Social justice, egalitarianism and leadership by example are those core tenets of Chinese society that have enabled its rise as a major power today; so believes Brigadier (Retd) M. Iqbal Shafi, Honorary President of the Sir Syed Memorial Society (an organization whose stated mission is to effect character building through education in Pakistani youth) and a Patron of the All Pakistan China Friendship Association. He is also a qualified interpreter of the Chinese language and has served his country in an official capacity in Beijing.
Brig. Shafi’s engagement with China began in 1962. As a young Major in the Pakistan Army, he was selected by the GHQ to participate in a Chinese language course. It was part of President Ayub Khan’s campaign to educate young military and government officials in foreign languages, to complement their service abroad. He spent the first two years of study at the Army Transit Camp in Karachi, where he and his colleagues were taught by Mr. Yang, an officer detailed from the Chinese embassy for that specific purpose. In 1964, accompanied by his family, he went to Beijing to study for two years at the Beijing Institute of Languages. Subsequently, he returned to China as Military Attaché and Head of the Military Mission (1975-76) and later, in the capacity of Minister at the Pakistan Embassy in Beijing as a member of the Pakistan Foreign Service (1977-79). In a conversation about his experiences, he discussed China as he knew it then, and as it is today. At the time of its independence, he observed, China had to contend with enormously difficult circumstances.
The nascent country, still recovering from the ravages of recently shed imperial rule, was faced with a devastated economy, a massive population, illiteracy, a range of social ills, and an exploitative feudal system that remained an integral part of Chinese society. This was the China that Mao Zedong, Zhou En Lai and Marshal Zhu De (all of whom he had the pleasure of meeting) assumed leadership of, and set about rebuilding.
By the time Brig. Shafi went to China in 1962, China’s socialist transformation was well underway. On the prevalent Chinese commune system of the time, he explained that it consisted of village communes that formed the lowest tiers of local government, and were the primary administrative bodies in the rural areas. Everything was shared in the communes, and whatever an individual household owned, was contributed to the commune for the use and benefit of all its members. People were assigned different political, administrative and economic responsibilities. Basic education, primary health services (in reference to China’s ‘barefoot doctors’), as well as sufficient food, was provided for all members. And every able individual contributed to the functioning of the commune, with women working on the same basis as men. There were no luxuries for any particular household, only the bare necessities in terms of clothing, transport and shelter for everyone.
In rural and urban areas alike, people wore the same, simple clothing, with no class differentiation. In the cities, people didn’t use cars; it was zixingche wangguo, or the Kingdom of Bicycles, and everyone rode one. Trained professionals, such as doctors and teachers, were sent to the countryside for a period of five years to serve the people and spread their learning to others.
What these and other measures did was to underscore the idea of equality, and of working for the collective good as opposed to just the individual. He said it was remarkable to see the “total dedication of the rulers and each individual, for the country.” Every single person that one met was imbued with that formidable Chinese spirit of lifting up the society and the nation as a whole, and worked tirelessly to achieve it. Discipline and selflessness were the codes that the people lived by. He cited the example of his teachers in Beijing, who never employed cleaners or helpers in their offices, and instead cleaned the classrooms and did all chores themselves.
And all this was made possible, he asserts, because the leaders of the country practiced the same principles that they demanded their people practice. “The essence of leadership is personal example.” And that is precisely what the Chinese leadership did. The country’s three aforementioned leaders had participated in the Long March with their countrymen, had suffered the same deprivation and hardship, and with them, had emerged triumphant from it. As leaders of the country once the People’s Republic of China was established, they eschewed living in the imperial palaces of Beijing, converting them into museums instead, and chose to live in the small servant quarters belonging to the slaves of past dynastiesHis assertion was that it was here, in the early years of independent China, that the foundation for discipline and hard-work was laid; . it had sustained itself to this day. He described China, past and current, as a “benevolent dictatorship,” asserting that the country may be a one party state, but it is a rule which works for the collective good of all the citizens, and not for a particular group, sect or class.
