CHINESE Communists are tackling one major problem that has nothing to do with politics, one on which armchair advisers in other countries have been preaching to the Chinese for years. They started last August, and have greatly accelerated this spring, a nationwide campaign for birth control.
How the Chinese plan to control their birth rate How limited free enterprise survives in Red China
on an astonishing exhibition of contortions and acrobatics. An older brother did a juggling act, and with a teen-age sister did some trick riding on shaggy Mongolian ponies. It was unpleasant to think of the months and years the children must have spent learning all their tricks, but I must admit they looked as if they were enjoying it thoroughly. That is more than I can say for the audience, which sat in a great circle watching the show without a sound or a motion of applause.
I waited for an hour, hoping somebody would wrestle the bear, but nobody did. When I left he was still peacefully asleep, not having moved a muscle all the time I was there.
China's population growth, extremely rapid for a century and a half, has lately been a veritable explosion. With twenty-two million live births a year and only ten million deaths, the natural increase in China is a staggering million a month—two percent per year.
As recently as 1954 the Communist government of China refused to admit that this situation contained any threat. When the Clement Attlee party of British Laborites toured China in the summer of that year, Chou En-lai and Mao Tse-tung assured them that the new economy could absorb limitless numbers of willing hands and hungry mouths. The more Chinese, the better, they said.
Even before that year was out they had privately changed their minds. Local organizations such as farm cooperatives, trade unions and women’s associations were instructed to do what they could to spread knowledge of contraception.
As other countries such as India and Japan had already learned by experience, these half measures have little or no effect. Last August the government decided to act more energetically. A birth-control unit was set up in the department of health, and an earnest campaign began. In Peking in March, on National Women’s Day, an exhibition was held of all known contraceptive methods, with charts, diagrams and exhortations.
Meanwhile, a more drastic step had already been taken. Abortion is now legal in Chinese hospitals. There are no figures available on the abortion rate, but doctors say it is rising steeply. The government is also considering, though it has not yet adopted, a law permitting voluntary sterilization of both sexes.
So far, no results are apparent—it’s too soon for any effect on the birth rate to show. Health authorities realize that even if births are reduced the naturalincrease rate may continue to rise, as public-health measures like clean water and modern midwifery reduce infant mortality. Only thirty thousand midwives in China have had the full threeyear course, but half a million old-style midwives have been given a brief retraining, which should have a considerable effect on the death rates of mothers and babies.
Grain production is rising by only three to four percent each year, and there is no assurance that this rate of
increase can be maintained. Whether the growth of population can be cut to match the growth in the food supply is the biggest unanswered question in the new China.
Another non-political chore that the Communists have taken in hand, one equally overdue and even oftener the subject of free advice from abroad, is the introduction of an alphabet.
Already some Chinese newspapers have started publishing some material in ordinary, Western-style type alongside other columns in Chinese ideograms. Next autumn Chinese primary schools will start teaching the alphabet to children, along with the fifteen hundred Chinese characters that the poor mites have to learn in their first two years. Eventually, no doubt, the whole of Chinese literature will be transposed into phonetic printing.
This means a revolution in more ways than one. At present China speaks a number of major dialects, no more mutually intelligible than Italian and French, or even German and English. They share a common written language, but this means only that the same character stands for the same object or idea in all dialects. It does not stand for the same word. A good analogy is the use of numerals in Europe: 5 means the same number of apples in all countries, whether it is pronounced five, cinq or fünf.
Now that the Chinese propose to spell their words, it means they must shift to a common language—the Peking dialect, known as "Mandarin” and already, in theory, the language of the educated Chinese.
No Communist would admit it, but the establishment of Mandarin as a common language in China is to a large extent the work of that detested and discredited exile, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. If an honest history of China is ever written in future, this may well be recorded as his greatest if not his only enduring service to his country.
My general impression of Peking has been one of mild disappointment. I always understood this to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. If it ever was, it certainly isn’t now— it doesn’t compare in beauty with Hong Kong or Beirut or even Cairo, not to mention the real cities of the world like New York and London. It is as downat-heel as Taipeh, almost; miles and miles of slummy shacks, with a few
broad boulevards and a few modern buildings and, of course, the old palaces of the Forbidden City in the centre. These are mere tourist attractions now, as dead and obsolete as the Pyramids.
On the other hand, there is little evidence of want and distress. Everyone looks busy. There is plenty of food in the markets. No beggars, no streetcorner merchants of gimcrackery, none of the evidences of desperate poverty that stick out all over Hong Kong and Taipeh and other Eastern cities.
One of the interesting things in Red China is to notice the various survivals of free enterprise.
The farmers’ free market is a special case, of course—even though they can sell some of their products directly, all the farmers themselves are organized into collectives. So are most of the sidewalk merchants, either as members of a co-operative or as part owners of a “joint enterprise” with the state. But there are some who are still on their own—the sidewalk barbers, the barrow cooks who peddle sticks of candied meats, the toymakers who go about crying their wares with a kite tail of children straggling along behind them.
I dropped in the other day to watch one family business that still appears to be flourishing—a small circus.
Faded cotton signs at the entrance showed a ferocious leopard snarling in its cage while a man twisted its tail, and an equally ferocious bear wrestling with its intrepid trainer. Actually I had seen the bear an hour or two before, being led up the sidewalk on a rope leash through a jostling Sunday morning crowd. When I paid my ten cents Chinese and went into the circus enclosure, the bear was lying sound asleep in the middle of the ring.
Mainly the show rested on the small shoulders of two boys who didn’t look more than ten years old, and who put
The Chinese are constantly telling the visitor, and even each other, that they are really a very backward country with much to learn from the more advanced countries, especially that great leader of the socialist camp, the Soviet Union. But if the Russians should ever decide that the process ought to be reciprocal, and that they might also learn something from the Chinese, I would advise them to sign up in Peking for a course in public relations.
Chinese handling of the foreign visitor is superb. It is almost as good as the Israeli, and I can think of no higher tribute than that.
One of their good points is this very self-belittlement, which is part of the traditional courtesy of China anyway but which is carried over very gracefully into the new folkways of Chinese communism. You hear no boasting here, but instead a rather studied emphasis on the shortcomings, the obstacles, the tasks undone and the skills to be learned. The effect, of course, is that the visitor begins to point out to the Chinese the ways in which they do excel. If he has come to Peking by way of Moscow, this is not difficult.
Where the Russians give the impression of trying to keep a foreign journalist blindfold in all but a few selected situations, the Chinese make him think he can go anywhere and talk to anybody. Actually, reporters who live here or who come here often discover that this is not quite the case; there are restricted areas, here as in all Communist countries. But if he didn’t have colleagues to tell him this truth, a transient might spend weeks in China and go home thinking he had been in a free country—or anyway, almost free. ★
China’s dreadful dilemma: how to feed twenty-two million new babies a year.
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