John Gittings

China through the Sliding Door: Introduction

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Travels in China  


When I first visited China in 1971 the Beijing Hotel had the only automatic sliding doors in the country. Beyond the gate and the security guards, small groups of Chinese gaped at the spectacle of foreigners entering and leaving. Most of the onlookers wore cheap Mao suits and carried small khaki satchels with the characters `Serve the People' or `Learn from Lei Feng' stencilled on the flap. They were from the provinces, taking a quick peek at the capital while changing trains or perhaps the lucky beneficiaries of a sponsored trip for model workers or peasants. Laden with cameras and over-warm clothing, we and our attachments were as much a mystery to them as they were to us. China had been isolated by most of the West - with the US setting the pace but the Soviet Union more recently joining in - for two decades since the 1949 revolution. It had withdrawn into the self-defining, self-sufficient ideology of Mao Zedong which now culminated in the Cultural Revolution. Our two worlds were mutually exclusive: the incomprehension gap was huge.

Beijing now has dozens of international hotels with sliding doors from which to emerge with camera and notebook, and through which ordinary Chinese can walk in the opposite direction to consume foreign food, buy foreign liquor and even foreign newspapers. Every provincial capital has similar facilities, plus ring-roads, motorways, modern airports, Hong Kong-style department stores and bowling alleys. The streets once occupied by thousands of bicycles, battered buses and lorries tilting to one side - plus a few mysteriously curtained official cars - are now filled with new cars, taxis, and minibuses in traffic jams which have squeezed the bicycles close to the pavement. Instead of the handful of tourists from abroad in the early 1970s - a large proportion apparently from Albania - there are more than a million a year. Instead of the strictly guided tour, with nervous arrangements to clean up anything the foreign guest might see and write about later, there is hardly any restriction on travelling even to the most disadvantaged areas.

Not only is China now `open' instead of `closed' (the adjectives used by the Chinese themselves), but it has changed often beyond recognition. To use another Chinese phrase, it has turned 180 degrees. The Maoist insistence on emphasizing human effort and collective work, on putting public before private interest, on restraining personal ambition and initiative, on consciously pursuing a path called `the transition to socialism', and on opposing `imperialism' abroad, has been not only abandoned but repudiated. The Cultural Revolution which brought Mao's vision to a climax - horribly distorted by his vindictiveness against colleagues who had crossed him and by the factional fighting of those around him - has been rejected wholesale as `ten years of madness.' Led by Deng Xiaoping till his death in 1997, China has embraced market economics and Chinese labour has competed successfully in the global market. A new middle class has emerged with a South-east Asian lifestyle and expectations: thousands of Chinese go abroad for business or to study - or even as camera-carrying tourists to pass through the sliding doors of foreign hotels.

In this selection of reports written from China over more than a quarter of a century, I hope to convey both the magnitude of the Chinese transformation and its incompleteness - particularly in political life which remains stained with the blood of the Beijing Massacre in 1989. My visits from 1971 onwards (at least once a year on average since 1976) have taken me to almost every province and have allowed me to witness most of the great upheavals - the Cultural Revolution, the rejection of Maoism, the growth of a consumer society, the repression of political dissidents, the sharpening inequalities between rich and poor, the struggle in Tibet, and finally the Hong Kong handover in 1997. In recent years I have travelled mostly on my own and far off the beaten track seeking to understand Chinese realities away from the big cities and the more advanced coastal region. My enthusiasm for official meetings with senior Chinese cadres, sunk deep into padded armchairs and drinking endless tea, waned particularly after witnessing the slaughter on the night of 3-4 June 1989. Yet almost a decade later under the post-Deng leadership, there are some signs of a more open-minded approach emerging, with candid discussion of many of the problems as well as the achievements of China's march to modernisation.

