Friday, February 20, 2009


Praise be to Harry Seidler, for without him it is rather doubtful if Sydney would have any notable buildings at all besides the Opera House. Born into a Jewish family in Vienna and forced to flee the Nazis as a teenager, Seidler began his architectural studies at Harvard with Breuer and Gropius before travelling to Brazil for a spell with Oscar Niemeyer. When his parents moved to Australia in the late 1940s, Gropius warned him against following them, saying that nothing of modernity could be found down under - no movements, no materials, no customers, nothing - but when Rose Seidler commissioned her 25-year old son to build his parents a house in the suburbs of Sydney, Seidler could not refuse.

Bauhaus preceded Seidler's arrival in Australia by around 20 years, and its principles were absorbed across the world by the end of the 1930s. But Australia resisted, retaining the colonial style reminiscent of imperial salad days. Seidler, always an outsider in Australia, remained critical of its architecture for the rest of his life, complaining in the 1980s that it still didn't "measure up in international terms. There's nobody and nothing here that sends the blood pressure up. It's a backwater, a provincial dump in terms of the built environment."

In post-war Australia, Rose Seidler House was utterly shocking in its modernity, though Seidler was keen to stress that many ordinary Australians, less in thrall to Modernist doctrines than their fellow Americans and Europeans but excited by the idea that a home should be practical and make life easier, greeted the house warmly.

Its living and sleeping areas are divided into zones, and the distinction between public and private space is determined by sliding doors and curtains. It is built away from the road in the (now extremely affluent) suburb of Wahroonga, and its only direct neighbours are two other Seidler-designed houses (both of which are private, but one of which can be seen here).

I visited RSH last week, taking the double-decker train from Sydney Central to Wahroonga, and then walking for a hour or so from the station to the house itself. Wahroonga itself is about as 21st-century-bourgeois as one can get: undead sylvan avenues glistening in the drizzle, picket-fences, newspapers still in their wrappers casually tossed onto lawns by Caucasian paperboys, a total reliance on private transport (hence, no buses, not even any pavements), deserted streets, a total abandonment of socialised living in favour of intercom-access, keep-off signs, security-gates and large dogs. These are palaces all right, but to what end?

Rose Seidler House looks like it emerged from the earth fully formed, a sandstone chimney-breast stuck through the middle like a stake to keep it in place. Its timber walls are pale grey, but its windows dominate, looking like a Mondrian painting when the blue and orange blinds are drawn, and maximising sunlight (and, presumably, sunheat) when open. Seidler believed that "people who lead complicated lives cannot be comfortable in a highly colourful interior," and the living-room is decked out in the same stone colours as the exterior, all punctuated by blocks of red, brown, yellow, blue and cyan via doors, blinds and panels. The original mod cons and features in the kitchen have been preserved, and Seidler was especially pleased with the cupboard-doors which slide rather than open out, and the underlit surfaces.

Like the greatest Modernist buildings, Rose Seidler House fills you with a sense of purity, moral purity almost, like looking at a religious icon. But of course, this is the opposite of religion - it is deeply secular, rational, functional and practical - a building made to be lived in. (Seidler was deeply dismissive of architectural postmodernism, calling it "the tantrums of a rich, spoilt child".)

The house is now effectively a national monument, closed six days out of seven (I couldn't actually enter the house), though if it were still a residential property, one suspects it would be affordable only to the Wahroonga business elite. But Seidler did not intend to build mansions for the well-to-do. He was both aggressively insistent on his own architectural opinions and sensitive to others' - while he disdained the criticisms of the bureaucrats who tried to block his plans ("arbiters of taste, imposing a dictatorship over the language of form"), he later claimed that the positive interest shown by working people to his radical designs was what made him decide to stay in Australia. His belief in the power of architecture (as opposed to what he called "expedient building") to improve society and change people's lives bordered on Messianic. His commercial projects - of which the MLC Centre is the most beautiful, and Australia Square the most celebrated - emphasised the importance of providing generous amounts of space around tall buildings for people to socialise and eat (both the MLC Centre and Australia Square have food courts underneath, selling cheap sushi and juices).

