North Vietnam and China: Reflections on a Visit

Early this year I went to Hanoi by way of China. After spending a week in Peking I went to North Vietnam for just over a month and then returned to China, where I stayed in Changsha and Canton for two weeks. Later I spent three and a half weeks in South Vietnam. Thus during my visits to Vietnam and the second half of my journey in China, I was kept constantly aware of the similarities and contrasts between the two countries.

That there should be resemblances is hardly surprising. In prehistoric times there appear to have been no sharp cultural or physical divisions between the rice growing peoples of the valleys and deltas in what are now south China and North Vietnam. For the thousand years between 111 B.C. and A.D. 940 Vietnam was a Chinese province. Even after Vietnam achieved political independence, China retained a dominance over its higher culture. Its central administration was closely modeled on that of China. Indeed, Chinese was the major written language, and Vietnamese literature and even folklore were deeply influenced by China.

In addition to these ancient connections, the histories of both countries show strikingly close parallels during the twentieth century. In both, peasant revolutionary movements led by Marxist-Leninist parties have gained power after long battles in the countryside in which patriotism as well as social revolution has been a major issue. Moreover, in both countries the protracted nature of the struggle has made active mass participation in the movement necessary to an extent that has never even been approached in other revolutions.

Never having been to Vietnam before and not speaking Vietnamese, I expected that a strong Chinese influence would be evident. I even hoped that it would be, so that I could use my limited experience of China to help me to understand Vietnam. I was quickly disabused. Some of the distinctions I made on my first trip to Vietnam were the result of differences I saw between it and north and central China, with which I was familiar. Later, after spending some time in the southern province of Kwangtung, I had to modify some of these distinctions. But the essential differences between the two nations remained in my mind, and continue to amaze me.

* * *

To a traveler coming from Peking, the first impression of Hanoi was of a Mediterranean city. This view was partly superficial: the French colonial architecture, the typically Latin peeling walls and gentle decay. There was also the openness of life on the streets and the general air of relaxation. But, as in so many other quick social and political assessments, the weather played an important part in forming this impression. The Red River Delta in February is overcast, damp, and cool; there is nothing like the totally constricting dry, bright, and bitterly cold winter of north and central China.

This impression of softness or even hedonism derives in large part from the appearance of Vietnamese women. In China with its unisex clothing, sexual passions run hidden and deep. Vietnamese women in both North and South are beautiful, and they know it. Unlike Chinese women, they wear bras even in the countryside. They seem self-conscious and aware of their sexual attractiveness. There are few traditional dresses or Ao Dais in Hanoi but the women walk with superb grace and, as in the South, they look sensational sitting sidesaddle on the backs of bicycles. Men too are acutely aware of their personal appearance. They wear their clothes with a sense of individual style and are even dandyish.1 Educated Vietnamese are conscious and proud of this difference. In the National Museum a senior archaeologist pointed out that the handles of a Bronze Age urn were in the form of copulating figures and said: “You can see how different we are from the Chinese.”

In the towns of the South the pervading interest in sex in the midst of the greed, violence, and selfishness there creates an atmosphere of nihilism. In the North this interest serves as a counterpoint to the seriousness and dedication of the society. Brave women who have endured the terrible bombing to shoot down airplanes or who have worked for days without stopping to complete essential tasks are naturally far more moving for being attractive. The converse is also true. For instance, in a workshop in Thanh Hoa which had been evacuated to a cave to avoid US bombing, I saw girls standing behind lathes, covered in oil, whose beauty so moved me that at one point in an argument with one of my hosts I was surprised to find myself taking the Stalinist line that feminine beauty was linked to production, while my host argued that it was much more complicated than that.

The openness of sex eases the relationships between foreign and Vietnamese men. It allows for the wide range of interests and humor which are denied in China. From the point of view of Women’s Liberation much of this humor is at the expense of women, and it was certainly true that many of our jokes—though none of them was blue—depended on the view of women as objects.