China's story - however it is continued now - is one of the great epics of the 20th century, and the 180 degree turn of the last quarter-century is an integral part of it. But in a world where historical memory is becoming ever shorter, the complexity of the Chinese transformation which I hope to convey in these pages is often overlooked. The Cultural Revolution was not just an act of brutal folly directed by a wilful autocrat in Beijing and his ambitious supporters. Millions of ordinary Chinese believed at the time that they were fighting against corruption and privilege and building a new and better society. The shift to a modern, competitive, market society in the 1980s was not universally popular or pre-ordained. There were many uncertainties about how far to go and even some hopes of rebuilding a collective society on a more genuine basis. The economic boom of the mid-1990s has also obscured the degree of gloom into which China was plunged at the beginning of the decade by the Beijing Massacre and the ensuing mood of stultified despair. (And as I write in mid-1998, this same boom has begun to appear vulnerable to the collapse of the Asian `economic miracle' around it.) Perhaps because of China's physical vastness and cultural difference, we tend too readily to assume that the current situation is both stable and permanent. The last quarter of a century - indeed the last half century since the 1949 Liberation - demonstrates that this is not so.

During my travels I have sometimes found answers to questions which I had asked in vain ten or twenty years previously. I began to report on China from Hong Kong in 1968, reading between the lines of official publications for clues to the ideological struggle while getting a vivid picture of the physical struggle from Red Guard bulletins smuggled across the border. I belonged to the profession of China Watcher, peering across a border which we could not cross for some insight into Chinese reality [See reports Ia-e].

One day I obtained my first real glimpse. We had spent the day in Macao and were returning in the late afternoon by the slow boat. The sun was already setting over the mountains of Guangdong when, off the mouth of Pearl River, our path crossed almost at right angles with a similar paint-peeled steamer heading out to sea. (The two craft may have belonged to the same shipping company before the revolution). Its upper deck was lined with young men and women wearing badges and Mao caps, Red Guards who had outlived their political usefulness to the Chairman and were now being packed off to Hainan island in the obscure waters south towards Vietnam. We could not have belonged to more different worlds as we passed within a couple of hundred metres. Where exactly were they going and what would they find there?

It took a quarter of a century before I had the chance to find out when I too visited Hainan, by now a booming Special Economic Zone known for financial scams and sex scandals. I had an introduction from a former Red Guard to seek out the hillside hamlet where a small group of exiles had been quartered so long ago. This little community was missing out on the `economic miracle' of the 1990s. Most of its rubber trees, injudiciously planted on slopes too steep to water, had died, and the collection of miserable shacks and dormitories, now sub-divided for separate families, had hardly changed. There was not even TV: the power only came on for special occasions. And yet, insisted the former Red Guard, `going down to the countryside' in this damp forest had been the happiest time of their lives

Not only was the idea that Hainan would become the frontier zones of Chinese capitalism unimaginable then but the very notion of the doors being opened to the outside world. During my first visit in 1971, I became friendly with our minder from the China International Travel Service, Comrade Zhang, a young man with serious views on politics and a moody sense of humour.

While we were on our travels, somewhere between the Wartime Revolutionary Base of Chairman Mao in Yanan and the Model Agricultural Brigade at Dazhai, we heard on our shortwave radio some sensational news. A group of American pingpong players were going to visit China at the personal invitation of Premier Zhou Enlai. This was the first hint of the diplomatic rapprochement which would bring President Nixon less than a year later to Beijing. I discussed this with Comrade Zhang in an airport waiting room: `Just wait and see', I teased him, `before long Chinese pingpong players will be going to Washington!' His face darkened abruptly. `Never', he swore, `never. They may come here but we shall never go there. It is quite impossible!'

I next met Comrade Zhang sixteen years later in 1987. He was still working for the China International Travel Service but moonlighted as the editor of a popular women's magazine in North-east China, and wrote articles about interesting topics such as the British royal family. At his request, I sent to him on my return a package of English magazines to consult, ranging from Good Housekeeping to Cosmopolitan, for use as `reference material.'

