Isabel Crook: an appreciation

We are very pleased to publish this touching and informative tribute to the outstanding communist and lifelong friend of China, Isabel Crook (1915-2023), written by her close friend of many decades, Dr. Jenny Clegg.

Jenny, a retired academic, peace activist and member of our advisory group, provides rich insights in the course of summing up Isabel’s lifelong commitment to the Chinese revolution, her unique and path breaking approach to anthropology, her deep empathy for China’s rural poor, and her enduring yet careful optimism regarding the future of socialist China.

We previously reported on Isabel’s death, including here. Among many other obituaries were those published by British newspapers, The TimesFinancial Times, Guardian, and Economist; the New York Times and Canada’s Globe and Mail

“A rare bridge between the West and China”; “a committed communist”; “a peoples’ diplomat”; “a pioneering anthropologist” – so read the obituaries for Isabel Crook (1915-2023). Indeed, she was all of these in one.

Isabel’s 107 years, almost all spent in China, were to span two world wars, two great revolutions, a socialist transition under a Cold War, all through the twists and turns of Mao’s mass campaigns to Deng’s reform and opening up, with China now led by Xi Jinping stepping onto the world stage.

No mere observer, Isabel’s participation in the New China along with husband David saw them personally suffer under the excesses of the Cultural Revolution.  Isabel was kept in confinement for three years by Red Guards, in a room on the top floor of a campus building separated from her boys, still only teenagers, and with husband David in prison. Freed from detention in 1972, both were cleared of all charges in 1973 and, along with other foreign experts, received an apology from Premier Zhou Enlai.

Her commitment was again put to the test with the suppression of the Tiananmen protests in 1989 – the Crooks had called on the government not to use force. Yet despite all this Isabel was to remain optimistic as to China’s future under CPC leadership.

To properly appreciate Isabel’s special contribution to understanding China, and the reasons why she never succumbed to disillusionment, requires both a consideration of her life experiences as well as her anthropological work on rural China.

In particular, through many months spent in the rural areas, living among the people gathering materials on village life, Isabel was to develop a particular empathy for Chinese country folk. Her two separate studies of villages undergoing reform, under first a Nationalist, then a Communist-led government, provided deep insight from a comparison between the failure of one and the success of the other.

Early influences: the Rural Reconstruction Movement

Isabel was born in China, the daughter of Canadian missionary educators.  Leaving for Canada to study, she was to graduate from the University of Toronto with a bachelors and then a masters degree[1] [2] , returning to China in 1939 aged 24 to do anthropological field research in the western province of Sichuan among the Yi, a slave owning society. 

From this remote ‘opium country’, she moved nearer to the wartime capital of Chongqing in 1941 to take part in a year-long ‘action research’ project sponsored by the National Christian Council.  Hired by rural reformer, THSun, Isabel was to carry out a survey of a small market town of 1,500 households.  With the overwhelming majority of its families living in desperate poverty, Prosperity township was decidedly ill-named.

Joining a small team including two experts on cooperatives, Isabel was introduced to the progressive ideas of the rural reconstruction movement.  Founded in 1926 by the influential James Yen, whose work in mass literacy, begun amongst the Chinese labourers in France during World War I, was to gain international acclaim, the movement had a strong following among China’s Christian community and the left wing of the nationalist KMT.

Continue reading Isabel Crook: an appreciation

Benjamin Zephaniah – lifelong champion of the oppressed

The celebrated British poet, novelist and campaigner Benjamin Zephaniah passed away on 7 December 2023. Zephaniah was a friend of China and owned a flat in Beijing, spending several months a year there, writing and training in martial arts. His famous novels Refugee Boy, Gangsta Rap and Teacher’s Dead were written in China.

His funeral is being held today, 28 December 2023. We publish below a brief obituary by Friends of Socialist China co-editor Carlos Martinez.

One of Britain’s most important and impactful cultural workers breathed his last breath on 7 December 2023, having been diagnosed with a brain tumour eight weeks previously.

Benjamin Zephaniah was widely known as a poet, author and actor, but also as a tireless and courageous campaigner for justice. He never hesitated to speak his mind; he never put his career before his principles. He was quite unique in his ability to cut through ruling class cultural hegemony – a function of his prodigious talent and his strong roots in the British working class, in particular among oppressed communities.

As a black man from a working class Jamaican background, Zephaniah faced racism all his life, and anti-racism was one of his main areas of focus as an activist. For decades, he stood shoulder to shoulder with oppressed peoples demanding equality – indeed he was among those marching in Southall on 23 April 1979 to defend the local population against the National Front, on which occasion the Metropolitan Police, acting in defence of and in cahoots with the fascists, killed Blair Peach.

