- The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 12 Jan 1967, p. 148-160
- Fraser, Blair, Speaker
- Media Type
- Item Type
- What the speaker saw in China. Reports of riots in India in the Chinese press, as proof that the capitalist system is breaking down. News treatment of China in the Western press. "Big character posters." The Red Guards. Closed schools and universities as one aspect, and by far the most visible and dramatic, of the great Chinese cultural revolution. The cultural revolution as an ideological phenomenon. An attempt to purify the Communist doctrine taken very seriously by the Chinese. Understanding the cultural revolution. Building a new kind of society. The Chinese belief that the Soviet Union has betrayed the revolution. Consequences of the school closings. Evidence of the cultural revolution in all aspects of life. The similarity to a religious revival. The effect of the cultural revolution on the grown-ups. The impossibility for any transient visitor, or resident foreigner, to know what is going on in the inner circles of China. Avoiding the "premature crystallization of spurious orthodoxies" and remembering that "it is not wise to cry wolf, even when we happen to be on the wolf's side."
- Date of Original
- 12 Jan 1967
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- Full Text
- JANUARY 12,1967
China '67-- Fact Or Myth?
AN ADDRESS BY Blair Fraser, OTTAWA EDITOR, MACLEAN'S MAGAZINE
CHAIRMAN, The President, R. Bredin Stapells, Q.C.
A few days ago, in one of the world's largest cities, trucks rolled through the streets and into the main square, the Square of Heavenly Peace, carrying cargoes--human cargoes.
The city I speak of is Peking, that fabled and beautiful city that rivals Paris for poignant charm. The cargoes were men and women who had spoken out against Mao Tse Tung. Their crimes were written in greasepaint across their faces. Their eventual fate and that of hundreds of thousands of other anti-Mao men across China can only be imagined. But one thing is certain, they are playing a part in a formidable drama that today touches upon a quarter of the world's humanity.
Why is speaking out against Mao so heretical? Let me give you a sample of some headlines in the Peking Revue of January 1, 1967.
"Guided by Mao Tse Tung's thought, Chinese scientists achieve the world's first total synthesis of crystalline insulin." Another headline:
"Use Mao Tse Tung's thought to open the gate to 'The Enigma of Life'."
And still another:
"Mao Tse Tung's Thought is the Key to Success-China Reaps Its Biggest Grain Harvest Since Liberation."
"Chairman Mao's Line for Literature and Art Is the Line for Revolutionary Literature and Art Throughout the World."
The magazine goes on and on and on in similar vein. The top song of the Chinese hit parade at the moment goes as follows:
"Rely on the helmsmen when sailing the seas, All living things rely on the sun for their growth, Moistened by rain and dew, young crops grow strong, When making revolution, rely on the thought of
Mao Tse Tung."
Small wonder Mao is referred to as the great teacher, great leader, great supreme commander and great helmsman.
In Canada, we are fortunate. We are not subjected to this monotonous propaganda. We have thousands of independent news reporters trained to look for facts and report them, regardless of political whims. In the front rank of Canada's great newsmen is our guest today, Blair Fraser. A Maritimer, Mr. Fraser is a graduate of Acadia University and holds an honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Law from that institution. For nearly 40 years he has been a writer; in the early years on Montreal newspapers and since 1943 on Maclean's Magazine. In 1951 and 1961, he was recognized by the Governor General's Award Board for the best articles written by a Canadian and published anywhere in the world. An inveterate traveller, he has been around the world four times in the last ten years. He has just returned from a three month trip, starting with the Commonwealth Prime Ministers meeting in London and concluding with an extensive trip in China. Mr. Fraser is therefore in a position to give us a current appraisal of what is going on in China today, as well as being able to draw comparisons with the China of ten years ago, when he was last there.
It is my pleasure to introduce to you Mr. Blair Fraser, distinguished news reporter and Ottawa editor of Maclean's Magazine, who will address us on China '67-Fact or Myth.
