Glory Days, or remembering how Indians love(d) China

This article appeared in the India International Centre Quarterly special issue titled 
India and China: Neighbours, Strangers, edited by Ira Pande (HarperCollins), 2010.

Glory Days
by Dilip Simeon

Many years ago, when some of us argued about the ills of the present and, more to the point, the ills of contemporary India, we would be asked by our elders where such ideals had ever been implemented. ’In China!’ we’d reply without hesitation’ Peoples’ China was our El Dorado, the land of promise. Under the leadership of the Great Helmsman, Chairman Mao, the Chinese Communist Party was looking after the true interests of Chinese peasants and workers, and marching towards the socialist future. Nay, as we were communists and hence internationalists, the Great, Glorious and Correct Chinese Communist Party - GGC-CCP for short - represented the oppressed people of the entire world! China was the future transported into the present. Our elders and betters would point out the totalitarian nature of the regime, the total lack of freedom of speech and political democracy. What freedom, we’d reply. Freedom for whom? India needed to be like China, and we were going to take it in that direction.

More than four decades have passed since then. And - as I learnt in the course of a recent conversation with a friend in the corporate world - today, it is the corporate honchos who regard China with great admiration. This is fairly well-known, for haven’t many of us heard the utterance ’Mumbai will be India’s Shanghai’? Yet it felt different upon personal audition. ’oh, if only India could be like China’, my friend said enviously. Technology was going to solve all the world’s problems, and China was leading the way. Social and political issues were a complete red herring. No troublesome trade unions, no stalling on infrastructural development in the name of displacement. No bloody human-rights walas objecting to piffling hiccups such as forced re-settlement, land-acquisition and special economic zones. A State committed to untrammelled progress’ Into that heaven of bliss, he seemed to say, let my country awake!

Amazing as it is to contemplate the PRC’s transition from the armed camp of the world proletariat to a capitalist utopia, it-is still more wondrous to sit back and reflect on how exactly the Chinese Communist Party manages to remain in the same place (absolute power in China) even through the complications of transferring its magnetic appeal from starry-eyed extremist youth, to equally starry-eyed multi-billionaires.

The original charisma of the PRC was iconoclastic. Maoism burst upon the imagination of radical youth as a rebellion launched against the decrepit ’orthodox marxism’ of the Soviet Union. It appeared as the language of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution - GPCR, in short. In its self-understanding, this was the name for Mao’s final attempt to prevent the chinese Communist Party from abandoning socialism for capitalism. 

ln 1966, the Great Helmsman issued his famous call to Chinese students and youth: 
Bombard the Headquarters, as he exhorted them to assist him in cleansing the party of bureaucratic and revisionist tendencies. The GPCR had a ripple effect felt far outside China, for it coincided with a global wave of anticapitalist and anti-imperialist movements, as well as unrest in the socialist camp. Let us not forget that 1968 witnessed the May uprising in France, and the Prague Spring followed by the Soviet invasion (more on this later); the bloody Mexico Olympics, and the Tet offensive by the National Liberation Front in Vietnam. All and these these events served to inspire a new generation of young people the world over, who were politicized via a critique of the dominant Russian-style communism.

We came to revolutionary ideas via a re-assessment of Marxism, and China played a major role in this. I remember the hubbub caused on Delhi University campus when Joan Robinson visited the Delhi School of Economics wearing a Mao cap. She was on her way back from a trip to China, and full of enthusiastic admiration for the GPCR. I didn’t get to see her, but my close friend (the late) Arvind Das did, and told us all about it. She was actually brandishing a copy of the highly prized Little Red Book of Quotations from Chairman Mao-tse Tung, he said. And whenever someone threw her a critical question about China, she would read out an appropriate quotation. For example, when someone asked her: ’Don’t you think Marxism is dogmatic?’, her answer was: 'Chairman Mao says dogma is worse than cowdung!’ And so on.