Zephaniah well understood that the fundamental purpose of racism is to divide working people. He wrote a few years ago:

“I have always thought that poor white people and poor black people should unite and confront the people who oversee all of our miseries… The biggest fear of all of the mainstream politicians is that we all reach a point where we understand how much we have in common and, instead of turning on ourselves, we turn on them. In poetry and prose I have said that unity is strength, and that we should get to a point where we are not talking about black rights or white rights, Asian rights or rights for migrant workers; we are just talking about our rights.”

He elaborated on this point in his 2018 autobiography, The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah, where he talked about the racism he would sometimes face doing miners’ strike solidarity work in the mid-1980s. In response to some miners in Nottinghamshire shouting derogatory remarks while he was performing, another miner jumped on stage and “delivered a diatribe against racism and urged working-class people to stick together, pointing out that I was the person who in the previous week had sent them a donation of £1,500 (a lot of money in those days) from an African-Caribbean association, and they, the miners, were happy to take the money and feed their kids.”

Reflecting on how miners’ attitudes towards black workers shifted over the course of the strike, Zephaniah noted: “The miners realised they couldn’t win the fight on their own; they needed the solidarity of their wives, black poets, Chinese chefs and Bengali factory workers… Those who were involved in that strike will never forget the picket line battles, the workers’ solidarity, the lessons learned through struggle and the dark forces of police and state that were unleashed upon those workers.”

Although his talent won him a level of acceptance within the mainstream, Zephaniah was not afraid to express revolutionary and anti-imperialist views. Interviewed by the Guardian in the aftermath of the 2017 Grenfell disaster, he stated bluntly: “I go on Question Time and I talk to politicians and get involved, but actually I’d like to just burn the lot of them. The system stinks.”

Elsewhere he discusses the hypocrisy of the bourgeois narrative in relation to democracy and freedom of speech: “Some of us think that, because we have so many TV stations, we have freedom. We don’t. We have the illusion of freedom.”

In 2018, with the US escalating its propaganda war against the People’s Republic of China, Zephaniah talked about his experiences in that country, where he had spent several extended periods writing and training in martial arts.

“Back in the year 2000 I did a tour of clubs and schools in Hong Kong. When the performances were over I was asked if I wanted to go for a day trip into what people called mainland China. How I hate that term. I won’t go on about how the British stole Hong Kong (along with lots of other stuff) and then did a ninety-nine-year deal that was completely unfair to the Chinese. Or how hypocritical the British were in criticising ‘undemocratic’ China while at the same time denying citizens of Chinese origin the right to vote in the British bit of China.”

He continued: “I quickly realised I loved the place. This was the time when everyone started talking about China’s rapid growth, and I saw it happening right in front of me. I’ve never seen a country growing so quickly… I met people who by Western standards were middle class, but one generation ago their families were slum dwellers… After that first independent visit, I would return to China many times. I found it a great place to be creative.”

Interestingly, the following year another prominent British wordsmith of African-Caribbean origin, Akala, wrote in his book Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire:

Over the past few decades, China has pulled at least 500 million people out of poverty (the Communist propagandists at the World Bank actually put the figure at around 800 million), industrialised at a pace faster than any nation before and today stands at the leading edge of many green technologies, and it has managed to do all of this without invading and colonising half the planet. For these and many other reasons – despite obvious and undeniable injustices in China – you would think China would be universally admired by those who claim to believe industrial capitalism to be the holy grail of human achievement. Yet reading about China in the press, I can’t help but feel a tinge of the old ‘yellow peril’ sentiment still lurking beneath the narratives.

Given the extraordinary pressure on anyone in the public eye to conform to the anti-China consensus, it’s impressive and hugely helpful when a courageous few speak the truth like this.

Benjamin Zephaniah was a longstanding friend of socialist Cuba and patron of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, saying: “I am a proud friend of Cuba. We do what we do to support a small nation that is fighting to defend its sovereignty. We do what we do to gain justice for the Miami Five, to help with hurricane relief, and to support Cuban medical teams wherever they go in the world.”

His vision was truly global. He stood with the oppressed in every continent. He was a stalwart of the struggle against apartheid in both South Africa and Palestine. At a 2019 meeting of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, of which he was a patron, he recalled: “When I was young, there were two things that I really wanted to see: a free South Africa and a free Palestine.”

Visiting the Occupied Territories for the first time in 1988, he wrote: “I have come to the conclusion that Zionism is apartheid.” And three decades later, he was one of very few public figures to loudly defend then-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn against absurd charges of antisemitism, saying on Question Time – to rapturous applause from the studio audience – that Corbyn was “the only mainstream politician who’s been arrested for anti-racism… He’s the kind of person that shouldn’t actually be in politics, because politics is so dirty.”

