26 AUGUST 1972, Page 13

Through western spectacles

Joan Robinson

China Today Klaus Mehnert (Thames and Hudson E2.50) 800,000,000: The Real China Ross Terrill (Heinemann £2.50) Red Guard: Schoolboy to 'Little General' in Mao's China Ken Ling (Macdonald 0.25) There has been a trickle of travellers' reports from China over the last twenty years. Now that there is an audience ready to believe them, the trickle grows to a full stream. Two visitors in 1971 each has something more to offer as well as the usual impressions — the clean streets, the flocks of bicycles, the neat well-weeded fields, the care for ancient monuments, the impossibility of losing even a face-cloth forgotten at the hotel. Both came under good auspices, Klaus Mehnert as an old friend of Prince Sihanouk and Ross Terrill in the company of Mr Whitlam, leader of the Australian Labour Party. Both knew China before and both know the language.

Knowing the language, of course, is an enormous benefit to the traveller, but it does not make very much difference to what he is able to report, for everyone he comes across is exceedingly discreet when talking to a foreigner. For instance, soon after the death of Lin Piao, there was no one in China who had not been told the official explanation of what had happened, but the resident foreigners never heard a word about it from their Chinese colleagues and friends.

Of these two, purely as a travelling companion, Klaus Mehnert is the more agreeable, for he does not have to look over his shoulder to a public at home that needs to be told that the Chinese are human beings after all. On the other hand, his observations do not go deep.

"e he_ L. a section on economic incen tives " . . . to each according to his needs," which is a solecism to begin with. China is not supposed to be at the stage of communism but of socialism when the slogan is " tei each according to his work." The author draws no distinction between socialist industry and co-operative agriculture. He seems to think that personal incentives to earn have been abolished equally in both. In the famous, heroic Brigade of Tachai, a system of assessment has been established by which each member of the labour force proposes his own evaluation, on a scale of ten marks, for his year's work; this is then discussed and settled by a general assembly of the Brigade. This system is held up as an ideal. Most agricultural communes have not come near it yet. Some settle the valuations every month. Many are still at the stage of 'job evaluation' — each task being allotted a number of work points. But even at Tachai, the marks awarded by the assembly constitute a multiplier to be applied to the number of days worked. A record is kept for each individual of how many days he or she has put in over the year. A very solid incentive to work is to earn a day's work points whatever the individual's valuation may be. Chinese policy and political education lay great stress on the moral factor in economic life but they are not starry-eyed. They do not rely on moral incentives alone to evoke the heavy toil that a still primitive agriculture needs.

In industry, certainly, monetary incentives were downgraded in the Cultural Revolution. The system of bonuses imitated from the Soviet Union was swept away. Now there is no premium on "plan fulfilment" either for an individual worker in a factory or for the enterprise as a whole. If the enterprise makes more than its planned profit, the difference is handed over to the city or the province where it is situated. The planned profit is part of the revenue of the province, which is under central control. The extra can be spent on improving welfare and other services for the locality, not for the particular enterprise that earned it.

For the individual workers, there are simply eight grades of wages; a worker's grade depends on length of service, skill and "political attitude." A rumour has got about lately in the Western press that China is restoring monetary incentives in industry. The evidence quoted for this actually indicates the opposite. During the Cultural Revolution, proper promotions in the factories were sometimes overlooked. A decree was made in August 1971 to regularise them (as far up the scale as the fourth grade) and this leads to a substantial rise in pay for those whose grade has been raised. Each enterprise, when it had worked out what was due, had to pay arrears of the new rates back to July 1971. Back pay for work already done can hardly be an incentive. Moreover, the decree seems to suggest that, at least over the lower grades, promotion is intended to be automatic with seniority, so that "political attitude" is evidently just a check on slacking. Incidentally, the arrears sometimes ran to six or nine months so that there was a sudden increase of purchasing power when it was paid out. Supplies of consumer durables such as bicycles and sewing machines had become available and this was a way of channelling an increase in demand to the lowestincome families.

Ross Terrill is interested in foreign affairs rather than economic development. He describes a number of interesting scenes, especially the interchange of Mr Whitlam with Chou En-lai over Chinese purchases of Australian wheat, which the Labour leader hoped would help him against the government in power. His sketches of various personalities are shrewd and entertaining, but I fear that his habit of quoting conversations will mean that some people will be cautious when he meets them again.

He was in Peking when the arrangements for Nixon's visit were being discussed. He gives the impression that the Chinese leaders really believed (or had persuaded themselves to believe) that Nixon had decided to wind up the Vietnam war, so that Jaw had moved into the forefront (apart from the USSR) of the menaces they had to fear.

Both travellers remark on what the Chinese now call "formalism " and we, "the cult of personality." This is blamed on Lin Piao, who is accused of excessive " formalism " (Mao worship) and of taking the " new " view of history. Ross Terrill stayed long enough to see portraits of Mao being taken down, which seems to indicate that he was in China when Lin Piao disappeared, but his reflections on that affair were evidently made after he left the country. He diagnoses resentment in the navy and air force at the adulation given to the People's Liberation Army under Lin, forgetting that all three services are equally part of the PLA. Even so enlightened an observer is looking at China through Western spectacles.

Both travellers remark on the atmosphere of relaxation and good order in 1971. What really went on during the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution? Ken Ling has told the story of his life in the Red Guards after swimming (he claims) from Amoy to the "offshore island" of Quemoy to escape to "another woed." Refugees naturally try to please their new hosts by denigrating their homeland. The account of the Red Guards, certainly, is all a tale of horrors, but incidentally it reflects rather well on the authorities. First, the frivolity and conceit of this child of the old bourgeoisie gives one a lot of sympathy with the policy of sending "educated youth" into the country to "learn from the peasants." Secondly, he pays unwitting tribute to the impeccable discipline of the PLA. His gang, at one phase, took to harassing the military with tricks like rushing into a barrack mess-room and breaking the rice bowls. "The soldiers being insulted and attacked were not allowed to fight back. The central authorities had ordered the military to remain impartial."

The conception of the Cultural Revolution was evidently to let the pot boil and see what would come to the top, but when factions of Red Guards began actually to shoot at each other with stolen rifles, a halt was called. Ken Ling was summoned to Peking among representatives of the factions in Amoy and told to make it up. Life seemed flat when he got home and so he swam away. It would be interesting to know how he is finding life now.