I first read about the GPCR in Robinson’s slim book on the subject, The Cultural Revolution in China. It was brought out by Penguin books (those days there was no Indian edition), as were several seminal texts considered de rigueur for budding radicals. I wonder now what the Revolution would have done without Penguin Books. Our indoctrination, for one, would have been a non-starter. The Communist Manifesto was among such Penguin titles, although that was being sold for maybe eight annas in PPH (People’s Publishing House) in Connaught Place, along with other necessary readings. However, Penguin gave us Che Guevara, books on Vietnam, African and Latin American liberation struggles. It also provided cult titles, such Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth; Regis Debray’s Revolution in the Revolution?, to mention just a few. Penguin’s contribution to world revolution apart, there were other things we read that formed our first, fresh view of the world’s Red Base. These included Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China, and Felix Green’s The Wall Has Two Sides. Not to mention Israel Epstein’s From Opium War to Liberation.

As an ideology of newly radicalized youth, Maoism was at its very outset a mix of iconoclastic rebellion and beneficient tyranny. The iconoclasm was more apparent than the tyranny, but with hindsight, the latter was blatant, even if we did not recognize it then as such. The call to murder exploiters, to send recalcitrant leaders and sceptical intellectuals to camps where they could break stones to help them focus their minds, was not exactly a democratic aspiration! Yet this was not how we saw it then. Revolution was, after all, an act simultaneously liberating and repressive: liberating for the poor, repressive for the exploiters. That was why Marxism had described the first phase of socialism as a dictatorship of the proletariat.

So this was how we saw China in our youth. The fascination lasted for years, and had many repercussions, aside from prompting some to take up the Naxalite cause. For others it provided the spark of motivation for a closer study of China. They paid attention to papers on the Far East if they were history students, or to communism and socialism if they studied political science. They tried to see things from the Chinese point of view, as outlined by Felix Greene, and by Neville Maxwell in India’s China War. Some took up the study of the Chinese language. Many sympathized with the Chinese position in its border dispute with the USSR. Even those not inclined to revolutionary politics and the urge to bring about a Chinese-style revolution in India, admired China for its forthright opposition to American imperialism, and its support for liberation movements and popular causes the world over. It is a pity things have turned out as they have, because there was a lot of goodwill for the PRC in India, goodwill that was undermined by the intemperate ultra-left politics of Chairman Mao’s twilight years, and China’s disastrous support for Yahya Khan’s brutal suppression of the Awami League in East Pakistan in 1970-71. It is not an exaggeration to say that China’s alliance with Pakistan and the USA, not to mention its paranoia about granting a greater degree of autonomy to Tibet, has been at the cost of its friendship potential with India.

Until the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, this faith in the radical purity of the CCP remained intact. From then on, there was something that made one less sure about its intentions. The Warsaw Pact invaded Prague to crush the Prague Spring, a term denoting the democratic atmosphere in that socialist republic inculcated by the reformist communist, Alexander Dubcek. This lasted only a few weeks before Soviet tanks went in, arrested all the reformists, and secured Czechoslovakia against the deadly virus of democracy. The experiment named ‘socialism with a human face’ was dead. In India, the CPI was in crisis for some 48 hours before coming out in support of the Soviet line. The CPM hailed the invasion immediately. Maoist students were relieved to find that China opposed it. But did the CCP oppose it on grounds of ‘violated sovereignty’, or of a defence of democracy? It was apparent that their opposition stemmed more from hatred and fear of the Soviets than any other reason. The animus became clearer the following year, with Sino-Soviet clashes over their shared northern border, along the Ussuri River. From then on, the language of doctrinal dispute became vitriolic. It was Soviet ‘social-imperialism’ that became China’s main enemy, leading finally to its opening up to the USA in 1971 and Nixon’s visit to Peking in 1972.

The Naxalite insurgency began in April 1967, with the declaration of a ‘people’s war’ against the Indian state by the extreme faction of Indian communism. The Chinese leadership welcomed the armed clashes between tea-garden labourers and tribal peasants in Naxalbari (north Bengal) with a Peoples’ Daily editorial titled ‘Spring Thunder Over India’. Relations between China and India took a plunge, with the CCP openly advocating the violent overthrow of the Indian state. Why didn’t it also call for the revolutionary overthrow of the Burmese, Pakistani, and Ceylonese (Sri Lankan) states, or the Nepali monarchy? Truth to tell, some busybodies did ask such uncomfortable questions, but questioning was never encouraged amongst truly fervent Marxists. We soon quelled our natural curiosity. China and the Chairman knew best.

