Maulana Bhashani’s Historic China Visit, Changes Since Then and the Continuity
By ATM Nurul Amin
25 December 2021
Since Mao-Zhou’s hosting of Maulana Bhashani in 1963 to witness the rebuilding of China after the October 1949 Revolution, huge changes have taken place in the land that comprises Bangladesh today and in China itself. These changes include the emergence of Bangladesh, through a Liberation War, as an independent country in December 1971; and a new beginning of China since 1979 with the assumption of power by Deng Xiaoping in 1979, after the death of Mao (Zedong) and Zhou (Enlai) in 1976. In the case of Bangladesh, the breaking away from Pakistan initially appeared to have hurt Bangladesh’s relationship with China beyond mending and China’s march towards a market economy appeared as giving up the socialist course of development. This brief note however is centred on the theme that despite huge changes in both countries there has been a continuity in the Bangladesh-China relationship as well as in the political economy of China. Indeed, despite doubts and uncertainty unprecedented positive changes are ongoing in both arenas.
Historical and evolving context
Today’s unshakeable Bangladesh-China relationship of the modern period is firmly built on the 1963 Maulana’s visit which was a demonstration of a great fraternity and solidarity as reflected in the Mao-Zhou invitation to the Maulana, the undisputed Krishan-Sramik leader of the 1960s, to visit China and then giving him the highest honour and taking of his care intimately. It is to be recalled that Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy was the first Prime Minister of Pakistan to visit China in October 1956. The visit was reciprocated by China’s premier Zhou Enlai less than two months later. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman also visited China, as part of a 1957 Peace Council delegation and again in the 1960s. Thus, the three great leaders of Bangladesh contributed to pioneering a special relationship with China.
China’s friendship with Bangladesh entered a new phase with President Ziaur Rahman’s state visit to China in 1977, which took place at a precarious time of Bangladesh for it to uphold its national independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. In more recent years, the Bangladesh-China friendship has reached a new height with Bangladesh becoming a close strategic partner of China in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This is likely to contribute to reducing the huge infrastructure deficit in Bangladesh.
My other observation has to do with China’s political economy since the October Revolution of 1949 led by the Communist Party of China (CPC) and Mao. Peasants’ role in this revolution and their anticipated emancipation generated Maulana’s interest in China, which was cemented by what the Maulana saw during his stay in China during his 1963 visit. Yet, a lot of doubts and concerns, if not an outright disappointment, started to surface after China opened its door to foreign investment, particularly the overall direction Deng Xiaoping took regarding the economy. Witnessing the unprecedented economic growth and prosperity of China since then, some observers at home and abroad started to view the period of 1949-1976 as the lost years.
My observation in this regard is that period, by no means, was a lost period rather those years have been an essential part, of reducing mass poverty and developing human resources in terms of educations, skills, and health, which are prerequisites for the citizens to participate and gain from a market economy. What the world is observing in China today in terms of economic growth, development, and prosperity arguably is a direct consequence of the essential foundation that Mao and Zhou Enlai laid through the revolution they led and sustained. The current leadership is building on those founding years of 1949-1976. It is from this perspective that I find continuity in the political economy sphere of China as we observe continuity in the Bangladesh-China relationship.
The Moulana and the Chinese revolution
Let me also bring up a few related issues on both dimensions noted above. First, who is this Maulana? What were his aspirations and dedication to? Why did China consider him a leader who was so close to their aspirations? Why was Maulana so keen to see China’s experiments and achievements since the Revolution? Similarly, on China’s political economy issue, what did the October Revolution seek to pursue? Were the two great episodes since the Revolution – the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution – a departure from the course of the Revolution? And more importantly, is the new beginning of China with Deng Xiaoping, which is being now consolidated by Xi Jinping, a departure from the cause of the Revolution or the course of building a socialist market economy? All these are big issues or questions and cannot be satisfactorily addressed within the scope of this brief note. Yet, I am briefly putting below my own understanding of the issues raised here.
