A conversation with Han Suyin

Print edition : November 30, 2012

Deng Xiaoping (right) with Mao Zedong: Two men who changed China's destiny.-THE HINDU ARCHIVES Deng Xiaoping (right) with Mao Zedong: Two men who changed China's destiny.

Excerpts from an interview Han Suyin gave N. Ram, former Editor-in-Chief of Frontline. It was published in the November 15, 1985, issue.

THIS Frontline interview, recorded in Madras during the latest in a series of regular visits, is concentrated on the qualitative features of Chinas very important change in course during the last six or seven yearsassociated most prominently with the name of Deng Xiaoping. The questions, and responses, are very much in the background of larger, wider changein a historical sense.

This conversation with Han Suyin is about the redefined goals, purposes and methods of the Chinese Revolution, about the phenomenon of opening out to the world, about Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai and other leaders, old and young, about the relationship between the Communist Party, the working masses and intellectuals about the attempt to modernise China and the issues and problems involved; about swings in line, leadership and interpretation and the question of overcorrection and balances; and so on.

N. Ram: Dr. Han Suyin, you have observed China over a very long period and have also interacted with the world at large. With regard to the current phase, where would you say China is going now, in relation to its goals, methodologies and balances in historical perspective, after Liberation?

Han Suyin: I believe that there is one respect in which I differ very much from a Western attitude. For them, the time space context in which they judge things is much shorter and more compact than the one in which many Chinese intellectualswho are bred in a civilisation and a culture of much longer spanrealise things. You say, since Liberation, but the Chinese revolution does not date itself since Liberation: it dates itself since 1842, the First Opium War. Now this is very startling, because it immediately puts the Liberation by a Chinese Communist Party into the context of a total movement for independence which started in the 19th century, which has varied in its approaches but has always had the same goals.

This goal cannot be better stated than it was by Dr. Sun Yatsen, who in 1911, when at last the Manchu empire was overthrown and China became a republic, said that we want China to be an international power, an international country, and to share equally with others; we want its people to be prosperous and the country to be modernised and industrialised. If you read him in 1911 and Mao Zedong in 1949, theyve said the same thing. My approach, which is that of many Chinese intellectuals who are not communist but who have appeared to sympathise withand indeed, supportedthe Chinese Communist Party, is determined by the fact that to us the Chinese Communist Party was the instrument whereby this purpose could be accomplished.

N. Ram: And if we may come to the China of today, how do you locate it in the context of the very major change over the period you mentioned?

Han Suyin: If you adopt my attitudewhich is by no means an orthodox one and which would perhaps strike some people as being totally crazyan ideology or a system becomes a transient thing, something which also undergoes change. Even in Mao Zedongs own life, he started by being a democrat and then he turned to the Chinese Communist Party, because all of us werethe whole of China wasdisgusted with the way the democracies treated China.

From this point of view, what is happening today is not disgust with communism itself, or socialism itself, but a realisation that the methods borrowed from Soviet Russia may not be entirely the ones especially in view of this extraordinary new thing that has happened, the high technology, or computer, revolution. This is the real revolution which will make all of us, including India, change our minds about the application of ideologies or systems.

People always say The Chinese are pragmatic. Its quite true. People always say that the Chinese are not really dedicated to religious attitudes, which is true also. It is not at all surprising if the Chinese feel that they have a perfect right to do what Mao Zedong already announced in 1937, when he said that the Comintern should give up interfering in Chinese affairs and that in China, Marxism-Leninism would be applied to the concrete Chinese situation. Now based upon this, any kind of new innovation is possible.

This is the way that I regard what the leaders of China in their talks with meand I have talked with Hu Yaobang, Yao Yilin, Zhao Ziyang and others recentlyinsist on calling the experiment. In other words, it is the West that declares and decides that we have changed our minds. To us, no. The opening of China was on the cards since 1956. It was others that delayed it. Mr. Nixon made it possible. The most important thing is that we consider what we are doing now a great experiment, a great innovation. In this we are only following Mao Zedong, once again; in On Practice , he wrote that theory, if it doesnt work, has to be altered by practice. Because ideas dont come from heaven, they come from social practice.

HAN SUYIN at a conference in memory of Indira Gandhi in New Delhi.-N. SRINIVASAN

This is the substratum, not always put as clearly as I am putting it, of Chinese thought.

N. Ram: But this emphasis has not always been clear, even regarding the internal processthat it is open-ended, that it is experimental.

Han Suyin: This is because policies have to be very sure. It is quite true that the open door policy has been a constant. It may not look that way. It may look as if China was shutting itself up, but you know very well, having been yourself a student of Chinese history, that way back in 1949 Mao Zedong offered to open China to America. I do not think that China can be faulted for shutting up, which she did afterwards in self-preservation. We are now studying these periods of opening and shutting and saying, Well, it was wrong, but what else did you want us to do at that time, when we were under an embargo and being kicked around by everybody?