This deterioration went along with a parallel decline in relations between China and the other major communist party in India, the CPI(M). China and the USSR were at daggers drawn, and several leftists feared this would affect the support for Vietnam’s struggle against the Americans. That did not happen, but when Ho Chi Minh died in 1969, his testament called for the Lao Dong (Vietnamese Workers Party) to strive to overcome the rift. A tall order indeed! In 1979, just four years after Vietnam was re-unified and the Americans driven out, China actually invaded Vietnam. Deng Hsiao Ping wanted to ‘teach them a lesson’ (his words) for sending in the military to overthrow the Cambodian mass murderer Pol Pot and his party, the Khmer Rouge, or Cambodian Communists. The Americans also had a soft spot for Pol Pot. Since they were still smarting from their ignominious defeat in 1975, they acquiesced in this punitive exercise and some rumours suggested that Pentagon satellites actually assisted the operations. Ultimately, Deng’s divisions were repulsed by Vietnamese border guards.

The greatest blow to China’s prestige arose out of its stance on the momentous developments in South Asia. From 1971 on, the Manichean formulations of Indian Maoism began shattering on the hard rocks of political reality. Chairman Mao shook hands with the war-criminal Kissinger as Vietnam continued to be bombed. A left-wing insurrection in Sri Lanka was smashed by the Bandaranaike government that enjoyed the support of India as well as Pakistan, the US, China and the USSR. Pakistan’s Army refused to honour the results of the November 1970 general election that had given the Awami League an absolute majority, and launched a brutal military crackdown in East Pakistan, with the full logistic and political backing of the Chinese government. Millions of poverty-stricken refugees flowed into West Bengal.

These happenings threw India’s Maoists into confusion. To begin with, loyalty to the Chinese version of events prompted many comrades to blame India and the USSR for the crisis in Pakistan. Some, however, soon became distressed by the cynicism of the CCP. For me personally, the crucial question was the matter of the freedom of speech and information. Did not Chinese workers have the right to know what was being done with the guns and ammunition that their government was exporting to Pakistan? It was shocking to learn that the Chinese press had not even informed the public of what the Pakistani army was up to. Evidently the dictatorship of the proletariat did not trust the proletariat with the truth. We were forcefully reminded of the role of the media in authoritarian hands. There was a famous Russian joke about Pravda and Izvestiya the two main Soviet newspapers: ‘There’s no pravda in izvestiya, and no izvestiya in pravda’. (Pravda means truth, and izvestiya means news in Russian). This was one domain in which the Chinese and Soviet comrades were in complete agreement. Those who imagine that the ‘degeneration’ of Chinese communism happened only after the death of Chairman Mao could enlighten themselves by reading Chou En Lai’s letter to Yahya Khan in April 1971, after he had begun the slaughter of innocents. From this time on, it became difficult to deny the ruthless pragmatism of the Chinese Communist Party. It was clear then, that they were motivated by great-power ambition rather than world revolution. Today, there’s little left to argue about.

The ultra leftists in the CCP were defeated after Mao’s death in 1976, but the thread of continuity between them and their successors derived from their nationalism, bordering on xenophobia. Until then, they had convinced many communists that internationalism was synonymous with Chinese nationalism. Some months ago, at a Sino-Indian conference in New Delhi’s India International Centre, I had the good fortune to meet some Chinese academics of my generation, as well as some old enough to be my children. To the elders -- one of whom had done hard labour during the Cultural Revolution -- I said, ‘Comrade! You did it because you were sent. You had no option – we went out and did hard labour, plus some other things, because we loved Chairman Mao!’ He looked at me as if I were daft. So did the younger Chinese I met there. They couldn’t believe they were hearing right.

As I relate these things, I experience a great sense of loss. The Chinese delegates I met at that conference were so very friendly, even affectionate. Why has it taken over four decades for me to meet and talk to ordinary Chinese people? Why has it not been possible for us to converse normally until very recently? China had such an immense impact upon the lives of so many Indians. Why were we denied the chance to speak to one another about this?

How we loved China and Chairman Mao! Mao was the route to humanity, to die for him was to die for the human race. It was immensely sad to see the death of that faith. Maybe such is the fate of all passionate attachments. Perhaps this could improve if we pruned our expectations. We need to speak again, not just about computer software, turnkey projects and expanding trade, but also about history and philosophy, books and paintings and what we want of life. We need to break the wall of silence and good manners and get back to being ordinary people.

We and the Chinese.

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