* * *

There are, however, deeper reasons why foreign visitors have tended to find the Vietnamese elite so much more approachable and sympathetic than its Chinese counterpart, even before the Cultural Revolution, when the Chinese elite was in its heyday. Although a number of Chinese leaders have studied at Western or Soviet universities, their fundamental education was Chinese. In Vietnam on the other hand the secondary or even primary school education of almost all of the older generation of leaders was French. They have been profoundly Europeanized or, more specifically, Gallicized. Listening to Vietnamese scholars and politicians, I constantly had the impression of being with French Marxists.

These Vietnamese retain their faith in reason and science, which is profoundly moving in view of the monstrous assaults they are suffering from the most developed technology in the world. Linked to this is their belief and trust in formal and technical education. They are convinced that all people in responsible positions must be properly and thoroughly trained. Ta Quang Buu, the brilliant Minister of Higher Education who served as technical interpreter to Noam Chomsky when he was in Hanoi, gave a concrete reason for this need for concentrated academic studies.

We are now able to produce graduates capable of neutralizing and disarming the most advanced and ingenious American devices and for this a thorough scientific training is absolutely necessary.

The belief in professionalism goes far back in Vietnamese revolutionary history. In a small hamlet in the mountains at the extreme north of the country, I met a veteran of the Tai minority who had been sent to China by Ho Chi Minh for military training by Kuomintang and American officers. Expecting that his experience would be similar to the three or four month courses usually given to Chinese revolutionary fighters, I asked him how long he had stayed there. “Four years” was the reply.

In China there are frequent attempts to abbreviate and simplify education to make it cheaper and more accessible, and closer to the experience of the people. The Vietnamese will have none of this. When schools and colleges were evacuated from Hanoi and teachers and students had to move from place to place in the most primitive conditions, formal education was continued with the least possible interruption. History classes even took with them copies of Neolithic axes so that they could go on with their archaeology courses.

The Chinese put great emphasis on practical work in industry and agriculture as an essential part of education. The secondary schools I visited in Chinese cities all had “branch schools” in barren parts of the countryside. The buildings were usually built by the children themselves, who also cultivate the land around them. Local peasants arrived to give lessons on agriculture and to lecture on the hardships of life before 1949. With the “branch schools” in mind, I asked a group of Vietnamese students who had been evacuated from Hanoi whether there had been any advantages to living and studying in the countryside. Their immediate reply was:

“No. In Hanoi we can go to libraries, read newspapers, see plays and films, and go around with our friends.”

“But surely,” I persisted, “weren’t there any advantages to living close to the peasants?”

“No,” they repeated, “we were too busy with our classes to do much practical work, and besides we all come from peasant families, so we know very well what peasant life is like.”

* * *

This answer would not have been acceptable in China. At a school in Changsha someone quoted the widely known rhyme on the effects of education:

First year native
Second year other
Third year don’t know father and mother

Peasant origins are not enough, one has to maintain contact with the rural masses. Chinese often repeat Mao’s story that when he was a young man he thought the peasants were dirty, and that as a student he should keep away from them. Later he came to see that in a real sense they were clean and that it was he who was dirty. Cadres and officials appear to accept that in many respects they are inferior to the peasants and that they should try to integrate themselves with them as far as possible. The desire is not to resemble completely the peasants as they are today, but to reach their unselfish, better, and “true” nature. This is an important qualification. Still, the idea is very different from wanting to use outside agencies to transform the peasants. The aim of going down to the village people fits in well with a major Chinese tradition that the most decent man in society is the one who produces rice.

The Vietnamese share this tradition and for most Party veterans it was reinforced by their experience in the resistance, when they were surprised and moved by the patriotism, generosity, heroism, and intelligence of the rural population. But their respect and love for the peasants do not blind them to what they see as the peasants’ limitations, and in particular their superstition and attachment to private property. These are seen as the inevitable results of the poverty, insecurity, and ignorance brought about by seventy years of colonial rule and millennia of feudal exploitation. The Party’s aim is to raise the people economically and culturally by bringing education to them. This education is designed to transform the peasants while trying to retain their original good qualities.