The policy of opening up was very much in Premier Zhou Enlais mind, so far as I can tell, from 1956, when I first met him. This was why, in some ways, Zhou Enlai was very eager to have people abroad to really project China, a different China from the propaganda. I personally feel no major contradiction, although of course, it is a very sinuous, tortuous path. Then again, Zhou Enlai said, the path is never straight, it has many tortuosities.

But how do you really achieve the goalwhich is for China to be a country of prosperity, industrially developed, equal to any other nation in the worldexcept by changing horses all the time?

N. Ram: You have dealt with on a personal basis, and surely observed and assessed all the timeto the extent one can through these impressionsthe notable leaders of China.

Han Suyin: I must make this clear. I have not met Mao Zedong to speak to. I did write two books which I felt would project how Mao Zedong thought, which is really the thought of a peasanta peasant intellectual, but deeply a Chinese peasant. But I have not met Mao Zedong. It was Premier Zhou Enlai whom I met many times.

N. Ram: Yes, but nevertheless you had a privileged position and were able to observe the characteristics of this leadership. If we may concentrate on the leadership that China has had, it appears that although it is very much within a collective framework, leadership qualities and the vision of revolutionary leaders have mattered a great deal. Now if you would just abstract this aspect from the total experience, how do you see the phenomenon of leadership in relation to a vast revolutionary change in a society like China?

Han Suyin: Let us divide the leadership into generationsbecause we are in the second generation and the third generation is coming up. The first generation was forged together not by common consent; on the contrary, if you read even my attempts, you will see how very much, from the word go, there were quarrels within the Chinese Communist Party. I think that no leftists are ever well-known for their spirit of union! Its the conservativesits the bankers, you knowwho all stick together and have a common front. On the left, your worst enemies are your friends and this is very evident in the beginnings of the Chinese Communist Party and way down to 1949, when there were always people who had different minds. It happened during the Long March. During the Long March there were also people fighting with each other, not with weapons but verbally and not being of the same mind. It was the genius of Mao Zedong which somehow mesmerised others into forging a tremendous unity after the Tsunyi meeting of 1935. The Yenan days were the days of cohesion, days in which the vertebrae, the real spine of the Chinese Communist Party, was formed.

This was its good point, but it was also its weak feature, the weak feature being that they were mostly peasants and very few intellectuals. They knew the countryside very well, they did not know the cities. When it came to the cities, Mao Zedong himself warned: Let us not get poisoned, let us not be corrupted, Let us not be inveigled by poison bullets. But within three years of taking the cities, there had to be a purge movement in the Party, which is also described in my book. Then arose contradictions due to the fact that this cadre, this Communist Party, which had been heroic, was made up of peasantsdevoted, dedicated, but completely unable to cope with, say, a scientific laboratory, unable to understand that when lights were blinking off and on, the man was not a spy sending all kinds of messages to America. These things happenedin fact, I put them in my book, I think it was in My House Has Two Doors. You put a man who comes from the countryside and he doesnt even know what the water closet is and he looks with suspicion at everything.

There was then an attempt within the Party to utilise the intellectuals better. A story should be written about Zhou Enlai, because it was due to him that many intellectuals returned from abroad to serve China. They were not communists. Then there was the attempt in the Hundred Flowers to listen to all opinion but it was knocked downand there is no need to blame just one man, Mao Zedong, for it. It is the fact that the party rank and file were peasantsand there were too many peasantswho said, and I heard them say: We fought for everything under heaven and these people are going to sit on our heads!

They were responding to the old cultural patternthe intellectual with us is like the Brahman with you! He was the top, and was the bureaucrat also; our intelligentsia were also bureaucrats. They did not live by writing or doing anything else, they lived because they had a post in the Government. We had a literocracy, and to the peasant mind, subconsciously, having the intellectuals back in positions of power meant going back to the old times when the intellectual was also the landlords son and was also the bureaucrat who oppressed them.

There has been this battle and in the battle I think Mao Zedong sided with the peasants every time, and perhaps there he was wrong. But perhaps, in another way, he had his reasons for thinking that the first thing was to mobilise agriculture and to put money into the communes because we had to build an infrastructure of water. The only way to build that was to mobilise manpower by the million since we did not have machines. If there is any valid irrigation in China today, it was done during those years, years which, I am afraid, Western sinologists will not recognise today as useful, but which, I feel, were very useful in laying down the infrastructure for the prosperity of today.