First, Maulana Bhashani’s first and foremost concern has been for the oppressed groups or classes such as kamar-umar (blacksmith), majhi (boatman), din-mojur (daily labourers), and chashi-krishok-sramik (farm and industrial workers). Although he did fight for those who were oppressed because of their religious or linguistic identity too, he was conscious of the fact that the big umbrella identity such as Muslim or Banglaee suppresses or glosses over the suppressed groups or classes within such big national or religious identity. Of all oppressed classes, he served the causes of peasants or krishoks most widely. In the 1960s, by identifying himself with the causes of national liberation movements and oppressed people of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, the Maulana earned the title of Mozlum Jononeta of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. This political background of the Maulana could not escape the attention of leaders of the newly founded People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Deep-rooted Bangladesh-China relations
While the value attached to the land of Maulana’s origin and his political identity by the Chinese political leadership is largely a post-colonial period phenomenon, the land that comprises today’s Bangladesh and its people have been historically close to China and its people, which is aptly noted by Xi Jinping as follows:
The people of China and Bangladesh have been good neighbours and friends since ancient times. Stories of our friendship and exchange witnessed by the Southern Silk Road and the Maritime Silk Road throughout the millennia are still being told today. Eminent Chinese monks Faxian and Xuanzang travelled west for Buddhist scriptures. Atiśa Dipankara Shrijnana, a Bengali religious master, spread Buddhism in China. They were the pioneers of our cultural exchange. Famous navigator Zheng He of the Ming Dynasty visited Bengal twice. According to his description, “This is a richly endowed and teeming land with lovely people and fertile fields.” Believed by the Chinese than to be a qilin (an auspicious mythical animal), the giraffe that the Bengali king gave to the Ming emperor brought much excitement to the court and public in China (excerpted from Xi Jinping’s speech on Bangladesh-China friendship).
China’s political economy
The above points are the basis of my continuity observation about the relationship between Bangladesh and China. Now turning to the continuity hypothesis regarding China’s political economy, in addition to the points made above as to the lost years vis-a-vis founding years arguments, let us recall that the Chinese Revolution has been primarily a peasant-based, as different from the Marxian industrial working class-based, and it essentially overthrew a long-prevailing a largely feudal structure. Skipping from this structure to socialism has a limit. As a matter of fact, Karl Marx himself forewarned about this as follows:
“No Social order ever disappears before all the productive forces, for which there is room in it, have been developed, and new higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society” (Marx and Engels, 1848, p.17).
Although the Cultural Revolution sought to overthrow the ‘capitalist roaders’ (Li Shao Chi, the author of the book, A Good Communist”, which we read in the early-mid-1960s, was an unfortunate victim of that upheaval), the objective reality of productive forces and production relations did not yet mature as of a capitalist economy. Arguably what is ongoing in China, since Deng Xiaoping, is building the productive forces to a height that would be at par with a developed country and they are doing it by utilising the dynamism of a market economy.
A big historical mistake on the part of socialist countries, more so by the developing countries, has been the rejection of reliance on the market for economic decision-making. The latter group of countries particularly mixed up their anti-colonial struggle with market economies. The great political heroes of the colonised countries, who led respective countries’ national liberation movements, after liberation, adopted an anti-market course of development as if market-based economic-decision making is the sole monopoly of the colonial powers or developed countries. Most of the developing and socialist countries opting for non-market options for economic decision-making did not bore well. Its negative consequence was also vivid in Bangladesh when a so-called “non-capitalist road” to development was adopted, rejecting the market option, during the early period of our national independence. While Bangladesh has corrected the mistake at a tragic cost, it failed to put in place appropriate regulations to govern the market. In contrast, China has made a historic correction in this respect since Den Xiaoping’s time, which is well in the course, surprising the capitalist ideologues.
The above points on both dimensions have been the basis of my observation of the continuity in the Bangladesh-China relations and in the political economy of China. The Maulana could perhaps anticipate that what he saw in the early 1960s was not the only learning from China. He prophetically said:
“চীনের কাছ থেকে শেখার এবং চীন সম্পর্কে আরো বেশী জানার প্রয়োজন আমাদের। পৃথিবীর রূপ পরিবর্তনের মহাপ্রয়াসে চীন প্রতিদিনই অধিকতর গুরুত্বপূর্ণ ভূমিকা পালন করছে” (Bhashani, 2020, 85).
Bhashani, Maulana (2020). মাও সেতুঙ–এর দেশে মওলানা ভাসানী (Dhaka: Songhoti).
Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick (1848). The Communis Manifesto.
 This paper was presented in the Webinar series for the commemoration of the 58th Anniversary of Moulana Bhashani’s historic China visit, organised by the Moulana Bhashani Parishad, Australia.
 Author profile: Dr ATM Nurul Amin is a Professor Emeritus of the Asian Institute of Technology. He has taught at Rajshahi University and Jahangirnagar University before joining the AIT in 1987. After retiring from the AIT, he taught at North South University and BRAC University. Other institutional affiliations include Visiting Fellow Institute of Development Studies, Sussex (UK) and Visiting Professor Wuhan University (China). As a Dhaka University economics student during the mid-1960s, he became intensely involved in Left Revolutionary politics which led him to become a close follower of Moulana Bhasani and take interest in China’s Revolution and economic performance.