But his fervour for socialised living resounded most in his residential projects, particularly the Wohnpark Neue Donau, a mini-city housing 2,500 people, built in diagonal strips over an eight-lane autobahn along the Danube. Seidler was clearly very emotionally involved in this project, and it proved to be a homecoming for the Viennese exile. "We'd call it housing commission," he said at the time, "but I tell you, if that's housing commission, I wouldn't mind living there." Of the 850 apartments, the vast majority were subsidised housing, and each living-room or balcony looked over the river. Seidler oversaw the design and construction of a kindergarten and a health centre, and the Wohnpark remains a physically and socially coherent complex of social housing to this day. Public housing of such modernity and functionality (not to mention tranquillity - look at all those sunbathers!) simply does not exist in Britain today.

Monday, February 16, 2009


Since this blog is probably due a travelogue, I was going to tell you...

...about Spring Festival, which I celebrated by joining a collective and rolling vegetarian dumplings. This collective unit, this danwei, fuelled by Tsingtao beer and baijiu, exceeded output targets, producing upwards of 300 dumplings, which it then proceeded to consume.

The danwei then made a great leap forwards into an altogether more violent phase of its development, letting off countless spectacular (and even more rather unspectacular) fireworks in the streets and throwing Exploding Terrorist Noggins at cars.

...or about my discovery of KTV, the ubiquitous chain of Asian karaoke bars - or should I say, KTV's discovery of me. I tore strips out of Meredith Brooks's "Bitch", forgot the words to "Umbrella" (the shame...), realised upon straining for the high notes in "Bridge over troubled water" that I ain't no Art Garfunkel, tackled most of Phil Collins's back catalogue with incommensurate gusto, and climaxed with Elton John's "The One," which I dedicated to DV (poor, unfortunate girl). When in Rome, one must do as the Romans do. Nevertheless, let us never speak of my singing again. Next!

...or about the giant pandas of Chengdu - the research centre just outside the city has bred this most endangered of species with remarkable success (two adult sisters have recently each given birth to twins). We got up at 6.30am to go and see them eat bamboo and fall asleep. The cubs were ineffably cute - this blog does not generally coo over small animals ... but they're just so cuddly and lovely, and they wrestle with each other and fall over like tubby little balls of fluff!... We went to the restaurant afterwards to sample panda-burgers - mm-mmm! - just like chicken! (just kidding)

...or about Fawlty Towers, my hotel in Yangshuo. I kid you not - here is their website. It even has a Basil and a Manuel (though, alas, no Sybil to keep them in order). Basil and Manuel embodied courtesy and competence (admittedly with a habit of dropping the phone on DV whenever she phoned), even on the evening when they announced to all the guests that nobody could leave the hotel for several hours because a house was being demolished next door. I grumbled a little that I was hungry, so they gave me an hour's free internet time. As I sat there emailing, an over-exuberant bulldozer knocked a large section of next door's wall onto the hotel with a huge crash - all the power went, Fawlty Towers's staircase, balcony and entrance was crushed, and several women yelped. Here was the Chinese destruction and reconstruction boom in all its glory. Eventually we were let out to survey the wreckage and I took some photos with my phone - alas, I left said phone on a bus in Shenzhen a couple of days later, but Fawlty Towers was left looking something like this:

...or about my arrival in Hong Kong, a city which reeks of ill-gotten gains and which retains its imperial snootiness, yet which remains the beautiful city in the world (for natural beauty, only Rio comes close); the Bank of China Tower remains my favourite skyscraper (in spite of its neoliberal philosophy - it was designed to symbolise economic liberalisation), with its four staggered triangular towers reflecting its surroundings like a Cubist painting, its shards of glass and steel jutting out at impossible angles. The Central district of Hong Kong island on a Saturday evening is an offensive place indeed: the sight of city boys in jeans-with-belts-and-polo-shirts-tucked-in made me feel physically ill, but my walk around the Peak on Sunday morning, New Gold Dream in my ears, was sublime.