Mr. Chairman, gentlemen, I am grateful to you for those kind words, Mr. Chairman, but they also fill me with a touch of foreboding, or perhaps inner turmoil is a more appropriate phrase for the week's news.
The fact is that you see before you a man in the act of wrestling with temptation, because any recent visitor to China must feel very strongly tempted to assume the role of retrospective prophet. To search his memory or his imagination for significant details which somehow made him think that something terrible was about to happen, although by some odd coincidence he didn't happen to mention them to anybody until the day before yesterday.
I came back from China before Christmas, having been there for one month and I am going to manage, I think, to resist this temptation and confess to you that during that month in China I saw nothing that would make me think that China was on the brink of civil war.
I saw nothing to make me think that the hold of Mao Tse-Tung on the affections and confidence of his countrymen had been in any way shaken.
I saw nothing to make me sure even that a power struggle is going on in China. I didn't see anything to make me judge, with confidence, that this is in fact a power struggle as distinct from a party purge of individual heretics or back-sliders, and much as I hate to disappoint this no doubt expectant audience, all I can do is recall now some of the things I did see which may be relevant, may be helpful to us all in making the proper appraisal of the fragments of information which are all we have about whatever it is that is going on in China this week. The first thing I would like to mention, which I think is relevant, didn't even begin in China. It began in India where I spent almost three weeks before I went to the Empire of Mao Tse-tung. I was astonished to find that in India there is a riot almost every day. Well, leave out the "almost". Every day, every single day in the papers you read about a riot somewhere in India, at least one or more than one. Usually these stories are not on the front page, even in India, because they are too commonplace, but somewhere in the paper every morning you will find a little column, some times half, twothirds of a column, small stories strung together, riots in the streets somewhere in India.
They would only make front page in the international press if quite a number of people were killed, or if the riot took place right in Delhi or in circumstances to give it some special significance. Most of them had no such significance. The immediate cause was usually trivial, if it could be ascertained at all-some local grievance of students, a mob taking after a bus driver who had hit a pedestrian. That is a very common cause.
No one supposed that the riots were symptoms of anything in particular, except a general breakdown of law and order, which certainly is taking place, but they weren't taken as symptoms of any coherent opposition or as a protest against anything in particular.
The Government of India, the world's largest democracy is going into an election next month. I didn't meet a single person who doubted for one minute that Mrs. Ghandi would be re-elected because the opposition is in such confusion and has no leadership.
When I got to China I discovered that these riots in India are being reported quite fully in the Chinese press, not as random outbreaks of mob violence but as proof that the capitalist system is breaking down; that capitalism, imperialism and colonialism are approaching the sticky end that Mao Tse-tung predicted for them. I was told, and I have no difficulty believing this, that when there were riots in the United States the same moral was drawn. They were reported in the same way, as proof positive that the toiling masses of exploited America were about to rise and rend limb from limb the tyrant L.B.J. and the Wall Street warmongers whose puppet he is.
It appears, then, that wishful thinking is a fairly widespread prenomenon among the human race, and I have been interested in the last few days, in the light of this news treatment that I had noticed so recently in China, to notice certain features of news treatment here.
Headlines showing China is on the brink of civil war. Headlines showing farmers in Shanghai rise against Mao. Shanghai has ten million people; it is the largest city in the world. There are farmers within a couple of hours' drive of the centre of town, but I don't know how they would get in there on their bicycles.
One such headline appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on Monday, "China Close to Civil War." That was on the top of the front page over a story datelined Tokyo and re-written by the Associated Press from translations of dispatches to Japanese newspapers.
In the same edition, on page eleven, appeared the following dispatch which I am going to read in part, datelined Peking from Vergil Berger, the Reuters man who lives there. It began:
"A foreign expert in Nanking--where Peking Red Guards claimed 40 persons were killed and 500 injured in recent clashes-said today the city was calm and that he had heard of no battles there. Correspondents here telephoned the foreign expert in the city, about 180 miles west of Shanghai, after Peking Red Guard posters and leaflets reported violence there this weekend.
