A Cuban’s 15 years in China (II)

Isidro Estrada
Isidro Estrada

By Dmitri Prieto and Yusimi Rodriguez

HAVANA TIMES — We bring you part two of our interview with Isidro Estrada, a Cuban who has spent the last 15 years living in China. He gives us insight on the country often looked on as a model by the Cuban government, trying to kick-start a stagnated economy while at the same time maintain power.   (See part one of this interview)

Dmitri: How does the social behavior of the Chinese differ from ours? Do they coincide with us in their judgments when they have to categorize someone as good or bad?

Isidro: There are different shades of belief marked by Confucianism and by Maoism, but in general they have very rigid standards.  As Latinos, we are very given to forgiveness.  Although Confucianism promotes this, it’s difficult for them to pardon someone.  The government’s argument, when the international organizations criticize the death penalty, is that the entire country supports it, so it would be antidemocratic to eliminate it; that’s true.  There are now fewer criminals sentenced to capital punishment.  But corruption, for example, almost automatically brings the death penalty.

Dmitri: Is it only the Han who perceive China as the country in the “center of the world”?

Isidro: The government dedicates a great deal of propaganda to the goal of having every Chinese citizen share this concept of China as a country, regardless of their background.  However, in day to day affairs, the Han exercise greater weight numerically.  This generates tensions despite the efforts of the Central Administration to promote other minorities through a series of favorable measures, like special consideration for University for example, and to identify themselves with the entire Chinese population.

Yusimi: A little while ago you told us that in general the Chinese don’t want to talk about politics.

Isidro: Yes, among other things because they’re mainly interested in improving their personal economy.  And the lesson of Tiananmen is still fresh in their minds.  It’s easier to look for money to emigrate to another country, or to start a business and assure oneself of a high standard of living.  Why should one stand up to a machine against which they can do nothing?

Dmitri: How are the major events of the twentieth century remembered in China?

Isidro: I showed my mother-in-law the data regarding the hunger generated by Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”.  She answered: “That may be true, but we don’t speak of this because the Party doesn’t want us to: you could lose your job.”

Dmitri: Would a young person say the same thing?

IsidroIsidro: In the newspapers many people go beyond the official position.  The People’s Daily (Chinese version of Granma) had to create a kind of tabloid so that the less official sectors could express themselves.

The recently graduated university students know nothing of the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution, nor are they interested, but I studied those events and know about them.

What they are interested in is karaoke and video games, and the officials prefer it that way.  They want the Chinese youth to support the Chinese political cause, rather than be in solidarity with other countries or anti-imperialist.  China has no practical participation in the World Youth and Student Festivals.

Yusimi: How was homosexuality treated under Mao, and how has this evolved with the reforms?

Isidro: This topic could be an article in itself.  Under Mao it was a crime.  It has been difficult for the Chinese to leap forward on this issue because there was a lot of backwardness in comparison with other countries.  The perception of homosexuality today is more positive.  There are organizations of gays and lesbians.

Dmitri: Are they legal? Does the government promote them as a reality?

Isidro: At least it accepts them.

Dmitri: But are they projected as a feature of society in the Chinese international press?

Isidro: The tabloid that I mentioned before publishes items like: “Such and such a person had a gender change”….

Yusimi: Does the Chinese version of Granma, the People’s Daily publish these items too?

Isidro: No

Yusimi: They don’t accept homosexual marriage either.

Isidro: For the Chinese family, the preservation of the family name is important and when there are no children, this is lost.  Many gays marry women to please their parents, and later look for a homosexual partner.

Dmitri: Can’t they adopt?  When there’s an adopted son, isn’t the family name and lineage maintained?

Isidro: Adoption by gay couples is still not viable.  Adoption in heterosexual couples is seen in extreme cases, such as when the woman is infertile, but passing on the last name is fundamental.

Dmitri: What’s happening on the topic of abortion and the one child policy?  Are there any opposing groups?

Isidro: That policy of demographic control has avoided more than 300 million births, which helped in the struggle against poverty.  But now there’s a gender imbalance. The birth of males is favored and they selectively interrupt the birth of females.  This has resulted in rural zones where only single men live.  They frequently “buy” and even kidnap women to find a mate.  Also, the aging population has increased.

IsidroIndividual groups and activists have denounced the forced abortions through the official or semi-official mass media, and they are more and more critical.  For that reason, the State revisited the current policy during the recent 18th Central Committee meeting, and eventually pronounced in favor of making it more flexible.  Now we have to wait and see how this change of ideas will be reflected concretely in practice.

Dmitri: The Cuban view that is promoted “from above” projects socialism as nothing more than free education and health care, a view that has little relation to the concept of de-alienation put forth by Marx, and less still to libertarian socialism.  Did this view exist in China?  And, if so, what is left of that socialism today?