...or about the enthralling hours spent reading Hobsbawm's Age of Capital, about the post/intra-revolutionary years between 1848 and 1875, in which capitalism globalised and boomed, and in which the bourgeoisie became the dominant class. Hobsbawm introduces the book by disdaining this period in which the power of capital was consolidated, and in which the power of workers was eroded, but the scope of his analysis and the detail of his narrative is breathtaking. He is witheringly ironic when he describes the bourgeoisie, and in particular two of their most distasteful innovations: social-Darwinism racism (required by capitalist ideology to explain away the contradiction between an economic system which is based on free and open competition, yet which entails the exploitation of the majority for the benefit of the minority) and the domestic interior:

The most immediate impression of the bourgeois interior of the mid-century is overcrowding and concealment, a mass of objects, more often than not disguised by drapes, cushions, cloths and wallpapers, and always, whatever their nature, elaborated ...

objects, like the houses which contained them, were solid, a term used, characteristically, as the highest praise for a business enterprise. They were made to last, and they did. At the same time they must express the higher and spiritual aspirations of life through their beauty, unless they represented these aspirations by their very existence, as did books and musical instruments ...

This duality between solidity and beauty thus expressed a sharp division between the material and the ideal, the bodily and the spiritual, highly typical of the bourgeois world; yet spirit and ideal in it depended on matter, and could be expressed only through matter, or at least through the money which could buy it. Nothing was more spiritual than music, but the characteristic form in which it entered the bourgeois home was the piano, an exceedingly large, elaborate and expensive apparatus ... No bourgeois interior was complete without it; no bourgeois daughter, but was obliged to practise endless scales upon it.

...or about the food I have eaten (more hotpots, barbecues and dumplings that a stomach can comfortable accommodate - though, alas, no dog, cat or starfish, tempted as I was), the bus journeys I have taken (on which I managed to lose a camera and a mobile phone), the scenery I have admired (of which the most stunning was the karst mountains of Yangshuo and Guilin) etc etc.

But alas, I have no time to report on such things, as I have now left China and arrived in Sydney, where it has rained constantly for a week. Yesterday I acted as groomsman at the Orthodox Greek wedding of my dear friends Stephen and Denise, and on Saturday I fly east to Buenos Aires. My arrival in Argentina will be a homecoming in two respects - because BBAA remains my favourite city in the world, and because I will be reunited with my fiancee and best friend in the world without whom my adventures in China and Australia have, even at their most exciting and eye-opening, lacked the insights and laughter that make me love her so much. Only 5 days and 8 hours to go...

Saturday, February 14, 2009


Perhaps the next uprising of the people of Europe may depend more on what is now taking place in the Celestial Empire than on any other existing political cause.

- Karl Marx, writing in 1853 about the Taiping Rebellion.

Monday, February 09, 2009


...or, "the spreading pancake".

I learned a valuable lesson the other day. As a friend and I mounted our regulation 1960s Chinese bicycles and began to ride off towards the nearest noodle bar, he told the one rule I must obey when cycling in China: just keep looking forward. Concentrate on what's going on in front of you and don't look back, he said, and everything would be just fine. This could almost be proverbial. New China is determined that its history, however treasured, should not get in the way of its future. No building or neighbourhood is sacred, none exempt from the march of progress.

In the 1930s, the urban planner Edmund Bacon (father of Kevin) travelled to Beijing, and said it was "possibly the greatest single work of man on the face of the earth." It "taught me that city planning is about movement through space, an architectural sequence of sensors and stimuli, up and down, light and dark, color and rhythm," he said. Beijing has historically been planned and built as an harmonious and coherent whole, despite the successful attempts of successive regimes to stamp their mark upon the city.

Sze Tsung Leong is a Chinese-American photographer who has captured the momentary juxtaposition of the fading past and encroaching present (there is an interview with him here). Each shift in history, he says "from dynasty to dynasty, from imperial rule to communism, from communism to the market economy," seeks an erasure of history. Certainly the scale and pace of destruction and construction under capitalism has exceeded that of the Communists in the 1950s, who knocked down countless hutongs and parts of the city wall in order to widen roads, modernise the city's infrastructure and create that permanent desert of neo-classical Sino-Stalinist concrete, Tian'anmen Square.

