Sunday, January 30, 2011

My article in defense of Chinese revolution

“Up the Yangtze” premiered two years ago on PBS’s independent documentary program “POV”. This month it is back in circulation on the digital channel PBS World. The week of the US-China Washington DC Summit it was repeated several times.

“Up the Yangtze” claims to be a portrait of the profound social changes taking place on the banks of China’s mighty Yangtze River. The river is being altered dramatically with the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, built to end millenia of devastating floods. It will also provide 10% of the country’s electricity supply. 2 million people and several modern cities have been relocated as construction proceeded.

Such a massive project is unthinkable in a capitalist country like the United States. Here strategic planning is left to the Pentagon and Wall Street’s pragmatic seers only approve public projects if the bondholders get paid first. A project to insure energy and development over hundreds of years is unthinkable. In China, where basic industry and foreign trade were nationalized after the 1949 revolution, other priorities that quarterly profits still exist. As the TV news experts from Sean Hannity to Charlie Rose never tire of telling us, it is a communist country.

The documentary has a not very independent agenda. This is to discredit the Three Gorges Project and trash the historic conquests and current stage of the Chinese socialist revolution, portraying it as a system worse than capitalism. This is done with a slanted depiction of the experiences of 16 year old Yu Shui. With her parents and siblings, she lives in a shack made of scrap on the banks of the rising river. Just graduated from middle school, her parents force her to leave home and start working on one of the luxurious ocean-scale cruise ships that ply the river, loaded with haughty and insufferable Western tourists. Like most young people around the world today, she must find work to support her family.

“Up the Yangtze” visits no other homes or apartments along the river; we are clearly led to believe that shacks made of scrap wood are the norm. We are also led to believe that parents who grew to adulthood in the 1960s during China’s Cultural Revolution remain illiterate and incapable of managing the most basic requirements of life. Among many other positive political and cultural conquests of the Cultural Revolution was the goal of universal literacy. Somehow the Yu parents missed this effort, and there is no explanation for it. There is also no explanation for why they live a marginal existence eating only meager crops from the the plot of land they laid claim to. Are they farmers? Are they simply irreconcilable and anti-social contrarians? After an hour of viewing, it is easy to see that we are not being given all the facts. In place of facts, we have endless cut-aways to the family’s scrawny and filthy kitten navigating through the mud of their house. Such editorial choices carry their own message: life for the ordinary Chinese is intolerable.

Yu Shui’s probationary employment on the river cruise ship is the most interesting part of the film. One might think that a young woman put to work running an industrial dishwasher and weeping openly as she adjusts to hard work and homesickness is the stuff of tragedy. But despite the filmmakers’ intentions, the opposite is true. Yu Shui, in leaving her family’s squalid rural existence behind, liberates herself as she becomes a member of China’s growing working class. She becomes more confident, more mature, and carries herself with pride as she accepts higher levels of responsibility on the job. The most fascinating scene in the movie occurs as this evolution proceeds; Yu Shui’s co-workers meet in their bunks to honestly discuss her strengths and weaknesses, and the ways in which they may be able to help her. This concrete and splendid class solidarity would be unknown in most U.S. workplaces, where boss-inspired gossip and suspicions are the law of the jungle.

Contrasted with Yu Shui is 19 year old Chen Bo Yu. Chen’s parents have a higher income than Yu’s, and unlike Yu he is an only child. While at first he seems to be making an easier transition to life aboard the cruise ship, youthful arrogance and inability to learn his job lead to firing at the end of the probation period. So here we have another lesson: China’s one-child policy had bred a spoiled and stunted generation.

Life aboard a cruise ship catering to tourists from Europe and North America has its humiliating and absurd ordeals. All employees are given Western names and taught English so they can - as their trainer tells them - compete in the 21st century job market. New employees in orientation are told to refer to fat customers as “plump,” and are told not to mention politics. Among other off-limits topics of conversation: Quebec independence and the Irish freedom struggle. With pleasure the viewer imagines what must have occurred between guests and servers on earlier cruises to make these rules necessary.

The impact of China’s integration into the world capitalist market is depicted in the film. Money worship and individualistic narcissism, especially among the youth, is clearly an issue. To the extend that the Chinese Communist Party says capitalist methods are as good as any other in building socialism, such ideological retardation can only increase. Eventually it will endanger the existence of the Chinese workers state itself. At one point in the movie a cruise ship official tells a revealing joke: “The Chinese and U.S. presidents are in their limousine. They come to a fork in the road. The left fork leads to socialism. The right fork leads to capitalism. The U.S. president says, ‘Let’s take the right fork.’ The Chinese president says, ‘Let’s take the right fork, but leave the left turn signal on.’”

“Up the Yangtze” wants the viewer to take away an image of China as a corrupt society, half civilized and half primitive, filled with the same grasping and selfish values capitalism breeds throughout the world. But this tells less than half the story of today’s China. Reading “between the lines” we can still see the magnificent achievements of a socialized planned economy, especially the Three Gorges Dam and its massive locks. Whether China will regress to capitalism or renew the struggle for a socialist order of plenty is not foreordained. It will be decided by the working class of China, and especially the youth exemplified by Yu Shui, who discovers her own value only when she joins that working class.

” (PBS World) Check local listings

[Note: I thought visitors might want to look this over.. Jay.]

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