The Highest Expression of Socialism

13 May 2022

I recently finished watching fascinating documentary that covers life and social relations in 1970s socialist China. It is probably the highest level of socialism achieved on a mass scale in our known history. The documentary itself was almost 800 minutes long, so I watched it over the course of a few weeks. I also put up a page on my other website where I’m working on picking out the scenes and quotes that stuck with me the most from each episode.

Realistically, many people won’t watch an 800-minute-long documentary, but hopefully putting some quotes online can help convey some important points.

The first section I watched is called “The Ball” and is only 17 minutes (in comparison to many of the other 1-2 hour long sections). I highly recommend watching it, especially because it’s so short. When I first watched it, I showed it to my friends, and then I watched it again. Then I tried painstakingly to transcribe the scene into text but I found that there were so many different children talking, it was hard to convey the entire scene without glossing over. I didn’t want to do that so I only included a short quote on my page, which I will also share here.

Student: We were playing soccer, but the teacher wanted us to stop since it was after 7am. A ball was right in front of me, so I kicked it. The ball hit the teacher. It wasn't aimed at her; I didn't do it on purpose.

She took me to her office and criticized me, and the teacher took the ball away from everybody just to punish one person. The teacher already criticized me previously about something else, so she probably was looking for another reason to do it again."

Interviewer: Will the student who kicked the ball be punished?

Teacher: No, no punishment. We'll deal with it politically, that's all. We used to punish them by making them stand in a corner, or sending them out of class. We would call their parents and even expel them. We don't do that anymore. Teachers and students are equals now. The problem itself isn't so serious; what's serious is that he defends himself when he knows he's wrong.

The example might seem silly, but I think this video demonstrates an excellent way of solving conflict in a dialectical, open, and public way. I find it so interesting that the teacher says “teachers and students are equals now”. Can you even imagine such a thing?

Much of the documentary has other moments like this - moments that seem to just make so much damn sense. I want to shout this video to the world (specifically Twitter) and show people alternate ways of resolving conflict that are respectful, democratic and fair.

There’s a section which focuses on a rural fishing village. It interviews a doctor, who is speaking about the village’s medical care.

Interviewer: In your opinion, why did Chairman Mao say, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, that doctors were like lords in the big cities?

Doctor: The city doctors thought they were above it all. They didn’t care about peasants like us. When we went for a consultation, the doctors treated us slightly and weren’t very helpful. That’s why we didn’t like them very much. Now the city doctors help us a lot. Sometimes they come to the country with knapsacks full of medicine and instruments. They come to pay house calls so the peasants really like them now. They also do minor surgery on the spot.

Interviewer: Can you tell us what the barefoot doctors are?

Doctor: Our country has a large population. The rural regions, especially the more remote ones, need doctors in medicine. The hospitals alone can’t take care of all of the patients. We asked for help from the high school students who are good workers and very willing. After they finish school, they spend time doing manual work and then they come here. We send them to the local hospital as apprentices, and then they come back here again to practice work. At the same time, they study and improve their professional skills. Even though they haven’t been to medical school, they take care of the rural population wholeheartedly, and they’re welcome everywhere. After a while, we send them back to the hospital again to perfect their skills. Now medical care is more accessible to the peasants in our brigade. Common illnesses are treated on the spot.

This one in particular hits hard in current day. I just had a conversation with my mom where I was urging her to get medical care for some problems she’s been experiencing. Unfortunately because we're poor, they've treated her terribly. One of her doctors would tell her exactly how much Medicaid was paying him to see her ($7). When I told her she should see a doctor, she just said, “Doctors don’t give a shit about me, so why should I?” She’s not the only one who’s had these experiences with doctors, ones who don’t take us seriously about our pain and our problems, who minimize what we feel. I was specifically told by a doctor not to Google a condition I had been diagnosed with, because I'm not a medical professional.