The history of Beijing really begins in the early fifteenth century, when the third Ming Emperor Yongle moved the imperial capital to the city (Beijing means 'northern capital'). Under the Ming dynasty, great temples and imperial palaces were built - the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven are the best and most famous examples - and a walled city was built around the symmetrical shape of the Chinese character symbolising imperial authority. When the Qing Dynasty replaced the Ming, the city became partially suburbanised and secularised. Markets were installed in some previously sacred places, and nascent commercial networks were created.

In the early days of the republic, the nationalist Kuomintang transferred the capital to Nanjing, but when the Communists took power and unified the country in 1949, the capital was restored to Beijing.

The Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall contains a bronze scale model of Beijing as it was in 1949. It shows a city which, at first glance, is similar to today's Beijing: coherent, harmonious, planned along two axes (the core North-South axis running through Zhong Lou, Gu Lou, the ruins of Dadu, the Forbidden City and Beihai Park, the Temple of Heaven and Yongdingmen). But a closer look reveals just how much has changed during the CCP's time in power. Under Mao, the city was transformed to ease the flow of traffic; under subsequent reformist leaders, and particularly in the last 10 years, Beijing has been re-invented to ease the flow of capital.

This re-invented Beijing is revealed with extraordinary precision in the showcase room of the Exhibition Hall, where a gigantic 1:70000 scale street-by-street, block-by-block, building-by-building model of the main city has been assembled, with satellite photos around the edge. The model is overwhelming and utterly absorbing, and demands one's time and concentration.

The view from the upstairs gallery gives a sense of the city as a whole - how the concentric expansion of the ring-roads has suburbanised Beijing, how the Forbidden City remains at its heart but also how this semi-sacred space has been invaded by such postmodern confections as the National Theatre, how the Olympic Park lies precisely on the N-S axial line, just a few kilometres north of Tian'anmen, how the eastern, former residential parts of the city are making way for the forces of big business, finance and corporate propaganda. But still, as a relative stranger to Beijing, I spent an hour and a half slowly wandering round at ground level, trying to spot the threatened hutongs, looking out for my hotel, retracing my footsteps from earlier that morning, trying to get my bearings in this formidably huge room.

In the corner of the room, on a slightly larger scale, was a model of Beijing's new Central Business District. Every city has one of these now: a collection of buildings which project metropolitan confidence in private enterprise at such a bellowing volume, that one wonders if they aren't over-compensating for something. But sure enough, if any world city has a right to a CBD, it's Beijing.

The decision to build a CBD in the east of the city was agreed in 1993; an Administrative Committee was established in 2002, and construction had reached the usual Chinese express pace by 2004. (De/construction is a much less transparent and bureaucratic process in China, as Sze Tsung Leong explains: "the houses are mostly inhabited by those who have been left behind by the economic revolution. Because the people who live there now don't have the means to protect themselves, and because the legal system does not favor them, in most cases it has become an uneven battle between developers and government agencies on one side, and residents on the other. Of course the latter almost always lose.")

The CBD, the financial and media centre of China, is now largely complete, all 4 square kilometres of it, and is dominated by Rem Koolhaas's headquarters for CCTV, the Chinese state television channel. Koolhaas apparently suffered no loss of sleep after being chosen as the architect to build the propaganda engine of the CCP: "Participation in China's modernisation does not have a guaranteed outcome ... the future of China is the most compelling conundrum, its outcome affects all of us and a position of resistance seems somehow ornamental."

Planners and bureaucrats know that it is politic not to annihilate the past completely. Like all great urban expanders in the history of capitalism, those who seek to build in the cities of China will pick land where real estate prices are lowest, where housing takes the form of slums (this creates a dual advantage, since developers can fulfil their civic responsibility through renovation) and where uprooted residents are unlikely to make a fuss. Nevertheless, the past is profitable too. The last decade or so of Beijing's development has come at the expense of its hutongs, the back-alleys traditionally home to the city's poor. Nobody much wrung their hands on their behalf until it was pointed out that the loss of these charming and intricate alleyways might affect tourism. The government then sat up and took notice, and pledged to conserve hutong neighbourhoods, as well as other historical sites and buildings.