Isidro: They say that they’ve reached a stopping point in the construction of socialism, because it can’t be done in a state of extreme poverty.  Extreme poverty that was in reality produced by Maoist policies that threatened to destroy the country altogether.  But the Chinese, in contrast to the Soviets with Stalin, haven’t wanted to condemn Mao, who – according to official sources – erred 30% of the time and was correct the other 70%.  Since they prioritize stability, they calculated that it would be catastrophic to unseat him totally.  For many of the Chinese new left, “leftist” means “Maoist.”  Recently, in Tiananmen Square, a young man wounded an older man by beating him with a placard saying “Long live Mao-Zedong”.  The older man was “guilty” of suggesting to him that Mao wasn’t perfect.  The police had to intervene. But that kind of fanaticism isn’t very common.

The halt in the construction of socialism permits certain sectors to gain wealth; they can then serve as locomotives to the country, bringing economic development and a place in the world concert.

They say that they haven’t renounced the construction of a society that distributes resources according to socialist principles, but first they need – according to the Chinese Communist Party – solid economic bases from which to launch the social transformation.

With respect to the working class, they don’t have power.  Power is held by the elite and all of that cream that have been developing their resources over the past thirty years.

But we are living through some interesting moments. A China of cheap labor which filled the world with cut-rate trinkets and brought that country into development, is ending.  Today they must pay their workers more for their work.  And those who rule know that.

China has an immense mass of workers who are demanding new rights; over time they will become a large group who are aware of their real power.  They will make demands of bosses and rulers, creating unions to defend themselves.  That’s currently in process.

As in Cuba, it’s impossible for the alliance between unions and management (which has in turn been criticized by our own Lázaro Peña) to last during the economic reforms, when inequalities flourish.

In the legal arena, there are Chinese lawyers who are in jail for defending groups of workers who organized among themselves to resist management, or who were hurt by layoffs, or the closing of factories.

In extreme cases, workers facing violations of their basic rights have threatened to kill themselves publicly by throwing themselves off the roof of a building.

Yusimi: And have they?

Isidro: As of yet none have done so.  Once, one appeared, but the police and firefighters arrived, there were a lot of people filming, and in the end they convinced him to desist.

Dmitri: Are there still any free services?

Isidro: Under Mao, health care was nearly free.  Now, the Chinese Communist Party promotes paid private medical services.  As Deng Xiaoping says, the color of the cat isn’t important as long as it hunts rats.

There are very few free public services left.  Primary school is free, but if you add on what you have to buy (uniform, art supplies) the cost goes up.  Prices are also rising: previously, it cost 20 dollars to go to the doctor: today it’s thirty.

IsidroThe middle class trap also exists.  There are subsidies for the poor (for example, cheap housing) and the rich are already rich. But in the middle life is more complex, because you don’t have enough nor do you receive any help.

It goes largely unmentioned that the Gini index – a measure of inequality – is very high in China.  To humanize society somewhat, the last Chinese Communist Party Congress approved a five-year plan (China still plans their economy) with the overall objective of avoiding – insofar as possible – social traumas that will result if the Gini index continues to grow.

They aim to reduce the huge inequalities generated in the last years, the differences between rich and poor, to bring social programs to the least favored regions, and to better the conditions of those who work.  Also they want to generalize social rights: education in all of the country’s territories, minimum social security pensions, health care, elder clubs, etc.

It’s no longer like the first years of the Reform and Opening.

The current government says that it is interested in placing the human being in the center of society; not creating more or less socialism, but becoming more humane.  They are trying to shed the ideological terminology of the past.  Everything is possible, but all within the culture and uniqueness of China.

To be continued…

9 thoughts on “A Cuban’s 15 years in China (II)

  • Yes, privatization does set an economy free–from state monopoly–to build wealth for its citizens. It seems to me however that privatization should largely be cooperative privatization. It this were the case, in China or any country, it would constitute a dynamic and sustainable form of socialism that could be called social-capitalism.

    As for as what the people of Venezuela are finding out, it is how consistently and despicably the U.S. imperialists will subvert a legitimate government that does not go down on its knees and grovel. This however seems already to have gone over your head.

  • I hope you are correct, John.

    The fact remains however that the Cuban leaders still see socialism as state ownership of the instruments of production. IMO, they can never unleash the creativity of the people until they come to a cooperative republican understanding of what socialism, and socialist property, truly are.

  • You are probably correct, John, in much that you say. But I don’t think the inability of Marxists to come up for air is a lost cause. If I did, I’d probably shut my mouth and go away–as the old song goes.

    What Marxism-indoctrinated people cannot get their minds around is the long-recognized link between direct economic ownership of the workplace, on the one hand, and economic and social democracy in the superstructure of society, on the other.

    When Engels and Marx penetrated into the socialist movement in 1848 and thereafter, they told the working people that they could only own the workplace indirectly, through the agency of the socialist state. It took four decades to ram thin spurious nonsense down the workers’ throats. The rest, regrettably, is history.

    The Marxian revision of socialism, of course, is absurd; and is spectacularly uncharismatic before the people. Even after the stupid formula of 100% ownership by the state has been disproved in practice by many countries, the Marxists still maintain that socialist property is state property, and that only state property can be socialist property!

    Socialist property, in the cooperative republican view, can be any form of property under socialist state power–i.e., a state led by the vanguard party–as long as it incentivizes productive citizens, and contributes to the socialist national plan.

