Progress Report for Manchester Museum’s Lee Kai Hung Chinese Culture Gallery

Manchester Museum, part of The University of Manchester, has been undergoing its hello future development including a new Lee Kai Hung Chinese Culture Gallery, and will reopen to visitors on 18 February 2023. It seems like a very long time ago that this exciting new project was first announced but we are pleased to report that the Lee Kai Hung Chinese Culture Gallery has entered the busiest stage of its development schedule leading up to its reopening. 

Visual Artwork showing the Lee Kai Hung Chinese Culture Gallery, by Imagemakers Design & Consultancy Ltd. ©Manchester Museum, University of Manchester

The gallery will highlight personal stories of migration, friendships and collaboration to inspire empathy and build understanding. Developed in partnership with the University of Manchester’s Manchester China Institute, it will draw on historical and contemporary links between the UK and China. Showcasing rarely and never-displayed collections from cultural partners across the city, visitors will making meaningful connections through personal stories and objects. We are pleased to be working with designers, Imagemakers, who have considerable experience of working on high profile exhibition projects in China. 

The earlier phase of research was supported by a Fellowship generously supported by the Headley Trust with Art Fund. This uncovered several human-interest stories behind some of the objects in the collections. Empathy, the ability to stand in the shoes of another person or see life through the eyes of someone else, is crucial if we are to achieve the gallery’s aim of building better understanding between different cultures. 

The ‘Movement and Migration’ section in the displays celebrates some of these lived experiences. For example, Manchester missionary, Alfred Bosshardt (1897-1993) was a prisoner of a Communist army in the early stages of the Long March in China during the mid-1930s. Despite the difficult circumstances, Alfred and the Chinese general Xiao Ke respected one another, and Alfred was released after 18 months. Fifty years later he was living quietly in retirement in Manchester when Xiao Ke contacted him. They corresponded and exchanged gifts. If these two men divided by ideology, nationality and religion could regard one another as friends, doesn’t that send a very powerful message to us today in this time of rising geopolitical tensions?

Milu deer in the new Chinese Culture Gallery. Photograph by Michael Pollard, ©Manchester Museum, University of Manchester

The ‘Our Shared Environment’ section in the displays explores China’s biodiversity and environmental themes. There are several thousand plant specimens from China and illustrations from the Museum’s Herbarium. China is rightly celebrated as the ‘Mother of Gardens’ and many garden plants often assumed to be traditional British varieties originated in China, including peonies. We also highlight the dramatic transformation of China’s Loess Plateau, a region the size of the Netherlands, from desert to green oasis, as a result of landscaping the valleys to control water run-off and changing farming practise. This has also reduced the amount of silt entering major rivers and helped to reduce flooding.  We also showcase China’s ‘Sponge Cities’ initiative which is designed to absorb and slowly release rainwater in major cities such as Wuhan. In 2018, a delegation from Manchester visited Wuhan to learn from the Chinese experience and since then a small trial ‘Sponge Cities’ project has been launched at West Gorton in Manchester and the results are very promising.

In ‘Caring and Healing’ we look at shared interest in healthy ageing in the UK and China. Chinese communities and newcomers to the city bring with them research expertise and philosophies of healthcare that complement western medicine, benefiting all the city’s communities. As a city of active ageing Manchester can also learn from Chinese approach to longevity. Chinese cultural traditions are influenced by the Confucian value of harmony in family and society and the ideal of respect for the elderly. This is interwoven in society through Traditional Chinese Medicine and emphasizes gentle, regular, daily movement to improve mood and physical well-being.  

The ‘Identity and Belonging’ section explores the contribution of Chinese communities to the rich ethnic and cultural diversity of the city of Manchester. We celebrate heart-warming stories such as the help given to Chinese newcomers to Manchester by Rosie and Doug Sadler. It is easy to forget how big a challenge it is moving to a busy city in a foreign country. Rosie and Douglas offered a warm welcome and help settling in. The couple had worked as missionaries with Chinese communities in Malaysia. Years later, they started helping Chinese people in the city. They found them accommodation and furniture, ran English classes, and organised excursions. Chinese people showed their appreciation for the Sadler’s kindness by bringing them gifts, some of which we will show in the new displays. 

The gallery also grapples with difficult and sometimes traumatic subjects, offering insights and perspectives through objects and storytelling. For example, it includes the story of a Chinese waiter who gave his botany collection to Manchester Museum. He was sadly the victim of anti-social behaviour, driven by racism, when he set up a takeaway in Rochdale during the 1980s. 

We also highlight the complexities of relationships. The gallery highlights the family history of American researcher Polly Shih Brandmeyer. Her great, great grandmother, Adela came from London and married a Chinese student Qian. She went to join her husband in Chengdu where Qian had a post in local government. The couple had four daughters. When Adela died, the two youngest were adopted by Captain Cornell Plant, the man who pioneered steamships on the Upper Yangtze. After the Captain and Mrs Plant passed away en route to Britain, the little girls were brought up by a missionary in China, not knowing their family story. Polly has very generously allowed the museum to share it.

A life-size acupuncture model in the new Chinese Culture Gallery. Photograph by Michael Pollard, ©Manchester Museum, University of Manchester

The museum has recently taken delivery of a beautiful Milu deer taxidermy specimen, which complements the museum’s zoology collections from China, and a life-size acupuncture model from a TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) practise in Didsbury, Manchester. We are also very excited to have the support of John Rylands Library which has a very important Chinese collection. We will display a scroll depicting the emperor Kangxi’s birthday procession through the streets of Beijing in the early 18th century (Qing dynasty) from their collection. We have also completed a study of Manchester’s Old Town Hall collection of diplomatic gifts from visiting dignitaries from all over the world, including China. We were delighted to discover a football signed by young Chinese players who visited the Northwest when their careers were just beginning. Several of them are now established professional players in the big leagues in China.

The work of modern artists also features heavily in the new gallery. We have commissioned Dr Yan Wang Preston from University of Huddersfield to take photographs of members of the Chinese communities in Manchester. This will enable us to bring the stories we tell in the gallery very much up to date, reflecting people’s lived experiences in the city. This builds on last year’s very successful Touching from a Distance project involving artists Daisy Chen and Jan Bautista who produced complementary artworks celebrating the emergence from lockdown of Manchester and our Chinese twin city Wuhan. We will also show an imaginative bamboo installation by artist Gordon Cheung alongside bamboo loan objects, including a baby walker, a heater, a gift box and a travel case from the Chen Lyusheng Museum cluster in China. 

We have collaborated with Chinese communities in Manchester throughout the development of the gallery and have had wonderful support from Manchester Chinese Association and Chinese students at the University of Manchester. We are now starting to plan an ambitious and impressive programme of public events for after the opening. 

We very much hope that SACU members will visit the museum and see the Lee Kai Hung Chinese Culture Gallery when it reopens just after the Chinese Lantern Festival in February 2023.

Authors: Bryan Sitch, Deputy Head of Collections and Lead Curator of the Lee Kai Hung Chinese Culture Gallery, and Dr Fang Zong, Lee Kai Hung Chinese Culture Gallery Project Assistant, Manchester Museum, University of Manchester. 

November 2022

Understanding China Through the Lens of a British Historian

SACU President Michael Wood OBE was interviewed for China Today by staff reporter ZHOU LIN.

“Unless you understand China, you won’t understand what are truly common values in human society on Earth, or what are just Western idiosyncrasies.” – Michael Wood quoted Simon Leys in his interview with China today.

Michael Wood is no stranger to Chinese TV audiences or readers. A famous British historian, broadcaster, and author, he has presented lots of well-known television documentary series from the late 1970s to the present day. His China-themed works – The Story of ChinaThe Story of China’s Reform and Opening-up, and Du Fu: China’s Greatest Poet – have all proved to be smash hits among British and Chinese audiences.

“China is simply the other pole of the human mind,” said Wood in an interview with China Today, quoting Simon Leys, a distinguished scholar of classical Chinese art and literature. For a Westerner, it’s always a journey of discovery, he added, noting that China is “the essential other, without the knowledge of which the West would not be able to perceive the outline and the limits of its own self.” 

Michael Wood doing a film shoot at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi’an, Shannxi Province, with his cameramen, on 16 September 2019.

Hooked on China

Born in Manchester in 1948, Wood’s fascination with China and Chinese culture began in his schooldays with A. C. Graham’s Poems of the Late T’ang. “[It was] one of those books that opened a window on a world one could never have dreamed existed,” he said. 

Later, as a graduate student at Oxford University, sharing a house with a sinologist was another eye-opening period when Wood encountered revelatory books like Arthur Waley’s The Book of Songs, and Chu Ci (also known as The Songs of the South), containing haunting masterpieces like Li Sao. “At that time, among the larger-than-life characters who came through our kitchen was David Hawkes, who as a student at Peking University had been at Tian’anmen Square on October 1, 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was founded, and who translated what he called ‘the novel of the millennium’ – The Dream of the Red Chamber,” said Wood. 

“Most of all I loved Autumn Wastes by Du Fu, even though at first I found it hard to understand even in English!” said Wood, adding that he loves the quatrains of Du Fu to this day. He said, “Arthur Graham’s translations are still terrific, and his comparisons of Chinese and Western poetry very intriguing.” 

In the early 1980s, Wood came to China for the first time, visiting Lanzhou in west China’s Gansu Province and Kaifeng in central China’s Henan Province. “China was coming out of a very tough period and people you met in the street often seemed traumatized,” said Wood, “but they were always affable, friendly, and welcoming.” He still remembered how many people wanted to practice their English after watching English classes on TV. “I came away feeling how much I liked being with the Chinese people, and that I wanted to go back.” 

As a historian, Wood seemed to be destined to witness history. The changes in China since the 1980s were absolutely incredible, such as the greatest poverty reduction in human history. Wood said that even the U.S. scholars James Stapleton Roy and Ezra Vogel, whom he interviewed in 2018, both saw China’s reform and opening-up as the greatest event in modern world history. 

“China is a vast country with huge regional variations in language, dialect, landscape, food, music, and culture, and with over 3,000 years of records of every kind you can dive endlessly into its history – it is inexhaustibly interesting,” said Wood, confessing that once hooked, it’s impossible not to want to know more. 

A Journey of Discovery

In 2016, BBC’s landmark documentary – The Story of China, written and presented by Wood, was broadcast worldwide and received widespread attention and praise. It was then followed by two other works – The Story of China’s Reform and Opening-up in 2018, and Du Fu: China’s Greatest Poet in 2020. 

Wood and his team have received a huge amount of feedback from Chinese audiences. For example, in his documentary, he visited the manufacturing plant of the Fuxing bullet train, where a Chinese engineer told him, “By 2025, the national high-speed rail line will reach 38,000 kilometers. And we are always ready to go abroad.” The conversation was put on Douyin – the Chinese version of Tik Tok, which received 301,000 likes and 11,000 positive comments from Chinese netizens. 

Xinhua, China’s state news agency, said that Wood’s documentary had “transcended the barriers of ethnicity and belief and brought something inexplicably powerful and touching to TV audiences.” “It is one of the nicest reviews I’ve ever had, but it is always a risky thing to make films about another culture, so one must approach it in a humble way,” he said.

As a filmmaker, the challenge is trying to convey to a general TV audience in the West, in a short span of time, the arc, or trajectory, of Chinese history and to also highlight some of the big themes. Everywhere they went during filming people were willing to offer unsolicited help and always ready to share stories of their past. 

“There’s always something new,” said Wood, adding that the ways the Chinese do things and think about things are often very different to Westerners, so it’s always a journey of discovery. 

While the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has put everything on hold, Wood has not stopped working on new projects. He is writing a short book – In the Footsteps of Du Fu, which will include diaries, maps, and photos. He admitted that writing such a book had been on his mind since his schooldays. As the U.S. sinologist Stephen Owen said, “There’s Dante, there’s Shakespeare, and there’s Du Fu; they helped create the emotional vocabulary of their respective cultures.” 

Talking about future TV work, Wood would like to return to China with his colleagues at Maya Vision. They are currently thinking about doing a series, possibly online as well as on TV, of short films which they are calling Parallel Lives: for example, Confucius and Socrates, Sima Qian and Herodotus, Su Song and Leonardo da Vinci, Li Qingzhao and Christine de Pisan, Cao Xueqin and Jane Austen, and so on. The aim is to compare and contrast iconic characters from both cultures in short pithy snapshots, in order to open up ideas about the similarities and differences, and the common connections between the East and the West. 

Ordinary Lives vs. the Big Picture

Being a wonderful storyteller, Wood is adept at using a grand narrative to tell the sweeping history of China from ancient times to the present, and captures the big picture without losing sight of the human details, which is very well reflected in his book The Story of China: A Portrait of a Civilization and Its People published in September 2020. 

“A book is a different creature from a TV show produced for mainstream audiences; it allows a much meatier narrative and deeper engagement with landscapes and stories,” said Wood. “But you still try to use what I call ‘the film maker’s eye,’” he added. 

In this book, he has put great effort into telling the story of some writers and characters that particularly interested him and the people from Chinese history whose lives and works illuminate the big picture. 

He gave some examples: Li Qingzhao – who described the experiences of the fall of the Northern Song Dynasty, her wanderings as a refugee, and her experience as a woman in a patriarchal society, including the bitter story of her marriages. Or Cao Xueqin: not only a captivating novelist, but one who shared his life experiences and the rise and fall of his family over four generations. “There have been amazing new finds – some letters by soldiers in the Qin military – the real-life Terracotta Army – writing home to mum, or letters from Han garrisons on lonely watchtowers in the wilds of the Silk Road,” said Wood. “They gave us the kind of immediacy we get in Britain, say, from the Vindolanda tablets on Hadrian’s Wall in the Roman empire.”

Michael Wood departing with his film crew at Changsha Airport, on 23 September 2019.