One of the strangest examples I saw of 'historic conservation' was Qianmen Dajie. I mentioned in this post the ambiguities of old/new, genuine/fake etc - well, I was right to be suspicious about Qianmen Dajie. Many of the hutongs just south of Tian'anmen have been knocked down and replaced with ... facsimiles of the old hutongs! Where these are not yet complete, great plaster boards stand at the entrance with artist's impressions of how the new hutong will look, or black and white photos of how the old hutong used to look. One wonders why one needs the hutong at all, given all this virtuality, but local politicians and developers are clearly very proud of their 'Qing Dynasty Disneyland'. The old tram system has been re-built, though since no shops and restaurants have yet opened beyond the beginning of the street, it doesn't really take you anywhere. When the building works are complete, Qianmen Dajie will be home to several traditional Chinese stores, including Starbucks, Apple and Prada.

Friday, February 06, 2009


Seemingly steeped as much in acid house as Jungle, the track's viscous, mucus-like textures make you feel like you're being stalked by some ravenous and implacable snot-monster.

Grooverider, "Warned"

From Simon Reynolds's series on the hardcore continuum, currently providing a gloopily balmy soundtrack to some sub-tropical lazing about in southern China...

Thursday, February 05, 2009


In his very good book Living with Reform, Timothy Cheek refers to an interview carried out by Sang Ye for his own book China Candid:

... in downtown Beijing at the 'people market' outside Dongdan Park in the center of the city, itinerant workers gather each morning to look for work ... one [worker] from Jianli, Hubei province [...] leads a handful of buddies in his village to hop a train to get work in Guangzhou, in southern China, but after a day on the goods train, it gets colder: they've hopped the wrong train and end up in Beijing. His first job is as an internal wetback labourer in a small restaurant, working around the clock for about 100 to 130 RMB a month (US $8-10).

"Most restaurant workers earn about that much," he said. "It's a hard job, and the bosses are pretty much the same, though they have to cope with all the worries and work harder than we do. ... Back in Jianli I wouldn't make a hundred Yuan in a year, let alone a month."

He bounces between jobs, gets ripped off by labor foremen and has to endure sexual advances from a trucking boss, but nonetheless he is able to return home with 2,500 RMB to share with his parents. When Sang Ye interviewed him, he had returned with his young nephew for the next round. The young man had come to look for work because of the poverty of his home village. Tough and practical, this migrant worker had his own views:

"The people in the old Communist areas made much greater contributions to the revolution than city people. So many lives were lost; the Communists had grown to strength and then came to power on the backs of people like us. But after he went to Beijing, even Chairman Mao didn't do anything for us, let alone Chairman Hu. Sure, they spoke about the victory of the revolution, but we were still as dirt poor as we had been in the old society."

The young man's story, however, does not focus on class politics, but on the grim chances of survival.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009



For a short while in the summer of 2008, as the Olympic Torch ceremonies in various countries were disrupted by protests, the western world seemed to believe that the Chinese government might feel the eyes of the world upon it and be shamed into allowing more freedom of expression in China, or even into opening up to multi-party elections. Western opinion, perplexed that exposure to free markets has not led to democracy in China, saw the Beijing Olympics as a turning point.

They were wrong on two counts. Firstly, they believed that the divisions on which the media reported - ethnic in the case of the Tibetans, religious in the case of Falungong - were the ones that mattered most in China. In fact, only a tiny minority of Chinese are directly concerned with the plight of these two groups (unfair though their treatment is). In fact, ironically for a former Socialist state which has dropped most of its ideological baggage, class is the divisive factor in China today. In focusing only on groups which enjoy an international profile, the media missed this key contradiction. Their misguided hopes and predictions derive from a failure to identify why China has remained a one-party state, and why this does not contradict its economic growth.


21st century China is barely recognisable from the country which Chairman Mao Zedong left behind when he died in 1976. It was then perhaps the most radically socialist state in the world. After coming to power in 1949 via a peasant-led revolution, the Chinese Communist Party unified the country, developed China's industry and stabilised an inflation-ridden economy. In the late 1950s, after the Hundred Flowers Campaign, which allowed intellectuals to critique and re-radicalise the CCP's bureaucracy, backfired, Mao sought to consolidate his power via a swift modernisation of China's agriculture and manufacturing industry. Farms were collectivised and run as communes and ordinary Chinese were ordered to build blast-furnaces in their backyards to boost steel production. This was the Great Leap Forwards, and it produced human tragedy and economic disaster on a grand scale. Mao aimed quixotically high in his output targets, and wasted labour and materials on low-yield projects. A massive famine between 1959-61, substantially exacerbated by the Great Leap, is estimated to have killed 30 million people.