"The Red Guard posters said Telephone connections with Nanking were cut. Nevertheless it took correspondents less than 10 minutes to get through today.
"The expert said he had seen no clashes and neither seen nor heard of any posters in Nanking describing battles." Then, the last paragraph:
"Last year, posters were found to have been untrue or exaggerated after checks by other sources."
Well, that is not much of a story, not very exciting and it isn't hard to see why it only got on page 11 when there was so much more sensational information available from Tokyo for page one. But even the Tokyo stories, if you read them carefully usually turn out to have one source of information and that source is a wall poster. That is the most commonly quoted source of information at the moment.
I thought perhaps it might help to clarify our interpretation of these dispatches if I described these wall posters. They are called, most of them, "big character posters" to distinguish them from the small character posters which are printed. The meaning is quite literal, the small characters are printed and there are no privately owned presses in China, so anything that is actually printed can be assumed to have at least quasi-official status, an expression either of something that has happened or of some Government policy that is at least being tried.
This is not true of the big character posters. They are a do-it-yourself project. They are handwritten in big simplified characters that even some illiterate workers and peasants can read. They are pasted up on fences, walls, trees, anywhere. Quite often you find them hanging from lines like laundry in factories or in meeting halls.
Anyone at all can write them and put them up and often they contradict each other. Nobody knows for sure who puts up which poster. They are a very unreliable source of infor mation unless they are unanimous, or virtually so, and unless they get some kind of echo, acquiescence, approval- or agreement from official sources, such as the press or the radio.
Now, who makes these big character posters? As I said, anyone. Part of the working day apparently in offices and factories is spent in writing them, but the ones that are put up in the streets are mostly written by and all attributed to the Red Guards, and again it might be a slight service to clarify if I remind you what the Red Guards are.
Red Guards are boys and girls out of school. They are almost all aged 14, 15, 16. A few are older-about 10% of them are university students or young people in their twenties, a few young teachers. But the great majority are middle-teen from middle school, what we would call high school, and they are out in the Red Guards and roaming around, putting up big character posters because that is all they have to do. The schools and universities are closed. They were closed last June, they will not be open, at least I don't see how they can possibly be open, earlier than next September, although the original closing was said to be only until January, but by December no one had any hope of getting ready for reopening as early as January.
The fact that they are closed is one aspect, and by far the most visible and dramatic aspect, of the great Chinese cultural revolution. Now, I think it is important for us to remember and remind ourselves that the cultural revolution in China is not primarily an outbreak of violence. It has involved some violence; it involved violence last August, and apparently is involving some violence now. While I was there I saw no evidence of violence at all, except verbalvery violent language, but no violent acts. However, I have no doubt violent acts did take place.
They were seen by some of the foreigners who live in Peking and I have no doubt some are taking place now, but in the main the cultural revolution is an idealogical pheno menon. It is an attempt to purify the Communist doctrine and this is something the Chinese take very, very seriously, as their acts of recent months have given ample proof.
I didn't understand the cultural revolution from the documents that are handed out, although heaven knows they are handed out in sufficient profusion, but the documents are so laden with clichés that they are really hardly intelligible to a foreigner.
I didn't understand until I spent a couple of evenings with, of all people, my colleague Pu Chao-Min, from the Ottawa Press Gallery, the correspondent in Canada of the New Chinese News Agency who is on home leave, who is a friend of mine, and with whom I had three pleasant evenings in Peking.
Pu's son is in the Red Guards and when I saw him he had been home for almost a month and hadn't seen his son, didn't know where he was. He was away somewhere, no one knew exactly where. Pu didn't mind. He knew the boy could be back and meanwhile, he said, the boy is having an experience that will be memorable and valuable to him all his life. I challenged this. I said, this seems a fantastic operation to be going through, a fantastic price to pay for whatever you are getting out of it. Not at all, said Pu, the situation was this- (incidentally these are not direct quotes, they are my words, my version of what I understood from him. Not that he said anything unorthodox, merely that unlike anybody else I spoke to, he was using his own words and not a quotation from Chairman Mao.)