Exchanges Matter More Than Ever

While discussing the continuity of Chinese civilization, Wood described China as the oldest living civilization in the world. “We live in a small world and we are all human beings – as Confucius would say. His often simple maxims still crystallize some of the key traits in Chinese culture: civility, duty, hospitality – and humor too,” said Wood. 

China and the U.K. “should always try for dialogue and understanding,” he said, adding, “The differences in our histories and cultures need not be a barrier but a source of enrichment; our different social systems and developmental history don’t block our communications. It is corny and trite to say so, but mutual understanding and exchange can work wonders.” 

He gave another example. As a governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) for 12 years and still a trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, he knows that many interesting exchange projects are being talked about: the RSC is sponsoring a complete new Chinese translation of Shakespeare’s works and planning on getting English directors to direct his plays in China. In the post-pandemic world, they hope to continue their Chinese Translations Project, bringing Chinese classics to Western audiences in English – like Snow in Midsummer. “In both cultures, the poets are the real voices of the people and a great way for our cultures to find common ground,” he said. 

Noting that 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the diplomatic relations between China and the U.K., Wood stressed, “We live on a small planet, and friendship and cooperation must be the way forward.” He further indicated that both countries can play a positive role, and can contribute to long-lasting, open, and win-win China-U.K. relations. “We should use our best influence to make a better world, and to work together towards a shared future for humankind,” he concluded. 

This article first appeared in China Today on 1 June 2022 (opens in new tab).

Some Observations on Differences between East and West, by Walter Fung

There are differences between East and West as discussed below but we have a lot in common with the East as a basis for friendship and understanding as the photographs below show.

Protect the environment

I bought a copy of the book East Side Voices edited by Helena Lee. It presents a wide spectrum of experiences and views from a variety of East and Southeast Asian individuals living in Britain. I have only ‘dipped’ into it so far, but can see some parallels with my own experience, although as a senior British Born Chinese, I am at least a generation removed from most, if not all of the authors.

About 15 years ago, I visited an old family friend. She said you are welcome to come, but I live in a typical ‘throw nothing away’ Chinese house. I immediately knew what she meant as my house and those of some of my Chinese relatives could be described in the same way. Gemma Chan in East Side Voices, was amazed when her dad offered her a Marks and Spencer plastic bag of 1990’s vintage. She later refers to her dad’s Golden Rule No 1, ‘nothing goes to waste.’.

The Chinese love for money and good food seems quite universal. Is it because, since time began, previous generations in old China were always short of these basic necessities? One of the main Chinese government’s priorities has been the eradication of poverty. Through the ages, China has had many disasters with millions of people starving to death.  Historians of old China, recorded that the average peasant in old China, ‘lived on the brink of disaster’. A universal basic freedom, is freedom from poverty.

China Eye No 59, Autumn 2018 contained a report, entitled, ‘Is Yellow the New Blackface?’ This was a conference which discussed the under-representation of British Chinese and East Asians in the screen media. It was held at Blackburne House in Liverpool and was convened by Rosa Fong of Edge Hill University. Speakers included Lucy Sheen, and Diana Yeh (by DVD). David Yip (The Chinese Detective) sent a message of encouragement.

The reluctance to employ Chinese and East Asian actors in major roles is a cause for concern. But is seems it has always been the case. In the 1930, a film was made of Pearl Buck’s novel, The Good Earth. Although the internationally-known Chinese actress, Anna Mae Wong was eminently suitable for the starring role, it was given to a Western actress who was made up to look Chinese. No satisfactory explanation was given for this. Some film critics thought that Anna Mae Wong would never play a leading role, unless the leading man was also Chinese. It was unacceptable, at the time, for a Chinese lady to play opposite a white actor.

Richard Nisbett, a psychology professor compares how Asians and Americans think. (From an article by Hana R Alberts in Forbes, May 11 2009)

East Asians see things in context, whilst Westerners focus on the point in hand: the former are dependent, the latter independent; the former are holistic, the latter analytic. The social aspect to these differences is that Asians are collective, Westerners individualistic. Another interesting observation mentioned was that, Canadians predict that a stock whose value is rising will continue to rise, whilst Chinese tend to think that what goes up will come down.

Nisbett’s work is discussed by Ed Yong in New Scientist, March 2009. He presents a chart by Daphna Oyserman, a professor of psychology, Education and communication in the University of South California. A summary of the qualities of Easterners and Westerners are:

East; Collectivism; harmony, duty, context, hierarchy.

West; Individualism; private, self-knowing, unique, independent

George Soros in The Crisis of Global Capitalism, on page 95, makes the points that ‘Pure reason and a moral code based on the value of the individual are inventions of Western culture, they have little resonance in other cultures. For instance, Confucian ethics are based on family and relationships and do not sit well with imported concepts imported from the West’.

Professor Alan Macfarlane in Youtube videos makes certain important points. Macfarlane is a professor of anthropology at Cambridge University. The following comments are my understandings from his talks.

The West sees China through a distorting mirror. There are prejudices and views associated with an imperial past. Many analysts and reporters, even so called ‘experts’ and historians, know very little. They write ‘what they think they know’.  Some have never even been to China. He recommends that people should go and see for themselves and meet the people. They should go and make friends with Chinese people and in this way get ‘inside’ and get to know them and the country in depth. Get to know and understand the language, customs and culture. He believes the Western media, including the BBC, tend to concentrate on negative news and aspects of China; Aljazeera, a little less so.

His view is that Western thought is moulded by a ‘binary’ approach, Chinese thought by comparison is a ‘quantum’ approach. He maintains that this is influenced by religion; Western religions have one single God, (Christianity, Judaism, Islam), whilst China has many; Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism and ancestor worship plus many other gods. All beliefs merge and are tolerated, without any conflict.

Buddha, Lao Zi and Confucius all together in the same chapel in a temple on Wutaishan (photo from the guidebook. WF)

Whilst India has a caste system and England has social classes, there have never been such systems in China. Education has always been valued in China and determines social mobility and position in society in China. The basic social unit in the West is the individual. In China there are structured relationships between people, the family is very important.

Macfarlane has been to China 16 times in recent years. He invariably went with a Chinese student companion as a translator and was able to speak to people at all levels of society, from workers, civil officials, politicians, business people to university professors. He says he has been ‘transformed’ by his visits to China.

Recommended reading; Alan Macfarlane. China, Japan, Europe and the Anglo-sphere; A Comparative Analysis. Cam Rivers Publishing, Cambridge 2018

Additional comments:-

Some scholars hold the view that Western civilisation has its origins in Greek democracy, Roman law and Judeo-Christian religion. Chinese civilisation developed entirely separately and along different paths.

Some analysts believe that ‘white superiority’ influences Western thinking and is behind certain policies of the ‘Anglosphere’. Many believe socialism and communism are misguided, if not completely wrong ideologies and must be opposed, if this means covert action or even force. ‘Sinophobia’ is certainly present in our society, Sinophobia against which the recent SACU march demonstrated.

Some Western politicians, especially those in the Anglosphere, oppose the ‘Rise of China’. They justify this by claiming China does not play by international rules, is an autocracy, is ‘not like us’ and does not share our values. A senior US politician has declared, ‘Nations must choose between freedom or tyranny!’

Bertrand Russell, the philosopher, visited China in the 1920s. He commented, ‘In many ways the Chinese are the most civilised nation in the world and it is shameful that we make it our business to teach them lessons in barbarity’. A traditional Chinese proverb is, ‘Good iron is not made into nails. Good sons are not made into soldiers.’ This is in contrast to the Western military tradition, with royal sons festooned with military decorations. In the modern world of course, the PLA is necessary for national defence in a potentially hostile world.

Negative reporting of China is likely to increase as events develop. The security departments of certain Western countries are to be extended, specifically to deal with China.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been criticised as producing ‘debt traps’. People fail to note that all agreements have been voluntary. ‘Cheque book diplomacy’ has been mentioned, but this is better than ‘gun boat diplomacy’. And not a single life has been lost in the BRI negotiations. Compare this with the hundreds of thousands – if not millions, of lives lost to European armies in Africa – competing for colonies and building empires. And, that continent was still horrendously poor after 300 years of Western involvement.   

Walter Fung is Editor of SACU’s quarterly magazine China Eye. This article first appeared in China Eye, issue 74, summer 2022, pages 21-22. 

Afghanistan – Earthquake on the Edge of Empires, by Andrew Hicks

President Joe Biden has described the American evacuation from Kabul as, ‘one of the most difficult airlifts in history’. Since July 2021, 18,000 evacuees were flown out and since the military airlift began on 14 August a further 13,000. Presumably he is making comparison with airlifts of people, though the Berlin airlift and the American supply of Nationalist China over the Himalayas from Assam during WWII, both of cargoes not people, were in fact far more challenging. As for the unfortunately named Operation Frequent Wind when the US evacuated Saigon in 1973, 50,000 evacuees were flown out of the frequently shelled airport and 7,000 by helicopter from the centre of the city. Photos of evacuees scrambling aboard from a roof top are a defining image of this final debacle in the American war against communism in Viet Nam.

A further largely forgotten American airlift was in China at the end of WWII when the US intervened in the emerging civil war between the Nationalists and Mao’s communists. The American air force airlifted tens of thousands of Nationalist troops from southern China where they had been deployed against the Japanese to the north. This movement was in order to take the surrender from the Japanese thus securing territory for the Nationalists and to allow them to engage in armed conflict with the communists.

When airlifting an army into a new theatre of war key equipment and essential ground transport also have to be carried. As the Nationalists primarily used donkeys, thousands of these too had to be flown to North China. The cargo space of the American C47 transport planes was divided up by wooden stalls and the animals dragged up ramps and secured inside. I have a slim novel called Beyond the Call of Duty by Eugene Brown which describes the appalling conditions in which Chinese troops and donkeys were thus transported. The American pilots had oxygen and parachutes but the Chinese soldiers of course had none. The author describes a chaotic incident in which donkeys break loose from their stalls during severe turbulence, smash open the plane’s loading door and fall out at high altitude, all I assume based on actual fact.

In addition to this intervention in China’s internal affairs in the forties, it was also American supplied and managed aircraft that enabled the defeated Nationalists to be evacuated to Taiwan, thus creating a tension and confrontation that has run for decades and remains without resolution to this day.

All of these are instances where an American intervention has proved to be counterproductive to what they were trying to achieve, instead finding themselves on the losing side. Lessons that aggressive military intervention such as the discredited ‘War on Terror’ leads to long term instability rather than implanting democracy never seem to be learned. At least Biden has now declared an end to the era of America ‘remaking other countries’, insisting it was therefore right to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan. While final withdrawal from Kabul might have been handled better, the greater criticism should fall on President George W. Bush who impetuously invaded Afghanistan and Iraq without confined objectives or a clear exit plan, thus creating huge problems for his successors and the world.

From Genghis Khan onwards the aggression of empires and super- powers has blighted world peace as they constantly seek to expand their territory and influence. In recent times technological advances in surveying have enabled the creation of fixed political boundaries, thus securing nation states within defined borders, together with a rule-based international order to promote peaceful and stable relations. However, human affairs are never perfect and international relationships are rarely harmonious. Indeed, modern empires or power blocs are like tectonic plates and where they meet there are often earthquakes. Afghanistan is one such example and Tibet another. Empires also abhor a power vacuum on or near their borders and often seek to control any such territory to make sure that neighbouring powers do not get there first.

Thus for example in the nineteenth century Tibet was a tributary state of China, with Russia and British India as active competitors in the region. Britain was engaged in ‘the Great Game’ and, fearing that Russia would extend its influence into Tibet, manufactured the pretext of a border dispute and in 1904 invaded Tibet from India across inhospitable mountainous terrain as far as Lhasa. Its huge invasion force had the logistical problem of carrying supplies and travelled with 7,000 mules, 5,000 bullocks and 3,500 yaks all of which also needed feeding. In consequence of this invasion Tibet came under British influence causing long term instability and tension with China. With the Chinese revolution of 1911 and subsequent internal turmoil China was unable to exert itself to recover its position in Tibet for several decades until finally united under Mao. The rest as they say is history, though it is a history that is poorly understood in the West, especially the destabilising consequences of the earlier British invasion.

Afghanistan, invaded in the nineteenth century by the British, by the Russians in the twentieth and the Americans in the twenty first, is thus another such example of power play politics between super- powers causing increased instability. With the American withdrawal and its influence now diminished it is now hard to predict the future for the country. The best outcome for Afghanistan would of course be to have an indigenous government that governs well for all its people and is able to act properly on the world stage, even if that government is the Taliban.

As world economic power and influence shifts eastwards, India and China will increasingly be key players in this region. Pakistan as Afghanistan’s neighbour and already sheltering about three million Afghan refugees will also play a crucial role. China, being its close ally, is likely to be highly influential and has a strong interest in preventing poverty and chaos in Afghanistan. The western alliance has hardly covered itself in glory, its policies being promoted through military invasion and force, all in the name of freedom and democracy. It is possible therefore to hope that the world will allow China the positive influence it can now exert in Afghanistan based its new economic strength.

China has always been the world’s biggest economy except for the last two centuries of stagnation and disorder, and is once again becoming a world super power. This state of affairs offers more promise than threat despite the remorselessly negative perspective of the western media towards anything that China ever does. China’s expanding industrial and mercantile economy makes it essential that it transacts responsibly with the world and is a good citizen and this can be fulfilled if the world permits it to do so. Its diplomacy towards Afghanistan and the region may indeed prove to be more effective and beneficial than that of the military invasions of the western alliance over recent decades. Having intervened so actively the West can hardly criticise if China now supports Afghanistan with soft loans and other strategic support, even if with elements of self-interest. The future is now wide open.

This article was first published in China Eye, Issue (72) Winter 2021.