In this the Vietnamese are more like the Soviets than like the Chinese. Russian Marxism grew up in reaction to the populist idealization of the peasants and their Russian “essence.” The Marxists saw themselves as bearers of world culture, science, and progress. Lenin borrowed greatly from populism, and his alliance of the urban Bolsheviks with the peasant Social Revolutionaries was crucial to the success of the Revolution. Nevertheless, the first large-scale direct contact of the Bolsheviks—intellectuals and workers—with the peasants came only after the Party had seized the apparatus of state. Thus it was inevitable that they should see their task as one of raising the peasants up rather than of going down to their level.

The Vietnamese revolutionary experience has been completely different. The early members of the Party tended to be the sons of landlords, rich peasants, and small officials—though all spent years in factories or jails proletarianizing themselves. It is true that, as in China, workers in the mines of remote regions played a key role in the very early stages of the Revolution. Nevertheless, because of its concentration in the cities where the power of the foreign occupier has been overwhelming, the Vietnamese working class was forced to remain relatively inactive later during the armed struggle. Instead, the Vietnamese Revolution has been the most effective mobilization of peasants and tribal peoples in world history. To withstand protracted and savage repression, the movement has had to depend on the active participation of almost the entire rural population. There is now no doubt about the patriotism and revolutionary capacity of the population in the countryside. Even so, the elite are still confident that they have something to teach them.

* * *

Chinese and Vietnamese share the mandarin tradition and the modern concept of a vanguard party. Some of the differences between the two countries can be explained simply by the fact that their revolutions are at different stages and that the mobilized masses in Vietnam accept the need for leaders in a way that the Chinese under less direct pressure were unable to do. Even so it can still be maintained that the Vietnamese cadres have more confidence in themselves than their Chinese counterparts, and that much of this confidence comes from their foreign or foreign-style training.

Vietnamese always make or imply a distinction between cultured and uncultured invaders. Parallels are constantly drawn between the Mongols and the Americans. Both have been masters of world empires but the essential similarity is that both are seen as barbarians whose power has been merely destructive. The Vietnamese attitude toward the Chinese and French is much more ambivalent. In many ways they are considered more dangerous because they are much more intelligent and seductive. They are seen as possessing sophisticated civilizations many elements of which can be made to apply to Vietnam. The fulfillment of Vietnamese culture requires that large parts of these civilizations be absorbed. However Vietnamese also argue that the process of absorption always transforms and Vietnamizes the cultural importation. In this respect as in many others Vietnam resembles Japan, another nation whose identity was formed by its relationship to the almost overwhelming civilization of China.

Today in order to create a new Vietnamese socialist civilization a great effort is being made to introduce socialist and even humanist culture. Concerts of Bach and Beethoven are given. In modern theatrical circles in Hanoi there are arguments between Brechtian and more orthodox directors. Soviet, Czech, East German, and sometimes even French films are shown. Many translations from Chinese, Russian, and Western European classics are published. Only in translation does the South offer any serious competition to the North, though in Saigon the tendency has been to translate more modern and romantic works.

Thus the Vietnamese continue the tradition of introduction, adoption, and absorption of foreign cultures. The older privileged generation was given a thorough French education and many younger men and women have been trained abroad in Moscow, Warsaw, Berlin, and Havana. In Vietnam itself advanced education appears to be on a remarkably high level. With this equipment educated Vietnamese Marxists feel able to carry out their tasks in the same way as the Russian Bolsheviks intended to do, that is, to bring science and world culture to all the people.