Most Westerners too found it hard to imagine change in China in the 1970s. Those who were sympathetic - and it was very difficult to visit China otherwise - discovered much to admire in the apparent egalitarianism of a society committed by speech and textbook to the pursuit of socialism. We took Mao's scattered remarks on the need to tame bureaucracy and prevent the rise of privilege and corrption, transforming them into a coherent theory on the famous Transition to Socialism. How would any sort of transition in the reverse direction be plausible? This hypothesis of permanence was reinforced by the sheer weight and solidity of China, its mass of land, its size of population, and the insistence of its official voice which was convincingly echoed in the few conversations which we managed to hold. Besides, those who published forecasts of impending upheaval in China were almost without exception notorious cold warriors or tame scholars from Taiwan. We refused to believe these tainted sources and took what we saw mostly at face value [IIa-b].

By 1976 on my second visit, there was a different feeling in the air. This was in April, while Mao was dying and the ultra-left faction in the leadership sought to quell an unprecedented wave of protest. In Beijing the protests in Tiananmen Square, where disillusioned ex-Red Guards wrote poems of dissent on the paving stones, had been quelled the day before we arrived [IIc-d].

I visited a heroic couple, the translator Yang Xianyi and his English wife Gladys Yang, in their dark apartment at the Foreign Languages Press. They had each spent four years separately in prison, accused without the slightest reason of being foreign spies, unaware where the other was or how their children were faring. Xianyi's main regret on being arrested was that he had not thought to put on his shoes, and was wearing a pair of slippers two sizes too large for him. Though allowed to return to work, they were still very vulnerable. This did not stop Xianyi from denouncing `that woman', Madame Mao (Jiang Qing), as he drank successive glasses of Chinese spirit. `Do shut up, old man', Gladys remonstrated, gesturing at the phone which was no doubt bugged, `or we'll go back to prison'. Xianyi paid no attention.

This was when I first heard about the Gang of Four - except that there was one missing: the ex-worker Wang Hongwen from Shanghai who had been rapidly promoted to the leadership was only identified later as part of the group. He was not regarded with such popular hatred as Madame Mao and her two ideological apparatchiks Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan, also from Shanghai. Collectively they were known as the Ten-eyed Three (because two of them wore glasses). Within months they and their supporters would be mocked in cartoons and denounced as conspirators against the state

In the late 1970s and early 1980s I travelled more widely, visiting my students (I was teaching Chinese history at the Polytechnic of Central London at the time) in Beijing and at provincial universities where they were undergoing language training. I began to penetrate into the countryside where the collective structure of Team, Brigade and People's Commune was being quietly dismantled.

There was still political nervousness about the rural markets which had been revived after heavy restrictions in the Cultural Revolution (because they were thought to encourage capitalism). I remember vividly a huge open-air horse market in the dried-up bed of an river in Anhui province - the local officials looking after me refused to stop the car and let me see it.

In Beijing, I witnessed the appearance of Democracy Wall in late 1978, and its banishment a year and a half later to a small out-of-the-way park when the democracy movement was suppressed for the first time (after it had helped Deng Xiaoping to oust the immediate post-Mao leaders by attacking them in wall posters). Tiananmen Square was still a compelling reference point, full or empty. In April 1980 as I walked around the Martyrs' Memorial, a small group of demonstrators somehow emerged suddenly from across the vast square. They bore a handful of mourning wreathes to place at the foot of the Memorial, with a portrait of a young woman. She was not an official Martyr at all. She was Zhang Zhixin, a Party member in Liaoning province who had been executed in the Cultural Revolution for remaining loyal to Mao's main rival, head of state Liu Shaoqi. Before execution her windpipe was cut, without anaesthetic, to prevent her shouting out a last slogan of loyalty to the Party as she died. To display her portrait was still an act of bravery.