To cure China's economic illness, reform-oriented Communists proposed opening the country up to the market in the early 1960s (a precursor to the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s), but Mao blocked the proposals, (correctly) claiming that they would lead to capitalism. Mao had blamed the failure of the Great Leap Forwards on the peasants for their capitalist ambitions (a wilfully illogical claim), and he now turned to the students, exhorting them to do what intellectuals and peasants had failed to do: rebel. A regime of student Red Guards, backed by Mao, his wife Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four, took effective control of China, ostensibly to rid China of its old customs, culture, habits and ideas, but in reality to destroy any opposition to Mao. Teachers and professors suspected of being critical to Mao were purged, college students were sent to the countryside to learn from the (discredited, but nevermind...) peasants, and China's education system was thrown into chaos. Mao clarified his revolutionary ethos thus: "Hitler was even more ferocious [than me]. The more ferocious the better, don't you think? The more people you kill, the more revolutionary you are." There is a word in Chinese to describe the chaos of the Cultural Revolution: luan. After Mao died, the Party vowed that China would never go through such luan again.


China was in a dire state in 1976. The Party had been broken by infighting and the economy had stagnated. Deng Xiaoping, whom Mao had repeatedly purged from the leadership, became de facto leader of the PRC from 1978, and one of his first, delicate tasks was to pass judgment on China's deceased Chairman. Borrowing Mao's crude numerical analysis of Stalin's legacy, Deng famously stated in an Historical Resolution of 1981 that Mao's actions had been 70% right and 30% wrong (a formula which is officially accepted to this day). No doubt Deng barely believed in his own judgment, and certainly he never qualified it by defining which policies were right or wrong, but he was also careful not to repeat Krushchev's mistake of denouncing outright the figurehead who gave the Party its historical legitimacy. Blame for the Cultural Revolution, meanwhile, was laid squarely at the door of Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four.

The Gang was purged in 1976, and Deng strengthened the Party bureaucracy by returning to a Leninist Committee under a General Secretary, and stablilised the economy. He returned to the Four Modernisations originally proposed in 1964 - to agriculture, industry, technology and defence - and effectively began the marketisation of China's economy (known euphemistically as "market Socialism" or "Socialism with Chinese characteristics"). The reforms were steered by a central political agendum: to prevent the 'luan' of the Cultural Revolution from ever occuring again. Whereas the Cultural Revolution had been based around collectivisation and personality-cult politics, reform China established an economy based on neoliberal principles and a political system which aims, above all, to maintain Party rule. This is why economic openness and political closedness are not contradictory: both have led to stability and (therefore) growth in China.

The first stage of the reforms, begun in the early 1980s, divided up the rural communes, awarded contracts to families, gave them control of the management of farms, and gave them responsibility to grow partially for profit. The government introduced subsidies to keep the price of grain up for farmers and down for consumers, and for a while Chinese agriculture boomed. Meanwhile, in the cities, reforming the old state-owned enterprises met with more resistance (especially by planned economists, who saw the potential for inequity and corruption, and by socially conservative Maoists, who saw the potential for 'luan' and decadence in this new bourgeois system) and proceeded more slowly. Nevertheless, SOEs appointed business managers to manage risks and profits, and the danwei system, whereby workers were locked into a particular job or position but were guaranteed housing, education and social services, was gradually dismantled.

In 1985, Deng's reforms hit their first major buffer: a depression in agriculture. The government's delicate balancing act in fixing grain prices proved unsustainable, and crop prices quickly plummeted. Many rural workers (especially men) were forced to quit their farms, leave their families and move to the cities in search of work. This migrant workforce represents the new underclass in China, moving from one poorly-paid job to another, with no rights of citizenship, and perpetually dislocated from their loved-ones.

