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  • Issayas Tesfamariam

The Flow of the Yangtse by Alemseged Tesfai

On June 6, 2021, the Global Edition of China Daily published Mr. Alemseged Tesfai's op-ed entitled "Journey to the East: The flow of the Yangtze. Below you will find the original unedited article entitled "The Flow of the Yangtse".

Alemseged Tesfai

The Flow of the Yangtse

In 1967, I think it was, one of the great historians of the day, Arnold Toynbee, gave a lecture at the Haile Selassie I University in Addis Ababa, where I was a law student. He made three predictions for the end of the millennium. First, he said, unless a major spiritual revolution salvaged Western democracy, the moral crisis that was then in the offing, especially in the US, would lead to its decline. Second, the Soviet Union would not last the rest of the century. Third, China would emerge as a superpower, leading to a complete overhaul of world order as we knew it at the time.

Although I was intrigued by the old thinker’s forecast, I guess the millennium was too far away for me to grasp the full import of his message. Instead, I remember my mind racing back to Grade 6, where I was first introduced to the ancient river civilizations, especially that of the Huang Ho and the Yangtse Kiang. Something about the Yangtse Kiang, maybe the way my Indian instructor had pronounced it, gave me the sense of massive, almost musical movement; an impression that I later imputed to almost everything dealing with that country – its massive population, its turbulent history, its cultural diversity and its quantum jump to modernity.

For well over half a century, I craved to visit China. The egalitarianism of the 1960’s, as represented by photos and documentaries of multitudes of young, uniformed men and women walking and cycling; tens of thousands of peasants working the paddy-fields; equal numbers of soldiers marching in flawless symmetry … simply fascinated my generation. Caught up in the radicalism of the student movement in Addis Ababa in the 1960’s, reading about China became an obsession – from Pearl S Buck’s The Good Earth to Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China to Mao Ze Dong’s Thoughts – we devoured Chinese history and culture. Everything I read fitted into my childhood image of the big flow – the Long March, the Great Leap Forward, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and “Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom.” As a fighter for the independence of Eritrea with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), I guess I can claim to have lived through the joys and sorrows, hopes and frustrations; the long marches to success or retreat; the bitterness of defeats and thrills of victory that our Chinese counterparts had experienced decades before us.

I continued to yearn for a visit to China; to dip my feet into the waters of the Yangtse and feel its massive movement and, indeed, that of China itself. The opportunity came in a way that I had never expected. In early 2019, I fell seriously ill, threatened with renal failure. As I slept at the ICU of Asmara’s Orota Hospital, swollen all over the body and gasping for breath, my old schoolmate and friend, Tsegai Tesfatsion, Eritrea’s Ambassador to China, called to invite me to come to Beijing for treatment. “It is affordable, efficient and effective here. I have already found you a good doctor. You will be my guest, just come.” I could not believe the timing of his well-known generosity and I did not even pause to think. In late February, I travelled to Beijing under the tender care of my anxious sister, Tsehainesh. A few days later, I was sleeping at the Peking Union Medical College Hospital in Beijing.

When my doctor, prominent kidney specialist in the Beijing area and university Professor ___ Su came for her first visit, she pressed my calf and feet with her forefinger to created huge dimples. “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of that,” she told me. She then checked my wheezing, sharply stabbing chest and repeated, “We’ll take care of that too.” She spoke with a soothing voice and calm confidence. I trusted her impulsively.

I stayed almost a month at the state-of-the-art hospital of quiet efficiency, sophisticated equipment and first-class treatment. From the lobby in my ward, where I preferred to sit with a book, I could see the Chinese in constant motion within that limited space. The division of labour amazed me. I could see no overlapping of responsibility in the dispensation of daily chores. Sweeping the floor and mopping it; collecting the laundry, changing the linen and making the bed would all be assigned to different people. I noticed the same kind of defined duties among the five or six nurses who tended to me. Coming from a country where one person would do most of those tasks, I typed my curiosity into a nurse’s mobile phone for translation into Chinese. “Chinese people too many,” came the typed answer in English. In other words, labour had to be subdivided to accommodate hundreds of millions. But order was everywhere, planned and deliberate order.

