by Dmitri Prieto &
HAVANA TIMES – Isidro Estrada is one of our most loyal and active HT readers. In 1995 he traveled to China for the first time, courtesy of a contract between Cuba’s Prensa Latina and the Xinhua news agency to proofread the Spanish news. Following six years of work there, he returned to Cuba, but in 2005 he went back to China on his own.“People’s Daily online edition (Pueblo en Línea)” and “China Radio International (CRI) Radio Internacional de China”.
He has worked on the digital version of “Beijing informs,” on the radio, on the magazine “Cubanow”, with the People’s Daily online edition (Pueblo en Línea) and China Radio International, and he currently works in television. Altogether, he has lived in the People’s Republic of China for 15 years; he currently resides in Beijing with his Chinese wife. This interview was conducted during his trip to Cuba at the end of 2013.
Yusimi: They say that it’s difficult for the Chinese to accept foreigners as equals, even when they’ve lived there for a long time.
Isidro: The word China means: central empire”. For a long time to them there was China, and then there was the rest of the world. With the opium wars and later with the first Japanese invasion in 1895, they lost territory. China was conquered and humiliated. The 1919 May 5th movement marked the rebirth of the Chinese nationalist spirit and with this a certain rejection of the foreign. Then in 1937, Japan again invaded and the Japanese perpetrated a smaller version of the holocaust. That’s how the Chinese remember it, and the politicians still make reference to it. That shapes the relationships between the country and the rest of the world, especially with Japan.
Yusimi: How do they view Cubans?
Isidro: Cuba was nothing to China before 1959. When Fidel made the decision to recognize Communist China and to break diplomatic ties with Taiwan, we acquired ideological and strategic importance for them, since we were at the doorstep of the United States. The two countries drew nearer in the first years of the Revolution; we received a lot of aid from them, even though Cuba didn’t support China when they began to distance themselves from the USSR. Later, relations cooled off over trade disagreements: Fidel proposed exchanging a pound of rice for two pounds of sugar, and they didn’t accept. During the Cold War, we were in opposing bands. The chilled relations continued almost until 1983, but friendship returned after the events in Tiananmen Square. Cuba was one of the few countries that didn’t condemn China.
Now they look on us with sympathy and a certain condescension. When they come here they say, “This is like China before it opened up.” They see us as very poor and undisciplined, and they say that we need something like a horse cure.
Dmitri: And what is that?
Isidro: A Chinese-style reform. There, it meant millions of people out on the streets with no access to anything. They say that Cuba should open itself up to the market, meaning to the Chinese market. As a businessman I know put it, if Cuba doesn’t open itself to the Chinese market it will have to open itself up to the North Americans as it did a hundred years ago.
Yusimi: You were telling me that you had a problem sending money to your son via Western Union in China.
Isidro: As of a few years ago when the United States included us in the list of terrorist countries, the agencies in China who have contact with the United States have looked on us sideways for having Cuban passports. I had previously sent money over Western Union with no problems, but this time they told me very courteously that according to the regulations of the United States Treasury Department they couldn’t serve me. I tried to do it via the bank where I receive my salary. It had supposedly been sent, but they called me at home to tell me that there’d been a problem. They didn’t understand what it was, but they knew that it was related to the United States.
Yusimi: These incidents aren’t in contradiction with the good relations between our countries?
Isidro: No. China seeks good relations with the whole world, regardless of whether they are communist, capitalist or feudal. They have taken off the ideological veil. They desire good relations with Cuba, but those with the United States are more important to them. When the US says no, very few can say yes, including China. This is something that I always argue in the various on-line forums, especially with those who live in Miami. We Cubans in China are proof of the extra-territorial nature of the embargo: we are all denied credit cards, money orders. The Cuban community there includes people in favor of the Cuban government, dissidents and some people who are not involved in anything.
Yusimi: Which of these groups would you say you belong to?
Isidro: I liked the response that blogger Reynaldo Escobar gave to a similar question a few months ago: “I’m an independent citizen.” I agree. I don’t belong to the Party or anything else, although I incline towards the left. I believe that the Revolution did many positive things for many people like myself, who came from a very humble background. But there are also many things that I’m not in agreement with. What I most detest are the absolutes, especially after living for so long in China and having watched it change so much.