China has always considered itself self-sufficient: like Western Europe it has seldom admitted that it has borrowed a great deal from other cultures. This belief persists in China today where people are usually interested either in technical matters or in the problems of China. Vietnamese officials and intellectuals are curious about everything in the outside world. I felt inadequate trying to answer their detailed questions on the Common Market, Brecht, Lévi-Strauss, and the academic structure of Cambridge University. While they are intensely patriotic, Vietnamese intellectuals usually judge themselves in relation to intellectuals from other countries. On the other hand Chinese intellectuals, or at least those who have survived the Cultural Revolution, tend to see themselves as part of China and to measure themselves against the Chinese peasants.

* * *

This view of Chinese parochialism and Vietnamese innovation would seem to be contradicted by what is happening in both countries. China presents a scene of cultural austerity while North Vietnam is going through what can only be described as a cultural renaissance. Here again in cultural matters an obvious and major reason for the differences between revolutionary China and Vietnam is simply that the two revolutions are at very different stages. The Vietnamese are still in the midst of a struggle for national independence. In this period they find it important to use the national culture to create a sense of national identity and to rally all classes of the population. In China this stage is over and the leaders see their task as one of making a class revolution and transforming human nature, and for this they believe the stranglehold of the old culture must be destroyed.

This advocacy of a new revolutionary culture for a new revolutionary people would seem to contradict the picture of Chinese self-absorption and faith in the peasants. The short story writer and radical critic Lu Hsün died in 1936, but thirty years later he was proclaimed as a pioneer of the Cultural Revolution. Throughout his life he proposed the introduction of new foreign artistic modes to replace what he saw as the hopelessly decadent tradition. He and his followers base themselves in the intellectual world of Shanghai, the economic and cultural center most open to the West, which, it is interesting to note, became the center of the Cultural Revolution in the Sixties.

Lu Hsün advocated the use of Soviet models for the new culture. Presentday Cultural Revolutionaries have no such clear-cut examples to follow. The reason for the cultural sterility in China today is that while it appears to be impossible to create a new culture out of abstract revolutionary spirit or thin air, there are powerful inhibitions against using any other source even in modified form. Cultural Revolutionaries desperately try to avoid traditional culture while they are unwilling to import new forms from the capitalist or “revisionist” West. Thus they are effectively restricted to the works of Mao, which are incidentally a brilliant and fruitful combination of both suspect elements.

* * *

Nevertheless there are strong populist tendencies in the Cultural Revolution. A major aim of the attack on tradition was to “weed out the old and let the new spring forth.” Whatever the practice, the theory was to rely on the creativity of the masses. They were to be released from what the Cultural Revolutionaries saw as the stifling of artistic spontaneity by the Party’s previous encouragement of traditional forms. Students and some urban workers may well have felt this. For instance, they were often bored and irritated by traditional operas even though their overt feudal content had been modified. But this does not seem to have been true for the peasants who were still steeped in traditional culture. In 1958 and 1959 during the Great Leap Forward rural counties and communes were encouraged to paint “mega pictures”—thousand pictures—and to write mega poems. The peasants sang praises of Mao, the Communist Party, and the new society in traditional meter with traditional images.

Why was the past bitter?
Why is today sweet?
It is because the Agricultural Communes
Have been dragon kings
Golden Water, Silver Water is led up the mountains.

The Great Leap Forward was consistent in promoting the “earthy” or native—as opposed to the foreign and technical—forms in culture as well as in agriculture and industry. During the Cultural Revolution there was a broad discrepancy between the treatment of politics and economics on the one hand and culture on the other. Politically and economically the masses have been taught to rely on themselves and to stand up to “authorities,” both political or technical. Above all, peasants are encouraged to be self-sufficient and independent of the towns.

In spite of or perhaps because of this diversity, culture has been kept tightly centralized. It all has to come from Peking or Shanghai. In Chinese bookshops today there is only one author, Mao; the only theatrical pieces played are five revolutionary operas and two revolutionary ballets. Some of these combinations of traditional and Western forms are moving and amusing. But because of the great reluctance to build anything from tainted elements there are desperately few pieces, and people would clearly like to see something else. They look forward impatiently to the new operas upon which amateur dramatic groups in factories have been working for the past five years; but these are still not considered fit for general release.

* * *

The Cultural Revolutionaries have reached this deadlock because of the apparent incompatibility of two of their beliefs, the limitless strength and creativity of the masses and the power and persistence of Chinese traditional culture. If the people are to be the cultural inspiration, how can they transform themselves or transcend their cultural limitations? Even by posing the problem the Revolutionaries are showing great confidence in Chinese culture. In their present search for a new culture, the Chinese are essentially looking for the answers in themselves. It is likely that only men who are confident of their country and their own cultural identity and survival can attack their own culture with such ferocity.

For the Vietnamese, unlike the Chinese, their culture and even their language have always been in danger. This sense of cultural precariousness was particularly intense during the last century. The ruthlessness of French attacks on Vietnamese culture and the thoroughness of French education very nearly succeeded in divorcing the Vietnamese elite from their culture. Some became completely deracinated, and even for the majority, who remained Vietnamese, the possibility of deracination existed. A well-known poet seemed to indicate this when he compared the Vietnamese situation with that of the Algerians. He told me: “We were not like them. We always spoke our own language among ourselves.”

Language has been a crucial issue. The Chinese have made great efforts to unify their language and to create a written style that really corresponds to speech. Even so the existence of the Chinese language is taken for granted. Vietnamese intellectuals on the other hand are acutely self-conscious about their language. They constantly tell you how rich and beautiful it is. They are extremely proud that they have been able to create technical vocabularies that allow study and research to be carried on in Vietnamese. This achievement should not be underrated. In spite of the devastation and almost continuous fighting since 1945, Vietnam is, so far as I know, the only ex-colonial country that has been able to do without the language of the colonial country in higher education. As in other cultural matters, the South has lagged behind in this.

Paradoxically the approach to the Vietnamese language in the North has been very French. Scholars set about purifying it and hundreds of French and Chinese words have been replaced by forms constructed from Vietnamese roots. The progress made in this can be measured by comparing the official language in the North with that in the South which still retains a far higher proportion of Chinese words and expressions.

This conscious delight and pride of Vietnamese intellectuals in their language extends to all other aspects of their culture. Nearly all visitors to Hanoi remark on the amount of traditional activity going on. While I was there there were performances of five types of traditional opera. There are galleries largely devoted to traditional and folk art, and the bookshops were full of Vietnamese literature of all periods. All this during a full-scale war. Clearly the Vietnamese leaders believe in channeling scarce resources to national culture for its intrinsic value because they care deeply about it. The investment also brings in significant political dividends. It gives reinforcement to the already strong conviction among Vietnamese in the North and South that, like it or not, the regime in Hanoi is the only true representative of Vietnamese spirit and that therefore the war is essentially one between the National Resistance on the one hand and the foreigners and their collaborators on the other.

* * *

Right-wing intellectuals in Saigon and Hue inveigh against the decadence of literature, music, and all the other arts in the South, often pointing out that these things are done better in the North. Some of this feeling of cultural inferiority is traditional, the North being the original home of the Vietnamese, while in the South there are considerable Chinese, Cham (Malay), and Cambodian admixtures. But far more important is the continuity of the present government in Hanoi with the anti-French resistance which was considered legitimate by the whole population. Many people in the South still refer to the NLF as the Viet Minh. The participants are essentially the same, even though many of them have been killed. Those who fought with the French fight with the Americans. Those who fought against the foreigners remain patriots. Unlike Saigon, Hanoi has no foreign taint. As one conservative in Hue sadly put it, “Unlike us they have no foreign troops fighting with them; they do appear to be more Vietnamese than us.”

Not knowing that I had already been to Hanoi, the most bitterly anti-communist scholars in the South excused their own lack of activity in archaeology, transcription of texts, research in history and other fields, saying that much more was going on in the North. Indeed there was. During my stay in Hanoi I was the guest of the Vietnamese Society of Historical Sciences. I was much impressed by the intense activity in archaeology and history, remembering that all museums in London had been closed during World War II. In Hanoi I was astonished to see the excellent National Museum open with several special exhibitions going on. I was told that before 1954 the museum had been simply a French collection of orientalia. I later gained a sense of what must have been its original state when I visited the National Museum in Saigon, which has been untouched since the French left.

In Hanoi nearly all the original objects had been evacuated to avoid bombing but good reproductions had been put in their places. When I expressed surprise that precious resources should have been spent on this I was told that archaeology had always been considered a national priority and that the Archaeological Service had been established as early as November, 1945. It is considered of vital national importance to establish the length and richness of the Vietnamese past, so that people can make sense of their own roles in a continuing history.

The archaeologists are pleased that they can confirm Ho Chi Minh’s description of the war as a struggle between barbarism and 4,000 years of civilization. They have recently established a stratigraphy that links the clearly Vietnamese Bronze Age cultures to the late Neolithic. They are full of jokes about Curtis Le May’s “bombing the Vietnamese back to the Stone Age.” I asked whether bombing had revealed anything of importance and was told that it had not, but that the digging of air raid shelters had yielded fascinating results, and that the population, being enthusiastic about archaeology, cooperated in reporting finds. There are also many professional excavations taking place, one of which, at the ancient capital of Co Loa, I was able to visit.

* * *

Vietnamese history is considered important for the same reasons and a considerable amount of research on it is being carried out. Here the emphasis is on the many wars of independence, especially those of the Tran family against the Mongols, and of the Tayson brothers who, in their struggle against the Manchu Dynasty in the eighteenth century, combined a war of national independence with social radicalism. Parallels between these wars and the present struggle are always drawn. The present is seen as deeply influenced by the past. For example, one researcher argued that the Tayson Revolt created a tradition linking national independence to social revolution, which had a profound effect on the twentieth century.

Nevertheless, historians insisted that, because of the differences between socialism and imperialism, the present conflict is qualitatively different from previous wars of independence. They also tended to reject my attempts to establish specific parallels. In 1789 the national hero (Tayson) Nguyen Hue launched a devastating attack on the Chinese garrison in Hanoi during Têt. I tried to link this to the attack of Têt, 1968—which according to the Sino-Vietnamese sixty-year cycle is only one year away from 1789. However it was pointed out that as the Chinese “feudalists” in the eighteenth century were much weaker than the American imperialists in the twentieth it was possible to drive out the former in one sweep whereas this was out of question with the Americans.

* * *

I had the impression that much of the excitement of the Vietnamese scholars I met comes from the newness of their enterprise in carrying on such research. They are discovering a rich and heroic past, which is part of them and yet they were only half-conscious of it. By placing the Vietnamese elite at some distance from tradition, the cultural trauma of French rule has given them some perspective on it. The iconoclasm of the Chinese Cultural Revolutionaries may indicate their fear of being over-whelmed by traditional culture. For the Vietnamese leaders this danger is negligible. It is natural that for the time being national culture should be considered “positive” because it helps to unite patriots against the foreigners and their uncultured collaborators. However their confidence in it extends to the future. They appear to be convinced that after the achievement of independence and a fundamental change in “relations of production,” a new socialist culture will emerge naturally from tradition, enlarged by influences from abroad.

Mao is concerned with the dangers of tolerating traditional culture because it helps bourgeois counterrevolutionaries “to seize the cultural heights” from which to launch their attacks on socialist society. The Vietnamese like the Soviets follow Lenin in recognizing the importance of culture. Nevertheless they closely follow Marx and Engels in maintaining that the key to any situation is the economic base and the relations of production in particular.

* * *

The Vietnamese also stay close to Marx on the issue of internationalism. One of the amazing things about the Vietnamese people is that in the midst of a war of national liberation they remain profoundly internationalist both politically and personally. In the South there is of course considerable anti-Americanism, but friendliness to and respect for the opinions of foreigners is evident throughout the country. In the North I was constantly embarrassed by being thanked for the “achievements” of the peace movement in Britain, by the Vietnamese gratitude for the pathetically little help peace movements have been able to give them. They are also the last believers in “proletarian internationalism” and in the unity of the socialist camp. Their desire for the Russians and Chinese to heal their differences does not come solely from the immediate dangers the split brings to them. They see and hate it as un-Marxist, unhistorical, and wrong.

For Vietnamese theoreticians “proletarian internationalism” is not a mere cliché. They have the Marxist conviction that the proletariat is by its essence the most internationalist class. In recent years the Chinese have used the word “proletarian” so widely that it has almost come to mean simply good and unselfish. With the Vietnamese—and the Soviets—the original sense is much stronger. By “proletariat” they really do mean the urban working class. Furthermore they firmly maintain that their revolution has been, and must always be, led by this class. It is no accident that the Vietnamese party is called the Dang Lao Dong, the Workers’ Party—the word Lao Dong has unambiguously urban connotations. Two of the chief reasons I was given why the working class alone was qualified to lead the revolution were that it had experience of modern modes of production and that it was accessible to new and foreign ideas. In this way leadership by workers and “proletarianized” intellectuals is integrally connected to the concept of bringing world culture to the peasants.

* * *

Thus in Vietnam there are two large paradoxes. The first is that the Vietnamese Communists, who have fused their movement with patriotism more effectively than any other party so far has, should remain the most internationalist of all Marxist-Leninists. The second is that they who have created the most successful and tenacious peasant revolutionary movement in world history should remain so firmly wedded to the concept of the leadership of the urban working class, which made up less than 3 percent of the population in 1945.2

In China, because of its size, cultural pride, and Mao’s firm roots in his own culture, there has been a major attempt to “interpret creatively”—or to revise—Soviet Marxism-Leninism to fit local conditions. Thus ideology and actual politics are within sight of each other and there are constant attempts to bring the two together, the Cultural Revolution being only the most obvious example.

In Vietnam the leaders are unwilling to give up the Western part of their heritage, and ideology and politics are much further apart. The Marxist-Leninist ideology is seen as absolutely necessary to provide general directions in North Vietnam and to sustain a long and bitterly hard struggle. However it does not impede the political flexibility needed to deal with tactical problems. This is true both for practical decisions and for theoretical analysis. Among intellectuals the fruitfulness of this gap or contradiction between ideology and concrete situation is especially evident now when the patriotic revolution creates a solidarity in which everybody can be relied upon. There is remarkable freedom in the serious discussions and arguments that appear to take place virtually everywhere. I had the good luck to attend several meetings of social scientists in which I saw them using Marxist concepts in a remarkably flexible and creative way.

* * *

In neither China nor Vietnam is there any official discussion of these and other differences between them. They merely say that the two countries have different situations and are at different stages in their revolutions. When I told a Vietnamese friend how struck I had been by the differences between China and Vietnam he replied, “Of course, we are different nations.” Indeed why should we expect to find great similarities between, say, England and France, which are in fact far closer to each other than China and Vietnam: both were parts of the Roman Empire, share the Western Christian tradition, have a close linguistic relationship, and are capitalist bourgeois democracies. To that extent it is unhelpful to pose the question discussed here. China and Vietnam have been, are, and will be different. However, both are tackling in a heroic way huge problems, most of which have been created by the West, and in this process they have much to teach us.


The most plausible explanation of Nixon’s projected visit to Peking is that he sees it as the only way to avoid being the first President to preside over a defeat of the United States. Although he would, of course, like to escape the consequences of the trip, inevitably China will be given her place in the UN Assembly and the Security Council, and eventually US recognition and the military evacuation of Taiwan will follow (although doubtless the US will attempt to cover this up by stressing the American ability to fly troops across the Pacific in a few hours).

To be giving up so much, Nixon must expect great returns. He wants, no doubt, “to pull the rug from under the Vietnam issue” at home. Here he may succeed, though for a much shorter period than he hopes; in the long run the effect on public opinion of a dialogue with China will be to make the war seem even more absurd. Although he has for the moment neatly sidestepped the current pressures on the Administration created by the seven points of the PRG and the prisoner issue, he may find that the next waves of protest, following military disasters or the disclosure of new scandals in South Vietnam, will push him to defeat even before the election.

Nixon also hopes that the Chinese will put pressure on the DRV and the PRG to offer terms that will permit a continuation of US rule in South Vietnam. I should imagine that the scenario he and Kissinger have in mind calls for an “Eastern Geneva Conference”—to be held in Rangoon, with China and, say, Australia as co-chairmen. The results of such a conference might conceivably be to restore Sihanouk to Cambodia and to cede the two northernmost provinces of South Vietnam to the North. However, Thieu and his regime would have to remain, backed by over 100,000 US troops and full air support, if America is to “save face” in the indefinite future.

If this is Kissinger and Nixon’s scheme, it seems to me fantasy, not only in its details but in its conception. “Great power politics” tends to break down when the people are actively involved in a revolutionary movement. In 1918 and 1919, during the intervention in Russia, the victorious Allies all combined in an attempt to bring the Soviet Revolution to an end. In 1946 and 1947 the US and USSR agreed that Chiang Kai-shek should lead a coalition government. In 1954, the Soviets and the Chinese were quite prepared to abandon South Vietnam in pursuit of “peaceful co-existence” and the “Bandung spirit.” At that time, the DRV felt obliged to yield to the pressure of its allies and accept unfavorable terms, in the face of what appears to have been considerable popular resentment. It is extremely unlikely that the DRV will make the same mistake again. And even if by any extraordinary chance it were to do so, resistance in the South would continue to threaten the Thieu regime and cause more American casualties.

A much more difficult question to answer is why the Chinese, who have shown themselves so uncompromising in their own revolution, should make this sort of agreement now. Domestically it is, I think, a result of China’s zig-zag or dialectical policies. After the radicalism of the Cultural Revolution, there is now a period of calm and compromise—and incidentally Nixon’s visit is a clear sign to any remaining rebels that the Cultural Revolution is truly over.

This new phase of compromise coincides with a period of the greatest possible diplomatic opportunity. If the Chinese waited until the US had been driven out of Indochina, they would have virtually no leverage. But they know that Nixon needs them desperately now and they intend to exploit this need. America’s allies are already scrambling over one another to offer China better terms. She will become a great power in the UN and will be invited to Pacific regional conferences. Chou En-lai’s statement to the Australian opposition leader, Mr. Whitlam, shows that China is tempted by an “Eastern Geneva Conference” in which she could play a dominant role.

China will certainly gain a fair share of her coastal shelf for oil exploitation and her suzerainty over Taiwan will be recognized. What is more, her direct contact with the US will make any cooperation between America and Russia against her more difficult. Most important of all, China will be in a much better position to counter Japanese take-overs in Taiwan and South Korea. In view of all this, the Chinese must now be very embarrassed in their dealings with the Vietnamese government. But the Chinese will almost certainly take shelter behind their principle that each people must fight its own revolution.

In general, the isolation and self-sufficiency of the Chinese are so strong that the impotent fury of the left in the third world and in the West will not upset them in the slightest.

  1. This deep awareness of physical beauty makes it peculiarly agonizing for Vietnamese disfigured by napalm, phosphorous, or torture. This is clear to anyone who talks to the beggars on the streets of Saigon, whom most Americans prefer to think of as victims of leprosy.
  2. It is, however, interesting to speculate whether this stress on the working class will help future governments in the South to tackle the enormous problems that await them in the grotesquely swollen cities there, even though nearly all the new population can only be considered as éléments déclassés or Lumpenproletarians.