Andrew Hicks is a SACU Council member who has lived in Chinese-influenced communities in Asia for over 20 years. He first lectured in Law at the University of Hong Kong from 1976 to 1983, then went on to lecture at the National University of Singapore and later settled in Thailand for some years. Now back in the UK, Andrew says being a Council member of SACU enables him to share his passion for all things Chinese.

His book, Jack Jones, A True Friend to China: The Lost Writings of a Heroic Nobody: the Friends Ambulance Unit ‘China Convoy’ 1945-1951, was published in 2015.

The Communist Party of China Celebrated 100 Years in July 2021, by Walter Fung

This article was first published in China Eye, Issue (71) Autumn 2021.

The CPC has been in governance for 72 years since the founding of the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. In that time 97% literacy has been achieved (about 30% in 1949), longevity has more than doubled to 77 years and about 850 million people have been pulled out of poverty. The standard of living of the entire population has improved immeasurably and about 400 million are now middle class, believed to be buying 47% of the luxury goods of the world. Many new cities have been built and new jobs created, amounting to an average of about 11 to 15 million new jobs together with housing every year for nearly four decades.

These achievements are unbelievable considering that at the end of World War 2, in 1945, about 95.4 million Chinese, nearly 25% of the population were refugees in their own country, which was then faced with a further four years of civil war, severe social economic problems and hyper-inflation. At the end of the civil war, China got hardly any help from Western countries and was not even admitted into the UN until 1971.

The Communist Party of China (CPC) now has over 95 million members. It represents all sectors of the population, in line with President Jiang Zemin’s ‘Three Represents’. Included in the CPC membership are blue collar workers and farmers (38%), technicians and skilled workers (6%), 40% of members have had higher education, cadres in State organs (8%), cadres in companies and service organisations 11%). Ethnic minorities make up about 7% of the CPC.

Female members make up 25% and there are 26% members under the age of 35 years. These figures are only approximations derived from information dated 2013 in China’s Political System (Heilmann editor), Mercator Institute, 2017).

 The most significant achievements followed Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in 1978, ‘it does not matter if the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice’. Ideology has continued to be flexible with Jiang Zemin’s ‘Three Represents’, Hu Jintao’s ‘Scientific Outlook on Development to build a Harmonious Society’ (Harmon, 和 is on every high-speed train) and more recently, Xi Jinping’s ‘Thoughts on Socialism with Chinese characteristics for a New Era’. 

Tiananmen Square from CGTN news report (photographed from the TV screen)
The Birds Nest Olympic Stadium celebrates 100 years

This year, 2021 two key goals have been achieved; extreme poverty has been eliminated and China has become a ‘moderately prosperous society in all respects’.

The next key stage in China’s development will be by 2035 to become a global technological leader and to cure some of the environmental degradations to become a ‘Beautiful China’, as stated by President Xi Jinping. The goal for 2049, the 100th Anniversary of the PRC, is for China to be ‘a great modern socialist country and a world leader in all aspects’. 

President Xi said, in a speech in November 2020, that it was ‘completely possible to double the size of the Chinese economy by 2035.’ A London-based consultancy firm has predicted that China’s economy will exceed that of the US by 2028. (Actually, in purchasing parity terms, it already was about 25% larger than that of the US in 2020 according to the Economist.)

Research by McKinsey indicates that China will have a 600 million middle class by about 2025. This is only five years from now. China is already a leader in 5G mobile communications, facial recognition, robotics, self-drive cars, drones, high-speed trains and new energy vehicles.

China spent $379 billion on research and development in 2020 and there were four million university graduates of which 1.6 million were in scientific, technical or engineering subjects.

An article by Zhang Weiwei in Beijing Review, 13 May 2021, discussed and explained something of the system of government in modern China. The Constitution stipulates that the state shall serve the people and ‘uphold a fundamental economic system under which public ownership is the main stay and diverse forms of ownership develop together’. It adds that the state shall protect both public and private property rights. Today, over 90% of Chinese households own property rights.

Translation: There would be no New China without the Communist Party (Jiang Zemin)

Democracy in China guarantees people’s property and involves consultative democracy at all levels of social society. It makes the world’s most extensive use of public surveys on public policies and also solicits public opinion directly via the internet. The information is used to formulate five-year plans for the nation and for different localities. The plans are subject to hundreds of rounds of consultation at all levels of the state and society.

In addition, the Chinese Peoples’ Consultative Congress, an advisory body, represents all peoples in the PRC and makes proposals to the CPC. Also, there are eight other political parties, which have specific interests and which cooperate with the leadership of the CPC.

China’s democracy is not perfect, but it continues to evolve and even now outperforms some systems in other parts of the world. Examples are the containment of Covid-19 and other issues of direct concern to the general public such as medical insurance, pension facilities and environmental protection. Surveys, some carried out by Western agencies, (such as Pew Research and Edelman) over the last few years have repeatedly shown that about 90% of Chinese people believe China is on the right track. This is far higher than that of many Western democracies.

In addition, Dalia Research (based in Berlin) released a Democracy Perception Index 2020, showing that 73% of Chinese believed their county is a democracy, compared to 49% of Americans who believed the US is a democracy.

The Times, 20 August 2021, contains an article entitled, ‘It’s payback time’, President Xi tells China’s band of billionaires. It appears that measures are being taken to tackle the wealth gap. The richest 1% of Chinese people hold 31% of the country’s wealth. The Chinese leadership said it would ‘rectify the order of income distribution’ including ‘cleaning up unreasonable incomes and firmly eliminating illicit incomes.’

In addition to tighter regulations and possible tax reforms, Beijing is asking the rich to do more for charity, to ‘repay society’ in a ‘third distribution’ to contribute towards the goal of ‘common prosperity’ by 2035. It seems that those schemes will be voluntary for now, to encourage high-income earners to pay back more to society. Three years ago, there was a crackdown on high payments to celebrities and capping earnings for television productions. The actress Fan Bingbing agreed to pay a further $129 million in taxes. More recently, The Times, 28 August, reported that the Chinese actress and former Pravda model, Zheng Shuang has been fined £34 million for tax evasion.

President Xi believes the time is right for a refined version of ‘common prosperity’ and to create a more equitable society (not about ‘averages’) in which everyone has the opportunity to advance and accumulate wealth. Last year regulators launched an anti-monopoly investigation into the giant Alibaba corporation, resulting in a $2.8 billion fine. Curbing monopolies provides opportunities for other companies and individuals to advance and hence this should contribute to a more equitable distribution of wealth.

Walter Fung, China Eye Editor
September 2021

Image at head of article: Shanghai: Site of First Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), which celebrated 100 years in July 2021. 

Living and teaching in Beijing in the 1970s: by Michael Sheringham

Living and teaching in Beijing in the 1970s

 Michael Sheringham

 Michael is a regular contributor to China Eye. He was an early member of SACU. This article was first published in China Eye, Issue (51) Autumn 2016. It is the second of Michael’s personal memories of the early days of SACU, (see China Eye, Issue 50), and of his time in the Peoples Republic of China. 

I was excited and privileged to be invited to teach at Peking University (Beijing Daxue – Beida) in 1972 after years of anticipation while I continued with my Chinese studies in London. It all comes flooding back. Early experiences are often the most memorable, and the welcome by my future colleagues in the Western Languages Department when I arrived at Beijing Airport in late September was a taste of things to come – a wonderful meal there before driving to my new home and work-place. Hitting a dog on the road was not so memorable, my first cultural shock.

Now settled into my new home, the Friendship Hotel in the northwestern outskirts of Beijing, I could begin to orientate myself to my new surroundings. At that time, on clear days, I could see the Western Hills in the distance, shimmering in a blue sky. The intervening countryside in Haidian District was covered by fields of crops and vegetables, only punctuated by the grand Summer Palace, with its Kunming Lake, and before that the village of Zhongguan Cun, still with its alleyways and traditional courtyards. Peking University with its own little lake in a picturesque campus (originally Yenching [Yanjing] University) lay close by, originally part of the vast parkland that formed the Yuanming Yuan (Old Imperial Summer Palace), stretching as far as the new Summer Palace. Among the famous intellectuals who taught at the university in the early 1920s when it was just established were the writer/linguist Hu Shih (Hu Shi), the writer Lu Hsun (Lu Xun) Professors Li Ta-chao (Li Dazhao) and Chen Tu-hsiu (Chen Duxiu), both founders of the Communist Party, and Mao Zedong was a librarian there.

One early and exciting experience was being taken to the celebrations for National Day (October 1, 1972) at the Summer Palace by a Chinese girl student of English at Beida. The park was packed with Chinese holiday-makers, enjoying the sights, stage performances and boating on the lake. There I saw two of the top Chinese leaders, Zhu De and Guo Moruo, watching a show by the lake, and was able to photograph them, although I shyly declined the offer to be introduced to them.

What struck me on leaving the gates of the Friendship Hotel, guarded by PLA soldiers at all times, was the rural-style market opposite, with mountains of cabbages piled up for customers. When I took photographs of this (to me) novel sight, the local women tried to prevent me, as if it was a state secret. The cabbages were in fact stored underground all through the frozen winter, ‘excavated’ for basic food consumption during this period. Nearby was the Evergreen Commune, a large area of farmland run by the neighbourhood to produce vegetables for the whole of Beijing. At our request, I and my sister, who was staying in the university for a couple of months, went to this commune with two girl students to work with the local peasants there during the summer vacation. We spent most of the time chatting to them while we took cover from the rain, and they were also no doubt trying to save of us from the real efforts of manual work.

Michael with one of his students

The Friendship Hotel, well-known to past and later generations of foreigners working in Beijing was to be my home for some years, while I was able to move to Peking University for most of the latter half of my 6-year stay. Read any account of foreigners who have lived at ‘Youyi Binguan’ and you will know about their frustrations at being ‘cooped up’ in a fortress-like compound with all the modern facilities, then unimaginable to most of Beijing residents. Like them, I bridled at the prospect, but soon decided to make the best of it and make friends with others from many countries, including Indonesian, Nepalese, Sri Lankan, Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Japanese and even other British. After all, we basically shared a spirit of affection for the Chinese people and interest in their lives and destiny. The trouble was that we could not share their lives at closer proximity, and many of the younger foreigners, especially the ‘radical’ ones from European countries, soon became frustrated with the restrictions and protective measures which they encountered both in their residence and in their work places.

When I started teaching at the university at the beginning of the new term the distance closed considerably. I soon declined the privilege of being chauffeured to the university and bought a bicycle and cycled the 15 minutes’ journey to the university. I also tried to avoid being treated with excessive politeness by my students, who started by standing up when I entered the class-room. Of the 150 in the first group and now in their third year, most were from the PLA armed forces – air force, navy and army. They always wore their military uniforms, so perhaps the discipline of saluting their officers was familiar to them. But it was not what I expected (as a young man of 26, who had read a fair amount about Westerners’ dominance of China during the previous one and half centuries), nor did it chime well for me with the principles of equality and revolutionary pride which I expected from these radical youth of the Cultural Revolution. So I dismissed this particular polite display of respect and made every effort to break down the barriers between teacher and students.

It was, of course, more difficult for the Chinese teachers to adapt to the new political climate and educational environment, since they were used to the traditional relationship between teachers and students even during the period of Socialism. During the Cultural Revolution, which broke out in 1966, Mao Zedong called on the youth to rebel against all forms of authority. I had expected that this often violent movement carried out by the Red Guards would have destroyed that elitist barrier, and that the teachers and educational authorities would have been humbled if not intimidated. But old ideas still obviously endured in spite of the harsh treatment that the teachers had had to endure during this period of upheaval. They tried their best to adapt to the new circumstances and requirements of the ‘Revolution in Education’, and to a great extent they succeeded. There was a new leadership in charge of the university consisting mainly of army personnel, with workers supervising every faculty, but the Vice-Chancellor was a senior scientist and the old professors once again enjoyed the traditional authority even if under the leadership of Party officials.

Michael with Macelia, Korean students and Chinese comrades in Beida

So in this somewhat paradoxical situation, I, a ‘Foreign Devil’, with the old academics, some Party members, and political supervisors, prepared English texts and lessons to teach the new generation of students from worker-peasant-soldier backgrounds in a new and revolutionary way. I was teaching with another English couple, who had taught in China before the Cultural Revolution, and other foreign teachers taught other Western, Arabic and Asian languages. We all certainly had to adapt our thinking and methodology to the requirements of the time and of the students, who were among the first years of intake after the ‘hiatus’ of 4-5 years, when universities closed during the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution.

One of the main features of the teaching material which I was asked to write for the students’ spoken English course was practicality. I prepared dialogues in colloquial English based on situations which they were likely to need in their immediate situations. These often involved visiting places in and around the university, such as the clinic, pharmaceutical laboratory, library, sports ground or middle and primary school attached to the university. Having practised some of these dialogues in the classroom, I went with students to the actual places, where they acted as interpreters for me as a foreign visitor. These visits would prepare the students for real situations when foreign visitors came to visit the university, including SACU groups and Ted Heath, the British ex-Prime Minister, who spoke with the students in May1974.

After my first visit back to the UK after two years, I travelled around the country, visiting places which I thought might be of interest to my students – not the usual historic sites, but the old mining areas with their museums of the industrial revolution and the country houses of the aristocracy, which showed how ‘the other half’ lived. I wrote texts and dialogues as teaching material for the students to practice as if they were visitors with myself as guide. I must admit that I presented these views of Britain with a certain political slant. I and my English colleagues also gave talks to our students about British history and aspects of society and people’s lives, which supplemented the background texts on English literature and other aspects which the Chinese teachers prepared for them.

In fact, the Chinese leadership, with Premier Zhou Enlai playing a crucial role, promoted teaching English and training teachers of English in his diplomatic drive to ‘open up to the world’. Apart from calling Beida English students to discuss this promotion of English himself, Zhou instigated a National Conference on Education and Scientific Research under the Minister of Education, Zhou Rongxin in 1972. The main thrust of the educational policies in this period of the ‘Revolution in Education’ was the balance of ‘Red’ and ‘expert’, emphasising political ‘working-class’ educational priorities, while attempting to raise academic standards.