In the cities, the government under Deng had tried to perform an equally awkward balance. Basic production remained planned, but surplus production was subjected to the market, under the supervision of the business managers. These managers couldn't resist maximising profits, while the fixed danwei incomes of ordinary Chinese fell increasingly short of the inflated prices caused by the dual-track system.


This double-whammy of corruption and inflation bubbled away in the public conscious until the Spring of 1989, when General Secretary Gorbachev, the first Soviet leader to visit China since Krushchev, arrived in Beijing to meet Deng and the Party leadership. Students, who had gathered in Tian'anmen Square in April to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, capitalised on the presence of international media and protested against nepotism and corruption (though, in rejecting calls from workers to join them, the students missed an opportunity for organised resistance). The Party vacillated, and 'luan' ensued. Since the goal of the Party had been to avoid such chaotic political outbursts, Deng had little choice but to send in the army.

The world watched one of the potent symbols of the 20th century - a single protestor obstructing the path of a tank - as the idea of Chinese democracy shattered. Deng's response was brutal and murderous, but also quite logical. The unarmed students and their support among Chinese workers were politically lethal, since they revealed two very real contradictions to reform: inequality and corruption. The Party had begun with a radical union of students and workers; Tian'anmen represented a thoroughly Freudian rejection of the Party and attempt to destroy it.


The free world turned its back on China after the Tian'anmen massacre and Deng took stock for a while, determined to press on with his agenda of reforms, but anxious that public discontent might spin out of control. After three years of retrenchment and a so-called retirement from politics, Deng spent 1992 touring the southern provinces of Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Zhuhai, reiterating the need for China to open up to the world, to modernise, and to pursue economic growth pragmatically ("it doesn't matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice"). When the liberal Jiang Zemin took over as President of China in 1993, the reform of China's economy pushed full-steam ahead, with scant regard given to widening inequalities or ecological damage.


The reforms set in motion by Deng and pursued by his successors Jiang and Hu Jintao have revolutionised China's political, ideological, economic, technological and cultural life more surely than anything Mao ever achieved. Like Victorian Britain, China is now the workshop of the world; it has closed all barriers to free trade and stands at the heart of a flourishing global export market; a new proletariat has emerged from a class of dispossessed rural workers and artisans, though, like that of Victorian Britain, the Chinese working class has not yet proved to be politically effective (though for different reasons: the Chinese proletariat is ideologically mature and class-conscious, if catalysed somewhat by a certain nationalistic fervour, but it is barred from organising effectively against the CCP). One could describe China's economy as neoliberal, its structure as Leninist, its driving ideology as nationalist and its sphere of production as urban. Despite ubiquitous references to its late leader, there is really nothing Maoist about 21st century China.

Unsurprisingly, given these developments, China's class structure differs significantly from that of 1976, and class is now the divisive factor in China (though any explosive effects arising from these divisions have, so far, been largely contained). Broadly speaking, reform China has produced a small but immensely wealthy upper-class, a large (200 million) middle class which enjoys (perhaps somewhat anxiously) the fruits of capitalism, a large majority (close to 1 billion) working class which enjoys better wages but suffers from chronic insecurity and un-/under-employment, and some 150 million migrant workers who have left their rural homes and gambled everything on finding work in the cities. The upper and middle classes are partly a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, whereupon the CCP realised it must satisfy material needs in order to distract talented and intellectual young people away from radical politics.

But though interest in radical politics has been eclipsed by consumerism in the last two decades, the working classes (I think there are two clearly defined class-groups) may yet be pivotal in deciding China's future. A large chunk of the traditional proletariat has been hit hard both by communism and capitalism - the Cultural Revolution denied many of those born between 1950 and 1960 an elementary education, and the privatisation and/or bankruptcy of the danweis in the 80s and 90s have denied them jobs, redundancy settlements and pensions. They are often relatively politicised - a positive legacy of the Mao years - and the government frequently gives in to localised, single-issue demonstrations over benefits etc, in order to prevent confrontation turning into mass revolt. The emergent migrant workers, who comprise what might properly be called an underclass, are the people who have built the explosion of buildings and city expansions, and produced the commodities which China has sold to the rest of the world. Wander around any Chinese city and you will quickly see 8-digit numbers hastily etched onto walks, chalked onto pavements and painted on roads - these numbers, usually written without an accompanying name, are the mobile numbers of urban migrants looking for work. They are the construction and sweatshop workers and, because of the household registration (hukou) system, they generally lack basic rights of citizenship in the cities. Their focus is not so much on class struggle as pure survival, but theirs is not a sustainable passivity, and the current administration has turned its attention to inequality in China, as well it might.

