For anyone familiar with the great cities of Asia, which teem with activity, it was eerie to walk the streets of urban China while Mao still lived. In Chairman Mao’s China, all private enterprises, even individual street vendors, had been branded ‘tails of capitalism’. And so diligently had the government gone about chopping off these tails that the streets looked as if a neutron-bomb-like device had been detonated, destroying small businesses while leaving everything else intact. There were no kerb-side restaurants with their smells of food wafting in the air, no pedlars hawking their wares, no throngs of shoppers browsing and haggling with merchants on the pavements. The streets of Mao’s China were crowded, but with silent, purposeful people, buying the bare necessities of life from dreary state-owned shops or going to and from work. When I first went to China, in 1975, Mao Zedong and the so-called Gang of Four, led by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, were still firmly in power. The shadow of the Chinese Communist Party fell across all aspects of life, freezing the Chinese people in a combination of fear and socialist rectitude. Politics was ‘in command’. To put one’s own interests above those of the Party and the task of ‘building socialism’ was a dangerous form of heresy. And to be branded a heretic in a land where there were few places to hide and fewer ways to escape was a grim prospect indeed. Should one momentarily forget the Party’s dedication to creating a ‘new socialist man’, who would, in Mao’s words ‘serve the people’ with all his ‘heart and soul’, slogans were everywhere – on billboards, walls, smoke-stacks, ships, dams, buildings, even mountainsides:
NEVER FORGET CLASS STRUGGLE
CARRY THE REVOLUTION THROUGH TO THE END
DOWN WITH ALL CAPITALIST ROADERS
Travelling in China at that time, I felt as if I had fallen down a well, like Alice into Wonderland, and entered a strange new universe in which all the imperatives of the outside world had been reversed. Whereas other countries eagerly sought to build economic relations with their neighbours, China was dedicated to isolation and self-reliance. Whereas most governments accepted class divisions, China’s leaders waged an unceasing battle against them. And while most governments viewed politics as simply one aspect of life, China’s leaders viewed it as life itself.