He said: "We in China started 17 years ago to build a new kind of society, a classless society and we thought that the Soviet Union was doing the same thing and had been for 32 years. So, we based our educational system on that of the Soviet Union. Now, in recent years we have been convinced that the Soviet Union has betrayed the revolution, has lost it and is on the road back to capitalist society, on the road back to a class structure."
He said: "We are determined that we shall not follow that road. We are going to stop. And we could also see by looking around, by looking into ourselves, our own natures, that some of this tendency had crept into our society, probably because, or possibly because of, this bad, illfounded educational system. So we decided the only thing to do was cut it off and make a new one. The only way to do that was to close the schools and universities. You say," he said to me, "that we are losing a year's production on our educational machine. I say it is not a loss if what we were getting was bad; it may be a gain not to have it."
Well, this sounded very good but it is a pretty substantial loss when you consider that, going by 1960 figures, 15,000 doctors, 50,000 teachers and 80,000 engineers who would otherwise have graduated next June will not graduate, and that everybody now in school, when he does graduate, will graduate one year later on account of this cultural revolution, this convulsion of idealogical purity. But, if that were the only price it might be bearable in a country that is still 85% peasant, in which education, like industrialisation, is still a relatively modern luxury. But there are other prices too.
These youngsters, these teen-agers for whom something had to be found for them to do, have been wandering the country. They have been travelling free of charge on the railways until mid-December, with the result that railway passenger traffic for ordinary citizens has been completely paralyzed. The main station in Peking is closed to all passengers except these-one should say students, not Red Guards, because they are not all Red Guards, but led by them.
The ordinary civilians who want to go by train have to go out miles into the suburbs to a tiny little station formerly disused, and the day I went out there to go to Tsientsin, the queue for trains must have been at least half a mile long, people had been standing there for hours
And even that is not all. The kids are wandering up and down, staging long marches from one city to another, staying overnight in the People's Communes that happen to be nearest when night falls. They have to be housed, they have to be fed; youngsters from the south when they get into the northern climate have to be provided with warm coats free of charge. The total cost of this is unimaginable.
But I would give a wrong impression if I suggested to you that the cultural revolution is being conducted by the Red Guards or that it is a juvenile exercise. It is being conducted by the Government of China, it is being conducted on a very grand scale, and it is a uniquely pervasive thing.
The fact is you just can't get away from it. You meet the cultural revolution literally within minutes of crossing the little creek that separates Hong Kong from Communist China, and the way you meet it is this. Into the railway car come a young man and young woman carrying this little book, "Quotations from Chairman Mao". This is the prayer book, the bible, the breviary of China today, and for the benefit of all the Chinese-speaking passengers this young pair will conduct a choral reading. Then they will lead the car in community singing, one of four or five songs that soon become very, very familiar. The Chairman quoted one of them, so I won't burden you with the other ones I can quote, but they are all of the same general nature.
The operation is repeated on the aircraft. The stewardess leads community singing, having handed out songsheets in which the Chinese words are written out in Roman characters so foreigners have no excuse for not joining in-that doesn't mean to say they do, but they have no excuse-and an English translation underneath.
Every street is covered with placards and slogans. One very soon gets to be able to read the Chinese characters for the slogan the Chairman quoted, "Long live our great leader, great teacher, great supreme commander, great helmsman Chairman Mao." These you see everywhere but the effect of it, though stifling, is very hard to convey to an audience which has never been in a Communist country.
