It’s difficult to over-estimate the enduring impact that traumatic historical events can have on the psyche of nations. They leave deep lasting scars and memories.
The ‘Great Hunger’, Ireland’s potato famine, led to the death of starvation of more than one million Irish when the country’s staple food crop failed for several consecutive years in the mid nineteenth century.
The famine created a culture of emigration among the Irish that persists 150 years later. Recent generations (including yours truly) left the island under considerably less painful circumstances, but the route was established during the famine years when a further million Irish left for the UK, Australia, the United States and elsewhere in search of salvation.
A month in, and it is strikes me that recent Chinese history has had a similar affect on Chinese people. Under the leadership of Mao Zedong, the Chinese Government imposed two successive movements during the 1960s and 1970s that proved to be economic, social and political failures of epic proportions.
The first, the Great Leap Forward, was designed to transform China’s predominately rural society into a global industrial powerhouse. With the country focused on creating an industrial capability to rival the developed world, it lost sight of its agricultural heritage and food production failed. With a population of more than one billion people to feed, this oversight led to widespread famine.
Catastrophe followed calamity when Chairman Mao introduced the Cultural Revolution, an attempt to quell the dissenting voices of academics, the educated and the thoughtful that rose in response. Sensing their desire to give capitalism a go, something the Party had little enthusiasm for, it introduced the strengthening of communist ideals. Dissenters were imprisoned, tortured and killed. Believing education to be the main perpetrator of dissension, schools and universities were closed. Deprivation and famine continued. All told, over 50 million Chinese starved to death and many more only just avoided the same fate born of political philosophy.
Like the Irish, many Chinese emigrated to escape. That’s what the west has to thank for its fondness for Chinese food today. Unlike the Irish, however, there are hundreds of millions of Chinese alive today who lived through the tragedy.
They work incredibly hard, seldom complain and place a very high value on education, on dedication and effort. China has become the world’s second largest economy.
But the more China grows, the more it becomes the West’s newest bogeyman, the new axis of evil that can’t be trusted. China’s success, I sense, is due more to the memory of abject poverty and destitution the people endured than the kind of narrative that Ian Fleming might have written into a gripping Bond script.
People find it very difficult to trust what they don’t understand. A better understanding between east and west would make us all richer.
China’s demographics are changing rapidly as millions leave rural areas for the opportunities offered in the ever-expanding cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. Chinese parents often leave their children in the care of grandparents in the villages so they can make a living in suburban factories, returning home maybe once or twice a year. In just a few weeks, the cities will fall silent as their inhabitants return to their families for the Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year.
People, wherever they live, have fundamentally the same dreams, fears, troubles and priorities. There is infinitely more that unites us than sets us apart. Chinese high streets are equally pockmarked with Starbucks coffee shops, the fridges in corner shops stocked with cans of Coca Cola.
In a world that’s losing it’s diversity, shouldn’t we try to understand better and celebrate a bit more the little things that still make us different?