I’m not sure there’s a better symbol for how far China has come, and how much further it may go, than the People’s Liberation Army shoe.
For a start, its name. There is something inexpressibly heroic and yet pathetic in a whole army marching the length and breadth of one of the largest countries in the world without boots.
Liberation Army shoes(解放鞋 – jie fang xie*) are khaki-coloured canvas, with rubber soles. They are, even by Chinese standards, cheap: around 10 Yuan, or one pound a pair. They stink fishily after you’ve worn them a couple of times. They’re brilliant. I love them – lots of foreigners do, they’re so cheap and practical.
At my very rough guess, maybe around 600 million people in China are wearing Liberation Army shoes at any given hour of any day. So who is providing all this footwear? I didn’t think about that all that much until I had to do some research into HIV prevalence in China, and government laws regarding injecting drug use (which is the main route for spreading the infection). That led me to make another guess:
drug users, I found out, can be put into compulsory rehabilitation centres (they used to be called re-education through labour centres) where, among other activities which seem to include little actual rehab, they are put to work making shoes.
For up to three years, unpaid and unregulated.
I still wear my Liberation Army shoes, but with slightly less glee now. My friend Mr Zhou can’t bear them. He, along with most Chinese people, had nothing else to wear for years and years and years and years.
Nowadays, Mr Zhou’s city brethren are more likely to wear North Face and Merrell knock-offs. But in rural China (where you can still encounter the Mao suit) the Liberation Army shoe is ubiquitous. Nakhi people wear them to climb over snowy passes, Dong to wade through ankle-deep mud. I’ve been on hikes up mountains and through jungle and flooded paddy fields, all the tourists (Chinese and foreign) slipping and sliding in their expensive heavy hiking boots, while the locals twinkle past effortlessly sure-footed in their Liberation Army shoes.
In the cities, Liberation Army shoes are only for labourers – immigrants from the countryside – and I as a foreigner wearing them get laughed at. (It took me a while to understand why people kept finding my feet hilarious, I thought maybe it was just that they were too big or something).
In Hong Kong, no one gives my footwear a glance. Hong Kong has moved so far ahead, it no longer knows what the People’s Liberation Army shoe is.
*thanks Mr Zhou for the Chinese