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George Stern

The Chinese Get a Lesson in Democracy

(21 September 1940)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. 4 No. 38, 21 September 1940, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Thirty-six Chinese seamen last Saturday completed an elementary course in Anglo-American democracy at Pier 97, North River.

These men signed on the British freighter Silverlarch a year and a half ago for two years’ service in Far Eastern waters. They were periodically in home ports and could renew among their own people the self-respect and integrity so brutally trampled on by their British masters.

When the war came, however, the vessel was transferred to the trans-Atlantic run. The Chinese crew had to go along willy-nilly. They ran the submarine gauntlet in convoys running between American and British ports. To their miserable quarters and paltry pay the British masters added the risks of war and virtual imprisonment aboard ship.

For in Britain and Canada wartime laws hemmed them in and in United States ports no Chinese may land – on pain of a $1,000 fine for any shipmaster that lets him set foot ashore.

The United States, great and good friend of dear, heroic China, is like the anti-Semite whose best friends are Jews. Morally and physically syphilitic refugee millionaires from Europe are welcome with their sacks of money and gems. But no Chinese – excepting an occasional student, business man, or diplomat, may defile these shores.

The Chinese seamen on the Silverlarch, however, had no more stomach for breasting the perils of Britain’s war. Chinese seamen, better than most workers of the Pacific, know that Britain’s battle is no battle of theirs! They were in the first and front ranks of China’s own battle against Britain not so many years ago. And there is battling enough to do at home in China’s own cause.

So they started off in a body from the Silverlarch to try to see the Chinese consul, to state their grievances, and somehow to get back home.

At the foot of the gangplank they met American democracy. To them it materialized in the form of two gun muzzles, pointed in their direction. As. they tried to make their peaceful and reasonable intent plain, screaming sirens announced reinforcements for the gun muzzles. Three radio cars and eighteen cops. By this small army they were backed up the gangplank.

The Sins of These Chinese

British officers told police a sneering story. The Chinese seamen were “upset” when anti-aircraft guns were. put aboard and tested at Singapore. They saw several ships torpedoed. “That was about all the Chinese nerves could stand ...” The British official press is all aglow about it’s own “nerves” under the Nazi air attack. But Chinese nerves have been braced against Japan’s equally brutal assault for more than three years and were braced before that for a hundred years against the repeated shock of British steel against Chinese flesh.

But the Chinese aboard were not only sinning in trying to keep out of the way of German bombs meant for British ships. They were also, it seems, getting a little tired of the arrogance of the white man’s burden-bearers. Here’s how it is told by the Herald Tribune:

“The Chinese were a bit more cheeky than they have been before, (a) man from the ship said. One Chinese who waits on table for the ship’s apprentices, young men serving a four-year stretch preparatory to becoming officers, told one apprentice he did not want to be called ‘Boy’ anymore but wished to be addressed as ‘Mr. Kong.’

“One of the apprentices said later they felt there was no use in knocking the Chinese down when he made the remark, but decided instead to report the incident to the steward and have his pay docked for insubordination.”

Britain’s Real Face Shows

Out of this little story stares the face of British imperial rule over its Oriental slaves. In China inflated British clerks can employ Chinese servants for decades and never know them by any other name than ‘Boy’. Hewers of wood and bearers of water are not persons entitled to names. And lo, should one of them demand of his masters to be called by his name instead of a tag, it is time to show the famous British self-control. Don’t knock him down – just have his pay docked ... for insubordination! In the old days on the China coast the mess boy Kong would probably have had his head smashed for his impertinence. But right now the British are fighting for democracy. So Kong is merely kept an unwilling prisoner and gets his pay docked.

Through this single tiny incident runs all the threads that make up the ugly pattern of imperialist rule and inter-imperialist conflict, bourgeois morals, and bourgeois lies and prejudices.

Britain fighting for its “democratic” empire lashes its colonial slaves in its galleys. “Democratic” America – its press and politicians bleating about “tolerance” – showed on Pier 97 the real face of its racial hatreds and prejudices, exalted in the laws of the land and represented by its guns.

The thirty-six Chinese seamen on the Silverlarch are learning about “democracy”. It is good to remember that the staunchest fighters of the Chinese revolution came from the ranks of the thousands of Chinese workers taken to France during the last war to do “coolie work” behind the lines. They, too, learned about “democracy.”

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