In effect, this was a turning-point, where the ‘professionals’ won Zhou Enlai’s support to pay more attention to ‘expertise’. Following the ‘Red’ principle, teachers were still encouraged to help students from ordinary (particularly rural backgrounds) to keep up their studies by giving them extra tuition and encouragement. I also did this with specially selected groups of ‘slower-learning’ students. “The conference also advocated the ‘open-book’ method of examinations, whereby students could freely refer to textbooks.” (quote from my talk to SACU in July 1977.)

Another basic principle in education at that time was combining study in the classroom with work experience (‘bangong banxue’) both within and outside the university, or schools. My students and their Chinese teachers had spent a year in the countryside in Jiangxi Province, working on the land to reclaim marshland in harsh conditions. When they came back to the university, they did regular stints of manual work on projects such as building the foundations of the new university library. I sometimes found them not in the classroom for English lessons, but on the campus digging ditches or laying bricks with their teachers and political supervisors (from the army leadership in each department). They often sang songs as they worked, and I insisted on joining them in their work as far as I could. One problem I found was that the teachers didn’t practise English with the students on these occasions, probably because the political supervisors, who didn’t speak English, would have criticised them for doing this. I think I broke this barrier, although I also tried to practise my Chinese outside class whenever I could.

The students also went out to practise their English in various ways, organised by the foreign language department. Some of our third-year students had spent several months in Shanghai acting as interpreters for Africans working at the docks in the year before I taught them (1971). The second group of students (entry of 1971), who were termed ‘educated youth’ and wore civilian, Mao-style clothes rather than uniforms, went to work in hotels in Beijing for several weeks, where they did various basic tasks and had contact with early foreign visitors, such as the American Guardian newspaper group. This group happened to include my aunt and uncle from New York, who were visiting China for the first time as progressive activists in the civil rights movement. I went to visit them and my students at Minzhu Hotel in Chang’an Boulevard on several occasions.

When such friendship groups came to visit the university, they were usually received by the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Zhou Peiyuan, a suave intellectual who spoke fluent English, in the ‘Hall by the Lake’, and I was invited with some of my students and their Chinese teachers to attend these sessions and take the guests around the campus. Although I found these good opportunities for the students to practise their English and for the visitors to get closer to the lives of the students, I was frustrated by the cultural/political barriers which I felt were manifested by the stilted language (full of political slogans) of the students which hampered mutual understanding. I tried my best to act as an intermediary or even interpreter as they struggled to explain why they were studying English, how they were selected and what the aims of their education were. So much for the colloquial English language which I was teaching them!

When the first year of students were preparing to graduate after three and a half years (shortened from the original pre-Cultural Revolution course of 4-5 years), they carried out a movement to sum up their progress in transforming education at the university. Apart from discussions and debates, they used ‘big-character posters’ to express their opinions, which were often criticisms or warnings to the teachers to beware of falling into old ‘bourgeois’ habits of teaching and standing aloof from their students, particularly the worker-peasant students. I remember one tough-looking army student coming up to me as I was reading these posters and asking me what I thought of them. I told him that I agreed with them (of course!), but realised how intimidating these young, zealous ex-Red Guards could be. I was pretty radical myself, suggesting that barriers between ‘town and gown’ could better be eliminated by knocking down the old wall which surrounded the campus and integrating with the surrounding neighbourhood.

Michael with Susu and Zhao Yinbao at the Summer Palace

With most of the foreigners living in China and the Chinese leaders of our various work places, I was privileged to participate in an important event on March 8, 1973, a meeting in the Great Hall of the People where Zhou Enlai addressed us about the official policies regarding foreigners living in China. As we sat at the round dining tables allocated to each work place (in my case, Peking University), Zhou talked for about 3 hours, declaring that Mao’s policies were internationalist and welcoming to friendly foreigners. He denounced Lin Piao (Lin Biao), the former Minister of Defence and Mao’s designated successor (who had died in a mysterious plane-crash in 1971), as a ‘renegade’ and apologised on behalf of the Government and Party about the wrong ‘ultra-leftist’ policies which had victimised foreigners during the height of the Cultural Revolution. Many had been wrongly imprisoned and had only just been released after years of captivity and were now present at this meeting. Zhou made a point of walking around the hall and greeting those at each table.


At our Beida (Peking University) table he stopped to make a particular point about one family with whom I was closely acquainted. Marcelia Yeh was a long-time American resident in Beijing, who was teaching English with me at the university. She had been married to a Chinese scientist who had died some years previously, and was bringing up her children in the residence of the Academy of Science nearby. Zhou had heard that her son was in love with a Chinese girl working in a factory with her son, but that her family had her sent away into the countryside to prevent the two from deepening their relationship. He instructed the university leaders to have the girl brought back to Beijing and to make sure that her parents or any other authorities should not interfere in their relationship. It was Mao’s policy, he said, that Chinese could marry foreigners and international relations should flourish. It was also significant that Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, was also present on this occasion, presumably ‘forced’ to attend as a snub against her ‘ultra-leftist’ policies, which had caused factionalism and incited anti-foreign sentiment during this period. Apparently, she spoke not a word to the foreign friends at her table, bearing a sullen demeanour throughout the proceedings.

Zhou Enlai’s efforts to promote a more open foreign policy and professional approach to academic and scientific research could be felt in many ways as more foreign students came to study Chinese at the university and language colleges, while the English teaching material itself included texts based on diplomacy. A speech of Ch’iao Kuan-hua (Qiao Guanhua – Deputy Foreign Minister) to the UN, for instance, was one of the texts which the Chinese teachers used to teach to the first group of students. While Zhou and the reinstated Teng Hsiao-ping (Deng Xiaoping) emphasised training experts and professionals (the ‘Expert’ school), the ‘Reds’ continued to push for popularising skills and political (Marxist) aspects to be the determining factors in education. In another campaign ‘to oppose the rightist trend..’, the radicals argued in the media and Party directives against ‘back-sliding’ and a reversion to elitist tendencies in every aspect of cultural and educational policies.

At the university in 1975, there were discussions amongst students and teachers, which I attended, about how to promote another educational campaign based on the ‘Chaoyang experience’. Chaoyang was an agricultural college in the northeast which had pioneered and promoted teaching even more closely related to the students’ practical experience in the fields. When the national media extolled this educational experiment, the universities, and each department, were called upon to discuss how to follow this Chaoyang ‘model’ in their respective disciplines. This was obviously not so easy to implement in the cultural and linguistic subjects, but it was decided that the Western language department students and their teachers would move to a rural area outside Beijing to pursue their courses. This was a more drastic measure than doing brief stints of working and studying in field and factory, as it involved moving furniture and equipment such as heavy tape-recorders out of the campus and into the countryside.

As foreign teachers, we were not expected (or indeed allowed) to go with the Chinese students, but remained back on the campus to compile teaching material and teach a group of teachers who came back once a week. I was also assigned to teach Vietnamese and North Korean students who were studying English at the university. Now, after two years of ‘proving my reliability’, I had been invited to move to a dormitory on the campus, which was the accommodation for foreign students and some of their Chinese class-mates.

I was, of course, delighted to teach these ‘Socialist brothers and sisters’ and much enjoyed living and eating with them, but I argued with my English department leaders that I had come to teach the Chinese students and teachers and would like to join them in their new venture. This request, vigorously supported by my previously-mentioned American colleague, was refused (on the grounds that it was ‘subjective’ – another term for selfish) and that we could best serve revolutionary and educational needs by visiting the students once a week to teach them on the spot at their rural base in Dongxing County near Beijing. I remember how we were taken there and back in a jeep and freezing on the way! Learning about their life and work there provided the basis for the teaching material which we prepared for them and got them to practise during our teaching visits. We did, however, join our Korean and Vietnamese students and their Chinese teachers, when they went to the countryside near Beijing to do manual work in the fields for a week.

While this experiment lasted about a year, and was widely broadcast in by media, the rear-guard reaction of the conservative or ‘right-wing’ faction and their academic followers could be sensed in many ways. Deng Xiaoping was dismissed from office again and criticised in the press, on big-character posters and at meetings, which we foreign teachers attended for our own ‘education’. There were campaigns to extol educational heroes like Huang Shuai, who criticised her teacher for being ‘bourgeois’ or ‘elitist’ or Zhang Tiesheng, a country boy who refused to take the ‘bookish’ entrance examination. A very radical film ‘Fanji’, Counterattack, dealing with the ‘Revolution in Education’ and how some old-style academics were trying to sabotage it, was produced in October 1976, but only shown as ‘negative propaganda’ after the political tide had turned again.

It all changed in the traumatic year of 1976. In January, Premier Zhou died of cancer and a popular commemoration of his life by thousands of people laying wreaths in his memory in Tiananmen Square in April was crushed and condemned by the current authorities. I passed by the Square in a taxi, but was advised not to stop there as trouble was expected. This led to the final overthrow of Deng Xiaoping and the appointment of Hua Guofeng as Zhou’s successor and Vice-Chairman. A few months after this, the revolutionary army leader, Zhu De, and then Mao Zedong passed away. In between, in that long hot summer, there was a massive earthquake in Tangshan near Tianjin, and the effects of this and aftershocks could be felt in Beijing.

I was travelling in the mountains of Jinggangshan with my parents and a Chinese teacher at that time, when we heard the devastating news, assuming that it was actually a political earthquake. In a sense, it was too, as we witnessed not only the survivors being transported to the south to recuperate in sanatoria in Wuxi, where we were also seeking sanctuary, but also lorries full of ‘condemned’ (as we assumed) political prisoners being paraded to meet their fate. This scenario was, as it turned out, the last throw of the dice of the radical ‘ultra-left’ movement to gain supremacy before Mao died. And the rest is history…

The Western Languages Department (Xiyu Xi) of Beida with Michael at Mingyun Reservoir (Mingyun Shuiku)

My parents returned to London via Shanghai and Hong Kong, and I and my colleague went back to Beijing, where we stayed in temporary ‘tents’ (sheets over bunk beds) at the university while the aftershocks from the earthquake still threatened the buildings. Our students went off to join the soldiers to do rescue and rehabilitation work in the stricken and flattened city of Tangshan (a quarter of a million dead). When they returned to the campus and resumed classes, they reported to me in English about their exploits – except that they said nothing about their own experience, only mechanically repeating what they read in the newspapers (“Man’s Will Overcomes Nature!”). It was only 40 years later when I saw a feature film, Aftershock (‘Tangshan Da Dizhen’, directed by Feng Xiaogang, 2010), about the real experience of those terrible events and how they affected ordinary people that I relived them and cried.

Mao’s death and the subsequent overthrow of his followers, his wife Jiang Qing and the others known as the ‘Gang of Four’, were terrible events which played out like a Greek tragedy or Beijing Opera. Seeing how the students and teachers at the university prepared wreaths in sullen and sad composure seemed an expression of genuine admiration and grief for the loss of their leader and symbol of their revolutionary history. I and other foreigners were taken to pay tribute as Mao lay in state in Tiananmen, but the wailing and crying there, on the other hand, seemed traditionally operatic.

I was shocked when the news about the arrest of a group of Mao’s ‘left-wing’ associates in the leadership was announced on the BBC radio news that November morning, and when I told one of my students about it, he exclaimed “This is terrible if it is true!” He and others were soon celebrating their downfall in public demonstrations. When I went to my office in the Western Languages Department later that day, the head of the department, a German-speaking academic whom I knew well over the years and liked, took me aside and expressed the relief and joy which he and other academics and intellectuals felt at hearing this news. “We are at last really free, but we couldn’t tell you all these years how suppressed we felt”, was his spontaneous reaction to these events. I could appreciate the conflict these intellectuals had felt in their academic and often official Party roles, but I could never understand how they had managed to put on a different face all through these years.

Celebrations in Tiananmen Square on appointment of Hua Guofeng as Chairman

During the celebrations for the ‘Gang’s’ demise and the appearance of the new leader and Chairman, Hua Guofeng, I marched with my students down Chang’an Jie, waving banners and taking photographs, but this seemed to be just another performance of Beijing Opera in a new guise. It would herald another (and the biggest) reversal of China’s recent history, and a new campaign to condemn almost everything that had been applauded during the years I had been living in Beijing. I felt sorry to see my students from ordinary backgrounds being undermined by the new policies which were soon introduced in education. Their achievements in studying English were belittled by the new intake of students from mostly intellectual and urban backgrounds, who had to pass rigorous entrance exams to this prestigious university and others like it. At least one professor expressed how relieved he was not to have to struggle to teach these students from poor and poorly-educated families, who found it so hard to learn a foreign language. I continued to teach these students for another term, but they graduated soon after I left for England in the Spring of 1978 without the qualifications that graduates from such a university deserved. No other English teacher had continued to teach them and they had no more colloquial English oral classes before they graduated. It was the end of an era and the end of my time in Beijing too.

Postscript: In the following years I met several of my old students when I went back to the university or when they came abroad. A good many went on to study abroad, mainly in the US, gaining PhDs and becoming successful academics. Recently, I met one of my old army students from the first group which I taught. He went on to work in the army as an interpreter and was later transferred to a Chinese state company working in several countries in Africa for many years. His two daughters studied in the UK and one has settled here with her Chinese husband and children. Generally, this generation has adapted very well to the new times and learnt new skills to enable them to be successful and provide even more opportunities for the next generation – those who are really at home in this globalised world economy and culture.

Interview with Michael Wood, SACU President, on Du Fu and China for Chinese Social Sciences Today

This interview with Professor Michael Wood, SACU President, on Du Fu and China, was published in Chinese Social Sciences Today (a Chinese language newspaper) on 10 December 2020. Felicia Hong JIANG was the interviewer and the article was published in Chinese. We are grateful to Michael for sending us the text of Felicia’s questions with his replies.


