I did not plan this to coincide with Professor Frimpong-Boateng’s letter of 13th September 2023. In that letter he lauded how some societies from the Periphery, had, by systematically leveraging the talent of their most academically qualified elements, changed conditions of living for the better.
This note is going to every academic I know – active and retired. In particular, I have reached out to as many serving Vice Chancellors, Pro-vice Chancellors, Deans and Professors, as I have access to. And to the politicians and media.
It feels to me that an uncontroversial way of putting it is that the respect for scholarship and thinking in our society has declined. It is also right to say that no society in history that has diminished the place of learning, thinking, critical reflection and knowledge, has ever made it to prosperity.
On three occasions, Deng Xiaoping, was toppled by the Chinese Ultra Left. He celebrated the first 36 years of Mao as exemplary. But then things went downhill, from 1958. 1919 to 1957 were therefore, Mao’s glory years.
In 1958 with the launch of the Great Leap Forward, followed by the Cultural Revolution, China lost 20 years. Intellectuals were declassified from labour and could not count as a productive force. Lin Biao and his “Gang of 4” described intellectuals as “the stinking 9th” and persecuted them.
When Deng Xiaoping (and some others) spoke up to contradict the “Gang of 4”, he, to use his own words, was “sent to live in the cowshed.” Three times in that long 20 year wait for a chance to lead reforms, Deng was toppled and rusticated. He watched as his country wallowed in mass misery and many millions died from want.
He was, in power, to forgive Mao and even rehabilitate him. Though Mao had supervised an era when Deng was referred to as “the number 2 capitalist roader and the deputy commander-in-chief of the bourgeois headquarters.” Deng insisted that the “Gang of 4” destroyed Mao by declaring him a deity who could not be questioned when they declared “the two whatevers” as official policy.
That meant whatever Mao said and whatever he did was right, not to be questioned. In addition the “Gang of 4” preached that socialism in poverty was better than capitalism in riches. Deng boomed back that if socialism only delivered poverty it would collapse. That earned him a place in the cowshed for years.
He was a very forgiving man, Deng. Many who wronged him he excused. But his verdict on the “Gang of 4” never softened: “Zero! A thousand points below zero!!” His reason was that hundreds of millions died because of their misdirection and adherence to “lifeless dogma.”
I do not reproduce his views to valorise him. Deng Xiaoping himself said he did not want to be remembered with any particular prominence. When he finally got the chance to really kick-off, in my view, the boldest and most successful economic reforms in human history, he was 76.
At 76, in 1980, he declared a bold 20 year ambition and mobilised with deep intellectual rigour and insight, and a truly committed team, original in thought process to the bone marrow. The results lie before us – 20% of humanity, which is what China was then, had their living conditions significantly improved.
When Deng referred to science, he included humanities. The degree of respect for knowledge in Chinese society will inspire any serious people.
I mentioned Deng’s age at the start of the reforms because I am convinced there is space for young and old in this struggle to achieve shared prosperity and shared dignity in Africa. I always tell people, for example, that Professor Kofi Asare-Opoku at 90 is more energetic and intellectually switched on than many 30 year olds I know.
The greatest frustration I have with 2023 Ghanaian society is this primitive unanimity that has emerged among its Metropolitan elites about neoliberal capitalism. An unthinking, unreflective, uncritical consensus that treats development as superstition. One which makes our policy makers genuflect in stupor at prescriptions ill-suited for our context. Including even defunding universities at one point!!
Perhaps, Deng’s words below give us all cause to reflect. The Professoriate must again become an anti-systemic force. We, less gifted and less talented and less endowed than the Professoriate, can only continue to engage its various guises, and to hope that our continent will again see knowledge as a productive force that must be liberated for development to occur.
For all our sakes on the African continent, may things change for the better. Hear Deng Xiaoping:
“We must try to increase the material benefits for the few top intellectuals. If we arouse their enthusiasm and show them more respect, they will make more contributions. Haven’t we developed the atomic bomb, the hydrogen bomb, satellite and space technology on our own? The engineering of the electron-positron collider that we have completed also ranks among the world’s most advanced technologies. The wages of intellectuals must be raised step by step over the next few years, so they will have something to look forward to. I am told that an old professor at Beijing University said recently, ‘My salary has remained the same as it was when the People’s Republic was founded. But with the way prices have gone up, my standard of living has dropped by two thirds.’ No matter how many difficulties we have, we must try to improve the treatment of teachers.
If we do that, it will affect our intellectuals in other countries too. We have tens of thousands of students studying abroad, and it is important to create suitable conditions for their work after they come back. Some students who have returned have been unable to find appropriate work or even a unit to accept them, because we simply aren’t doing any research in some of the areas they have been studying. We could establish a comprehensive scientific research centre that would include certain specialities, or we could add some specialities in existing research institutes and universities. If we arrange for such people to tackle specific projects in these places, surely some of them will achieve great things. Otherwise, these people will not come back, and it will be a great loss to the country.
Another important aspect of reform is to redistribute the funds allocated to science and education. Since science and technology constitute a primary productive force, and since intellectuals, who during the ‘cultural revolution’ were called the ‘ninth category’, are part of the working class, we should raise them to first place.
These are my thoughts on education, science and technology and the treatment of intellectuals. I have expressed them as a strategic concept or measure. From a long-term point of view, it is time for us to set about solving this problem.”
I have nothing more to add. A luta continua.
14 September 2023.
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