Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The revolutionary party, bourgeois elections and social democracy

By Neil Harris

The revolutionary party

TO ASK what revolutionaries do between revolutions is not an idle question, not least because Lenin’s definition of a revolutionary situation still holds true:

“The fundamental law of revolutions, which has been confirmed by all revolutions and especially by all three Russian revolutions in the 20th century, is as follows: for a revolution to take place it is not enough for the exploited and oppressed masses to realise the impossibility of living in the old way and demand changes; for a revolution to take place it is essential that the exploiters should not be able to live and rule in the old way. It is only when the ‘lower classes’ do not want to live in the old way and the ‘upper classes’ cannot carry on in the old way that the revolution can triumph.”

While revolutions do not just happen – they have to be made – we cannot make something happen just because we want it to. A number of objective factors have to coincide, and as we have come to realise, such situations are rare.
An earthquake may only last a few seconds but under the surface the build-up of pressure between tectonic plates has taken decades, if not centuries, to reach crisis point. The aftershocks continue for months, if not years, afterwards.
So it is with the class struggle. The day-to-day battles between workers and bosses, which seem so trivial, periodically explode into revolutions and counter revolutions. In the same way the aftershocks of these conflicts roll out across the world.
When the Paris Commune of 1871 was drowned in the blood of 50,000 executed revolutionaries, the carnival of reaction that followed engulfed Europe and seemed to signify the death of socialism forever. At that time who but Marx and Engels in their London exile could foresee the changes to come? Some 30 years later the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917 would be carried out in the name of the Commune, just as the failed revolutions of 1848 had proved to be the inspiration for the Communards themselves.
The aftershocks of 1917 were to spread across the world and echo today in Beijing, Pyongyang and Havana.
So it is with counter revolutions – the ripples from fascism’s triumph in Italy and the defeat of the German revolution in 1919 to 1923 were to have their influence on the victory of German fascism, which in turn would hit Spain in the years leading up to the Second World War.
In our own time the counter revolutions of 1989, which saw the collapse of socialism, first in eastern Europe, then in the Soviet Union itself, were at least as disastrous as the defeat of the Commune. Certainly the cost in human life from the wars and reduced life expectancy has been far worse – millions of workers have died. Hailed by the bourgeois philosopher Francis Fukiyama as “the end of history”, what he actually meant was the end of the class struggle. In the beginning, at least, he seemed to be right.
Vast new markets were opened and an equally enormous labour force – cheap, demoralised and stripped of their unions, ripe for exploitation. Best of all, the rich saw raw materials of one sixth of the Earth’s surface, suddenly were available for imperialist plunder for the first time in 70 years. Oil, gas, gold, diamonds, bauxite, iron and steel – the new treasures of the east making the opening of the Wild West seem cheap in comparison.