DENG XIAOPING IN 1987: The "little helmsman" who unleashed the nation's energies, opened it up to the world and pulled it out of dire poverty.-JOHN GIANNINI/ AFP

N. Ram: Is that being cherished today, is it taken care of well enough?

Han Suyin: Im afraid that today were in a time of transition, where there are more urgent things to be done and where the kind of long-term view that I have been giving you is not the kind of thing that you will get from the average official. After all, the party is still going though a shake-up. It is much more important for this Government to consolidate its policies and I agree entirely with and support them in this, because I think that they are on the right path, at the right time. Its a question of timing and I do believe, sincerely and honestly, that they have seized the opportunity at the right time to do the right thing, which is to say that we must now modernise China.

Here again, I will remind you of who spoke of the four modernisations first: not Mr. Deng Xiaoping, but Zhou Enlai announced the four modernisationsin 1975.

Following Zhou Enlai on this, for me there is no hiatus as there is for Western journalists, who see it like a salami cut into small pieces, one piece here and one piece there; for me, there is continuity. The modernisations were very much in Zhou Enlais mind.

N. Ram: But perhaps the conditions were not ripe then.

Han Suyin: The conditions were not ripe and it was very bold of him to announce it. It set China and gave validity to what Deng Xiaoping would continue to do. I personally dont feel Im changing my mind at all. I am following the same line since 1956; to me it seems very clear that this has to be done.

N. Ram: Is there a tendency to overcorrection?

Han Suyin: Yes, there always is. You have the juggernaut, and when it goes too much to the right or too much to the left, there are always victims. In China you will find many young people saying: We in China always speak of the Middle Way, but we are always either hundred per cent for or hundred per cent against!and I laugh and I say: Yes. So far as I have known China, you have always been talking of the Middle Way, and that is why Confucius preached the Middle Waybecause we are an excessive people. In a very placid manner. You (in India) are excessive in a very emotional manner. But we can be very excessive too, and the excesses are due to the fact that there is not enough education among many cadres in taking responsibility. The cadres apply things blanket-like. You say: Let us be careful of spies. Immediately, everybody looks at everybody else as a spy.

Dont you see? There doesnt seem to be a kind of

N. Ram: Balance?

Han Suyin: Yes, balance. And this balance is acquired only by having a competent civil service. Now a competent civil service has to be educated and have people who take responsibility. We do not have that. After all, we never had it.

N. Ram: Would you then see this as an advantage of India, with whatever

Han Suyin: Oh yes. I see the advantages in India in that (a) you were not torn to pieces, as we were, by war; (b) you were not invaded by Japan, as we werewe had 35 million victims; (c) you did not have the civil war before that for 25 years; and (d) you have been bestowed a system by the Britishnow, it may not work, it may be breaking down, but it was a system.

We had no system. After all, the legal system of China began only on January 1, 1980, So where are we?

N. Ram: May I take you back, to look from a point at which you can probably judge him objectively, at Chairman Mao Zedong? I have, of course, looked at the Communist Partys resolution and the many-sided assessment, which basically divides his contribution into periods. Up to a point, the very positive, the great, dominated; and later on he made mistakes. But surely, looking at it from this point, Mao Zedong is the great figure in modern China; he is certainly one of the three, four, some may say ten, people who have shaped contemporary history and ideas. Why is it that there seems to be a downplaying of his role at this point, in this very process of correcting some of the mistakes which, as you pointed out, were not just his responsibility, but which happened during the period? Why is it that as external observers, we are not quite convinced by this assessment? The specifics may hold, but the overall tone and spirit do not quite appear to do justice to the stature of the person.

Han Suyin: I too have been talking about this, and I feel that some peopleI would put this more among the middle-aged than the older intellectualsare really aggrieved with him because of the sufferings they had.

We are coming upon a newer generation and I have talked to some of the younger people and some of them have sufferedtheyve been sent to the countryside, and so on. And do you know, what is very extraordinary is that they dont blame him. They seem to have a fairer view, perhaps because they are young.

Those to whom I talked have overcome what, after all, may be looked at in two ways: being sent to the countryside to work with your hands may have disrupted your studies, but in many cases it also gave a new maturity to people who would otherwise have known nothing about their own country. I have nephews and nieces among them, whose time in the countryside has done them a lot of good, because at last they understood what it was really all about.

But there are others who were really victims and you cannot hope that these people would be happy about Mao Zedong. Again, many of these people are being specially compensated for the sufferings that they have undergone by being given, for instance, special priority to go abroad or by being given back a lot of money. Many of the proprietors or people in the city who lost their homes have been fully compensated and they are sitting on quite a lot of money. These people will of course feel that they dont want to have anything more to do with this and they are condemning everything.

There is also the point of view of those people who want to stick to Maowhatever he has done, right or wrong, we must stick to Maoand they still have a problem. I feel that today there is no emphasis on Mao because the Party has to be very clear that these people cannot come back to power in the name of Mao. They would utilise this for their own ends, saying, Well, Mao was a great person after all.

