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Durres 1961: Beijing on Sea

Durres beach - flickr-steffen42
Celebrating the Sino-Albanian alliance. A Chinese poster from the period of their
involvement in Albania. "Long live the revolutionary and comradely friendship
between the Parties and peoples of China and Albania!". Photo: unknown

From 1960 until 1978 Albania played a most peculiar role in history. Having broken with the Soviet Union and with Tito's Yugoslavia, Albania sided with Mao's China in the Sino-Soviet split. Where Soviet aid was abruptly halted the Chinese stepped into the breach sending technicians and workers to the Balkan state. Albania under Enver Hoxha was infamous as a Stalinist, hermit-state so when in 1961 Harry Hamm, a journalist with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, received permission to visit he at first assumed this must be a mistake. The period of the Sino-Albanian alliance is in desperate need of a modern history, but when someone writes it, they are sure to make use of Hamm's fascinating book, the result of his trip there. Here are his observations of the Chinese he saw, but was unsuccessful in talking to, on a trip to Durres, which he calls by its Italian name of Durazzo.

The Chinese were the most cheerful people I met anywhere in Albania. Always smiling and full of fun, they seemed to feel perfectly happy on outpost duty in the Mediterranean. Nonetheless they were both hard working and disciplined. Although they had adapted themselves to wear Western-style clothing, rather than the notorious blue uniform clothes that give their homeland such an unpleasantly militant appearance, there was still a gulf between them and the people around them. In Durazzo, I had a good opportunity to take a long look at the Chinese visitors. I saw that, while they were always polite, they still kept entirely to themselves. It was difficult, if not impossible, to get into conversation with them, not only for the few foreigners living in the hotel, but even for Albanians.

Every morning on the stroke of eight, jeeps and buses picked them up from the hotel and took them nobody knew where. Each evening they reappeared, to have a swim or to play about like children on the beach. At a given time, they disappeared as if on a signal: It was time to start the political indoctrination lesson. The sing-song voices of the instructors would be heard from the part of the hotel where the Chinese lived, and then there would be the sounds of animated discussion.

They had free time, too, but they used it much more intensively than any other guests, sitting in the hotel foyer reading or studying the Albanian language, or poring over thick technical volumes. Occasionally, a group would get together for communal singing, and the strange sounds that floated through the hotel only emphasized the strange, almost eerie situation that had come about as a result of the Albanian leaders' change of political course.

Just as fascinating are Hamm's observations about the ruling elite and clan around Enver Hoxha which he noted "exercises unfettered power and unconcernedly enjoys its privileges."

There is not much evidence of bonds of "solidarity with the toiling masses". Members of the clan lead their own lives, sealed off from the mass of the people.

I was continually surprised that the openly practiced class privilege seemed to be so little resented by the ordinary man-in-the-street. Perhaps this unconcern is rooted in the fact that class differences have always existed in Albania. Basically, then, the Communists are only carrying on what has been the normal way of life since anyone can remember.

Later, however Hamm notes that,

It is not class privilege, but the permanent reign of terror and the pitiless despotism that seem to me to be the main reasons for a smoldering, and as yet hardly definable, dissatisfaction all over Albania. The signs of this dissatisfaction used to be repeated "purges". Now there is a new source of uneasiness

Albania . Harry Hamm. Translated by Victor Anderson. 1963.
[pp.  43-44 & 58-59 / Praeger in the US and Weidenfeld and Nicolson. Published in German in 1962 and English in 1963]

January 2009
Tim Judah

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