Zephaniah placed a special emphasis on opposing British colonialism and imperialism, and raised his voice in support of Irish freedom (including performing at Troops Out Movement events) and for the return of the Chagos Islands to Mauritius. Famously, in 2003 he turned down the offer of an OBE:

“‘Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought. I get angry when I hear that word ‘empire’; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised… Benjamin Zephaniah OBE – no way Mr Blair, no way Mrs Queen. I am profoundly anti-empire.’

Benjamin Zephaniah will be sadly missed, but he leaves a body of work and a legacy of campaigning that will continue to inspire new generations in their struggles for a better world.

Comrade Li Keqiang passes away

Li Keqiang, a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the 17th, 18th, and 19th Central Committees of the Communist Party of China (CPC), and who served as Premier of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China for two terms, from March 2013-March 2023, died of a sudden heart attack at 00.10 on Friday October 27 in Shanghai. He was aged 68.

In an official obituary, Comrade Li was extolled as an excellent CPC member, a time-tested and loyal communist soldier and an outstanding proletarian revolutionary, statesman and leader of the Party and state.

The obituary traced his career from serving as an educated youth on a commune in his native Anhui province from March 1974 and becoming a CPC member in May 1976.

Li Keqiang went on to play leading roles in student and youth work, before taking up leading posts in Henan province, where he put forward the goal of realising the rise of central China. Subsequently, while leading the work in Liaoning province, he championed the revitalisation of the old industrial bases in northeast China.

Surveying his leadership of the country’s economic work during the time he served as Premier, the obituary notes that:

“Under the strong leadership of the CPC Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core, confronting multiple challenges including fast-changing international situations, the COVID-19 epidemic and downward pressure in the domestic economy, Li followed the general principle of pursuing progress while ensuring stability, fully and faithfully applied the new development philosophy on all fronts, worked to create a new pattern of development, promoted high-quality development, and balanced development and security imperatives.”

It adds:

“While serving as the premier, Li also served as head of the State Council’s leading group for revitalising old industrial bases in the northeast and other regions, head of the State Council’s leading group for the development of the western region, head of the country’s leading group for education, science and technology, and head of the country’s leading group for addressing climate change and energy conservation and emission reduction.

“Following the COVID-19 outbreak, Li assumed the post of head of the central leading group for COVID-19 response and helped secure tremendously encouraging achievements in both epidemic response and economic and social development.

“Always bearing China’s realities in mind, Li had been upholding and improving the country’s basic socialist economic systems, and promoting economic reforms.”
It notes that: “To improve the people’s well-being, Li devoted efforts to address prominent issues in employment, education, housing, healthcare, and elderly care.

“In March 2023, Li no longer served as the premier. After retiring from the leadership post, Li continued to firmly uphold the leadership of the CPC Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core, care for advancing the cause of the Party and the country, and firmly uphold the Party’s efforts to improve conduct, build integrity, and combat corruption.

“Li’s life was a revolutionary, hard-working and glorious one, and one that was dedicated to wholeheartedly serving the people and the communist cause, says the obituary notice, adding that his death is a great loss to the Party and the state.”

The following article was originally published by the Xinhua News Agency.

Li Keqiang, member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the 17th, 18th and 19th Communist Party of China (CPC) central committees and former premier of the State Council, passed away on Friday in Shanghai. He was 68.

Li died of a sudden heart attack at 00:10 on Friday after all-out rescue efforts failed, according to an official obituary notice issued on Friday.

Li was extolled as an excellent CPC member, a time-tested and loyal communist soldier and an outstanding proletarian revolutionist, statesman and leader of the Party and the state.

The obituary notice was jointly issued by the CPC Central Committee, the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee, the State Council and the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

Born in July 1955, Li was from Dingyuan, east China’s Anhui Province. In March 1974, he went to Dongling Brigade, Damiao Commune, Fengyang County of Anhui as an educated youth.

He became a CPC member in May 1976.

Between November 1976 and March 1978, Li served as the Party chief of Damiao Brigade.

Li went to study at the Department of Law at Peking University between March 1978 and February 1982. He once served as the head of the Students’ Union of the university.

Since February 1982, Li had successively served as secretary of the Peking University Committee of the Communist Youth League of China (CYLC), a member of the Standing Committee of the CYLC Central Committee, director of the School Department of the CYLC Central Committee and secretary-general of the All-China Students’ Federation, an alternate member of the Secretariat of the CYLC Central Committee, a member of the Secretariat of the CYLC Central Committee and vice chairman of the All-China Youth Federation, and the head of the National Working Committee of the Chinese Young Pioneers.

Continue reading Comrade Li Keqiang passes away