From Ha Long to Ha Noi

May Day special from two Communist countries


 . . . to Ha Noi

From Ha Long . . .

by Kumar David

After a quiet New Year in Colombo I emplaned for Hong Kong in the wee hours of the morning of Apr. 15 and crossed into Guangdong (Canton) Province on a tour through two southern Chinese provinces into northern Vietnam for the next five days. I did it differently, not by air as tourists do, but by coach, train and rides on dilapidated buses. Travelling at the best of times is a stressful but on this occasion I was nursing a right-hand forefinger which an ungrateful horse I was feeding through a fence tried to chew off. Fortunately I found a foster mother (bastard that I am, I put on a show of distress), who took care to dress my wound and steady my geriatric stumbles.

Booming Guangdong Province I know well and have visited often; I still hold a time-unlimited professorship at the South China University of Technology. Guangdong is the richest province in China and where Deng’s opening-up made its break through because it is next to Hong Kong and is Cantonese speaking. The province’s capital city, Guangzhou called Canton in the old days is a bustling city of 10 million and the most advanced after Shanghai and Beijing. The province does not interest me much anymore though I marvel at the pace of conurbation and industrialisation every time I pass through. It was the next transit province Guangxi (Guangxi Autonomous Region) that I had my eye on. China has five autonomous regions; the others are Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Ningxia, where minorities are numerous and enjoy a degree of cultural and linguistic independence (but no ways political – if at all repression is starker in Tibet and Xinjiang).

I promised my readers long ago that I would visit Guangxi which has 30% Zhuang minority people with their own language but Han Chinese now predominate to the extent of 60%. I did not find the towns we passed of much interest from an ethnic perspective (Guangxi is nowhere near as vibrant or colourful Yunnan) but what is interesting is that the province’s former leader Cheng Kejie was executed in 2000 for corruption. Cheng was Provincial Governor, a CCP highflyer and a doer; his achievements in infrastructure development are everywhere to be seen; but he was also a ten percent man and when he fell out of favour when the leadership it was curtains. I need hardly rub in analogies – big time infrastructure expansion, getting things done, ten-percent and then the pitiless finale. There is much to learn from the Middle Kingdom, the four great inventions, paper, printing, gunpowder and the compass; but it seems much else as well, eh?

I need to say a few words this May Day about prospects for the ruling Communist Party. President Xi has consolidated power as no leader since paramount leader Deng and is continuing to do so ruthlessly. His anti-corruption drive has netted a hundred-thousand party and government officials, and though fear has frozen bureaucrats into avoiding decision making, it is popular with ordinary folk. Of course it is not an anti-corruption drive pure and simple; rivals in leadership are also being weeded out as with Cheng, though his execution preceded Xi Jinping’s rise to power. Of course below the surface knives are being sharpened and the revelation in the Panama Papers that Xi’s brother-in-law set up shell-companies was a blow to the president’s image. News and Internet comment has been blacked out and those who defy the ban are hunted down; proof of damage to Xi’s image.

Still those who cannot distinguish between the fate of leading personalities and the stability of the system per se lack analytical discrimination. Xi may rise or Xi may fall, and that is a matter of importance, but this is not to be confused with fundamental durability of the state. The Chinese know how to find the side of their bread which is buttered and people don’t jettison a state that has brought material prosperity, housed and fed millions, pulled a quarter billion people out of abject poverty and made the country a potent player on the world stage. And the cardinal feature of this scenario is the undisputed hegemony of the Communist Party; I say this as palpable fact not implied justification and add that my natural instincts recoil from one-party rule as much as yours.

Hannah Arendt offered the thesis of "banality of evil", meaning ordinary people are a herd that blindly follows a leader or an ideology, to explain the passivity of the German populace which could not have been unaware of Nazi genocide. The thesis has been contested by others who hold that the mass is not blind and itself becomes evil by identification with an evil ideology. The extrapolation is valid; a home grown example is the attitude of the Sinhalese people when Upcountry Tamils were rubbished in1948, during the in-effect No Tamil Act of 1956, and in 1958, 1977 and 1983. This is not reducible to some naïve thesis of good people misled by bad leaders Senanayake, Bandaranaike and Jayewardene.


