A FAMOUS GROUSE
ABOUT ten years ago, I visited China to write something anodyne about its tourism attractions and thus prompt readers to take advantage of the package deal advertised alongside my purple prose.
I did the country in ten days: in Shanghai, a tea ceremony on the Bund and a short cruise up the Yangtze; in Beijing, trips to the Great Wall and the Forbidden City; in Xian, the spring baths at Huaqing Palace and, naturally, the Terracotta Army of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China.
Along the way, I was revered as a living god by old women who, upon learning I was born in the Year of the Pig, would rub my belly for luck. “Happy Buddha man!” they’d gleefully shout as I pressed coins into their palms.
My guide was, alas, not as deferent. Foreign agents, she insisted, were behind the Tiananmen Square protests. Worse still, the prices at the Tian yi Jade Factory were not as cheap as she’d promised. (The factory, I suspected, may have employed many of her relatives.)
There were some genuine surprises, like the hotel sign which warned that prostitutes and gambling were not permitted in our rooms after 11pm, that we may not wash our hair in the toilet, and that under no circumstances could we store radioactive material on the premises.
The flea markets were interesting diversions. Here amid the communist tat were piles of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, the famous “Little Red Book” (their pages were stained with tea so they could be passed as antiques), and ceramic figurines celebrating the Cultural Revolution.
The latter may have looked kitsch, like the flying ducks above the hearth here at the Mahogany Ridge or the Disney characters that your mad aunt collects. But they chillingly depicted the purging of intellectuals by the Red Guard.
Typically, they’d feature a bespectacled individual on his knees undergoing “correction”. He’d be wearing a dunce’s cap with a sign hung around his neck listing his bourgeois crimes as two or three uniformed youths berated him, waving their Little Red Books.
It probably did not go too well for the intellectual concerned. In some of these grim tableaux, students were pushing the enemy of the people into the dirt with their boots as rosy-cheeked comrades with AK-47 assault rifles looked on in approval.
I was reminded of all this with the EFF’s threat to shut down our beleaguered universities should they stop walk-in applications by would-be students. This followed Julius Malema’s call that those who haven’t yet applied should just report to academic institutions, which in turn followed Jacob Zuma’s vague announcement that, this year, there’d be free tertiary education for the poor.
The universities have insisted that, as in previous years, walk-ins won’t be permitted, which prompted a warning from EFF Student Command National President Peter Keetse:
“If they continue with this,” he said, “no-one will enter those universities, including their staff — not even the cleaners and security. The universities will have to come to a gentle stop. We can’t allow only those who can afford to study and neglect the have-nots. This is systematic exclusion; these students did not have time to apply.”
The Chinese universities also came to a “gentle stop”.
In addition to the millions who were persecuted, forcibly relocated, had their property seized and destroyed, who were publicly humiliated, arbitrarily imprisoned, tortured, sent to labour camps and even executed, the Cultural Revolution brought the country’s education system to a virtual halt.
Schools and universities were shut within months of Mao’s call in May 1966 to rid society of “revisionists”. The schools gradually reopened, but most colleges and universities stayed closed until 1972.
University entrance exams were replaced by a system whereby committees in factories, villages and the military selected who was or wasn’t allowed a tertiary education.
It was only in 1977, under Deng Xiaoping, that entrance exams were restored. China had by then produced an entire generation of poorly educated individuals; among other things, they’d been denied university access because they were “urban”, born too early, wouldn’t sleep with party officials, or were just annoyingly bright kids.
The remnants of this lost generation are easily spotted by tourists as they’re whisked around the gleaming spires of modern commerce in Shanghai and Beijing. They stick out like sore thumbs in the hordes of go-getting young guns in knock-off Italian business suits. Sad and old, they’re the ones in lumpy grey pyjamas.
We, of course, have had our own lost generation for a while now. But, with chaos looming, it seems we’re hell-bent on a second lost generation.
A version of this article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.