Dmitri: How much, if at all, does what we in the west call Chinese culture influence China currently. To what point are the Chinese the same or different from the rest of the world in their everyday life?
Isidro: Almost all of us who have been there for a long time coincide in the idea that China is not one country but a multiplicity of countries and worlds. There are one billion, 300 million inhabitants spread over 56 ethnic groups, each one with its own characteristics and language. In the eastern and southeastern regions there are cities that could compete with New York. In the central and Western parts there are places as poor as Burundi.
I’d say that the one singular feature lies in Confucianism. Although it was strongly condemned by Mao, today it’s an essential ingredient of Chinese life. Confucius defended the verticality of the governing towards the governed, just as the government is attempting to establish today. They are heavily imbued with the concept of vertical democracy; they believe that it’s possible to construct from above to below. They maintain, “being amenable, just, magnanimous, honest (all Confucian principles) we can achieve a State where the governed feel comfortable and don’t demand an end to the government.”
Yusimi: And if they do demand it?
Isidro: They say that the governed have every right to do so. Petitioners exist, people with a complaint that hasn’t been attended to by the local government. They then go to demand justice in Peking, before the central government, sometimes traveling there on foot like in feudal times. The local governments do everything in their power to keep that petitioner from arriving at the central government. There have even been deaths.
Dmitri: In other words, that can be a pretty effective method.
Isidro: For the Chinese model, yes. They believe that without stability there’s no country. They are willing to make gradual concessions to be seen as a “normal country” but they won’t copy the Western model. They couldn’t conceive of a protest like the one that occurred in Tiananmen Square. They have created mechanisms to keep such a thing from happening.
Dmitri: What about Taoism, that other great Chinese spiritual and philosophical current that is so different from Confucianism?
Isidro: Confucianism is the predominant model. Taoism is associated more with religion. For example, many members of the Communist Party pray at Taoist temples.
Yusimi: The Party doesn’t prohibit religion?
Isidro: No, they control it. They don’t have diplomatic relations with the Vatican, and the Pope is a nobody to them. The Catholic Church is known as the Chinese Patriotic Church. The government names the Catholic bishops and even the successor to the Dalai Lama.
Confucius is taught in the schools. I don’t believe it’s important if the person is religious or not. There’s more freedom than in previous years for everyone to grab on to whatever they think will make their life better.
Dmitri: How does the historic thinking and the reflective vision of the Chinese intersect with their modern life? In Russia, people now read a lot about the Russian past and its heroes. Is it the same in China?
Isidro: Yes. Many young people under forty seek out the legends from the times of the dynasties and take pleasure in them because they can’t find spiritual fulfillment in the current epoch.
Dmitri: Are you talking about the same young people who have businesses and spend hours on the internet?
Isidro: Exactly. They are involved in business 24 hours a day, but they lack spiritual sustenance. One Chinese business owner told me “Cuba has three yards of hunger, but you have sustenance in your life that we don’t have. Even when we’re rich, we’re empty. The Cubans, even though they may suffer, always have a resource in their soul that permits them to get past the misery. The Chinese are lacking that spiritual anchor.” This race against time to get rich leaves its mark, chiefly in the ethical and spiritual area. I see people who drive a BMW or a Mercedes, but who have a very empty life and they’re the same ones who later commit suicide. I don’t have the statistics, but there have been cases publicized through the media.
Dmitri: Does this contradiction between tradition and the modern world occur in the same way in other Asian countries that have modernized recently such as Japan, Korea or Vietnam or is it different there?
Isidro: The unique feature of the Chinese lies in their ideology. Maoism has weighed down on them for more time than it should have, almost always for worse. The generation of my in-laws didn’t have a life; their lives were lived at the service of one political campaign after another. Couples spent a lot of time separated. That all left its mark, in terms of a soulless people who were constantly submitted to an ideological bombardment with no space to find individual fulfillment.
To be continued….