After one month of hospitalization, forty pills a day and volumes of oxygen to keep me breathing, life-threatening clots in my bloodstream were gone and my body liberated from the horrors of swelling. But my treatment had just begun. For nine more months, while I enjoyed Ambassador Tsegai and his Embassy staff’s hospitality, the Professor called me to the hospital on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. The picture of her peering into the computer, analyzing my test results and managing my medication remains imprinted in my mind. Initially, I was taking almost 40 pills a day from 14 to 16 different varieties whose names and functions I could not grasp. “Your friend knows more about your disease and your medicines than you do,” she noted at one point.

Professor Su with the writer to her left and Ambassador Tsegai and Elen

from the Embassy to her right.

“I don’t bother about details. What would I do with them? You are taking care of effects and after-effects. I am happy with that.”

“That means you trust me; and I take good care of my patients.”

I had never been so closely connected to a doctor over such a long and uninterrupted time. I observed the way she was guiding me back to functional health both medically and psychologically. Whenever bad weekly test results caused changes in my mood, she would notice and cheer me up. Doses would then increase or decrease; new pills would replace old ones to tackle new developments. I started to feel that medicine was like a series of moves in a game of chess.

“Sometimes, I feel that you are playing chess with the pills, my body being the chessboard,” I said to her one day.

“You can say so, yes. Medicine is a lot like chess.”

But I also felt that, placed in the right hands, medicine is a lot like art. Just as it takes the real artist to combine colours in creating a masterpiece, so will a doctor’s personal touch make the difference in restoring damaged health. Damaged health, indeed! We take our health so much for granted that we rarely realize that the distance between health and illness can be short and swift; and the way back long, intractable and even irretrievable. The way back with my doctor was smooth and relaxed. From my limited experience with Professor Su, I could see that Chinese medicine was patient-oriented; probably the legacy of its socialist heritage.

I had plenty of time between my regular visits. With Tsegai’s continuous encouragement, I used the facilities at his residence to write about three-quarters of the volume that I am planning to publish soon. I also ventured out to satiate my childhood images of China and its people. But, except for the thrill of connecting with its awesome history at the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and Mao Ze Dong’s mausoleum, I found that I had to readjust my earlier impressions of the country. The same drive and discipline, centuries ago, that built a Wall that snakes its way across China, just as the Yagtse does, has now propelled it to heights beyond recognition.

Nothing, it seems, can ever be small in China. Some of the numbers I encountered were staggering. 3,000 skyscrapers, 200-storeyed and higher, constructed since 2015 to the US’s thirty or so, I read in Beijing Review. Reports indicate that 300,000,000 Chinese have been pulled out of poverty in the past few decades. Poverty is due to be eliminated in the following few years. Heavy machinery dotting the paddy-fields that I saw in my brief travels outside Beijing made me wonder where the tens of thousands of toiling masses of old might have gone. The flow of Chinese humanity has obviously diversified in different directions.

I did not get to dip my feet into the waters of the Yangtse, but I did enjoy an evening on its banks under the glittering lights of bustling Shanghai. I got a glimpse of it again as I crossed the Wuhan Bridge high above, barely a month before the outbreak of Covid-19. Watching on TV, admittedly not without a tinge of trepidation, the awesome display of military hardware paraded at the 70th Anniversary of the country’s liberation was quite an experience.

Toynbee’s accurate prediction of China’s rise to superpower status was made over half a century ago, at the height of the ideological war between capitalism and socialism. But he had not stopped there. He had also expressed his concern that Western reaction to that development would grow confrontational. I remember his warning that, if that led to war, which he deplored in the strongest terms, it would no longer be ideological. It would rather be between civilizations, East versus West, possibly ending with the destruction of both.

As the Yangtse flowed past glittering Shanghai, my thoughts crossed continents to the other global financial centre, New York City. How two entirely different civilizations of contrasting values and competing principles could attain parallel results, and how fast China has risen from the ashes to catch up, simply boggled my mind. As ferry-boats crisscrossed the river carrying cheerful tourists, Toynbee’s apocalyptic warning invaded my musings; but I pushed it away for more positive thinking. I cannot pretend to fully understand, much less predict, where the current superpower rivalry is heading. But, as I approach the twilight of my years, I find solace in imagining the benefits to humanity, of superpower cooperation over confrontation and peace over war.

In late December, Professor Su was happy enough with my results to allow me to return home. As I said farewell to her and my friends at the Eritrean Embassy, I vowed to revisit China and finally get to dip my feet into the waters of the Yangtse; but not as a sick man.

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