An interview with Lin Songtian: 'We need to carry forward the spirit of internationalism'

Wang Haoling
New Zealander Rewi Alley first stepped foot on China's mainland back in 1927. Nearly 100 years later, many important Chinese figures vow to 'carry forward' his spirit.
Wang Haoling
Shot by Hu Jun. Edited by Hu Jun. Subtitles by Wang Haoling and Andy Boreham.

"Why did I need to I come here before July 1?" Lin Songtian, President of the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries asked me at the end of a full-day, 12-hour tour around a small, isolated city in northwest China's Gansu Province. "I'm here to remember, to be grateful, and to learn." We're in Shandan, and the President is here to learn about a foreign man named Rewi Alley.

New Zealander Rewi Alley first stepped foot on China's mainland when he reached Shanghai back in 1927. His path would ultimately lead him here to Shandan, a small city even most Chinese people have never heard of before. He lived here for around a decade, and made a huge impression as an integral part of this country's revolutionary history.

After such a long day accompanying the President around Shandan, I wasn't feeling very confident that he would have the time or energy to squeeze in an interview. It was almost 9pm. I suggested just asking him a few quick questions downstairs in the hotel lobby after getting off our bus. "No, come to my room," he smiled. "It's much more comfortable there!"

Our quick interview turned into more than an hour, as President Lin's staff anxiously sat by waiting to complete other work.

An interview with Lin Songtian: 'We need to carry forward the spirit of internationalism'
Hu Jun / SHINE

President Lin (center) visits Shandan's Alley Memorial Hall with the company of Zhang Baojun (second right), director of the foreign affairs office in Gansu Province, and Shanghai Daily's Andy Boreham (left).

This is the second stop of a six-day tour, first to China's "revolutionary capital," Yan'an in Shaanxi Province, and then here to trace the steps of Rewi Alley. It's nearly July 1, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China.

"I'm here to learn" is probably the single sentence President Lin uttered the most during the six-day visit, which a Shanghai Daily team, including myself and my colleague Andy Boreham, was invited to come along on. He is sincere and modest. At every visit, Lin listened carefully to the introductions of the commentators, shared his feelings, asked for more details, and took photos with his mobile phone to record some more historical data to study later.

Sometimes he doesn't sleep until one or two in the morning, he told me, because there is just so much information he wants to absorb on a daily basis.

On April 9, 2020, Lin Songtian, former Chinese ambassador to South Africa, became President of the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, an important and highly regarded role in an association charged with building and maintaining friendship and ties with foreign countries and foreign people. Lin, who has been an official diplomat for more than 30 years, is now engaged in non-governmental diplomacy. In a China Southern Daily interview, he admitted that he "must run and study." This is his first "revolutionary" trip he's embarked on since he took office.

An interview with Lin Songtian: 'We need to carry forward the spirit of internationalism'
Wang Haoling / SHINE

President Lin, in the middle, brings dozens of foreign friends to Yan'an, Shaanxi Province, on a tour for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CPC.

An interview with Lin Songtian: 'We need to carry forward the spirit of internationalism'
Wang Haoling / SHINE

President Lin invites Huang Huanbi (center), journalist and writer Israel Epstein's widow, to visit the place Chairman Mao lived in Nanniwan, now a revolutionary tourist attraction in Yan'an. Michael Crook (right), Chairman of Gung Ho-ICCIC, accompanies her.

In Yan'an, the association hosted an international forum named "Snows in the new era," inviting more than 200 friends from home and abroad to discuss the legacy of American journalist and writer Edgar Snow, a journalist who introduced the world to "the real" Mao Zedong and the Chinese revolution with his important 1937 book, Red Star Over China.

"Yan'an is the starting point and gathering place for the Communist Party of China to move from weak to strong, and finally to victory," President Lin told me. "So this time I came here with my team and international friends to study."

I think the spirit of internationalism should be international. We should arouse international progressives to understand and support each other and 'build a community of shared future for mankind' as Xi said.

Lin Songtian, President of the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries

Looking back on the Party's one hundred years, Lin thinks the international status of China in the world had improved significantly. While imagining what it must have been like seven or eight decades ago, Lin admired foreign friends like Israel Epstein who decided to give up their comforts and stay on in Yan'an to help with the revolution, despite such difficult conditions. "I think highly of them," he smiled.

In Lin's thinking, the key reason for them to stay was their compassion and sense of justice, as well as their lofty ideals. "They came to pursue truth and fight for fairness and justice in the world."

The main point of the forum, he told me, was to call on more "foreign friends" to become the Snows of the new era, to understand China from different parts of history, and to introduce a comprehensive, real and three-dimensional China to the world objectively and fairly. "Just like Andy's documentary."

An interview with Lin Songtian: 'We need to carry forward the spirit of internationalism'
Hu Jun / SHINE

President Lin calls on more journalists from home and abroad to become "the Snows of the new era," to introduce a comprehensive, real and three-dimensional China to the world during a press conference in Yan'an.

As a columnist and filmmaker from New Zealand, Shanghai Daily's Andy Boreham began in-depth study of Rewi Alley, a former New Zealander, during the outbreak of COVID-19 a year ago.

He began to film a documentary, Finding Rewi Alley, recording and tracing the Alley's footprints across six decades in China, from the first-person perspective. President Lin views Andy's work as important in passing on the legacy of a man who made such a huge impact in China.

As a result, Andy was invited to speak at the Yan'an forum, and was the only "foreign friend" to be invited to accompany President Lin to the second stop in Gansu Province to visit the place where Rewi's ashes have been scattered. It was Andy's third visit.

"Your documentary let us see the brilliant life of Rewi," President Lin gushed while shaking and holding Andy's hand. "It's very touching. I'm very moved after watching it."

Lin said he could imagine how hard it was for Rewi to found a school in China as a foreigner during those times, and Rewi also had to persuade others. Finally, there were 27 foreign teachers here. "Rewi having his ashes scattered here shows his feelings for this place," he said. "Although life was very hard, I think he was very happy. As he said, 'this was the happiest decade of my life.'"

An interview with Lin Songtian: 'We need to carry forward the spirit of internationalism'
Hu Jun / SHINE

After visiting Shandan Alley Memorial and watching Andy's documentary "Looking for Rewi Alley," President Lin praises Andy's good work and urges him to continue filming further parts of Rewi's story.

"I think the theme is very good. In the current tense international situation, this film is a positive energy entry point, telling not only the story of China, but also the story of internationalism, which is very worthy of recognition," Lin said of Andy's work. "The film you made is also very meaningful – it not only expresses our memory and gratitude for the international progressive people represented by Rewi, but also a great education for our Communists nowadays in the new era."

But President Lin urged Andy to continue, and said so many of Rewi's stories and so much of his life could be added to the documentary as it stands today.

"I think the documentary ends on a comma," President Lin explained. "After I came to visit Shandan today, we built such a large memorial hall for Rewi. The Bailie School covers such a large area, and if I remember correctly, it is 200 mu (13.33 hectares), which means that our CPC and Chinese government highly value the historic contribution of Rewi."

"We are a grateful nation, and we never forget those international friends who have made great contributions to the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese people in different periods," Lin added.

President Lin suggested Andy continue telling Rewi Alley's story in a new episode about his life in Beijing. After leaving Shandan, Rewi spent the last 30 years of his life in the capital, living in the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries from 1953 to 1987.

"If we can participate in your film, or even as a collaborator, I will be very happy," Lin said.

An interview with Lin Songtian: 'We need to carry forward the spirit of internationalism'
Wang Haoling / SHINE

During the visit in Shandan, Lin takes photos of the scenery using his mobile phone.

An interview with Lin Songtian: 'We need to carry forward the spirit of internationalism'
Wang Haoling / SHINE

Facing the view, romantic Lin shared his thoughts: "How beautiful it is here with the lake and mountains behind."

President Lin mentioned that General Secretary Xi Jinping proposed "carrying forward the spirit of Rewi Alley" after he visited Shandan in August 2019. Lin said: "This time I came here mainly to learn how to better 'carry forward the spirit of Rewi Alley.'"

"In the 1930s and 1940s, when we were in difficulties, international progressives came to help us. Now that China has achieved development, we need to carry forward the spirit of internationalism," Lin added.

"I think the spirit of internationalism should be international. We should arouse international progressives to understand and support each other and 'build a community of shared future for mankind' as Xi said. This is to let all people live a better life and make the world more peaceful."

An interview with Lin Songtian: 'We need to carry forward the spirit of internationalism'
Hu Jun / SHINE

After our hour-long exclusive interview, President Lin takes a photo with the Shanghai Daily crew.

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