribly afraid of its own people whom it monitors all the time, and is scheming for world domination. Nothing new here, since the same was believed concerning the Soviet Union.
How is this like believing in ghosts? If you believe in ghosts, then you can fit all sorts of odd things into your narrative. It might be a weird dream, a creak in the corner, a door closing by itself, a misplaced set of keys, and so on. All of these and more become part of your belief, confirming what is clearly false. And if you run out of a few twisted facts, you can simply make them up.
In short, if you believe that the CPC is an ‘authoritarian’ bunch with ‘evil intent’, then there are spooks everywhere. Boo!
In that earlier piece, I gave a number of examples, from Xinjiang, through Huawei to the Social Credit System in China. But let me focus here on the recent drug-fuelled violence in Hong Kong, with significant financial and logistical support from outside.
The narrative promoted misleadingly in a few ‘Western’ media outlets and government agencies has had a number of intriguing phases.
Phase 1 of the Ghost Story: The false idea of a ‘groundswell’ of popular opposition to ‘authoritarian’ measures.
This phase turned on deliberate misrepresentation of a modest extradition bill. The bill itself was simply standardising procedures for crimes such as murder (a murder case, with the culprit fleeing to the island of Taiwan, was in fact the immediate trigger for the bill). But through social media and deliberate misinformation, the extradition bill was pumped up into a measure instigated by the ‘authoritarian regime’ in Beijing, so that anyone and everyone in Hong Kong could be whisked away at any moment.
Behind this phase were a couple of assumptions: first, the obvious one is a ‘Western’ liberal paradigm of ‘authoritarianism’, a loose term used for any country that does not fit into the mould of the ‘Western’ bourgeois state.
The second is that Chinese people, and especially those in Hong Kong, are supposedly longing for Western ‘freedoms’, bourgeois ‘democracy’, ‘human rights’ and … Facebook. There were desperate efforts to show that the majority of people in Hong Kong supported the riots, although this flew directly in face of the fact that the majority are resolutely opposed to the riots and see themselves very much as part of China.
However, this assumption that people everywhere hanker after Western ‘freedoms’ is so strong in parts of Western Europe and North America that it underlies what passes as foreign policy in these places. While trying to claim the high moral ground, they use it consistently to intervene in and disrupt the sovereignty of many countries around the world, with the result that such countries are singularly unimpressed.
Curiously, this assumption leads to profoundly misguided policies. As they say in China, ‘seek truth from facts’ (Mao Zedong and especially Deng Xiaoping promoted this one). And what are the facts? In international surveys, Chinese people show between 86 and 90 percent trust in government and public institutions, along with confidence in the direction in which the country is headed. The more educated and younger the respondents, the higher the level of trust and support.
Phase 2 of the Ghost Story: ‘Beijing’ is ‘pulling the strings’.
When it became clear that the one country – two systems policy was being followed strictly, and that the local government in Hong Kong, headed by Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, was standing firm, another piece of the narrative came to the fore: ‘Beijing’ was ‘pulling the strings’ behind the scenes, making sure that the ‘puppet’ leader was doing its bidding.
Now it was time for pure fabrication. Supposedly, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor (to use her full name) had her resignation turned down. This lie was swiftly shown for what it was. This did not stop the ‘pulling strings’ line, which now relied on a standard approach in some places: using gossip, propagated these days through social media. Thus, they promoted by whatever way possible the belief that every step taken by the Hong Kong local government and its police to quell the riots were directed from ‘Beijing’.
A few points are worth noting? First, this approach was taken since the PLA garrison in Hong Kong had not been deployed, and troops from the mainland had not moved in. This turn of events was disappointing to some anti-China ideologues, if not the rioters themselves, so they had to find another line.
Second, it was a classic case of ‘look over there’. There is more than ample evidence of systemic interference in Hong Kong by government agencies from the United States and the UK, at times through NGOs and at times by direct political interference. For some time now, significant funds have flowed to the rioters, as well as logistical support. For example, more than 1000 Hong Kong police officers have been ‘doxed’, with their names, addresses, phone numbers, bank information, and so on, hacked and then spread widely. The result had been significant harassment of their families. Doxing requires a high level of logistical support, along with the assistance of compliant social media outfits like Facebook. How to respond to these embarrassing facts? Cry ‘look over there’ and blame ‘Beijing’.
Third, let us ask what is actually taking place. Since tensions in Hong Kong society had risen to the surface, extensive research for the sake of informing policies began. This research focuses on – to name a few – the problematic educational system in Hong Kong, extremes in poverty and wealth (more than one million people in Hong Kong live in poverty, in a city of seven million), the flawed political structure bequeathed by the UK, in which vested interests have an inordinate say in the Legislative Council and any resolution must have a two-thirds majority. We can expect much more in-depth research and reforms in these and other areas.
Of course, the whole idea of ‘pulling the strings’ is based on the ‘authoritarian’ paradigm, which shows profound ignorance of what the one country – two systems policy entails.
Phase 3 of the Ghost Story: The lie of Hong Kong police ‘brutality’.
With the initial protests fading away as people woke up to themselves, smaller and smaller groups raised the level of violence on the streets. They would typically be dressed in black, wear face masks or gas masks, and take drugs to bring on a type of ‘beserk’ behaviour. In their armoury they had petrol bombs, bamboo spears with knives attached, batons, baseball bats, lethal slingshots that fired large ball-bearings, and some began carrying guns.
They set about vandalising, smashing and burning public transport facilities, banks, shops, police vehicles, the airport and many other facilities. They would beat up any isolated police officer (most recently setting an officer on fire with a Molotov cocktail) or indeed member of public that condemned their acts. As the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions has opposed the violence, service centres of the federation have been vandalised and forced to close for repairs. These service centres provide medical, welfare and other community services to workers, especially its members but also the wider public.
Obviously, none of this was reported in the biased media outlets or indeed statements from some ‘Western’ foreign ministers and even leaders. Instead, they focused on supposed police ‘brutality’. And of course, ‘Beijing’ was behind it all.
The facts are quite different. The Hong Kong police have been exceedingly restrained, using measures only where needed to counter the escalation of violence by a small minority. For example, the anti-face mask law, with stiff penalties for covering one’s face in any public gathering, came in to effect on 5 October, 2019. This is quite late in the piece, follows international practice, and was instigated in response to widespread urging in Hong Kong. Indeed, the police have widespread support in Hong Kong and the mainland, with ‘I support Hong Kong police’ being displayed on many shop windows, on social media and so on.
Phase 4 of the Ghost Story: Supposedly, people on the mainland are ‘denied’ information about Hong Kong.
This one really runs through the whole story, but it was revealed to me by a question while I was in Western Europe: ‘What about Hong Kong, do the people in China know what is going on?’
The assumption behind this question is obvious: Chinese people are supposedly ‘denied’ information about the world and their own country.
Not long after I was asked this question, I returned to China. Not only are the news outlets regularly providing detailed and complete information about Hong Kong, but in everyday conversations people express their deep concern about what is happening. The foreign interference is clear, which they resent, and they are troubled by the overturning of central Chinese values, especially harmony, security and stability. Above all, they are not anti-Kong Kong, but instead feel for what ordinary people in Hong Kong are suffering (in light of the economic downturn in response to the riots) and hope that the situation will be stabilised soon.
I found that here one could gain a sense of the all the facts in relation to what was going on in Hong Kong. Thankfully, this is also the case in the vast majority of countries in the world, which increasingly do not listen to the biased material being pumped out of a few former colonising countries.
There is a saying very common in China these days: keep the mission firmly in mind, do not forget your original desire.
I begin with this saying since it is part and parcel of the momentous occasion of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the New China. I am currently in China, witnessing firsthand all of the preparations, anticipation, and then the day itself. Indeed, I write this on 1 October, when 70 years ago to this day Mao Zedong stood on the gate known as Tiananmen and announced the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Today it was of course Xi Jinping who stood in the same place, acknowledging Mao and the leaders who followed. I watched the whole proceedings live on my computer, quite taken with the celebration of the diversity of China’s many nationalities, the recognition of its provinces and autonomous regions, and the emphasis on young people who hold China’s future in their hands. Of course, I was impressed by the relatively brief military part of the parade, for a socialist country has to be able to protect itself from those who would seek to undermine it. Representatives from many countries were there, especially from developing countries like China. They are increasingly taken with the ‘China paradigm’ as a way forward, and so turning their backs on the shattered neo-liberal project known as the ‘Washington Consensus’.
But let us step back for a moment and ask what does a foreigner who is somewhat familiar with China notice. What do everyday people say about the celebration of the 70th anniversary? I have had a month or so to talk with people to find out what they feel and think.
The most common observation is that today is a recognition of all the hard work that has gone into the last 70 years. Again and again, people say: ‘We have worked so hard; now we can celebrate and enjoy our achievements for a little’. The achievements are clear: realising the basic human right of socio-economic wellbeing for all people; lifting more than 800 million people out of poverty; building a prosperous and increasingly strong China, so that the people I know have a greater cultural confidence in speaking about and explaining what makes China tick; the reality that Marxism is even more now at the core of all China does. Indeed, the CPC and its history was a major feature of the parade in Beijing that I watched today.
But work? My sense at times is that people here work too hard. By contrast, they often say that they do not work hard enough. Alongside work there is struggle: the past 70 years have had a large dose of international opposition and the Chinese have struggled against the odds. They know full well that what has been achieved today is as much struggle as it is work. Perhaps I should rephrase that: from their experience, they know that work is struggle. And they are not afraid of struggle.
After all, they are very aware that much remains to be done. Tackling environmental problems has already made great headway, but they know that much more needs to be done. There are still a few million people living in poverty and this is unacceptable for any notion of a moderately prosperous and well-off society (xiaokang shehui). They are tackling the desperate efforts of a fractured ‘West’ (a handful of former colonisers) to contain China and tell it what to do. But they will not deviate from their own path and will certainly not let others dictate the terms.
But isn’t this all just a version of nationalism, a Chinese version of ‘America first and screw the rest’? Not at all. In the past, I have sought to understand a positive sense of nationalism in terms of how it was thoroughly reinterpreted, first in the Soviet Union and then later in many colonised countries that sought national liberation. In this light, nationalism became an anti-colonial desire, with a strong focus on sovereignty. This also entailed a respect for the sovereignty of others: in the same way that you do not want your own country to be dominated by another, you also do not want to do the same thing to others. Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong’s ‘Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence’ express this position most clearly.
As I have talked with people, another sense has begun to emerge. To begin with ‘nationalism’ is a bad translation of the Chinese term ‘ai guo’. Literally, it means ‘love of country’, with nothing of the ‘nation-state’ or ‘-ism’ about it. ‘Love of country’ is an inescapable identity, for all Chinese people anywhere in the world. It embodies 5,000 years of culture, history, tradition, philosophy and political forms. The most important point for me is that ‘love of country’ is not predicated on an ‘I win, you lose’ mentality, or ‘zero-sum’ as it is sometimes called (witness ‘America first’). Instead, it means that ‘love’ of my own country, my own cultural identity, is the basis for respecting, engaging with and promoting the identity of others. Thus, Chinese people see ‘love of country’ as a benefit to the globe, for as others also ‘love’ their country they have common project.
Still, a few may still feel that all the flag waving is an effort to find a replacement for Marxism in China. Not only does this assumption reflect a good deal of ignorance concerning Xi Jinping’s resolute focus on Marxism as the core and guiding principle of China’s path, let alone the 90 million strong CPC as a communist party clear in its mission, this suspicion also ignores the reality of the flag itself. In China, it is called the ‘five star red banner [wuxinghongqi]’. The red banner is of course a key communist symbol, as is the star. So every time someone waves a five star red banner, they are waving a communist flag.
And this brings me back to the saying with which I began: keep the mission firmly in mind, do not forget your original desire (laoji shiming, bu wang chuxin). Everywhere in China you find this saying, but it is one that immediately resonates with people. What is the original desire? Marxism. What is the mission? communism. And what does communism need for its realisation? More work and struggle.
The photos below were taken of my computer as I watched the parade live. You can find better quality pictures in many places, but I use these to give a sense of what unfolded as I watched. These are of course from Beijing, but all across the country events were held, including the area where I now reside in the northeast. The final picture is of a local version of the saying mentioned above.
Finally, here it is: keep the mission firmly in mind, do not forget your original desire.