By this time Deng Xiaoping had already begun to dismantle both the structures and the values of the Maoist period but it was not yet clear how far this process would go. Many British sympathizers thought I was exaggerating when in December 1978, as the posters went up on Democracy Wall, I reported that the Cultural Revolution as a whole was about to be repudiated

We watched with particular interest, sometimes with alarm, what was happening in education and in rural organisation. Maoist policies in both fields had seemed to resonate with our concerns of the 1960s and '70s. In 1980 I visited a so-called `key school' in Beijing where the intake was selective and the pressure to achieve so great that children who flunked their exams could be expelled. My report that Beijing was abandoning comprehensive education shocked friends of China: some were also perturbed by descriptions of the - still very modest - new consumer values of post-Mao society.

In 1982 I visited Fenghuang County, Anhui province, one of the poorest regions notorious in the past, and more recently in the famine years after the Great Leap Forward, as a source of migrant beggars who knocked on city doors. It had now become a model for the new experiment in transferring land-use rights and the responsibility for production (and for paying taxes) to individual households. That evening in the county hotel, I found myself the only guest - except for an 85 year-old scholar for Beijing. To my amazement he was Chen Hanseng, an expert in rural economics already well-known before the war for his studies of the commercialisation of the Chinese countryside. (He wrote a classic account of how the British-American Tobacco Company had persuaded impoverished peasants to grow their tobacco). Chen suffered severely from cataracts after having been deprived of medical treatment in the Cultural Revolution, but his mind was as sharp as ever. Did I believe in the Holy Trinity, he asked me, of Communist Party, local government and rural production organized jointly into the single People's Commune? I confessed that in the West many of us had idealized the communes: he replied that many Chinese leaders had done so too - and they had no excuse for it. (I would visit Professor Chen again through the years in Beijing. In 1997 he celebrated his 100th birthday, still cheerful though his memory had finally failed him, cared for by a loving sister).

At this stage many Chinese officials still endorsed the principle of collective endeavour which they said was correct but had become hopelessly distorted in the Cultural Revolution. Within a few years, they claimed on the authority of Deng Xiaoping himself, new, more `genuine' forms of cooperation would emerge in the countryside. This was a brief illusion. Agriculture became semi-privatized at the basic level: individual family-farmers cultivated their separate strips though the state still held title to the land. The reforms led to initial gains everywhere which continued in the more developed parts of the country. In many villages near the cities and the coast rural incomes were higher than average urban wages. But by the late 1980s the great surge in productivity had eased off in large parts of the interior. The outside world, and most urban Chinese, lost interest in what was happening in the countryside. It would take peasant riots and the massive migration to the cities in the early 1990s to remind them.

The Western world was discovering China as a partner with which it could do business - economic, strategic and over Hong Kong. The prospects for internal political change at the national level also seemed to be promising. Reform-minded party officials and intellectuals, under the patronage of Secretary-General Hu Yaobang, - himself the protege of Deng Xiaoping - discussed schemes for reforming the Communist Party and opening up the media. There were bouts of political reaction, as in the infamous campaign against `spiritual pollution' in 1983 when foreign hairstyles and platform heels came under attack. Much of this could be attributed to the generation gap. Older Party officials told me how they were distressed by their grown-up children who rejected the revolutionary habit of plain living. But hardliners had more fundamental objections to the process of reform which they feared would eventually undermine the Party's rule. In the winter of 1986 a fresh wave of student protest provoked a new conservative attack on `bourgeois liberalisation': this time it won Deng Xiaoping's support. In February 1987 Hu Yaobang was dismissed, allegedly responsible for having failed to control the students. Friends in Beijing shook their heads over `His Excellency Deng' whose political conservatism was in sad contrast to his enthusiasm for economic reform, but no one anticipated how would it end in Tiananmen Square two years later.

