Just Like Cookham

Neal Ascherson

  • Passport to Peking: A Very British Mission to Mao’s China by Patrick Wright
    Oxford, 591 pp, £20.00, October 2010, ISBN 978 0 19 954193 5

In 1954, it seemed that ‘People’s China’ was about to rejoin the world. The Geneva Accords on Indochina, which ended France’s colonial wars in South-East Asia and partitioned Vietnam, had been a personal triumph for the Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai. Urbane, amusing and fluent in their languages, Zhou charmed foreign diplomats and journalists off their feet. Perhaps, they began to hope, the grim isolation and hostility displayed by Mao’s regime since the Korean War were about to end.

Zhou took steps to encourage this frail optimism. He turned his attention to Britain. The United States, still imposing a trade embargo, remained Communist China’s great enemy; France, traumatised after defeat at Dien Bien Phu that May, had little to offer. But Britain, unlike the Americans, had recognised the new Chinese regime and had played a leading part in securing the Geneva Accords. It was, as Patrick Wright puts it, ‘one of the last occasions, only two years before the Suez crisis, on which Britain exerted a decisive influence on international politics’. Zhou began to employ a ‘come and see’ strategy, inviting Western delegations to visit the People’s Republic and be shown its achievements. With Britain, he did not start by selecting obsequious front groups under Communist control. That sort of pointless exchange was already routine: British visitors making crawling Stalinist speeches, Chinese guests in London insulting Labour MPs as tools of Wall Street imperialism. Instead, Zhou went for the Labour Party (now in opposition), although its leadership was fiercely opposed to Communism at home and abroad and was soon to commit its reluctant membership to supporting West German rearmament.

Despite this, at least three delegations from the British Labour movement visited China in 1954 as official guests. The first was the most high-powered, a group from the party leadership headed by Clement Attlee himself and including Aneurin Bevan, Edith Summerskill and Morgan Phillips. The second was a queasily assorted mob from the wider Labour movement: a constellation of leftist Bevanite MPs including Barbara Castle, accompanied by MPs from the pro-American right of the party and assorted trade unionists (some of them ‘allegedly quite ignorant freeloaders’, as Wright puts it, others equally ignorant fellow-travellers, and a few who remained shrewd and observant).

The third, and for Wright the most interesting, was a small cultural delegation. Its members had been selected on a darkly haphazard basis by the Britain-China Friendship Association, an organisation firmly loyal to the Communist regime. Professor Leonard Hawkes, the leader of the delegation, was a geologist famous for pointing out that England was slowly tilting into the North Sea. The novelist and translator Rex Warner had been a left-winger in his youth but was now a comfortably-off, convivial figure. Sir Hugh Casson, who had directed the architecture of the Festival of Britain, was lively-minded, self-critical and immune to lying propaganda; his vivid journal of the trip is one of Wright’s best sources. A.J. Ayer, preacher of logical positivism, was small, sensual and irrepressibly witty. John Chinnery, a ‘China expert’, was very young and still in the Communist Party, although his Party discipline was constantly threatened by his merry sense of the absurd (he was to become an inspirational professor of Chinese at Edinburgh). Last, and most improbable, was the great painter Stanley Spencer, a jumbled Christian Socialist who made his way to China wearing pyjamas as underclothes beneath his suit.

Anyone who took part in grand freebies of this sort during the Cold War will remember their texture. At one extreme of the British cast of characters there would be a few imbecile fanatics more Catholic than the Pope (‘Here’s to the Peace Wall, and the heroic People’s Police who shoot neo-Nazi saboteurs trying to cross it!’). At the other would be a few – generally Conservative MPs – who found the regime, the country and the food uniformly detestable and said so. And in between (and these people are what this book is really about) were intelligent men and women of leftish inclination who knew that bad stuff was going on but fervently hoped that things would get better. Sometimes they said what they thought. But not always.

Such people knew that the regime hosting them was repressive, and that rumours about its extreme brutality to opponents were probably true. But they looked, sometimes desperately, for signs that ‘the Party has a liberal wing,’ or that ‘the need for repressing counter-revolution has passed,’ and hoped that a thaw might be round the corner. They believed that the Soviet model of Communism was reformable, and that Marxism – even Leninism – did not have to be Stalinism or incompatible with free speech and civil rights. They knew they were being lied to, day after day, and yet, offered the official hand of friendship at some lavish banquet in a hungry nation, did not feel it right to reject it. Why play the Cold War game by offending one’s hosts? Wasn’t any form of contact with such a country better than none?

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