I think the thing it resembles most, of those things with which we are even remotely familiar, is a religious revival. The language which is used by Chairman Mao sounds ludicrous if it is taken as flattery to a living human being, but Mao is not being flattered, he is being deified. He is being worshipped. And if we translate this into the language of worship, then it suddenly becomes familiar. You take a passage, almost any passage from the Peking Review. Wherever, the word "Mao" appears, substitute the word "Jesus", and wherever the words "Chairman Mao's thought" appear substitute "The Gospel" or "The Word of God". The prose suddenly becomes familiar. It then sounds-and I am not being sacrilegious-it then sounds like a Sunday morning sermon, and incidentally on that point of being sacrilegious, I may say the only thing that moved the virtually imperturbable translators and travel service officials to real anger, was for me to tell them that the cultural revolution made me think of a religious revival. That they regarded as the ultimate insult.
But it does make you think of a religious revival. If you can imagine the Witnesses of Jehovah adopting some of the techniques of the Salvation Army and working with the full authority and approval of the Government and furthermore authorized, and indeed instructed to recruit all the schoolboys and schoolgirls of the country from grade eight on, say through university, with a licence to go out in the streets and make as much noise as they like and say exactly what they like and write on the walls what they like about their teachers and other old fogies, you can get some sort of idea what the cultural revolution in action in China is like.
Now, what is the effect of all this on the grown-ups, the people who are actually running the country, producing the food and the goods, running the factories and the farms? Impossible to say, of course, because neither I nor any other foreigner has any conversation with Chinese; even if you speak Chinese you don't have any conversation with Chinese nowadays, not any more. Chinese-speaking foreigners in Peking are even more frustrated, I think, than those who don't, because with them it is a deliberate cutting off instead of a natural exclusion.
But one can at least see that behind and beneath all this superficial chaos of the cultural revolution, life is going on. A good looking harvest was being got in, factories were being run, farms were being operated. Life is going on, older people are getting on with the job. So it was when I left a month ago.
Now, what is happening today? I will just advance a theory that at least seems to me plausible, in the sense that it fits in with what was visible a month ago.
I marvelled, as every visitor marvels, at the patience of these older people who are actually having to put up with all this nonsense, with these officious, bumptious, arrogant kids coming around and telling them what to do and what to think. I wondered, I marvelled that their patience didn't break down.
In fact, a friend of mine was driving behind a truck in Shanghai which was blocked by mobs of these youngsters and to my friend's amazement, suddenly out of the cab of the truck emerged an arm with a stick, and it went whomp! The kids ran, the truck moved, and that was the end of the incident.
It is conceivable that something of that nature is going on now on a rather larger scale.
Liu Shao-Chi who is now getting a lot of new publicity as the leader of an anti-Mao movement is still the President, you know, of the People's Parliament in China, which is an office of great importance, much more important than that of the Speaker of the House of Commons, comparable as far as I can make out to that of Leader of the House. He still appears on the platform with Mao Tse Tung; the only difference is he no longer appears right beside MaoTse Tung. Tao Chu who is also being denounced on wall posters stands only three places away from Chairman Mao; he appears live on television. There is nothing to indicate that either man has been yet officially denounced, although it is quite evident that Liu Shao-Chi, at least, is out of favour for the time being, not exactly the same thing.
From what I could see, I was surprised the factory workers and farm workers had the patience to go on working every day with these youngsters in their hair and it doesn't seem to me in the least surprising that they may have stayed away from work or staged a few demonstrations of their own. Demonstrations are popular in China, but the idea of an anti-Mao movement, a significant anti-Mao movement suddenly taking shape, I for one find much less plausiblethough by no means impossible, and don't let me leave a positive impression here.
I don't know, and no transient visitor can know, what is going on in the inner circles of China. No resident foreigner can either. No foreigner can and very few Chinese can. We only have fragments of information to go on; we shall not know for a long time, if ever, which of these fragments are true and which are false, or even if they are all true, what pattern, if any, they form.
My only message to you today really is that as outside observers we should avoid what H. J. Eysenck has called the premature crystallization of spurious orthodoxies, and re member that it is not wise to cry wolf, even when we happen to be on the wolf's side.
Thanks of this meeting were expressed by Dr. C. C. Goldring.