1 How is your new book The Story of China related to and different from the documentary series of the same name in 2016?

Films do very different things to books. Obviously in a 600-page book you can do a great deal more than in a film. You can put much more in, expanding the material with richer context, argument and nuance (which TV rarely does well!) and you can take time over the big ideas. It also allowed me to look in detail at some of the great stories we could only touch on in the films; for instance, important cultural figures like Li Qingzhao or Cao Xueqin, or little known but fascinating female writers like Zheng Yunduan, Fang Weiyi, He Zhen and so on. The book also looks at some important discoveries only published in the last few years, such as the new Qin and Han legal documents, the Qin soldiers’ letters from the Conquest period, or the Han letters from waystations and watchtowers on the Silk Road. People’s voices are a very important part of the book.


2 What inspired you to make the China documentaries and publish the new book?

As I’ve said I was interested in Chinese culture from schooldays. At university I shared a house with a Chinese scholar who was always lending me amazing books. After my postgraduate research I went into TV; I first went to China in the early eighties and first filmed in China in the late eighties. My wife Rebecca and I are part of a small independent company Maya Vision, and since then we have made many historical cultural and political documentaries which have gone all over the world, some to 150 countries and territories. Among our history series was The Story of India (2007) and after that everyone said, ‘you have to try to do the same for China!’ So, it was some time in gestation. We have made many history films, but many cultural ones too (among them a 4-part series on the life of Shakespeare (my biography is published in China), a recent film on the great Roman poet Ovid, and other films about early English culture. So, films on poetry and literature are also part of what we do, and when we made The Story of China, we included many sequences on culture with stories of famous Chinese writers and poets. The ethos, the spirit of a civilisation, I always feel, comes out strongly in its poetry and literature.


3 Given the immense period of time of the Chinese civilization, how do you decide what parts to be included in the book and the documentary?

All historical writing is an act of selection; the art is selecting so that the whole feels like an organic whole and tells a narrative that flows and makes sense. With films this is all the more so – films are very compressed narratives. Now, obviously, Chinese history is so big that the selection is everything: my book is 500-600 pages long, but you could write that much on Du Fu alone!! As the book is intended to be an introduction for the general reader, the idea is to present a narrative that gives the general reader in the west a sense of the immense scope and scale and richness of Chinese history; the big themes that run through time; the continuities and the periods of disruption: it’s a tale of incredible drama, creativity and humanity: that’s what I wanted to convey to the reader here who perhaps knows nothing or very little about the story.

That said you then follow your own particular interests. For example, I was concerned that the book included some great women’s stories. Recently we have had interesting books on say Dowager Cixi, a film about Empress Wu, but I went for figures less well known here who have left wonderfully intimate writings – as I mentioned before, Li Qingzhao, Zheng Yunduan, Fang Weiyi, the women in Zhang Xuecheng’s biographies, or the feminists in the late Qing like Qiu Jin, and He Zhen, whose feminists manifesto has caused a lot of interest over here. (*See the preface to my book for more on this).



4 China is the oldest living civilization on earth. What forces have kept China together for so long?

A huge question! A short answer: Confucius in a famous passage in the Analects talks about ‘this culture of ours’ and that idea has been with Chinese people ever since through thick and thin, despite sometimes huge breakdowns – e.g. at the end of the Han, or end of the Tang. The belief that Han culture and civilisation, the script, the core texts containing Chinese values, were the bedrock despite immense cultural and linguistic diversity. Think of Wang Renyu on the chaos of the Five Dynasties (a tale told in the book), or Lu You in the Southern Song lamenting China’s divisions: these core ideas were very ancient. As it says at the beginning of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, ‘The empire that falls apart will come back together again’.


5 Why was China overtaken by the West after the 18th century?

It’s a long story on which many books have been written! In brief, historically speaking it was a ‘perfect storm’: the rise of small aggressive maritime powers on the Atlantic seaboard, mercantile, individualistic. Then the European Conquest of the New World, the dispossession of its indigenous peoples, and the exploitation of its resources; then industrial revolution powered by coal allows them to take the lead which until then China had possessed. To this I would add the arms race inside Europe (where there were constant wars through the 17th and 18th centuries) which meant that the West overtook China in military technology; the Qing rulers had no real incentive to develop military and naval technology until then as they had no competitors in East Asia to push them. Add to that the Western conception of secular science-based modernity which they imposed on the traditional civilisations, whether India, China or the New World. Finally, there was also the imperialist/colonialist mindset: Chinese civilisation did not believe in conquering non-Chinese nations and peoples: as Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) noted in his diary in a fascinating passage: their goal was to maintain civilisation within their own borders.


6 How do you understand the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation? What lies behind China’s rise today?

It depends on which timescale you want to look! (Nothing is new in China!) After all, the Donglin reformers talked about national rejuvenation in the early 17th century and there are continuities between them and the later intellectual and cultural renewal movements in the south, like the Fushe movement, the Changzhou School, and the Guizhou modernisers (brilliantly illuminated in the West recently by Jerry D. Schmidt in his fascinating book on Zheng Zhen and the rise of Chinese modernity.)  John Fairbank’s terrific book is called The Great Chinese Revolution 1800-1985. What this means is that historians (whether in China or the West) see a long trajectory of change: so, the 1949 revolution was born in the short term over four decades, but also over four centuries. When you ask about what lies behind it, I would put first the solidarity, patience, creativity, energy and hardworking ethos of the Chinese people themselves, their love of their culture, and their deep-rooted sense of justice, fairness and equality. But I would say the key moment for the China Dream was the liberating of the potential of the Chinese people by Deng Xiaoping. Of course, 1949 is a massive turning point in history; but the key moment of change historians will see as summer 77-spring 79, the subject of my five recent films for China Review Studio. China at that point was impoverished and backward and exhausted by social conflict. So the decisions taken by Deng then – in education, agriculture, economy and industry – would transform China: some scholars in the USA that I talked to for the films, like Ezra Vogel (author of the best biography of Deng in the West, which is available in Chinese) argue that (despite the disaster of 1989) Deng is the greatest world leader of modern history, and the Reform and Opening Up one of the most significant events in world history. Everything that has happened in China since has flowed from that. But the biggest credit goes to the Chinese people themselves.


7 You mentioned that Du Fu caught your attention when you were a teenager. Will you please share with us more of that story?

I was interested in him since I was at school when I read a book of translations from Tang poetry – and have been fascinated ever since. We had done a sequence about Du Fu in our BBC series The Story of China in 2016-17. After the warm response to that series, I was intrigued by the idea of trying to bring Du Fu to a British audience for the first time – and also if it could be shown in China too that would be great. Audiences in China had been very generous in their feedback about The Story of China, and I was keen to film back in China with our brilliant Chinese film crew whom we like to work with very much indeed. So, having made the Ovid film we thought it would be very interesting to try to tell his story. One thing led to another, and we made Du Fu as a CCTV/BBC co-production.

Also of course I should say I was curious too, as you must be when you make films, to explore his story further; to see the cottage in Chengdu, visit Baidicheng, and of course to go to Anding near Changsha – a Chinese friend’s mum and dad live nearby in Pingjiang and they told me about the Qingming Festival commemoration at Du Fu’s tomb. I couldn’t wait to go there! This autumn I have prepared a little book full of text and photos called In the Footsteps of Du Fu following his journey round China: we are just about to look for a Chinese publisher – my offering to the spirit of Du Fu!


8 Du Fu is called “The Saint of Poetry” in China. Li Bai, known as the “Immortal Poet”, ranks alongside Du Fu as one of the two leading figures of Chinese poetry. Why do you consider Du Fu as the greatest Chinese poet?

Of course, all Chinese people put them together. Two sides of human nature almost – as we would say the Apollonian and the Dionysian! But what I meant by this is that when we call Du Fu ‘China’s greatest poet’, much as we say Shakespeare is the greatest poet in English, it is the amplitude of his works that is so striking: the amazing range of his poetry from huge vistas of war, his great speculations in the Gorges on human beings’ relation to nature, landscape and the cosmos, to the close-up intimacy of family, friendship, eating together, making a chess board out of old paper. Everything in life is the subject of his poetry. So, it is his wide-ranging imagination which makes us think of Shakespeare. And like Shakespeare in English, as Stephen Owen says in our film, Du Fu not only wrote ‘the greatest words in the Chinese language’ but he also helped create ‘the moral and emotional vocabulary of the culture’. What is important is his lifelong belief in Confucian virtue, benevolence and righteousness – it seems to me these still matter, despite all the disasters of the 1950s and 60s; they are still fundamental to how society works, and how people act towards each other: these are ‘what makes society tick’, as we say. He writes very movingly about friendship and family – he writes lots of poems about eating and drinking (one of the big things the Chinese people love of course is eating and drinking together with family and friends!!) So, though he died in obscurity, in the 9th century his poetry began to be known, in the 10th century his fame grew, and by the 12th century he was viewed as the great poet; from then on, in the Confucian revival of the Song, he crystallised in beautiful language the values of the civilisation, and that passed right down to modern times. Even today. I saw in an interview that President Xi, when describing his time in re-education as a teenager near Yan’an, said his consolation was Tang poetry, and especially Du Fu.



9 Sinologist Nicolas Chapuis said Du Fu is to China what Shakespeare is to England. What do Du Fu and Shakespeare have in common?

Nicolas Chapuis (who is also EU Ambassador to Beijing) is part way through a huge project to publish the whole of Du Fu’s work in French, with a very helpful and detailed commentary. So, after the first complete edition in Chinese in 2014, then Stephen Owen’s complete English version in 2016, we now have a really wonderful French edition distinguished by its rich and helpful commentary which draws not only on nearly a millennium of Chinese commentaries but also on almost 200 years of western scholarship. What we are seeing then is the growth of a global vision of Du Fu as a poet who transcends the boundaries of translation and becomes a universal voice like Shakespeare – as Chapuis says in the preface to his book ‘a voice that lives today with a clarity and power that cannot but astonish’.

A footnote:  Chapuis has an interview online which I like very much: he talks about the Chinese writer Qian Zhongshu (whom he knew) and his Guan Zhui Bian (translated into English as Limited Views): this masterpiece exposes the missing links between China and the West. Qian was fluent in English, French, German, Italian. What he showed in Guan Zhui Bian is that there is no separation between East and West. The gaps are totally arbitrary. You can use Chinese texts to understand Western philosophy, and you can use Western philosophy to understand Chinese texts. Because he concentrated on the human condition – what it means to be human. He showed that of course there are differences in approaches and perceptions, but culture is global. Many of the things that China thinks are unique to China are not. It is global; it is human. It is in poetry that you find human nature. And Chinese poetry has always been about the individual, the personal.


10 When creating the Du Fu documentary, you traced the journey on the Chinese ground. Has this journey made you see Du Fu from a new light?

You always learn something new when you travel, and especially in China which is so rich in landscape, people, culture and customs. And of course, focusing on Du Fu alone for a while you couldn’t help but understand more about the culture as a whole, and its enduring values which are still there despite all the huge changes of the last seventy years.

The plan was to follow his path, as it were. We at Maya Vision have made many films on culture and history, and often we have adopted the idea of weaving the story round a journey, which is a more dynamic way of telling the story – and of course of moving the camera. Some of our big TV series have taken the form of what one newspaper called ‘History-Travel-Adventure’. For example, we did a series following the story of Alexander the Great from Greece to India through Iran, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and later a series on the Spanish Conquest of the New World, in Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, and Amazonia: some with very dramatic journey sequences, even hair-raising at times!! These were each seen in over 140 or 150 countries and territories. Even when we made our Shakespeare series – and unlike Du Fu Shakespeare was not a traveller (he lived most of his life between Stratford and London!) we livened up the narrative with travel sequences, e.g. sailing across to Holland for the wars between the Dutch and the Spanish in the 1590s. Du Fu’s life obviously lent itself to that kind of approach, as in the last dozen years of his life it takes the form of a great journey, from Xi’an to Tianshui, over the mountains to Chengdu, then down to Baidicheng, Jingzhou, Lake Dongting, Changsha, and Pingjiang. And to tell it that way gives the narrative a momentum, pushing it forward, which, in any case, is there clearly in his poetry as he travels (‘I am a seagull blown by the wind’). Making the films I felt I got to know him better – by following his route, reading his poems and thinking about them as we went, inevitably you gain more understanding. Some places like Qufu I know quite well – I first went in the 1980s – we filmed there again recently for The Story of China; Xi’an I have been to many times; Chengdu I had never been to, and I really enjoyed going to the Thatched Cottage and meeting people there: it’s a really lovely place to which I hope to return one day. Also, the Yangtze Gorges I had never been to, so it was a great experience to be in Baidicheng – even though the landscape is much changed. The big surprise was how lovely the countryside was around Pingjiang in Hunan, especially along the Miluo river: gorgeous places – the tomb monument at Anding is really beautiful, definitely worth a visit when your readers are down in Hunan!!


11 You are a great success making history accessible to the general public. Can you share with us the key to your success? What makes the Du Fu documentary and The Story of China so appealing to the Western audience?

Thank you, that’s very kind. The Story of China TV series was the main one, and the audience response was often amazement at the stories we told: (‘I never knew that…!’) Also, the audiences here really liked the way the Chinese people came over as interesting, engaged, and great fun: witnesses to their own history. I hope too that the films were appealing because they were made with the heart. Films are basically simple: a combination of pictures, sounds, words and music. But how those elements are put together is the key: with really good editing and use of music, careful choice of words, you can create mood atmosphere and emotion as well as simply giving facts. Rather than being drily factual we also think that films should make the audience feel: so, films should have empathy – an important word. One of the things Chinese audiences said to us about The Story of China films was that they ‘made us feel’. Even Xinhua reviewing the films commented on this aspect, finding the films ‘transcended the barriers of culture and language and created something inexplicably moving’. Films work best if they affect the heart too.



