By Bashir A. Gardaad
A recent article entitled “Stubbing out Mao’s Smoking Legacy” WardheerNews February 09, 2014 took me down the memory lane. The month was June, the year 1970. I was a liaison officer with the German Economic Advisory Group, a technical assistance team engaged by GTZ, the German Agency for Technical Co-operation and attached to the Somali Ministry of Planning and Co-ordination. The firm’s mandate was to provide technical support to the Ministry.
I was a little more than a year on the job. I had a number of assignments that day and I was trying to figure out in what order I should tackle them when I was startled by the telephone ring. I lifted the receiver, and before I could even say “Hello”, I heard the familiar voice of the Secretary of the Ministry’s Director-General saying “Mr. Gardaad, the DG wants you to see him”. “Give me just five minutes and I will be there” I said “five minutes it is, then” the secretary concluded. After we exchanged the morning greetings, the Director-General, the late Jama Rabileh, came straight to the point by saying that as the institution in charge of international co-operation, the Ministry was requested to appoint one of its professionals as a member of a high-powered Government Delegation to China as a result of which he was appointing me for that task. He added that his decision was taken in consultation with the Minister. The Minister at the time was the current President of Somaliland, Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud (Silanyo). Then he warned me that I would be the most junior member of the delegation and that the burden of reporting on the mission’s findings will therefore fall on my shoulders in addition to my other professional responsibilities. Was I excited? You bet. I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing: going to China all paid for by the Government? Unbelievable. Visiting China was a dream that I had since I read that country’s history in my teens but I never thought the dream would come true so soon. Like millions of young people of my generation in Africa, Asia and Latin America, I was very much intrigued by the Chinese Revolution. I considered it a counterbalance to the western legacy of colonization and oppression. I also admired the ability of Chinese leaders to mobilize hundreds of millions of people to a common cause.
Our delegation was composed of six members two of whom were high ranking army officers also doubling as members of the Supreme Revolutionary Council (SRC), the ruling military junta that took over the country’s political and legislative powers after overthrowing the civilian Government in October, 1969. These two SRC members were General Mohamed Ainanshe Gouled and Colonel Mohamed Omar Jess. General Ainanshe, a soft-spoken army officer who was later executed for allegedly plotting to overthrow the regime, was the leader of the Delegation. Colonel Jess died of natural causes some years later. The civilian members were the late Mohamoud Ghelle Elmi, minister for Industry, Abdirahman Elmi, then Director-General of the Ministry of Agriculture, Mohamed Haji Hassan (Mohamed Salah), who later held the position of Director-General in several ministries and myself, a rookie development planning officer.
Our visit began with what initially seemed to be a courtesy call on Dong Biwu, then one of three acting presidents of the People’s Republic of China who were appointed after their predecessor was ousted in the tumultuous Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Dong, who looked so frail and old, had a surprise in store for us. He kept us mesmerized for close to two hours through his eloquence. Since the Cold War between the East and the West was still on, and the historic China-US rapprochement of 1972 had yet to come, he must have gone through a vigorous rehearsal exercise of Chinese official statistics because, by the end of his lecturing, he portrayed the United States Federal Government as a bankrupt giant.
Our next meeting was with Zhou-En-Lai, a man who renounced his family’s wealth to dedicate his service to a political cause he believed in. He was China’s Prime Minister and the main architect of the country’s relations with the rest of the world. The western powers called him “the man with the photographic memory” ever since they had a taste of his formidable negotiating skills in the aftermath of the Korean War. We had a glimpse of that memory when he received us in his office. At the initial exchange of diplomatic niceties, the head of our delegation pointed out that the people of Somalia fondly remember his (Zhou’s) historic visit to Mogadishu in 1964. Reacting to that remark, Zhou said that it wasn’t his first visit to a Somali territory. He said that he had made a short visit to Djibouti when a ship he was traveling on called on that port in 1920. I had my first experience with Chinese chain smoking during that meeting. The smoker was not Zhou but Lixiannian, Deputy Prime Minister at the time and later President of the People’s Republic of China (1983-88).
One of the highly publicised objectives of the new military-led regime in the Somali Republic was to improve the country’s economic fortunes. So the mission was basically an economic one. A memorandum prepared in Mogadishu before the delegation’s departure outlined the potential projects on which Chinese assistance was sought. They were all in the field of economic and social infrastructure and included a North-South highway, a hydro-power and irrigation project on the River Juba (Fanole), and a water supply system for Hargeisa, the country’s second largest city. The Chinese reacted to these requests in different ways. They immediately accepted the request for an improved water supply system for Hargeisa, and promised to send a technical team to study the highway project proposal but did not react to the request concerning the hydro-power/irrigation project. The Chinese kept their promise with regard to the Hargeisa water supply and the technical evaluation of the highway which they eventually built.
During our visit, I was the Delegation’s contact person with Chinese protocol officers. In a meeting to discuss our visit to places outside Beijing, I asked them if any arrangements were made for us to make a courtesy call on Chairman Mao Tse Dong before undertaking any field trip. To my question the senior protocol officer replied as follows: “We don’t think that a meeting with Chairman Mao will be possible at this juncture because he has a very busy schedule and any courtesy call on him would need to be arranged well in advance through diplomatic channels.” Perhaps the protocol officers were expecting that to be the end of the story, but I was not giving up. “Too bad” I said, and continued: “People in our country respect Chairman Mao so much that when we return home and tell them that we were in China and we came back without meeting Chairman Mao they will not believe us.” Subsequent events suggest that my point had hit home.
However, by the time we visited a people’s agricultural commune the following day, we had given up any hope of calling on the Chairman.
The next day (our last in China) we started early by visiting parts of the Great Wall of China, one of the ancient world’s seven great wonders. As we winded up our visit to the Wall and were heading to the Min Dynasty Tombs, our caravan was stopped at a check point. After a quick exchange of words between those Chinese officers accompanying us and those at the checkpoint, we were informed that the Delegation was required to return to Beijing immediately for an audience with Chairman Mao. To greet us, Mao was waiting for us in the stairs leading to a huge hall where all the principal leaders of China at the time were present: Lin Biao, Dong Biwu, Zhou-En-Lai, Li Xiannian. Mao’s remarks were translated to us by a young girl who spoke impeccable English. Mao’s first question betrayed either his mental status at that time or his isolation from world events by the absence of briefing by his comrades. He asked us if our delegation represented “Osman’s party” in reference to the Somali Youth League whose former head was Aden Abdulle Osman, the First President of the Somali Republic. It was shortly after the Somali Republic’s independence that the Government of President Osman and Prime Minister Sharmarke extended diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic of China. The head of our delegation had to explain that President Osman left office in 1967 following a peaceful election and that since October 1969 there is a non-party based revolutionary government in power. If Mao became embarrassed by his question, he did not show it; nor did others who were present. Whether this was due to the legendary East Asian control of emotions spiced with diplomatic self-control or a natural acceptance that people can err, I could not tell. Then, Mao talked about some of the achievements of the Chinese Government and some plans for the future. He pointed out that the biggest success of his country’s government is the elimination of hunger in China. He added that China has 3000 years of written history and that during those three millennia, the Chinese were using a script based on symbols and not on alphabet. He said that plans were underway to modernize the Chinese script during the 21st Century. It was at this point that the leader of our delegation saw an opportunity to explain the difficulties our country was facing with regard to the choice of a suitable script for our rich but unwritten language. Mao did not waste time in volunteering his advice. “Why don’t you adopt the Latin script?” he asked; “I think it is convenient”, he added. Frankly speaking, we were surprised. We could not tell whether Mao was just expressing a personal opinion or was briefed on the subject and wanted to use his prestige to tilt the balance of the debate raging on the subject back home in favor of those supporting the adoption of the Latin script for the Somali language. This latter hypothesis, however, is unlikely considering his earlier remarks on “Mr. Osman’s Party”.
I don’t’ really know the truth of rumours that I heard later which suggested that the historic decision by our military rulers to adopt the Latin script for the Somali language two years after our visit to China was inspired by Mao’s remarks. Whoever inspired the regime to make the decision both friends and foes are unanimous in their judgement that this was its most positive legacy. It was one of those rare times when only a military dictatorship was needed to end an unnecessary impasse caused by squabbling civilians.
During the meeting, I observed three things: that Mao was a proverbial chain smoker who was virtually not letting the cigarette leave his lips; that the majority of the Chinese dignitaries attending the meeting were smoking, and that in front of all smokers, there were sand-filled round baskets on which they frequently spat and extinguished their cigarettes. I honestly thought that this was a deliberate oriental contempt for the western interpretation of civilized comportment in public in which spitting and belching are considered uncivil. I thought that the Chinese considered this a hypocritical suppression of natural and spontaneous human reactions.
Ever since Marco Polo’s return from China and his tales of splendour and abundance of worldly things in that country, western powers eyed China with envy and greed. Given the formidable Chinese defences as well as the internal wars and political fragmentation in Europe, western designs on China did not have a practical application until the 18th Century when Britain emerged as the most powerful western country with a global reach and started imposing humiliating wars on China. The colonization of Hong Kong and the so-called “Internationalization” of Shanghai, were some of the tragic consequences of those wars. France, which also became a world power, was more perspective and apprehensive of the ultimate consequences of humiliating China. For example, following his success to conquer most of Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte was asked why he had no plans to invade China. His response seemed to be prophetic. He advised caution and said “Quand la Chine s’eveillera, le monde tremblera” (when China rises, the world will tremble). Today, China has risen and emerged from a backward country to the world’s second most important economic powerhouse. The world is trembling not because China poses an imminent military threat to the world but because of its ability to outsell and outperform any country in the world.
As a matter of fact, China’s rise would have even been faster had it not been slowed by Mao Tse Dong’s ill-conceived Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s and the Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s. Mao saw a looming danger to the Communist ideological purity in the modernistic tendencies of some of his comrades and launched the above campaigns to discredit them. In the end, the campaigns were discontinued after realizing how much damage they did to China’s economic advancement and cultural heritage. The winding up of the Cultural Revolution actually signalled the beginning of the end of Mao’s brand of Communism long before Mao’s death in 1976 and led to the rise of Deng Xiao Ping who became instrumental in unleashing his people’s enormous energy and made China an economic superpower within three decades.
Bashir A. Gardaad
The author is a former Somali civil servant, UN employee and African Development Bank staff member in that order. He now lives in Montreal, Canada, with his family. He is a periodic contributor to WardheerNews.
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