Scores of new billionaires appeared overnight, bloated with loot, while at the same time several hundred million of the “new poor” were impoverished beyond belief by their first contact with capitalism.
Worst of all, the bankrupt world capitalist system became equally bloated with super profits from these new opportunities, bankrolled for another 20 years, long past the point when it would otherwise have collapse under the weight of its own debts.
No one could be surprised that the liquidation of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) would be followed by the collapse of communist parties around the world, some of them millions strong, all of which had modelled themselves on the ideological factions within the CPSU.
Some, like the French party, echoed the revisionism of Krushchov and Brezhnev, revising away the revolutionary heritage of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin.
Others, like the so-called euro-communist Communist Party of Italy, modelled themselves on the reformist trend in the CPSU, seeking a third way between capitalism and socialism and which was to come to power with the Gorbachov clique.
That both trends should lead to the liquidation of their parties was inevitable, for as Lenin said: “Without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary party”. Quite simply, in the age of capitalist ownership of the means of production, all thought, all politics are determined by capitalist thought and politics unless it is rooted in the revolutionary struggle to overthrow the capitalist system.”
The absence of revolutionary theory opened the door to the capitalist theory that dominates society.
As a result, all those communist parties that thought there could be some sort of accommodation with capitalism, historic or otherwise, are no longer with us, swept away in the tidal wave of revision.
Just as dramatic was the collapse of the Trotskyite left, never large, consisting of some hundreds of thousands rather than millions. Strident, vocal and encouraged by the bourgeoisie, they devoted all their energies to attacking socialism wherever it existed from the position of a self-styled left opposition. The collapse of the Soviet Union removed their only justification for existence and they were faced with the same stark ideological choice as the rest of us – revolution or reform. With very few exceptions they chose electoral politics and as a result the parties of the fourth international shrank with the same speed as those of the third.
The crisis on the Left has not stopped there. The collapse of the Soviet Union should have been the moment of triumph for the parties of the second international, the parties of social democracy.
Since 1917 they were the bitter enemies of communism – positioning themselves as critics of the Russian revolution from the right. At home they made an accommodation with their capitalists, arguing that gradual reforms were preferable to revolutionary change. On foreign policy they sided with their own imperialists’ interests and were to be correctly described by Lenin as “social imperialists – socialist in words, imperialist in deeds”.
For the imperialists the deal was simple – after 1917 they faced the prospect of losing everything. For the cost a few concessions and an occasional social democrat government they survived.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War the deal was off – the imperialists had no further use of their quislings. They forced the social democrats back, winning concession after concession at the expense of the workers. Each time the social democrats moved further to the right until they had given up any pretence of arguing for socialism, democratic or otherwise. In Britain Blair and Brown were only too happy to trade clause four to take “power” in 1997.
The social democrats’ reward has been electoral defeats one after another: in France, Germany and eve their heartlands of Holland and Scandinavia.
Both left and right critics of the Soviet Union were two sides of the same coin. Both existed only as parasites on the strength of the international working class after 1917. The paradox is that before 1917 the social democrats were everywhere too weak to take power. After 1989 the imperialists were too strong to need them. The defeat of the working class in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe was to be a defeat for the whole working class of the world in the same way that the defeat of the British miners in 1985 was not just a defeat for them but for all workers in Britain and beyond.
So what remains in the rubble to build on? After an earthquake the great plates beneath the Earth’s surface immediately start to push and grind again, just as before. It is the same with the class struggle – it never stops. If workers are not moving forwards they are moving back until the fight begins again.
For revolutionaries there has been an instinctive coming together of the world communist movement in a series of international meetings. In the aftermath of 1989 that was only natural. The struggle continues and in the battle against bourgeois ideas the party of Lenin has proved to be our best and only weapon.
That party is one in which the theoretical principles of revolutionary Marxism-Leninism, dialectical materialism and proletarian internationalism are united in the organisational discipline of democratic centralism. This is what distinguishes us from either social democracy or Trotskyism and is why we survive.
There is no doubt that materialism and dialectics best explain the world and how it changes. The economic theories of Marx and Engels are just as valid today as they were in the 19th century. Surplus value is still the mechanism by which capital reproduces itself and the collapse of capitalism in 2008 has its ancestry in the banking collapses of the 1880s, 1900s and 1930s.
Lenin’s analysis of the state, imperialism and finance capital is just as useful in the era of “globalisation” as it was in the early days of the 20th century. These are our ideological weapons and the disciplined party is the means of using them in practice.