I shared this quote with a friend of mine who works in a medical school. She helps to train med students by coordinating “practice examinations” on volunteer patients. She often mentions to me that even though some of the med students are really smart, they “have absolutely no idea how to respectfully interact with people”.

China doesn't shy away from acknowledging the problems with "academia", specifically that people who are educated (by books and systematic education) often become condescending to those who deal with practical matters (e.g., manual labor). This, truly, is the source of our doctors treating us like we are "beneath" them, or like we couldn't possibly make informed decisions about our health without an "expert".

Yet here is this village in China that trains high school children (we must keep in mind that 70s socialist Chinese high schoolers were brought up in a very different culture than high schoolers today) to administer medical care to the people. Because the people's health matters more than whether or not someone is "fully qualified" to treat them.

A few different sections of the documentary talk about the difference between “theory” and “practice” which is heavily inspired by Mao Tse-tung’s philosophy. Regardless of how you feel about this historical figure, you can’t exactly argue with this philosophy, because it’s too perfectly reasonable and logical. It goes like this: ideas are just ideas until you put them into practice. A lot of our current society is based on “ideas” that sound good in theory, but in practice they’re absolutely horrendous. Like our medical system.

So the philosophy goes, you can’t know if something works until you try it, and then analyze the results to see if it is effective. If it is effective, continue doing it. If it is not effective, stop doing it. It’s something that requires constant analysis and re-assessment. It’s also something that directly opposes everything about our modern society and political system, mainly because that way of doing things isn’t profitable, therefore, in the eyes of our system it is not worth doing.

Seeing such a different reality than the current one, is both incredibly uplifting and inspiring, but at the same time, sobering. It’s sobering because we are so far from achieving anything like this.

I think for a while after I watched the film in its entirety, it actually increased the intensity of my alienation from this society. Now I knew what else was possible.

There’s so much more I want to say, but this is already getting pretty long. I’ll just list some other highlights from the documentary that were surprising to me:

  • Workers no longer need to punch in or out to work, and workers are no longer penalized for being late. They also don’t have “managers” in the traditional sense, and manage themselves.
  • China was very conscious of the environment and the potential harm of industrialization and expansion, so they worked very hard to devise ways to create as little waste as possible, by recycling as much as possible. In one case, seamstresses discovered how to turn rags back into cotton fibers, which were then made into new rags.
  • Traffic police are not at all interested in meeting quotas for tickets. Instead, they focus on educating people for their own safety, and they openly welcome criticism in their tactics. Their emphasis is teaching people to respect and care about others’ safety.
  • A physics professor is interviewed about how he “changed” over the Cultural Revolution. He explains that he used to place too much emphasis on theory, and when faced with practical work he was clueless. He realized he never connected to his students because he only read books that talked about how things were done - not actually how to apply them (this is another short episode, just under 10 min!)

If you read this far, I thank you. Even if you don't want to watch it, you should skim the quotes up on my page!

I'll leave with a quote from Huey P. Newton's book "Revolutionary Suicide" (which I intend to write about next). I was delighted to find one of the last chapters mentions his trip to China, around the same time as this documentary was filmed:

"Today, when I think of my experiences in the People’s Republic of China— a country that overwhelmed me while I was there—they seem somehow distant and remote. Time erodes the immediacy of the trip; the memory begins to recede. But that is a common aftermath of travel, and not too alarming. What is important is the effect that China and its society had on me, and that impression is unforgettable. While there, I achieved a psychological liberation I had never experienced before.

It was not simply that I felt at home in China; the reaction was deeper than that. What I experienced was the sensation of freedom—as if a great weight had been lifted from my soul and I was able to be myself, without defense or pretense or the need for explanation. I felt absolutely free for the first time in my life —completely free among my fellow men. This experience of freedom had a profound effect on me, because it confirmed my belief that an oppressed people can be liberated if their leaders persevere in raising their consciousness and in struggling relentlessly against the oppressor."