I’ve been accused of writing too much about China, so apologies for more, but there is an interesting story in today’s Financial Times. Like many people, I’ve used the story about the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai replying to US President Richard Nixon’s question, what do you think are the long term implications of the French revolution (in 1789), the answer “It’s too soon to say.” But it turns out this was a misunderstanding. The conversation in the early 1970s (nobody seems to know exactly when) apparently took place with Henry Kissinger (author of a new book “On China” which is on my desk but not likely to be read till the end of term) and Premier Zhou thought he was referring to the events of 1968 in Paris, when a mixture of students and workers barricaded streets, fought with the police and for a while seemed to be re-living the Paris Commune of 1871. Chinese records apparently confirm this interpretation of the conversation and a spokesperson for Kissinger agrees it is a more plausible interpretation.
The year 1968 remains iconic to a generation of European socialists who thought they were within reach of revolution (this was the year of the Prague Spring, the uprising in what was then Czechoslovakia which was crushed by the Warsaw Pact army). There were many protests that year across the western world, mainly linked to the Vietnam War and in the US to the murder of Martin Luther King. But what became known as les événements took their wildest form in France in May 1968, when a general strike nearly brought down the government. The student protests started a couple of years earlier and were part of the general revolt by the western post-war generation against the conservatism and materialism of their parents. Apparently, along with the rediscovery of Marxism and the Situationist criticism of boring bourgeois society the students were striking for more freedom for male and female students to mix together. Sexual frustration is a powerful source of discontent, and after all this was France. This generation of students now runs France and have turned out to be pretty good capitalists, though they hate to admit it.
The FT article also says that the even more widely quoted “Chinese curse” – may you live in interesting times – doesn’t exist in China, and there is no record of the later Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping ever saying “To get rich is glorious”. But my favourite Deng expression is, I believe, genuine. When in Beijing I mentioned to my hosts at the China Reform Forum (a senior Communist Party think tank) that this was “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.” They smiled approvingly and I took this to mean it was accurate. But perhaps they were just too polite to point out that he didn’t say that either.