The high speed train from Guangzhou terminated at Nanning, capital of Guangxi, and then a coach took me to the remote Dongxing (China)-Mong Cai (Vietnam) border crossing. This may be the first time border officials on either side had seen a Sri Lankan passport, but something else was more interesting – corruption! Graft is Vietnam, or at least low level graft such as passing bucks to immigration officials to expedite processing (what an age it took anyway). I grant this is what the tourist guide who took me through the border said; I did not pass bucks first-hand. Through the border and it was a rickety bus for the two hour ride to Ha Long (Halong) Bay, a world heritage site of 2000 breath-taking karst formations spread out over a large bay.

The hills on both sides on the ride to Ha Long were covered mile upon mile with eucalyptus plantations; the wood exported to Korea for paper making. Korea has also won the Vietnamese vehicle market; buses, trucks, cars and heavy equipment. I tried counting and at a guess Hyundai has 40% of the market, Kia 20% and Toyota and Ford have a presence too. The big investors in industry (all medium size enterprises) and power stations are Korea and China. The main export (import) partners are USA 21% (small), Japan 10% (11%), China 12% (30%) and Korea 7% (16%). The annual real GDP growth rate is about 7%, but has been above 8% in the recent past. Per capita GDP is two-thirds Sri Lanka’s but Vietnam’s population is much larger at 92 million.

I was glad to get to Ha Long now, before it is turned into a tourist megapolis. Signs of the looming excrescence were everywhere; hundreds of acres reclaimed from the sea, land levelling everywhere, theme parks rising, grotesque giant wheels and spaghetti rides that make your intestines bolt out through both ends of your alimentary system being hammered into place. In ten years Ha Long will be another (yuk!) Disney Land and the pristine beauty of the lovely bay despoiled by the philistine urges of human hoi polloi. Soon doting parents will be fussing around prematurely obese offspring; but what to do; dollars and yuan will bulge from every pocket. On one side cultural globalisation means worldwide commemoration of the 400th year after the death of Shakespeare and Cervantes (they died one day apart), Mozart mania that has gripped all East Asia, and the like. The other side is global consumerism and cultural banality. Or have I become a crotchety septuagenarian?

Stop lamenting the future and get on with the story! I had a great day on a boat weaving through karst island-domes and visiting a huge and wondrous cave of limestone stalagmites and stalactites carved out by the drip of water through millions of years. In the afternoon I sucked my pipe, sipped my cognac and lunched on the boat. The end of the day was a long bus ride to Ha Noi (Hanoi); like driving through China in the 1980s and 1990s, the bursting first decades of Deng Xiaoping’s opening up. Streets crowded with houses and shops like Slave Island or Kotahena; indeed most of Ha Noi is like this. One part however is laid out on a grand scale with a Great Hall of the People, esplanades, the Ho Chi Min mausoleum and museum, his sparse home on stilts and his modest office, all in the same garden as the former French Governor’s palatial residence.

New highways and expressways are four or six lane and superbly finished. Arterial roads that are still not highways are being dug up on both sides; a road improvement programme is in full swing. The system of US interstate highways was built from 1956 onwards, China started its drive late in the Twentieth Century and will match America and Canada nationwide within a generation, Vietnam is late starter whose intentions are clear. A modern nation must have a matching road and rail network. China’s railway system is superb. Short-sighted Americans, now much to their regret, erased their railways to make way for the Detroit automobile culture, but more intelligent Europe and Asia (unfortunately excluding short-sighted Lanka) are powering ahead with high-speed railway networks.

Notwithstanding rampant graft in Party and government, and despite the bureaucracy’s dread of going all the way on the road Comrade Deng trod, there is no gainsaying Vietnam is on the move to success and prosperity. As a politically sensitive Lankan my reaction was sadness to see what we too can do but are not. I have no patience with those who denigrate everything Lankan and have not a good word for the country. In certain respects we have done well and more progress is sure, but it is also true that we have fallen short of our potential. It is more than blaming this government or that; a fatalist would see karma, but a truer view would lay the blame on narrow nationalist, linguistic and religious divides. "As rain seeps through a poorly thatched roof, passion seeps into the deluded mind" says the Dhammapada. Noting this contest of minds, it is appropriate that I sign off on this May Day with the comment that, for better for worse, in Communist societies a different ideology dominates and it crowds out these primordial impulses.




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