12 Would you please share with us one of your most memorable moments when creating the documentaries on China and Du Fu?

There are so many that I must be brief! In The Story of China so many great moments – the Qingming Festival with the Qin family in Wuxi; the Farmers’ Festival at Zhoukou with a million locals at the shrine of the goddess Nüwa; the wonderful traditional storytellers in Yangzhou; visiting the old Huizhou merchant families in Shexian and Qimen county; returning after so many years to Xingjiao Si – one of my favourite places. With the Reform and Opening Up films two years ago, talking to the farmers in Xiaogang, Anhui, telling the story of their ‘Life or Death Contract’ in November 1978, a turning point in the history of modern China. On the Du Fu film most moving I think was meeting the ordinary people visiting the Thatched Cottage site at Chengdu, some of whom you see in our film: I loved their enthusiasm for Du Fu, and for Chinese culture in general: the little girl reading Spring Rain, the group of ladies, the sweet old local man who said he came ‘many times: at least once every month’ and told us he loved Du Fu because ‘he spoke for the poor, for the ordinary people’. They all seemed to me to be speaking strongly for the enduring values of Chinese civilisation and standing in the rain with them that day in Chengdu I was very touched by that.


The interview was written by Felicia Hong JIANG and originally published in the Chinese newspaper
Chinese Social Sciences Today (CSST)《中国社会科学报》
10 December 2020

Here is the link to the published interview (in Chinese):


Or see the interview in Chinese here:
2020年12月10日 09:20 来源:《中国社会科学报》本报记者 姜红
Interview Michael Wood ChineseSocialSciencesToday




“Only by working together will we defeat the virus” Interview

Dr. Li Yan, one of the 40,000 Chinese doctors who went to help during the lockdown in Wuhan gave an interview to former VRT (Belgian public radio and tv) journalist Ng Sauw Tjhoi, who has been studying and covering China for years.
(13 May 2020)


During the lockdown in Wuhan there was no applause at 8pm, but “people hung banners out of their windows, ‘Go Wuhan, go China!’, That’s the way we were encouraged and shown appreciation”, Dr. Li Yan tells me in a Zoom interview that she has granted me. I had thought her testimony very moving, earlier in May, during a webinar organized by the Beijing People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, Beijing NGO Network for International Exchanges and Beijing Medical Women’s Association (May 13, 2020).

The lockdown full force in Wuhan made some 11 million inhabitants “stay home, stay safe” between January 23 and April 8, or 76 days. More than 40,000 doctors and many more nursing staff joined the fight against COVID-19 in Wuhan, along with the 1.5 million volunteers from the city itself (14% of the local population). Dr. Li Yan is one of the doctors who volunteered. An active woman of 43, mother of a son of 6, married. “When my husband and I got married, I warned him that I was a workaholic, (she laughs). Sometimes I should take some more time off and spend time with my family.” She sometimes works for days on end. There’s no time clock for saving people’s lives. But going to help in Wuhan? Still, I decided for myself pretty soon, I must go there. “I see a cheerful Chinese doctor in a surgical cap and a white doctor’s apron on my laptop screen. Even though it’s virtual reality, the tone has been set.

Dr. Li Yan, you work and live in Beijing, You have been working as an intensive care physician in the Pulmonary and Respiratory Diseases Department of The University Central Hospital Xuanwu for over 18 years, had you treated Covid-19 patients in your hospital before you went to Wuhan?

“No, I treated my first Covid-19 patients in Wuhan. At the end of January there were no corona patients in Beijing. My department has 12 beds. Then there were patients with other conditions. But we heard a lot of reports about Wuhan. And in our hospital, the management had already made an urgent appeal for volunteers. I put myself on the list pretty soon. First, of course, I consulted with my husband. We still have a 6-year-old son and we take care of my parents too. But they all told me to go. I am very grateful to them; it was not an easy decision for them!

You yourself have decided quickly and decisively, why are you taking such a risk, as you were already aware that it was a dangerous virus, otherwise there would not have been a lockdown?

“True, … Well, I’m just an ordinary person, you know, I’m a simple doctor, I try to do my job as best as I can every day. But we know from previous virus outbreaks that it is necessary to get started very quickly and with many hands. A virus doesn’t rest either, does it? And for me personally, it was also an opportunity to improve my medical knowledge and gain more experience. I feel that as a doctor I have a duty to help every human being, wherever I am. And, you know, I also want to live up to my ideals of humanity and service in my medical work. I’m really no exception.” (laughs)

Could you tell us how the preparation of the relief mission to Wuhan was handled and what this meant for you?

“You know that the outbreak of the virus coincided with the Chinese New Year. For us that is a family celebration, also with some days off, and everyone comes home and there is a friendly atmosphere all around. But during the festival I already felt that ‘duty would call soon’, because it became clear that there would be a great need for doctors with qualifications like I have. On the third day of the New Year, January 27th, I received a text message from the hospital that a support team had to be formed. I got the message just before lunchtime, and we had to be at the airport at two o’clock. So, I had very little time to pack and say goodbye.”

Dr Li Yan at her usual place of work in Xuanwu Hospital, Beijing

How was the support team assembled? And… are you actually a member of the Communist Party?

(Laughs out loud) “Of course I am a member of the CPC (via Zoom she proudly shows her pin fastened on her white apron) and our team consisted for about half of members and for the other half non-members of the party. There were 136 of us, including 100 nursing staff and 36 doctors. All volunteers. We took the plane in which 5 tons of medical equipment was taken but also many things for daily use and food. Many of us also had packs of instant noodles.”

I see, typical, isn’t it! Were you nervous when you got on the plane?

“I’d be lying if I answered no. Yes, we were all very nervous. We teased each other with jokes like “once on the plane our lives are out of control”. During the flight, it became really silent. I think everyone felt like soldiers who travel to the front to defend their compatriots at the risk of their own lives. That’s how I imagined it. There is really a war on that virus, isn’t there? The flight seemed to take extra time. After 11 o’clock at night we arrived at the hotel where we would stay all the time. That night I didn’t unpack until I went to bed at 1 am, but I didn’t get a wink of sleep. Many of us were not able to sleep, in my opinion we were all thinking about the patients we were going to help the next day.”

The images of Chinese hospitals that I remember from internet videos and so, gave me a massive and very highly ordered impression. Is that right, was it like that at the hospital in Wuhan where you were going to help?

“You should know that at that time there were more than 4,000 patients in Wuhan and there were a lot of infections right away. When we entered the hospital (Wuhan Medical Union Hospital) it was -honestly speaking- one big mess. The wards were far from in working order, chairs and tables were lying around, equipment still half packed, the beds were not technically in order, since it was a designated hospital that we had to transform into a Covid-19 hospital from scratch. We had to be ready for 800 patients, but actually we had to set everything up while the first sick people came in. In the days that followed, fortunately, everything got well organized, and we were able to take in more and more corona patients. We had to work doubly hard that first week.”

You’ve lost count of the number of people you’ve treated, you told me, but do you remember your very first Covid-19 patient?

“Yes, … It was a couple, an older couple. I remember them very well. I am still feeling somewhat sad when I think of them. They were both 72 years old and entered the hospital hand in hand. The man showed mild symptoms but his wife was very ill. They were both considered Covid patients and therefore had to be treated separately, yet the husband wanted to stay with his wife. But we couldn’t let that happen, the man wasn’t allowed to stay with her, according to protocol. And when I look back now, I’m so sorry we had to do that. The woman died a few days later and her husband had been unable to see her before she died. I felt really bad about it then, and I still do today. And when we had to take the woman’s body to the morgue, another inhumane problem arose. Her husband and children had been quarantined and were not allowed to come to the hospital to sign. We’re going to have to break the sad news to the old man at his home. I can still see his face in front of me, with all his sadness. We have given him words of support and have stayed with him for a long time. In the end, we asked the management to change the regulations. And that’s what happened. Regulations must remain humane.”

Dr Li Yan on duty in Wuhan

It is often said in the media that the corona figures in China have been underestimated. What do you think of this statement?

“If you’re talking about the number of Covid-19 deaths … In Wuhan, and I think all over the country, we had to register every deceased Covid-19 patient with a unique figure. At the end of each day, these registrations were reported to the Wuhan Health Service, which then delivered them to the National Health Service. So, in my mind it’s impossible to “under-report” the number of deaths.”

Could you tell us a bit more about lockdown life outside the hospital, was there really no one on the street, did delivery of food supplies and daily necessities run smoothly?

“Well, in general it did, but especially during the first two weeks it was a really difficult life. The start of the lockdown was also the worst period. The supply of food and drink, and other daily necessary products, as well as medicines, was really difficult. Transport to Wuhan was only barely allowed after strict control. But after those two weeks things changed quite quickly. Things got well organized for us volunteers. In the hotel we could eat well, we also got all-weather clothing from the government, because at that time of the year the weather in Wuhan is very changeable. We also had the opportunity to request psychological assistance. Many of us have had to witness the deaths of so many people. Fortunately, it was also possible to take a walk around a lake behind the hotel, to play badminton or play Chinese cards.

And how was the atmosphere in the city itself? Images I saw of Wuhan on the internet spoke volumes: a real ghost town.

“Yes, as good as… When we arrived in Wuhan, from the airport to the hotel, the city indeed seemed completely deserted. That is the image I have of all that period. Everything was and remained closed, no one to be seen. The only movement on the streets were stray dogs or a cat here and there. We stayed in Wuhan for 65 days, during that time that was the street scene. Supermarkets, shops, galleries, pubs, restaurants, all closed. The streets empty. But there were also nice surprises. Many residents were brave and optimistic, hanging homemade banners out of the window with encouragements such as “Go Wuhan! Go China!”. We found that funny but also encouraging. Sometimes there was even someone starting to sing a song from his window for us! Or someone who shouted at us that we should protect ourselves. That was really a sign of appreciation for us as we walked from the hospital to our hotel. … Really moving.”

That gave you even more energy to continue those arduous tasks in the hospital, are there any other sources from which you drew strength?

“You know, when I told you that sometimes I want to spend more time with my husband and family, and I’m a workaholic, I have to think about the times I go fishing with my son. (I look surprised: “fishing?” I interrupt) … Yes, I like to go fishing. I teach my son the importance of patience. You have to earn your results and learn to be patient. That’s an important life lesson. And in my profession, it is. People who you treat with patience and great care and then sometimes you see their condition deteriorate, but then suddenly a miracle takes place and the patient survives. In fact, this also applies to our mission to Wuhan. Many thought we signed away our own death sentences when we went to Wuhan. But if we hadn’t gone, there would have been more fatalities. By being patient and persistent, people have been saved and healed. That’s the miracle, the result. The ‘fish we caught’, after showing patience for a long time!”

Have you really experienced that yourself, or is it rather something you would want for many people?

“Both, (laughs). I had a 91-year-old patient. You know our principle is ‘Never give up anyone’, whether one is old or young, male or female, because we believe that ‘life is the most precious’. And for us, doctors, it is our job to save every endangered life, as best we can. Well, the patient I want to talk about was, in the three weeks before he was taken to our hospital, already taken from one hospital to another. He had had a hard time. Coughing, high fever, difficulty breathing and already infestations of both lungs. When we tried to give him extra medication, he refused at first. At one moment, he even pulled out all the wires and infusions, and said he didn’t want any more treatment. He claimed he was too old, even if he healed, he would not have so many years ahead of him. ‘Give the drugs to the younger and healthier patients. It all costs so much money!’ And he was sad. We comforted and reassured him. Covid patients are treated free of charge, the expenses are borne by the government. He didn’t know that. And then we could persuade him. We told him, after all the efforts he and we had made, he had to continue the treatment, along with us. He cooperated well. We applied a blood transfusion, gave anti-viral drugs and some traditional Chinese herbs. After 22 days, he got cured. And miraculously, later research revealed that he had produced anti-bodies. That made him immune for at least six months, and maybe even longer. When he said goodbye, he came to thank us all and we felt moved together with him. To me, this is a living example of what we mean by ‘Never give up anyone’.”


Dr Li Yan (on right) with colleagues in Wuhan

For 65 days, you have given the best of yourself, along with thousands of others. How do you look back at your experiences in Wuhan?

“You know, many of us, including me, suffer, after this relief mission in Wuhan, from PTSD syndrome (Posttraumatic stress disorder syndrome). Sometimes I still start crying all of a sudden without knowing why. But we’ve also learned a lot of life lessons. For me, the first lesson is the strength of a team. We now have a bond that means more than friendship. When we left, I had to think about that. If I got sick in Wuhan, my colleagues on my team would be the only ones who could save me. We talked about that a lot. And that has made us all strong, connected for life. And a second lesson is about life itself. We’ve had to deal with life and death so much. We’ve seen people hover between life and death. We’ve seen people give their lives. It has taught me that even though life can be hard, life is the most precious there is.”

The international situation is difficult not only in terms of health, but political relations between the West and China are increasingly in dire straits. China is facing criticism. What do you think?

“Well, I am a little experienced now with the fight against Covid-19, and I can tell you that China has done really well. The government has really contained the epidemic by taking strict but justified measures. And also, through the work of the thousands of volunteers, perhaps thousands of people have been saved from death. I also think it is good that the government is now reassuring us economically, and that we should not worry too much, as people’s health is paramount. I would suggest to anyone who wants to judge China that they would do so from the perspective that someone in their own family has been affected by Covid-19, then they would also do anything to save that relative. China has based its actions on that perspective, and I think our efforts – both those by the government and by the volunteers – merit appreciation. At the end of the day, we all live together on this planet and we can make a future together. I have now experienced that only by working together can the virus be defeated.”

I thank Dr. Li Yan for the interview and send also many thanks to Jia Li and Hong Jie of the People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries. We are waving cordially to each other via our screens.