There is therefore a downplaying, which is quite necessary and which we fully understand. But this has nothing to do with history; Im talking historically and I can say that I feel no contradiction. But I can quite imagine that, faced with a problem of policy-making in, say, a district, the district officer or the Party secretary is not going to allow the other fellow, in the name of Mao, to start trouble, and for that reason, he has to downgrade the whole thing.

N. Ram: So, in a sense, he is very much alive. Now if we may turn to the most notableor certainly to us the most visible and prominentof Chinas leaders today, Deng Xiaoping. He seems a remarkable person, just looking at himIve seen him once, at a fairly close range, and we were very impressed with him, at his interview with Indian journalists (in February 1979). What are the characteristics that have made him what he is?

Han Suyin: Well you see, I am quite devoted to Mr. Deng Xiaoping for many reasons. If you will notice, although in some of my books I have criticised, for instance, Liun Shaochi, never anywhere did I write anything against Deng Xiaoping, and that at a time when everybody else was talking nonsense about him. And I say laughingly, Oh its because hes from my provinceits not true. Its not because he is from Szechwan province. It is because I have always felt that Deng Xiaoping was an enormously solid person.

Look at him when he was young; he went to France at the time that Zhou Enlai did. I am told this story about him: Deng Xiaoping was put in charge of some Chinese students and another person was put in charge of some other Chinese students. Now the group that Deng Xiaoping was in charge of had their luggage all on the docks, all labelled, each one of them standing by, in perfect order. The other group, they were looking for everything and running all over the place. Deng Xiaoping ran a newspaper, which was very highly dangerous to do, while he was in France, by reproducing everything himself.

He is a person so extraordinarily doing, so practical and always putting his mind to what he thinks is the most important thing to do. He may not be a great theoretician, but he is a great doer and also a great fighterhe was also leading armies. He is a man whose qualities are entirely different from those of Mao Zedong or Zhou Enlai, but who is tremendously experienced in all the ups and downs of the revolution, and who had the courage to stand by his guns.

He is very popular in the Army, which is something that is extremely important. The sound Army basis is because he was himself such a brilliant leader of campaigns during the war against Japan.

It is important to understand that the younger people in China, especially the young intellectuals, revere him very much. They are much less personality-cult-bentin fact, they are no longer personality-cult-bent. About Mao, they spoke with awe, with reverence, as a semi-god, because of all the things he had done. With Deng, its much more affectionateits Xiaoping, Little Bottle, its this and that.

N: Ram: Little Bottle?

Han Suyin: Little BottleXiao-ping. There is another story, that when Deng Xiaoping came down again for the third time, or the second time, in 1975-76, they went around with little bottles full of red ink, saying, Deng Xiaoping is really red, meaning hes a real revolutionary. Thats Xiaopingping is to be peaceful, equable, but its also the same sound as for little bottle, so they went around carrying little bottles. They would never have dared do this for Mao Zedong; he was always spoken of as Chairman Mao and all that. But Xiaoping is just Xiaoping, everybody talks about him as Xiaoping. It is this very solid base and popularity which enables him to do a lot of things. He does have a public consensus.

N. Ram: Now, if I may turn to the final area in which we are interestedI am referring to relations with India. We have a real advantage here, because you have come into both cultures. What is the tone and quality of the relationship with India, particularly from a Chinese angle or perception?

Han Suyin: The Chinese admire India very much more than they used to ten or fifteen years ago, because the more they know about you, the more they admire what they see. Quite frankly, they say, Ah, the Indians havent done badly at all. They are quite well aware that you have a much greater pool of knowledgeI mean knowledge from the Western worldthan they have, and they will be willing to exchange knowledge with India.

They realise also that the economies are not two economies that need each other. In fact we produce the same thingsChinese silk, I understand, is going to be banned in Karnataka. We would like to have more trade with you and you certainly would like to have more trade, but trade in what?

Historically and geographically, we are near each other. Whether we like it or not, we cannot run away from each other and I think we will have to cooperate. This doesnt mean that we have to fall into each others arms, but we will have to cooperate, we will have to exchange information, and for your safety and for the safety of China, we will have to have certain avenues between each other whereby we can understand where your interests lie and where Chinas interests lie, in order to avoid any conflict of any kind.

This is an important thingI think that the joy with which the Western powers greeted the Sino-Indian conflict will always be in my mind. They were delighted; the last thing they wanted was for India and China to understand each other. This has always made me feel that it is imperative, whether we solve the border problem which is a minute problemor not, to have ways and means to talk to each other about many things.

I would be most happy to have more people go back and forth between the two countries. There is a financial problem, a problem of foreign exchange, but apart from that I feel it would be a very good thing to have more come and go.

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.


R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor