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Memoirs give glimpse of China's farewell to "Blue-Ants Era"
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21:38, September 11, 2008

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Young Chinese feel it natural to be particular about their clothing style as one is what he wears. Hence when basketball vests and low-cut dresses look in, they start to pursue caliber fibers to secure shape retention, comfort, moisture management or quick dry.

Instead of "chic or not", the questions bothering most Chinese parents more than 30 years ago, when rationing coupons were needed for almost all daily necessities under the command economy, had been how to get hold of enough cloth to dress up the whole family decently.

With the clothes color options mainly confined to blue, gray and brown, a result of the then lagging textile industry, the Chinese had been named somewhat jokingly by French journalist Robert Guillain as the "blue ants under the red flag".

This seemingly incredible scene to Western eyes had brought so much pain to the Chinese leaders by the early 1970s as Chen Jinhua, a retired senior official, revealed in his newly published memoirs. To great extent, it had triggered a U-turn in the governance policies, goading the Chinese Communist Party to engage with Western developed countries in both the fields of diplomacy and economy.


Just 22 years after New China''s foundation in 1949, the country providing for 21 percent of world population on only seven percent of world arable land had been caught in a battle between cotton and grain.

With cotton being the dominant raw material for the textile industry, expanding cotton production gave rise to the shrinkage of land for grain and risked putting more people in danger of starvation, in scenes redolent of the disaster of the Great Leap Forward..

In September 1971, When Chairman Mao Zedong went to Changsha onan inspection tour, he routinely granted a day off to his staff to find out what things were like. A woman worker returned in delight.

"When Mao asked what had come over her, she replied: ''I bought a pair of terylene trousers after standing in a queue for ages''," Chen Jinhua, the then deputy director of the Planning Group of the Ministry of Light Industry, recollected in her memoirs entitled "The Eventful Years".

Unlike average cotton pants, terylene trousers had smartly pressed straight creases and did not wrinkle. Mao was quite surprised by her reply and told his premier Zhou Enlai that "Standing in a queue for a little while might be OK but never ''forages.''"

"Can''t we buy the technology?" was the question that Mao threw at Zhou Enlai. The answer was "Of course".

This dialogue, Chen recalled, had started up China''s preparations for the second round importation of complete sets of technology and equipment, mostly for chemical fiber and fertilizer production, from Western developed countries such as the United States, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Canada.

Faced with a grave economic crisis in the early 1970s, Western countries hoped to find a way out for their surplus productivity and were eager to do business with China.

When Mao met visiting American President Richard Nixon in 1972,an historic meeting which heralded the melting of the 20-odd years of icy relations between the two countries, he negated China''s "closed-door" policy in foreign trade implemented during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

"You were interested in personnel exchange and doing a little bit of business, yet we were dead against it. For a dozen years, we insisted that if major issues were not solved, we would not bother with trivial things. I was one of them. Later on we realized that you were right, hence the ping-pong policy," Mao was cited as saying.

The Memoirs already put into permanent collection of the Olympic Museum identified that the deals cost China more than five billion U.S. dollars, equivalent to half of the year''s total infrastructure construction investment.

The deals also helped China to nurture a contingent people familiar with foreign affairs, to truly acquire advanced technology and learn methods of doing business with foreign countries, particularly how to raise funds by making use of the international capital market, Chen said.

By contrast, the equipment previously imported in large-scale in the 1950s from the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries were mostly based on American technologies before World War II and could no longer be considered as world-leading.

Though China formally embarked on the road of opening-up and economic reform in 1978, it was the bold step taken in the chemical industry that had enlivened a corner of the Chinese economy by easing the pressure on fiber and fertilizer shortfalls, and thus clothing and grain crops.

The government''s ambition of counting on an explosive growth of steel output to secure the title of industrialized power in the Great Leap Forward during 1950s had also been rectified.

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