The Zoom session is over, the laptop screen ‘black’ again. And I’m just sitting there for a while, waiting. And thinking. President Trump should get Covid-19, and hopefully be treated by Dr. Li Yan. Would that bring peace to this world? And okay, I’ll just have Trump cured from corona in my naïve fantasy. It’s only a daydream.

Translated by Dirk Nimmegeers, Belgian member of SACU, editor,

Can a messed up world fight the pandemic together? – article from Think China Magazine, 17 April

Did China make up the numbers? Did it waste precious time before getting information out to the world? Belgian writers Ng Sauw Tjhoi and Dirk Nimmegeers answer these questions and opine that instead of knuckling down and fighting the pandemic together, everyone, from countries to regional blocs to international organisations, seems to have been shell-shocked into “safe-distancing” from each other. This means that the virus is not only attacking our health, economies and mental resilience, but the very international institutions that have been built up since the end of WWII. If a lot of that debilitation has to do with the China threat writ large, it is too high a price to pay. To reverse this dire trend, the world must look beyond finger-pointing and think long and hard about how it will go on once this storm passes.

This article was first published on 

and sent to us by Belgian SACU member Dirk Nimmegeers, Editor,

Can a messed up world fight the pandemic together?

For the past three months and more, Covid-19 has ravaged the globe. Finding a vaccine is the world’s best hope of curbing the dramatic increase in the number of fatalities worldwide. This global health crisis proves once again that a strategy against a deadly virus must be based on science and on clear and unambiguous communication from a “united front”. Yet rather than working together, the discourse on the pandemic has focused on recriminations, not least directed at China, the country in which the disease was first detected.

The world running in circles

Where is the United Nations, more precisely the UN Security Council in this pandemic battle? To this day, this major global political organisation has remained silent. The past sessions have shown indecisions and members stranded in vacillating discussions. A UNSC resolution on the coronavirus outbreak apparently fell through after the US sought to point a finger at China for unleashing the coronavirus. These kinds of demarches — clearly part of Trump’s strategy to disguise his responsibility for the late, messy response to the deadly virus domestically — are bound to be met by a Chinese veto.

In lieu of a global approach, pockets of action are in motion. At the extraordinary G20 summit held in late March, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for stronger international cooperation and for unity and solidarity. He said, “China will be more than ready to share our good practices, conduct joint research and development of drugs and vaccines, and provide assistance where we can to countries hit by the growing outbreak.”

Through an opinion piece in the Financial Times, five leaders ⁠— King Abdullah II of Jordan and presidents Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany, Halimah Yacob of Singapore, Sahle-Work Zewde of Ethiopia and Lenín Moreno Garcés of Ecuador — made an appeal for global solidarity. While their call received little airplay, we can find the ingredients for quick action in their piece therein.

The leaders suggested that building on work of the World Health Organisation, the World Bank Group, the IMF, International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the international vaccine alliances, philanthropic foundations, scientists and private sector pharmaceutical companies should join forces in a powerful partnership.

“we expect a vaccine could be ready for emergency use in early 2021.” – Paul Stoffels

This joining of forces should ensure, inter alia, that there is an equitable distribution of test kits and medical equipment, and that extreme efforts are put in to bring all means of help (vaccines, test kits and medication) to all corners of the world, to all those in need, including vulnerable populations and refugees. The leaders stressed “the immense benefits of a coordinated, co-operative global response to the crisis, focusing on the provision of an eventual treatment and a vaccine as an exemplary ‘global public good’”.

Governmental scientific institutions and private companies are working against time to produce a vaccine. Paul Stoffels, vice chairman of the executive committee and chief scientific officer of Johnson & Johnson emphasised the need for world solidarity when he said on 30 March, “We are very pleased to have identified a lead vaccine candidate from the constructs we have been working on since January. We are moving on an accelerated timeline toward phase 1 human clinical trials at the latest by September 2020 and, supported by the global production capability that we are scaling up in parallel to this testing, we expect a vaccine could be ready for emergency use in early 2021.”

China is a victim of the virus, but also a success story overcoming it, and it is willing to work with people of other countries to stop the spread of the pandemic.

The most notable appeal comes from a group of 100 Chinese academics. In an open letter published in The Diplomat on 2 April, they stressed that the US and China need to work together to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. They expressed their gratitude for the help that the international community has given, including the donations of American friends, during the most critical phase of the fight against Covid-19 in mainland China. They also emphasised that they respect the epidemic control programmes and policies undertaken by individual countries.

They further pointed out the needless descent into finger-pointing: “At present, the exact source and origin of Covid-19 remain undetermined, but these questions are unimportant and finger-pointing is demeaning to everyone at this stage. In the end, we will all respect the final determination of scientists. Like others, China is a victim of the virus, but also a success story overcoming it, and it is willing to work with people of other countries to stop the spread of the pandemic.”

The un-united European Union

In the absence of global organisations or great powers such as the US taking up the leadership mantle in this pandemic, some quarters have looked to the EU as a possible player. The Union of 27 countries, together accounting for over 400 million people, however, is caught in a dilemma. The US is still considered its most important ally. Namely, Europe is highly dependent on the US for military protection (against Russia). But the EU is also keen to do business with China. These conflicting dynamics are developing rapidly in countries such as Hungary, Greece and Poland, who are members of NATO and have defence cooperation agreements with the US, but are also eager to capitalise on economic opportunities by leaning towards China.

Under the neoliberal capitalist flag and armed with an almost irrational refusal to show more understanding for the Chinese approach, countries often have distorted reactions and take unjustified punitive measures against China.

More prosperous EU countries are also getting stuck in this quandary, according to a European Think-tank Network on China report titled “Europe in the Face of US-China Rivalry”. While China is seen as an important partner on many global issues, such as tackling climate change, several European governments share the highly critical — and bipartisan — view of the US,  about the centrally-led Chinese political-economic system. The meritocratic system within the Chinese leadership, legislative and executive power is confronted with a complete disregard because of a Western superiority thinking.

Under the neoliberal capitalist flag and armed with an almost irrational refusal to show more understanding for the Chinese approach, countries often have distorted reactions and take unjustified punitive measures against China. Partly as a result of this, China’s global cooperation proposals and projects, such as the Belt & Road Initiative, are also facing disproportionate opposition.

There is a deafening silence in European circles when China calls for global cooperation, as President Xi Jinping recently did at the G20 summit.

But the Trump administration and its ultra-liberal policy are not perceived very kindly either because they collide with European interests and values. There are the issues of NATO funding imposed on the Union, and various import duties. Now, in this pandemic, the unilateral decision to impose a travel ban on European countries, and the US literally outbidding and pinching contracts for mouth masks cause frictions.

Little by little, more and more European countries have been trying to develop and improve their economic cooperation with China. In recent years, partly due to Trump’s policy, the European focus has been more on the strategic dimensions and visible performance of Chinese investments.

In the fight against the pandemic, this ambiguous position of the majority of Western European countries is becoming clear. There is a deafening silence in European circles when China calls for global cooperation, as President Xi Jinping recently did at the G20 summit.

EU President Charles Michel and the European leadership were barely visible. Rather than creating a unified command of European countries and setting up all the necessary extraordinary measures and organisational structures so that the EU could be a strong partner in the global fight against the virus, EU leaders had only flaccid comments and expressed weak intentions.

The demand for a unified approach to the pandemic in Europe was, however, strong when the EU government leaders met at the end of March via video conference about their common response. In the European debt crisis (2010) and the migration crisis (since 2015), the EU member states had worked together to prevent “things from getting worse” and to make the Union (what’s in a name) stronger. But now several governments have to take into account nationalists and rightist populists who accuse the EU of abandoning “their country” on the one hand, and undermine the EU in every way possible on the other. Fancy words are now used by national governments and the EU institutions in the current health crisis, such as they are determined “to do everything necessary”.

At the 26 March video conference, European heads of state and government decided to give Eurozone finance ministers two weeks to elaborate proposals in response to the financial and economic impact of the coronavirus crisis. There was a bitter and cynical sparring match between ailing countries, Spain and Italy — where the virus wreaked the greatest havoc — on one hand and the Netherlands on the other. Dutch Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra’s saying no to unconditional European support was labelled by Portuguese premier Antonio Costa as: “Disgusting. Pointless. Totally unacceptable… This recurring pettiness threatens the future of the EU. ”

The announced financial aid package — about 500 billion euros — seems big, but pales before the 1,173 billion that Germany has earmarked for itself.

This mudslinging in the EU consultations lasted for days. The European Stability Mechanism (ESM) turned out to be the biggest divide. Anyone wanting loans from this emergency fund set up after the euro crisis would normally have to agree to strict reforms. The Dutch demand that the EU adhere to this principle in the coronavirus crisis too proved unsustainable after three days of infighting. Hoekstra had to let go, but he also won something: ESM loans, it was decided, are in principle only available for the financing of “care, cure and prevention directly or indirectly related to the coronavirus”.

The announced financial aid package — about 500 billion euros — seems big, but pales in comparison to the 1,173 billion that Germany has earmarked for itself. Economists from several European think tanks are critical. “The package is already late, too limited and does not come anywhere near the kind of support that, for example, the US federal government is able to mobilise”, an analysis piece in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad wrote.

Who made up the numbers on purpose?

Disinformation can exacerbate suffering. In the middle of a global health crisis, doubts are cast on the numbers of fatalities. How low can one sink? In Europe, fortunately not in the public arena, there is a debate about the accuracy of numbers. Which victims are counted? Only casualties tested for Covid-19 or people who succumbed to underlying Covid-19 symptoms? In Belgium and the Netherlands, an additional issue is that the numbers of deaths in residential care centres were not collected daily and systematically.

But what to make of the CIA claim that Chinese death toll numbers are false?  Reporting directly to the president, it claimed that the Chinese authorities are lying about the numbers of the dead in Wuhan and without a shred of evidence, gave sensation-hungry media a field day. On the basis of some guesswork and images of long lines of people collecting the urns of their deceased loved ones (after the long period of lockdown in Wuhan and on the occasion of the Qingming Festival), conservative American media spread the canard… like a virus.

It is disquieting that the Chinese ambassador to France had to devote time to refuting such tasteless propaganda. Ambassador Lu Shaye clarified things in a TV interview with French digital-international BFM channel, a media outlet deemed controversial for its populism and sensationalism. The ambassador said the total number of deaths in Wuhan in 2019 was 51,200. Because more people die during winter, there were about 5,000 “regular” deaths per month in January and February 2020 going by past statistics. Hence, Wuhan counted more than 2,000 Covid-19 deaths.

During the lockdown in Wuhan which started on January 23, there were no burial ceremonies. It was therefore not unusual for the families of 10,000 other “regularly” deceased people to be invited together with the relatives of the more than 2,000 Covid-19 deceased when the urns were transferred. (Note)

How much time did China actually lose?

Certain politicians and journalists reiterated that the Chinese government lost precious time in the early days of the pandemic and had looked the other way. However, sources such as the WHO reports and articles from media outlets such as Newsweek, China Daily and The Financial Times show that China had responded quickly and accurately, and that international institutions were informed very early on in the process.

According to a Global Times article reporting on the findings of an investigation into the death of whistleblower doctor Dr Li Wenliang, on 27 December, Dr Zhang Jixian of the Hubei Hospital of Integrated Traditional Chinese and Western Medicine reported three patients suffering from pneumonia of an unknown cause in hospital. The same day, the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention arranged epidemiological research and testing. On 29 December, the same hospital reported another four patients with the same unknown pneumonia, all from the Huanan Seafood Market district.

A notable incident occurred on 4 January, 2020. The director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention called the director of the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention. They discussed the outbreak of the strange pneumonia.

On 30 December, experts from Wuhan’s Health Commission opened an investigation and sent two short reports recommending that patients be treated for “pneumonia of unknown causes”. The two documents were forwarded online to a limited group of concerned doctors and senior management bodies of the National Health Commission.

Around 5.30 pm, Dr Li Wenliang received the message from his colleagues. At 5.43 PM, Dr Li Wenliang forwarded the messages “Seven cases of SARS are confirmed at the Huanan seafood market” and “The patients are isolated in the emergency service in our hospital” in his WeChat group (classmates from his medical school). At 6.42 pm, he posted another message: “The latest news is that the infection has been confirmed, and the virus is under investigation. Please do not spread the information and let family members pay attention to prevention.”

According to a Scientific American article, on the same day, Wuhan-based virologist Dr Shi Zhengli, who was in Shanghai at the time, was informed at around 7 pm of the seven patients with pneumonia, the cause of which was unknown. She quickly took a train back to Wuhan and returned to her investigation on whether a new coronavirus was the root virus.

On 3 January, Dr Li Wenliang was reprimanded by the local police for spreading “rumours” about the outbreak of the virus.

A notable incident occurred on 4 January, 2020. The director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention called the director of the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention. They discussed the outbreak of the strange pneumonia. Both agreed to maintain close contact, share information and collaborate technologically.

The Scientific American article further says that on 7 January, 2020, the result of Dr Shi Zhengli’s lab research was finally ready: coronavirus SARS-Cov-2 (related to the SARS virus) caused the lung infections. The genetic code of the virus is 96% identical to that of a coronavirus identified by Dr Shi Zhengli’s team in horseshoe bats in Yunnan Province. The results also indicate that human-to-human transmission may be very rapid.

Based on the WHO situation report of 21 January:

– The Chinese authorities identified a new type of coronavirus, which was isolated on 7 January 2020

– On 11 and 12 January 2020, the WHO received further detailed information from the National Health Commission China that the outbreak is associated with exposures in one seafood market in Wuhan City

– On 12 January 2020, China shared the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus for countries to use in developing specific diagnostic kits

Dutch microbiologist Rosanne Herzberger said in an interview with Flemish newspaper De Standaard, that Chinese scientists “found the genetic code of the virus very quickly and shared it with the whole world”. Scientists everywhere could then use it to conduct research, among other things with the aim of developing diagnostic tests.