    An independently owned farm, restaurant or manufactory in Cuba therefore would be socialist property therefore, if it is productive, serves the people and contributes to the National Plan.

    If the Cuban leadership should ever grasp this simple concept, they could solve the nation’s economic and social problems in short order.

    Cheers, John. It’s good to hear from you.

  • Though there has been a lot of privatisation in China it would be wrong to assume that was the whole picture. State owned enterprises are still a major pillar of the economy http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/42fc92d4-510a-11e3-b499-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2uGFgcrct. Secondly equality is not over rated. Prosperity and equality aren’t mutually exclusive. If you take countries like Sweden or Denmark they outperform every other country on almost every criteria you choose to apply. I would recommend the book http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/resources/spirit-level-why-equality-better-everyone

  • Grady,
    You will have a tough row to hoe trying to explain the democratic nature of socialism, communism, coops to this crowd.
    For one thing, they, for the most part , believe the Soviets, Chinese Koreans and Cubans were or are communists or socialists .
    They believe that these totalitarian nations are what is socialism and/or communism since that is what their (totalitarian ) government has told them from birth and they lack any education in socialism, communism, anarchy or even democracy which would dispel their misconceptions. .
    Secondly , they do not appreciate democratic forms , preferring the totalitarian forms of capitalism, organized religion, the oligarchy/plutocracy and the traditional nuclear family.
    They’ve been force-fed the shit of various dictatorial forms so long and so consistently that it has become,, not just acceptable, but desirable on their part to retain these forms .
    Democracy to them is alien, strange, unfamiliar and they retreat into their totalitarian mindset whenever faced with a chance to exercise democracy where it counts in their lives.
    It is much easier to go along to get along with all our totalitarian life forms than it is to fight for a democratic society which, in the end, is not what most Americans want for themselves or the world.
    You will need to force feed them to accept the concepts and responsibilities of democracy

  • You are conflating equality with equity.
    Everyone has different talents but everyone is entitled to an equal opportunity in a moral system.
    This is not the case under capitalism where solid statistics have shown that people born into poverty in a capitalist system tend to overwhelmingly stay there because opportunity does NOT exist for all and only the very top 10% or so do very well.
    The people of Venezuela voted for their government by a wide margin.
    It is the wealthy who don’t like the government because it is helping all the poor which is not what the wealthy are all about.
    It is these wealthy who are backed by U.S. government support both overt and covert and who are behind the protests.
    If you depend on the corporate media, Fox, NBC, PBS etc for your news on Venezuela , you will not be getting the truth.
    I would suggest you compare what you think you know about Venezuela from the regular media with what you will find at Venezuelanalysis or at ZNet .
    Neither of these are corporately sponsored and both tell a far different story from that told by the corporate media and the U.S. government .
    Think Free and others who think as he does should take up this comparison just to see what you’re missing .
    You won’t like it but you’ll have one hell of a time trying to deny the truth found at ZNet and/or Venezuelanalysis .

  • China has provided a very useful example of how privatization sets an economy free to build wealth for it’s citizens. Building a safety net can’t happen until there is a to source to fund it. Equality is over rated. Better to have an unequal share of prosperity than an equal share of misery. The people of Venezuela are finding out just how false the prophets of socialism can be.

  • What an excellent interview this is!

    It is clear by what Isidro says that the Chinese leaders define socialism in the same manner as all Marxists, that is, as full state ownership of all productive property. Our cooperative republic movement in the U.S. sees it differently.

    We think socialism, authentic socialism, is where most of those who do the work would own the workplace directly, either cooperatively through working-associate owned corporations, or independently, as with farms, restaurants, shops, et cetera.

    Civil employees of course, perhaps a quarter or third of the workforce, could not own their workplace, but they surely would have a great deal of organized democracy through unions and associations.

    China someday hopefully may build on its Gung-Ho cooperative history and develop a cooperative republican form of socialism. As long as the leaders are hemmed in by Marxism however, there will be little chance of that.

  • China’s totalitarian government made the decision to privatize the economy and to dive headlong into feral capitalism in order to build the economy much as Marx would have had it.
    By doing so without putting into place the necessary social safety nets in such a feral capitalist society is leading to immense and massive poverty while a relative handful of Chinese become very wealthy.
    This will quickly become unsustainable and will bring about a second Chinese Revolution within ten years if not addressed.
    Of course wealth , privilege and power as exercised in China
    are not amenable to reforms and the addition of a huge private sector which is totally sociopathic-dedicated to profit above human need – regardless of the harm to humanity will lead to such inequity that the society will not be able to function.
    Cuba so far seems to be well aware of the dangers of backsliding into feral capitalism and all that would lead to and its reforms all are incremental and not a danger to the social equity and equality gained by the revolution.
    The Chinese are just jumping to capitalism and are saying that they’ll fix things and problems that arise once the economy is built up but once that money is translated into power as it inevitably will , there will be no way to democratically rid China of capitalism since it will remain a totalitarian state.
    The Cubans OTOH have learned from history and will not be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

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