Western opinion, particularly among governments and business elites, had shown little concern one way or the other for political change in China until now. It was much more interested in the rapid changes in urban China which made the country much more traveller- and business-friendly. There had been no protest at the suppression of Democracy Wall and the savage sentences on Wei Jingsheng and other Chinese dissidents in 1979. They attracted none of the support given by Washington and its allies to their counterparts in the Soviet Union: the crucial difference was that Beijing, although ruled by a Communist Party, was ferociously hostile to the Communist leaders in Moscow. Many foreign observers had little sympathy with the ideology of student protest which was still partly based upon socialist values, or with their opposition to foreign `exploitation' - hardly a welcome theme for Westerners eager to penetrate the new China market. Foreign diplomats swallowed the re-assuring explanations given by Mr Deng's entourage: the bottom line was that `the reforms would continue' and the market would remain open. The students were derided as `politically naive' - good at writing poems but not much else. When they began to muster again after Hu Yaobang's death in April 1989, British diplomats reported condescendingly to the Foreign Office that this was just another bout of the eternal cycle of Chinese political culture between `left' and `right': nothing would really change.

Once again we were back in Tiananmen Square. Two weeks before the tragic climax, I followed the biggest popular march of the whole period. Perhaps a million took part, denouncing the declaration of martial law by Premier Li Peng. It was, though no one realized at the time, an unacceptable provocation to the diehard elders around Deng Xiaoping, tipping the balance against Hu's successor (and Li's rival) Zhao Ziyang who sought a peaceful solution to the student protest. Officials at the Chinese embassy in London had exclaimed to me with great enthusiasm before I left for Beijing: `Have you heard the news about the student demonstrations? Isn't it tremendous?' Ten years after the Beijing Massacre, the suppression of the students may seem to have been inevitable but hardly anyone expected it to happen at the time - let alone with such ferocity. We under-estimated the threat posed to the regime by the true revolutionary spirit expressed in that simple yet powerful cry which I heard on the march from Beijing University: `Long Live the People'.

Two weeks later at two in the morning, I was retreating across the Square, in the light of a burning armoured car. The northern side which I was traversing, in front of the Forbidden City, is technically part of Changanjie, the Avenue of Everlasting Peace, not of the actual Square. The next day the Chinese authorities were able to assert that `no-one was killed in Tiananmen Square', and their statement was literally true. But the exact designation of a particular stretch of pavement made little difference at the time, as I made for the safety of some trees on the north-east side. The monstrous shapes of troop carriers loomed from the west and there was the sound of shots. Troops on foot then emerged from the Forbidden City and fired at random, intent on securing the whole area and driving back the mixed crowd of demonstrators and spectators. Soon the bodies of the wounded began to be carried past me. I retreated yet again.

It should really be called the Beijing Massacre rather than the Tiananmen Square Massacre - and not just to deal with the narrow topographical point made above. For the participation of the ordinary people of Beijing, the shimin or citizens, was the most impressive feature of the whole mass movement; yet their role has been largely overlooked. It was their quiet principled support which made this so much more than another student demonstration. Many of them middle-aged, including Party members and former soldiers, the shimin emerged from the little lanes of Beijing to set up their barricades, outraged that the People's Army should have been sent to repress the People. This was still the spirit of the original revolution, which most believed had been betrayed by their leaders.

The trauma of 1989 was compounded by a brief glimpse of Chinese repression in Tibet and it transformed my approach: I was no longer no longer interested in formulaic interviews with top officials or with textual analysis of the People's Daily. Beijing was a gloomy place where dispirited intellectuals, cowed by the repression, wrote `for the desk' or not at all. I resolved to get out and explore the hinterland between the coast and the more exotic provinces of the far west: the central region which I called Middle China. There was a convenient North-South railway which had been completed in the 1970s, lying several hundred kilometres to the west of the familiar route from Beijing to Guangzhou. It was slow and circuitous but traversed Middle China from Henan in the north to the southern coast opposite Hainan island. On the way it traversed the uplands of the North Chinese countryside into Hubei, crossing the Yangzi below the Three Gorges, then entered the corrugated landscape of western Hunan, the province of Mao Zedong and many other famous Chinese. The railway then curved into mountainous Guangxi, passing close to an area which suffered appalling violence during the Cultural Revolution. Prosperity was now only beginning to trickle up the main lines of communication to these more remote places. From the final destination of this second North-South railway - the port of Zhanjiang - thousands of hopeful entrepreneurs crossed every month to Hainan to seek their fortune.