Today, while some elements of the politico-administrative setup may have been modified or replaced, the overall structure and the principles that define it, remain essentially the same. This, Brig. Shafi believes, is borne out by the fact that even as the country’s ever strengthening economy is bringing in more opportunities and more wealth, and consequently, the lot of some individuals or groups may have improved more than others, the emphasis has definitively remained on distributing the wealth as equally as possible, and ensuring that the state provides for all of its citizens. He stressed that espousing the principles of human rights, which also form the core principles of Islamic egalitarianism, are what define Chinese society, and states that if one wishes to see Islam in practice, insofar as its social injunctions are concerned, one must go to China.
He recalled a few instances that substantiated his argument. During a time when places of worship in China were subject to closure, in line with the contemporary socialist values, the Pakistani community in Beijing had no place of public prayer. Their ambassador to China at the time visited Chairman Mao, explaining the dilemma and asking that it be addressed. Mao accommodated them by arranging for a mosque to be opened every week for the Friday prayers for the Muslim community. The mosque happened to be led by a Sunni imam, while the congregation was composed of members of various Islamic sects, but, Brig. Shafi recalled, there was harmony amongst all the different sects who prayed together; everyone was a Muslim, and there the matter ended. He reflected on the contrast with circumstances in Pakistani society today, where a select few have adopted the unfortunate practice of exploiting religion for political purpose.
In the same vein, he shared another memory: a visit with his family to the Imperial Palace in Beijing. He wanted to see where Mao, and the other leaders he had met, lived, and verify what he knew of their choice of humble residences. He managed to convince one of the orderlies on duty that he was a lao pengyou, an ‘old friend’, of Chairman Mao and Zhou En Lai, and that it was alright to take him to see their homes. The orderly quietly complied with the request, and took him to their living quarters; he discovered that the leaders of China were indeed living in the residences of former imperial servants, despite the powerful political positions they held.
He asserts that it was this practice of personal example that has been responsible for successfully sustaining the values and discipline that were established in the newly born republic. It is visible in the drive for excellence of Chinese students and in the work ethic of the Chinese people, be they products of rudimentary schooling or higher education. It is what is directly responsible for China’s global status as it is today.
How is it that China managed the transformation that facilitated its transition from a developing country to an economic giant? In comparison, Soviet Russia was unable to do so at the same scale or speed, although both are former communist states that adopted the capitalist economic system. Brig. Shafi opined that the fundamental reason for this was their differing national policies. China, while choosing to aid other states in need, had largely retained an inward focus. Concerned primarily with improving its own lot, it had chosen to adhere to the principle of non-interference. Russia, by contrast, had followed an interventionist and expansionist policy which resulted in its critical mistake to invade Afghanistan, and with its subsequent overtures towards its former satellites in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. He saw similarities of this with Western interventionism – particularly the U.S. and the U.K. – in other countries, and the economic troubles and social upheaval they are experiencing as a consequence.
On comparing Chinese and Pakistani societies and cultures, he drew some comparisons, most notably of the importance that both place on family. For instance, in China, as in Pakistan, the joint family system is the traditional unit of living; it is in this household that values and ethics are inculcated by grandparents in the children as they grow up. But in both countries, this tradition is now changing, as more and more married couples find themselves favoring the nuclear family unit. The difference between the two that stands out most for him is the attitude towards having children. While China implemented a one-child policy to reign in its burgeoning population, Pakistan has undergone massive population growth with little being done to control it. He cited some figures to show that since independence, our population has increased about six-fold, and this in a country where most families live below or close to the poverty line, and can ill afford to sustain large families.
As the interview drew to a close, Brig. Shafi emphasized once again the supreme importance of ingraining principles of true democracy - not the West’s “democracy of exploitation” – social justice, and egalitarianism to establish a strong, successful state and to nurture a future leadership that holds stock in core values. And he believes that in this, it would serve well to draw from the successful example of China.
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