Bourgeois elections

Since its formation in 1977, the New Communist Party has always refused to stand in bourgeois elections, not as a tactical boycott but as a matter of principle. Those who founded the party did so after a long battle with revisionism in the old Communist Party of Great Britain, going back to the 1950s. Part of that ideological struggle developed out of the old party’s shift away from workplace organisations for revolution to territorial branches based on election campaigns.
But it went deeper than that. For us there is a distinct difference between the state, which Marx described as “the organising committee of the bourgeoisie” and parliamentary government, which is merely an apparently democratic veneer, hiding the violent and coercive nature of the state underneath. The security services, police and army are only too ready to use force when capitalism is threatened.
For Marx and Engels, “Political power, properly so-called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another”. This dictatorship of the bourgeoisie is the reality of our society and to replace it requires the overthrow of the bourgeois state and its replacement with a proletarian state and a proletarian dictatorship in its place. That is the reality of political power.
At one level, standing in bourgeois elections is a compromise with capitalism we are not prepared to make. At another, it fosters illusions amongst the working class that winning seats in Parliament brings the possibility of reforming capitalism, when in fact only governments acceptable to the bourgeoisie are able to win “power”. As ever the choice is between reform and revolution, social democracy and communism.
However, whether we like it or not, elections happen and it would be foolish to pretend they do not matter. The last campaign for the US presidency cost over $1,000 million, the bulk of it contributed by the bourgeoisie and their allies. It is rare that such people give their money away for nothing. When bourgeois politicians campaign for votes the campaign is not for the support of millions of voters but for the support of small numbers of the ruling class and their allies in the media.
As Andy Brooks, general secretary of the New Communist Party, has put it: “Bourgeois elections are the battle by the smallest number of people to manipulate the maximum number of votes.”
In Britain, Cameron and Brown have probably spent more time courting the support of one man, Rupert Murdoch, than they will devote to winning the votes of the whole electorate. In bourgeois elections the contest is actually between different factions and interests in a divided bourgeoisie, which is then projected as being a contest for the interests of the people as a whole.

The nature of social democracy

When workers realised that on their own they were powerless against the boss, they started to organise in unions to protect themselves. Unions arose out of the class struggle and are part of it. Their fluctuating strength reflects the class consciousness of the working class and its ability to confront the ruling class. Because they are a product of the class struggle there is nothing revolutionary about unions and nothing about them that threatens the existence of capitalism itself, only the level of exploitation and the amount of surplus value.
Because trade unions are created by workers as a means of self-defence in the class struggle it should be no surprise that the majority of trade union leaders are reformist and social democrats and often betray the interests of their members.
This is why communists are active in the unions, battling to make them democratic, militant and class conscious. The aim is to convert that class consciousness into a revolutionary consciousness – to fight not just for higher wages but to seize and control the means of production itself, or as it has often been said, not to fight for a bigger slice of the cake but the whole cake and the equipment that made it as well.
That is why social democratic, reformist unions are still a working class asset and why communists support them in spite of their leaderships. The battle against the bosses is a daily education in the class struggle and how to fight it.
In the same way, the co-operative movement remains a working class asset and we also support it. Created in the 19th century as an alternative to the revolutionary struggle, co-operatives have always been dominated by the liberal and religious wing of the working class movement. Co-operators believe that they can somehow withdraw from the market and through that replace it. This form of reformism is based on idealism and wishful thinking. Nevertheless co-operatives are another working class defence mechanism in the class war. Co-operative assets have been built up through workers’ sacrifices over many years and in opposition to capitalism. They are non-capitalist concerns and deserve our support. For this reason communists are active in the cooperative movement, campaigning for democratic co-ops and fighting for a revolutionary position in relation to capitalism.

The Labour Party

By the early 20th century trade unionists realised that even combined in unions the workers were no match for the ruling class and its control over the state. Social democracy arose when workers organised in unions began to seek political power themselves and created political parties to promote their interests.
Once again, social democracy arose out of the class struggle – most of its votes and members are workers. There being nothing revolutionary about the class struggle itself, there is equally nothing revolutionary about social democracy, which exists only to reform capitalism and as a defensive measure in the class struggle.
There are broadly two kinds of social democrats:
• Right social democrats who believe that capitalism is the best system and simply requires some reforms to remove its more unpleasant side effects. So, the economist Keynes believed that increased Government expenditure could eliminate unemployment and Beveridge who believed that social welfare expenditure would eliminate poverty. Both were wrong; unemployment and poverty are part of the system itself.
• Left social democrats oppose capitalism and believe that it must be replaced with socialism but believe it is possible to do so by gradual democratic reforms. As we have seen, the nature of the bourgeois state makes this impossible. Most social democratic parties contain a mixture of left and right in varying proportions. Sometimes well-meaning, sometimes not, all social democrats remain a prisoner of capitalism.

Where do communists stand in relation to the Labour Party?

Since our formation, the New Communist Party has always called on the working class to vote Labour and will continue to do so except in the case of European Union elections, which, as an undemocratic sham, we call on all workers to boycott.
We call on the working class to vote Labour not because we have any illusions that it is anything other than a social democrat party or that its leaders can ever be won to revolutionary politics. On the contrary, even if our campaign for a democratic Labour Party that opens its doors to left-wing parties like ours to affiliate as autonomous, independent groups were to succeed, it would still be a social democratic party.
We support Labour in elections because it still has a mass membership of working class trade unionists, affiliated through their unions. This mass membership and the votes the party receives as a result are what make it a class-based party in spite of its opportunist, petty-bourgeois leadership.
Workers vote Labour because they are still social democratic in outlook themselves, not out of misguided belief that the Labour Party is socialist. It is social democratic ideas that must be fought, not the institutions of the working class.
In 1848 Marx and Engels asked themselves the same question, although their reference to “party” predates our understanding of the term.
“In what relation do the communists stand to the proletariat as a whole?
“The communists do not form a separate party, opposed to other working class parties.
“They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.
“They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.”

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Climate after Copenhagen

By Renee Sams

THE UNITED NATIONS climate summit in Copenhagen last December, after much debate, failed to come to any agreed action on climate change. There was a proposal that governments should pledge by a 31st January deadline by how much they were going to take action to protect the climate but nothing seems to have come of that.
It is now 21 years since the first scientific assessment of climate change was published and 18 years since the Rio Earth Summit at which the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was agreed.
Twelve years have passed since Kyoto Protocol was agreed and two years since the Bali Action plan, all milestones that were to provide ways forward to curb emissions of “greenhouse gases” but so little has been done that we are still heading inexorably towards a catastrophic climate change.
Despite the voices of large campaigns like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, supported by millions of people calling for action to save the planet, the political leaderships of the richest countries have ignored them yet again.
Although governments are unwilling to take on the challenge of the environment, some big corporations, seeing new opportunities for profit, have welcomed it and now renewable energy is growing by leaps and bounds.
For example, General Electric (NYSE) has switched business away from financial engineering to eco-engineering. Silicon Valley, pioneer Vinod Khosia, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, raised $2 billion in two funds on clean technologies. Sales of hybrid vehicles are growing at a breakneck pace and Toyota and Ford are trying to satisfy the demand with new models. and electric cars are also coming on the market.
Great improvements have been made in the latest electric cars but smaller, more efficient and longer lasting batteries will be needed if electric cars are to become the family car of the future.
Falling grain prices have brought biofuel back in the picture as a viable economic issue and Big Oil is now taking it seriously; Royal Dutch Shell is investing a staggering $12 billion in biofuels.
In the US President Obama, although supporting biofuels, has now put $83 billion into guarantees that will allow two new nuclear reactors to be built, the first in the United States in nearly three decades. He is trying to calm the fears of the anti-nuclear movement with the promise that by using beryllium as an additive that not so much dangerous radioactive waste will be produced.
But the dangers of trucking any radioactive waste around the country are well known and the anti-nuclear movement is angry and will campaign against any new reactors. They are also angry that taxpayers’ money is being used to build nuclear reactors because Wall Street bankers will not risk investing their millions in the unpopular nuclear business.
The Pentagon is also going for biofuels in a big way and they expect that by 2011 they will have a fuel suitable for military jets that will only cost $2 per barrel. This is despite warnings from scientists from the Global Invasion Species Programme and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, together with other group about the dangers of invasive crops being used to make biofuel.
“Most of the newer biofuel crops are what scientists call invasive species that have an extraordinary high potential to escape biofuel plantations, overrun adjacent farms and natural land and created economic and ecological havoc in the process.
“Some of the most commonly recommended species for biofuel production are also major invasive alien species” the paper said, adding that “these crops should be studied more thoroughly before being cultivated in new areas”.
Wind farms are being built all over the world, and in this country the Chancellor Alistair Darling earmarked some £525millions in 2009 for the construction of five off-shore wind farms and dozens of turbines on shore.
The £525 millions will be streamed into the Renewables Obligation Scheme to make is more attractive to commercial companies to sell more wind energy. It is estimated that about 20GW of new wind farm sites could be built in the next ten years.
The use of solar power is also increasing; the sunny southern states in the US are producing a lot of solar power for domestic use and President Obama has now given preliminary approval of $4 billion in Federal loan guarantees to help build the world’s largest solar power complex in the Mojave desert in California.
The use of rivers to provide energy is not new and water driven power stations have got larger; the biggest now is China’s Three Gorges Dam project, which displaced over 1.2 million people. The Three Gorges Dam is over six times as long as the Hoover Dam, between Arizona and Nevada, and almost 50 per cent larger than Washington State’s Grand Coulee Dam.
Run-of-River projects use the natural downward flow of rivers and micro turbine generators to capture the kinetic energy carried by the water. Typically, water is taken from the river at a high point and gravity fed down a pipe to a lower a part where it emerges through a turbine generator and re-enters the river. This kind of project is relatively cheap and has very little environmental impact.
As the oil runs out, a lot work has been done to find a substitute to make diesel and the latest development is algae, a third generation biofuel which solves many of the problems that plants cause with a lot of water use and fertilisers. Algae has a small footprint, it doesn’t use much land or water, it can be grown anywhere and as a bonus it eats CO2.
Producing algol oil close to where it is going to be used is more economic than piping or shipping oil thousands of miles and unlike oil it is a renewable resource, capable of providing consistent amounts of oil as fossil fuel reserves grow harder and more costly to find and exploit.
Many big corporations are now investing in the research and development of algae biofuel including Exxon Mobil and Chevron, although it will be a few years before Algadiesel is ready for mass sale in family cars.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Putting the individual human voice into the Palestinian narrative

By Karen Dabrowska

THE HUMAN individual voice has been lost from the Palestinian narrative and Dina Matar is determined to put it back.
Her latest book: What it Means to be a Palestinian, Stories of Palestinian Peoplehood is a narrative of narratives, a collection of personal stories, remembered feelings and reconstructed experiences by different Palestinians whose lives were changed and shaped by history. Their stories are told chronologically through particular phases of the Palestinian national struggle, providing a composite autobiography of Palestine as a landscape and as a people.
The book begins with the 1936 revolt against British rule in Palestine and ends in 1993 with the Oslo peace agreement that, according to Matar, changed the nature and form of the national struggle.
It is based on in-depth interviews and conversations with 80 Palestinians male and female, old and young, rich and poor, religious and secular in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Israel and the Occupied Territories. Presented as remembered and personal narratives and as “social” histories, these conversations provide a deep and intimate account of what it means to be Palestinian in the 21st century.
Speaking about her book, at the University of Westminister's Communication and Media Research Institute in London at the end of February, Matar explained that she was re-writing history from the perspective of the person using the oral history method.
"This is a bottom up history of Palestine where the Palestinians represent themselves. The best way to talk about what it means to be Palestinian is to let the people themselves talk. I wanted to write in a way that is accessible to many readers not just an academic audience", Matar said.
She is convinced that memory can speak truth to power. There is no such thing as a single Palestinian memory but Palestinian memories are political at heart.
During her presentation at the University of Westminster Matar focused on extracts from her book.
Ellen Khouri, one of the interviewees told her: "I had many identities and I still do, but none of them is the right one, none fits".
The late Shafiq Al-Hout who lived in Lebanon after being exiled from Palestine asked: "What can you say to someone whose normal existence has been taken away from him? It took me a while to have a bed and a room to call my own. It might not seem that hard to you but believe me, living in a room with so many for eight years is hell.
And yet it is nothing compared to other experiences. I have been through a lot and you can read about my experiences and my journey into exile in my book. And now that I am an old man and more reflective I can tell you that my experiences taught me that you can survive anything. You can survive loss but not non-belonging".
The book also describes the experiences of veterans of the Palestinian struggle. Leila Khalid, the first woman to hijack an aeroplane, spoke about leaving Haifa and eating oranges in her uncle’s house. Her mother scolded her and told her "our oranges are in Haifa not here".
And there is an interview with an artist who spent 15 years in prison, in solitary confinement. "The Israelis thought we would come out of prison like rotten tomatoes but we came out as apples", he said.
A member of Islamic Jihad recalls an interview with an Israeli army officer who asks him where the Israelis should go if they leave Jaffa and Haifa. "I don't know", he replies. "Ask Hamas".

Dana Matar is a lecturer in Arab Media and International Political Communication at the Centre for Film and Media Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Before turning to academia, she worked as a foreign correspondent and editor covering the Middle East, Europe and Africa with various agencies. She is a co-editor of The Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication. She has published journal and book articles on the Palestinian Diaspora in Britain and news, culture, politics, Arab women and media and Hezbollah. Her new book will be published in October

A teacher in China

By Anne Leggett

LAST YEAR I went as a volunteer teacher to help improve the spoken English of middle school teachers in rural Southwest China. I heard about The Amity Foundation Summer English Programme (SEP) when I chose to replace a friend who could not go for health reasons. The Amity Foundation – an NGO based in Nanning – was founded in 1985 by Chinese Christians as a response to the nation’s call for reform and openness. It aims to promote education, social and health services and rural development.
There was much to prepare: inoculations, form filling, an informal introductory vetting interview in March; a later get-together in May to decide who would teach which ability level; what resources we would bring and to discuss lesson plans. The team leader and her husband had been on the SEP twice before and had previously lived some years in Macau and Hong Kong.
The main problem with Chinese teaching of English is that lessons have concentrated heavily on reading/writing rather than oral/aural skills. The school textbooks have been revised relatively recently to introduce the latter, and so now the teachers have to provide more than explanations of grammar rules and methods for passing written tests. Furthermore it is difficult to supervise and co-ordinate group activities when teaching in a more creative, spontaneous and interactive style in classrooms of up to 80 pupils!
Another problem is the lack of native English teachers in that vast country to help improve their speaking and listening fluency. Our responsibilities were:– to give conversation and discussion based lessons appropriate for teachers in their 20s to 40s; to give some ideas for word games, dialogue activities, jazz chants, rhymes and so on useful for middle school learners, whilst being aware that our suggestions might not work in the Chinese classroom and also to ask questions and learn about Chinese culture.
We left Heathrow on 3rd July and arrived at Shanghai (Pudong) Airport, 11 hours and nearly 6000 miles later, at about 8am on the 4th July. On arrival, four white-coated and masked health personnel boarded and checked our forehead temperatures with hand-held sensors to the amusement of the Chinese passengers. If anyone had tested positive for swine flu we would all have had to be put in quarantine.
We travelled to Nanjing for our orientation programme and we were kept there a full week to make sure we were not harbouring swine flu! We stayed at the International Conference Hotel in the scenic forested Zhongshan or Purple Mountain area which contains the Sun Yat-Sen Mausoleum, Ming Tomb and a long avenue of stone statues of elephants, dromedaries, dragons, warriors and scholars. The Chinese enjoyed free use of the Ming Tomb Park and did their exercises against the stone animals or even hung upside down from them! By Purple Glow Lake, we saw one man standing on his head whilst singing at the top of his voice and just missed photographing him to everyone’s amusement.
In the Cloud Brocade Museum, I watched the complicated process of connect-warp break-weft weaving using two people – one aloft – on a large jacquard loom. Just four inches of brocade can be woven in a day! We watched a silk dress fashion show, were presented with a book to remind us of the glorious colours, patterns, skill and 4000-year history of silk-making. We visited two Amity-initiated special needs centres: a bead-making workshop, set up in 2002, for learning disabled people aged 16-40, and a centre set up in 2007, to assess and train autistic children under seven years old.
Some interesting facts to emerge from our orientation lectures were:– 10 per cent of the 1.3 billion population are migrants; five of the most polluted cities in the world are in China; HIV/AIDS prevalence is apparently low at .05 per ecnt; about 83 million are disabled; the one child policy, introduced in 1979, has contributed to doubling the percentage of people over 60 to nearly 20 per cent in the last decade, prompting the fear that China will get old before it gets rich; about one to two per cent are Christians; retirement age is 60 for men and 55 for women. Having benefited from 30 years of reform and foreign investment, China appears to be weathering the recession much better than Europe and the USA with economic growth predicted for the next few years. However, it is still a third world economy with much poverty in rural areas – school enrolment, although free there, is just 40 to 70 per cent.
On Sunday 12th July, our team of four flew for nearly three hours to Nanning, capital of Guangxi Zhuang. Then followed a bumpy two and a half-hour ride 100km north to a very green Shanglin. There was evident poverty – some people were walking barefoot. There were motor bikes and bicycles, but very few cars on the road and little sign of public transport. There was not much industry apart from manganese and aluminium extraction and there was also rice, tea and fruit growing. We saw corn drying in the sun and small rice stacks. When we got to the small town of 45,000 inhabitants, we saw Daming Mountains nearby – green to the top. Walking there was a favourite pastime for many of the teachers. On arrival, the education officials gave us a great welcome and a banquet.
The following day began at 8am with ability placement interviews, followed by an opening ceremony. My first lesson was about introductions and so I divided the teachers into pairs and then groups of four to encourage English dialogue.
During our discussion lessons, I discovered that:– a Japanese might be more useful than English, given China's proximity to and major trade dealings with Japan; anxieties included lack of organised care; there were more advantages than disadvantages to the one child policy; people can travel freely; the teachers earned approximately £120 per month; although the teachers would have liked a higher salary, they were aware that, “With money you can buy books, but not knowledge; a clock, but not time; medicine, but not health; a bed, but not sleep.”
I chose certain witty limericks to lighten the lessons and help the class escape from the burdensome chore of endless grammar and new vocabulary. I explained limerick construction and we gathered suitable rhymes to produce a group effort. We had great fun finding similar and different proverbs. Many were similar, for example: “While the tiger is away, the monkey can play”. The teachers loved word games and were good at homophones, antonyms, synonyms and anagrams.
The afternoon sessions were reserved for more relaxed and informal learning. The teachers watched the film Narnia, but the 2009 Springwatch programme would have been more appealing to wildlife enthusiasts. There was a talk on Shakespeare’s plays made accessible in an amusing way and another talk about Beijing and London. More energetic afternoon sessions included rounders, which they had never played before, football and Scottish country dancing. The word games sessions went very well because the Chinese are extremely competitive. It was a sobering thought that these teachers would have to supervise stimulating activities with a group of 60-80 pupils with no assistant to lend a helping hand!
Best of all was the talent show. Some performed a beautiful combined mime and dance which was a thank-you and farewell to us. Others did some very authentic Indian dancing. There was a demonstration of a martial art using a nunchaku (two thick sticks joined together by a chain).
As well as working hard, we did have time to sightsee. The first Friday evening, we enjoyed watching a graceful tea ceremony. The cups were washed with the first brew and we drank the third brew, trying out three teas. Women, but not men, have to hold their little finger out when drinking! Whilst enjoying the relative coolness of the night air under the mango trees, we came across a group of erhu players who warmly invited us to sit down and drink tea whilst they played three pieces for us – one was a horse race and the last a gentle goodnight. On the way back we were accosted by our lovely cook who offered us roasted peanuts.
Being foreign workers, we were expected to register at the police station. The atmosphere was very relaxed and informal. I think we were the only Europeans there in a place rarely, if ever, visited by tourists. Two members of our team had to see the doctor and were given good prompt orthodox treatment – one for a skin rash on the leg and the other for mild shingles. There are no GP surgeries in China. Patients see doctors in the hospital. I learnt that short sight is a common problem – many of the teachers wore glasses.
One of the most impressive aspects of my visit was the unfailing kindness and helpfulness of our hosts. They ate with us, helped us with teaching resource requirements and provided us with a ready and willing translation service at all times. The tradition is to look after guests in a protective way, perhaps a bit smothering for some people.
We had an unexpected extra invitation to stay one night in Nanning after the Friday closing ceremony in Shanglin. The Nanjing officials wanted us to admire their prosperous capital with fine buildings, impressively lit up at night, spacious avenues and park with many tropical trees. Nanjing is very green and sedate – a complete contrast to Shanghai.
The hardest part of my stay was not being able to communicate. I had a wonderful introduction to China, felt very privileged to be able to go there and would like to go back, but when I can say more than ni hao and zai chien’ – a “hello” and ”goodbye”!