Travelling in the provinces of Middle China, far away from the booming coast and Westernized cities, gave a very different sort of insight. The lesson is not just that the centre is less advanced than the eastern provinces (and that the west lags even further behind). Some Western analysts have begun to see this as a threat to Chinese unity, yet the reality is more complicated. This is not prewar China. Provinces are no longer self-contained as in the time of the 1920s warlords, or even more recently in the Cultural Revolution. We can imagine separatist movements in some of the minority regions - Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia - which might seek independence if central rule was weakened. But the heartland of historical China, whether coastal or inland is meshed together not only by a strong sense of cultural unity but by a rapidly expanding network of new roads, railways and trade links which cross provincial boundaries which were once barriers.

In 1992 Deng Xiaoping kickstarted the economic reform process back into life by staging his famous `southern expedition' to the economic zones which bordered Hong Kong. Yet development is still very uneven throughout the whole of China as well as between the regions. Today those areas with substantial advantages are likely to move ahead much faster while others will make only superficial progress or may even go backwards. This lesson is beginning to be grasped in Beijing where there is, at last, real concern about the extent of localized disadvantage. Inequality may be felt between provinces, between districts, or between one county and the next - as I discovered when visiting Deng Xiaoping's birthplace in Sichuan. The rich-poor divide may be visible within the same county - or even at opposite ends of the same village. Rich peasants build villas with balconies and iron gates. Poor peasants still live in houses built of packed mud with a squat communal toilet behind a low earthern wall. Many rural towns have their new housing developments, with attractive maisonettes for officials and for managers of state-owned enterprises (which are effectively privatized). New complexes of restaurants, karaoke bars and nightclubs are built, attracting rich people to buy their services and poor people, especially women, to provide them. Outside, beggars wait with outstretched hands or deformed limbs. China is not going to split up, but life in its provinces is changing fast and unevenly, to the better for some, to the worse for others. As Deng Xiaoping said, it is meritorious to `get rich first'. Some millions will manage to do so, but many more will stay poor to the last. They are the great unseen, unknown quantity for China's future.

These great swathes of inner uncertainty lie a long way behind the external image which China projected in the mid 1990s. The paradox is that today, when travel is relatively so easy, we may actually know less about the country than when any attempt to explore it was tightly restricted. Even the tourist itineraries on offer cover more narrow ground than in the 1980s - today, the prime requirement is high-quality accommodation which is only available at the main attractions. (Most backpackers stick to the familiar routes too - merely trying to cover them more cheaply.) Visitors are less interested in exploring what used to be regarded as a `different' society, though they may then be disappointed by the similarities with their own societies of the parts of China which they are shown. The Chinese naturally want to show the outside world how their country has become less `different' too - as well as persuading the tourists to spend more time in the over-priced gift-shops.

Western (and some Chinese) academic research, often of a very high quality, does penetrate more deeply into the further reaches of society, and as a result there is far more information available in the specialized journals. But very little of this ever percolates into foreign government or media perception, and until recently not much more into official Chinese perception. It took the World Bank - which has invested more in China than anywhere else - more than a decade to recognize the dangers of the widening gap between rich and poor, and the weakness of most of the statistics on which it had relied. Beijing too only began to acknowledge these problems, and that of pervasive corruption, from the mid-1990s onwards.

When Hong Kong was returned to China on July 1, 1997, endless variations were explored around the familiar alternatives: Would Hong Kong become more like China, or China more like Hong Kong? The Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen across the border provided the reference point. Did it show that China could duplicate Hong Kong's success on its own territory, or was it still defective by comparison? A new third North-South rail link running from Shenzhen through eastern China to Beijing was formally opened, opening up a new axis of development. This one was a high-speed affair, covering the distance in 30 hours . The pace of urban development in China is breathtaking: huge sums are being poured into concrete, tarmac and tinted glass. The old department stores selling Chinese goods are turned into shopping malls with Western-style boutiques. Pedicabs are replaced by taxis, street food stall by fast food outlets. Yet exploring Guangdong province in the weeks before the Hong Kong handover, not far from that same railway line, I had no difficulty in finding areas of poverty little changed from the early 1980s - as well as the new industrial towns expanding fast with overseas investment. It was also evident that a great deal of Chinese prosperity in Shenzhen and elsewhere along the eastern seaboard which attracts most investment and provides most of China's exports was highly dependent upon the external economic climate. If the miracle shattered elsewhere, could China's be indefinitely sustained?