And about pointing fingers and assigning blame, she said: “… let’s face it, MERS comes from the Middle East, flu often comes from birds, HIV comes from monkeys in Africa. It is over-optimistic to say: ‘We know the cause of all our problems, it must be China.’ There is an inclination to try and find guilty parties. But who can be blamed for this?”

Global cooperation and solidarity is needed

The start of the pandemic timeline shows how quickly Chinese authorities responded bottom-up and top-down. After roughly one week, the WHO was informed and in the meantime the US — at least its National Health Service — was also informed. That this quick and efficient response has come about is due to the procedures and protocols that China, many other countries that have experienced SARS, MERS and Ebola epidemics, and the WHO have prepared for worst-case scenarios.

Allegations that the Chinese government wasted time and thus shifted coronavirus misery to the rest of the world are therefore incorrect and serves a hidden agenda. On the contrary, China has gained time — precisely by responding so quickly — for the world.

But more importantly, this systematic, unfounded and, near perverse continual maligning of China cannot be described otherwise than political hooliganism, as alluded to in the Global Times article “CIA is US Govt’s Pawn to Fabricate Lies about China”. Surely, it can hardly be intended that a “systemic rival” (as the EU has labelled China) is undermined in order to block solidarity in this global health crisis? It is precisely global solidarity cooperation that is urgent and vital for producing a “vaccine for everyone”, because that seems to be the only option to conquer the virus.


The plot thickens as the French Foreign Office called Chinese Ambassador Lu Shaye in this week to express France’s displeasure at an article put up on the Chinese embassy in France website.

The post, allegedly written by a Chinese diplomat, claims that France left its elderly to die in nursing homes and that 80 French parliamentarians conspired with Taiwan to make derogatory remarks about WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian has denied that China criticised France’s coronavirus measures but the issue looks set to fester for a while yet with the French senate calling for an explanation from the French Foreign Minister as to why the post has not been removed even after the Chinese Ambassador was summoned.

Meanwhile, China has revised its official count of deaths from the coronavirus on 17 April, adding some 1,290 deaths in Wuhan. The addition brings the total number of deaths in the city to 3,869, an increase of 50%. The nationwide death toll now stands at 4,636.

According to Chinese state media, the additional deaths were all counted in Wuhan and the late reporting of deaths are due to several reasons, including patients who died at home without seeing a doctor or being tested for the virus as hospitals were overwhelmed during the epidemic’s peak.

This long read was first published on Think China, an English language e-magazine with a China focus and powered by the Singapore Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao, 17 April 2020.

Related: Was WHO dancing to China’s tune in its responses to the pandemic? | Stop squabbling over ideology and fight the virus | Trump’s America needs to ditch the blame game

Trump’s America needs to ditch the blame game – article from Think China Magazine, 3 April

Belgian writers Ng Sauw Tjhoi and Dirk Nimmegeers point out that the only thing much worse than possibly holding racist views, is to be aware of likely controversy yet politicise race issues anyway to deflect blame for the tardiness of the government. They believe that the Trump administration needs to stop playing the blame game and start on a sincere path of health cooperation with China, to tackle the pandemic today and any other global challenges tomorrow.

This article was first published on 

and sent to us by Belgian SACU member Dirk Nimmegeers, Editor,

Trump’s America needs to ditch the blame game

Many opinion leaders, scientists, politicians and journalists think that the Covid-19 pandemic will create new geopolitical and social fault lines in our world. That is indeed worrisome.

Pre-Covid-19, an unpredictable trade war between the US and China had already taken centre stage in a multipolar world. Now, countries are singing more and more out of tune in the ways they are addressing the pandemic. While China, and many others, are calling for international cooperation to prioritise global public health, the West seems to think otherwise, and is now reaping the consequences of its own doings as a result of decades of neoliberal policies.

The figures are hitting home hard, but even more so is the trend of figures rising rapidly in America while falling in China.

In the US, the president is taken seriously by few people and a top scientist — Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — continually corrects him. In Europe, there is not one president, but roughly twenty, and they are all getting (and stumbling) in each other’s way. A large part of the European house of cards is in danger of collapsing. Will there be a “new West”, as suggested increasingly by many thinkers, and as depicted in the closing scene of Once Upon a Time in the West, a 1968 film by the Italian director Sergio Leone?

Trump’s “Chinese virus” and its aftermath

On 26 March 2020, the US counted 85,505 infections by Covid-19 and 1,288 fatalities. (NB: The current figures as of 3 April stand at over 240,000 confirmed cases and 5900 deaths.) America now has more Covid-19 infections than China. The figures are hitting home hard, but even more so is the trend of figures rising rapidly in America while falling in China. It is a macabre catching-up process, if you will, the start of a repeat of a terrible and large-scale tragedy.

Barely a day later, President Trump tweeted: “Just finished a very good conversation with President Xi of China. Discussed in great detail the CoronaVirus that is ravaging large parts of our Planet. China has been through much & has developed a strong understanding of the Virus. We are working closely together. Much respect!”

Still, President Trump had a different discourse on China in recent weeks. He consistently stuck to calling the coronavirus “Chinese virus”. At a press briefing on 18 March, when asked why he kept using that term, the US President answered: “It [the virus] comes from China. That’s why. It comes from China. I want to be accurate.”

“You yellow monkeys have no idea about hygiene” is what a Chinese-Dutch woman was told when she coughed, sitting on the train from The Hague to Delft.

Trump’s vicious insistence on the term “Chinese virus” may have contributed to the violent outbreaks of racism against Chinese-Americans. Indicatively, there were 673 complaints lodged on the website Stop AAPI Hate (launched by the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council and Chinese for Affirmative Action) between 19-25 March. The grievances ranged from refusal of service, verbal harassment, physical assault, to being coughed and spat on.

Such racist behaviour directed against the Chinese, and by extension Asians, has been spreading since the start of the pandemic. On social media in America and in Europe, news of racism has gone viral. More reports of racist conflicts keep cropping up, with some more violent than others. Just as their French counterparts did with their #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus (I am not a virus) campaign, in the Netherlands, Chinese-Dutch associations launched the petition “We are not viruses!” against hate speech and racist violence.

“You yellow monkeys have no idea about hygiene” is what a Chinese-Dutch woman was told when she coughed, sitting on the train from The Hague to Delft. In Amsterdam, a Chinese woman was pushed off her bicycle as “All Chinese have corona”. In London, an Asian student was hit badly by men shouting that they “didn’t want corona in their country”. In Italy, a Chinese man was cut with a glass after being denied access to a gas station “because he has the coronavirus”. The list of examples is long, as was evident from an online survey, drawn up by a Korean interpreter living in the Netherlands, with more than 150 responses and over 240 Facebook messages in no time.

Trump’s political tactic of racism against China has international implications as well. At the video conference of the Group of Seven (G7) Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on 25 March,  there was no final joint statement on fighting the Covid-19 virus together, because the US wanted to include the term “Wuhan virus” in the text.

The racist labelling of the deadly virus now seems to be coming to an end after the ⁠— possibly historic ⁠— telephone conversation on 27 March of Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. “Best of friends” was the tone of President Trump’s tweet on that day. And it was a return to better days, as this friendly tone was actually the one Trump has adopted in his external communications since the outbreak of the virus in Wuhan and regarding the Chinese government’s firm approach.

The blame game gone wrong

Trump only started using the adjective “Chinese” since the virus began to spread in America and when the media began to criticise his initially slow response, says Dr Chi Wang, president of the US-China Policy Foundation. He writes in The Diplomat, “Calling the virus ‘Chinese’ served two purposes for Trump: first, it affixed blame for the crisis on China instead of the administration; second, it gave the media something to focus its ire on instead of the government’s response to the virus itself.” Blaming someone else is a known defence technique. It is used both by narcissists and by politicians to hide their own mistaken judgments.

Another of Trump’s criticisms is about the Chinese government’s “mishandling of the situation”, which the US president often refers to in a foolishly gleeful way.

As the virus spreads in speed, during his press briefings or in his tweets, the president keeps hammering on the same nails. But instead of hitting the nail on the head he appears only to split hairs. Trump’s story is that China had informed the world far too late.

China first reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO) China Country Office that a pneumonia of unknown cause was detected in Wuhan on 31 December 2019. As early as January, US intelligence agencies warned that the coronavirus would spread around the world . President Trump, however, initially treated it as the usual flu, downplaying the danger of the virus along with other well-known Republicans who dismissed it as a hoax, a move by Democrats to thwart Trump’s re-election.

Another of Trump’s criticisms is about the Chinese government’s “mishandling of the situation”, which the US president often refers to in a foolishly gleeful way. However, according to the 16-24 February report of the WHO-China Joint Mission, “China has rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history”.

It has gradually become clear that the Chinese government indeed, for the most part, acted as adequately and decisively as possible, thereby gaining time for many other countries to prepare for the assault of the deadly virus. President Trump, unfortunately, like many other government leaders, has squandered that lead time and the consequences are developing dramatically.

A difficult situation in the US

In many Western countries, where neoliberal recipes have been used for economic growth and development, government budgets are cut, public services are restructured and public health services are downsized. The effects of which have become painfully evident in recent weeks.

In America, government money for social services has been meagre for many years. Especially now, it is horrible to witness how a reasonable plan to provide the weakest groups in society with a social safety net, is disposed of by an allergic reaction to any hint of “socialism”. Unsurprisingly, Covid-19 is wreaking havoc. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has been a leading voice in the US effort to curb the outbreak, says 100,000 to 200,000 Americans could die before the crisis is over.

Such centrally-led economic intervention is quite unimaginable!

Just like in Europe, there has been a desperate hunt for medical quality and highly specialised masks, there is a severe shortage of medical protective gears and clothings, and also intensive care beds and ventilators … and now President Trump is imposing “quasi-socialist” measures on American capitalism.

Just like China, America is freeing up a gigantic sum of money to pump into the economy along the lines of a US$2.2 trillion emergency relief package. Auto giant GM is compelled by Trump to produce ventilators under the Defence Production Act — a Korean War-era law that in recent times has mostly been used for national security and defence purposes. Such centrally-led economic intervention is quite unimaginable.

And the common American will not be forgotten: everyone is getting up to US$1200 as part of the relief package. That sounds substantial, but many already know that this will not be sufficient to swallow the bitter pill.

Kaiser Family Foundation research finds that patients admitted for Covid-19 treatment with employer insurance may have to pay at least US$1,300 out of pocket. Millions of Americans without insurance are expected to fork out much more. And nothing is said about the more than 10 million undocumented immigrants. The lack of a strong social security safety net in the US will soon cause a hellish social earthquake.

US-China collaboration has seen better days 

China, Trump argues, withholds scientific information, and is not willing to exchange them. But it is precisely Trump who has curtailed the open channels through which China and the US collaborate on medical and scientific research.

One cannot dismiss the possibility of its effect on the US’s ability to receive timely reports on developments of the coronavirus.

Cost-cutting measures in the US have severely undermined the CDC’s collaboration capacity. Writing in the Washington Post, Deborah Seligsohn, assistant professor of political science at Villanova University who was the environment, science, technology and health counsellor at the US embassy in Beijing from 2003 to 2007, said that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) used to have as many as 10 American experts and 40 local staff in China, but since the Trump administration took over, staff strength has been whittled down to three US experts and a few local staff.

Reuters reported that a CDC epidemiologist expert role placed within the Chinese CDC was cut just before the Covid-19 outbreak. One cannot dismiss the possibility of its effect on the US’s ability to receive timely reports on developments of the coronavirus.

US superiority undermines solidarity

An undercurrent of negativity runs through the West’s dealings with China. This favours the deadly Covid-19.

A superiority mindset and the deliberate instrumentalisation of anti-Chinese racism are more than counterproductive. Instead of promoting cooperation and solidarity in order to fight the Coronavirus as vigorously as possible, time and focus are lost and tens of thousands of people are dying.

Trump’s mentality of playing at war and bullying the enemy has to stop right away. He had better substitute his “keeping US Covid-19 deaths to 100,000 would be a ‘very good job’” attitude for a firm approach with the real ambition of saving human lives globally together. It would especially be in the interest of the least socially strong Americans, who have put their hope in this president, a president that has now degenerated into the unpredictable conductor of a stripped-down orchestra.

As we were finishing our analysis, we got the latest news and it seems to be moving towards what we have been hoping for. Five world leaders, King Abdullah II of Jordan and presidents Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany, Halimah Yacob of Singapore, Sahle-Work Zewde of Ethiopia and Lenín Moreno Garcés of Ecuador, are urging for worldwide cooperation in fighting the Covid-19. Cooperation instead of competition. We dare to translate this into: “Stop bashing China”.

Last week’s conversation between the leaders of the two countries has been followed up with a promise of cooperation from health officials. Chinese Health Minister Ma Xiaowei and US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar had a phone conversation on 30 March. Ma told Azar that China was willing to work with the US and “join hands in supporting the international efforts in curbing the pandemic to maintain global health security”. This call between China’s health minister and his US counterpart is their first telephone exchange since January. And it counts as a first move towards medical cooperation between the two countries after last week’s phone call between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Donald Trump, when both leaders agreed they must work together to contain the spread of the virus.

This gives cause for hope and it needs to be continued.


The blame game continues between China and the US. While the “Chinese virus” narrative is seeing some rest, the US is upping the ante with news of US intelligence reports showing that the Chinese had concealed the extent of the Covid-19 outbreak in China. The report alleges that the Chinese numbers are false. In response, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said yesterday that “China has been giving open, transparent and timely updates to the world”.

Meanwhile, the US seems to be coming round to the idea of corralling international support for fighting the pandemic. It has been working together with China to bring much-needed medical supplies from China to the US, and even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has taken a harsh tone with China, seems to have stopped using “Wuhan virus” and started stressing the importance of international institutions such as the WHO.

This long read was first published on Think China, an English language e-magazine with a China focus and powered by the Singapore Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao, 3 April 2020.

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