These sharp economic disparities have also exacerbated the rural-urban divide, with rural workers often earning little more than 10% of their urban counterparts. Agriculture is now a largely female domain, and the social effects of absent fathers and brothers (not to mention the galloping infection rates of HIV and AIDS among men away from their wives) will pose significant problems for the 5th generation of the CCP leadership. And that's without even mentioning the awesome environmental devastation caused by such hyperbolic development.


So where does that leave China? Could a swelling bourgeoisie and an increasing GDP push China towards full democratisation, as in other East Asian countries? If, as many fear, the global recession pushes China's annual growth rate below 8%, will unemployment cause people to rise up against the government? If they do, will it be as an organised force or a mob? Or will migrant workers simply return to the countryside to forge themselves a living? When Hu steps down after two terms as General Secretary, which faction of the party will succeed him: the social democrats or the neoliberal 'princelings'? And what of China's relations with the rest of the world? How will China and the US behave towards each other, now that they have lost a common enemy in the Soviet Union and are capitalist rivals? How will China position itself towards Russia? How will the internet (whose influence the CCP tries, but largely fails, to curb) affect public debate in China?

All of these are debatable. What is certain is that China and its people are not the lumpen, robotic monolith that many in the West imagine. The West's and China's views of each other are based on tightly-held national and cultural identities and contradictions. The former views the latter as corrupt, backward-looking and isolationist, but also as the source of exciting new markets; the latter views the former as aggressive and predatory, but also as the source of exciting technologies and ideas. There are feverish discussions about which direction the country should take, and open debate is allowed up to a point. But the main aim of the CCP has not changed in the last 30 years, and nor have its methods for achieving that aim. The aim is economic growth at all costs, and the methods remain economic liberalism and the preservation of Party rule. It will be up to the people of China, and the economic conditions which surround them, how open these aims and methods are to change.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009


Lovely review-cum-obit to John Martyn over at Blissblog. Love Simon's (complimentary, I think) description of the latterday Martyn's voice as "blubbering". I saw him about three years ago, playing Solid Air and (God bless 'im) a gorgeous "Glorious Fool" as part of Don't Look Back. His between-song patter was as incomprehensible ("joke as pure form" - I like) as when Simon saw him in NYC, but a colleague said he had been no less heroically shambolic when she had seen him in the mid 70s. Unlike his old pal Nick Drake, his music and persona didn't fit the easy cliche of the doomed romantic - his come-ons were more irresistable than Drake's, but he was obviously hell-bent on pushing others away (the references to his "long-suffering" ex-wife Beverley, similar to those applied to Linda Thompson, are tiresome because they perpetuate the guy-as-wilful-genius / woman-as-earthbound-wife stereotypes, but still, John was obviously quite impossible. The vibe I got from him was one of bafflement that such shimmering songs could spring from such a beached, boozy body.

All of which reminds me of a Talmudic legend which Walter Benjamin quotes in his essay on Kafka:

It tells of a princess who, in exile, far from her compatriots, living in a village where she does not understand the language, finds herself languishing. One day the princess receives a letter: her betrothed has not forgotten her, he has set out, he is on his way to find her. The betrothed, explains the rabbi, is the Messiah, the princess is the soul, but the village to which she has been exiled is the body. And being unable to tell the village (which does not know her language) of her joy in any other way, she prepares a meal for it.

That's tremendous innit? I think so anyway. Here is John Martyn doing "Couldn't love you more" with Danny Thompson (who made a lovely leftie record with Richard Thompson - no relation - in the mid 90s, who played on Five leaves left and Bryter Layter respectively - the 70s Britfolk scene was a karmic world alright) on the Old Grey Whistle Test - for give the soppy shoutout, but it goes out to my lovely fiance, who is back in Winter Wonderland (aka Brixton) and who I miss horribly: