Kraeuter's 're-education' in the countryside

By Chitralekha Basu (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-12-10 09:41
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There is an image showing Uwe Kraeuter leaning against stacks of harvested paddy, flanked by farmers somewhere in the Chinese countryside in the mid-1970s in Grenzueberschreitung - 35 Jahre in China (Crossing the Border). This was a shot from one of the several trips he made to rural China, to experience farm life as part of a government "re-education" initiative.

Artists, academics and people who worked in cultural fields, including foreigners like him, would be sent to watch and participate in farm life. At the Foreign Languages Press, Kraeuter was primarily engaged in translating and editing propaganda material.

"So they wanted us to experience first-hand what we were writing about," the author says.

Kraeuter was inspired by what he saw. "In theory it was great. Our good life was the result of the hard work put in by farmers," he says.

Mingling with the farmers came easy to him, coming from a background where he was used to interacting with working-class people. "I still believe it's useful for intellectuals to experience life in the fields. The lack of it can be a huge shortcoming."

His meeting with China's first prime minister, Zhou Enlai, was a complete change of scene. Zhou, who had been ill for a while and was working from his hospital bed, hosted a banquet at the Great Hall of the People on Oct 1, 1974.

"There were some 60 to 80 noted Chinese leaders, including Deng Xiaoping, following him. The clapping was thunderous," Kraeuter recalls.

He visited the Great Hall of the People again in September 1976, where former chairman Mao Zedong's body was lying in state. Kraeuter recalls shaking hands with acting prime minister Hua Guofeng and other top leaders. He was slightly shocked when "my Italian neighbor started crying loudly".

The scale of mourning was overwhelming, as was the pervasive sense of horrified confusion and uncertainty. Even as he wondered how China, at that moment apparently like a radar-less ship, might be able to steer itself out of the crisis, Kraeuter was assured that the future of the country was secure. The message was loud and clear: Chairman Mao will never die.

By October 1976, the resentment against the Gang of Four, blamed for human rights violations perpetrated during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), had snowballed. Their trial and subsequent downfall brought about a drastic change in people's attitudes.

"A friend borrowed a pair of jeans from me," Kraeuter recalls.

It was an indication of the changes to come.