I have called the story of China one of the great epics of the 20th century: that epic is not over. Till quite recently the dynamic for transformation has been generated internally, but the country is also enmeshed now in worldwide trends which themselves are changing at an ever greater pace. In urban China a new middle class is emerging with values which are at least Asian and increasingly global. China's successes and failures have much in common with those elsewhere - including both the rapid rate of economic growth and its disastrous effect on the environment. Yet China also retains a state apparatus dominated by the Chinese Communist Party which must change, and do so radically, before very long. The mismatch between economic boldness and political timidity cannot be maintained indefinitely. New interest groups have already emerged to press for more widespread change: there is at least an embryonic civil society which is increasingly autonomous of, and indifferent to, the ruling structure. My own view is that the Party has a window of opportunity, probably a decade at the most, in which to correct this imbalance and return to the path of political reform which it abandoned in the late 1980s.

There were encouraging signs, in the spring of 1998, that a more liberal atmosphere was beginning to re-emerge in Beijing as the post-Deng Xiaoping leadership settled down. The new spirit of discussion operated within careful limits: the lessons of 1989 had been learnt on both sides. Yet critical discussion of many of the evils of the new society, including corruption, the rich-poor divide and environmental damage, began to be published more freely. Increasingly outspoken accounts of the critical episodes in the history of the Communist Party, from the 1957 Anti-rightist campaign to the Cultural Revolution - and even some controversial aspects of 1980s politics - appeared in popular magazines. Though couched in historical terms, they had obvious contemporary implications. The economic picture was also changing. The new premier Zhu Rongji and his team grappled with a set of problems generated by the contradictions of the Asian 'economic miracle' in which China had taken the lead. China appeared relatively insulated from the immediate crisis, in part because its own financial institutions were still protected from outside speculation. But these external pressures placed a premium on the skills of the new leadership in macro-economic management. Domestic pressures were also considerable: the need to reform the state sector clashed with the risk of increasing unemployment if surplus labour was laid off. Mr Zhu also set himself the ambitious target of housing reform: the aim was to move away from public provision to make housing part of the market economy. There was a sense generally that China was embarking upon a new period of transition with many important initiatives on the agenda.

President Bill Clinton visited China at the end of June 1998: in a joint press conference with President Jiang Zemin he criticised the Beijing Massacre and urged China to respect human rights and move towards democracy. Mr Jiang's willingness to allow this debate to be televised caused great excitement, particularly among the US media where it was seen as justifying Mr Clinton's policy of `constructive engagement' with China. Yet Mr Clinton made no effort to meet any Chinese dissidents (unlike President Bush in 1989) and even as he was travelling to Beijing, local dissidents were being harassed and prevented from talking to foreign journalists - including myself. Here too the signals of change were mixed, though pointing on the whole in a more hopeful direction.

The magnitude of the tasks which China has already tackled, and of those which have still have to be confronted - however long it may take - makes the Chinese experience over the past thirty years of immense significance to us. This is not only because of the evident geopolitical and economic importance of the country and its people. In spite of its differences, China has confronted questions which are universal to the modern world. Its transition from something which called itself socialism to something which does not yet call itself capitalism raises issues of public versus private benefit, idealism against materialism, which Western societies also undergoing rapid change need to consider too. The unfinished nature of the Chinese transition, and the possibility that it will all go seriously wrong, is a shared danger. Yet if after the epic of its revolution China can find the way which has eluded the post-communist societies of Europe, and learn too from the horrendous errors of the capitalist world, that will be the start of an even greater epic. On the verge of a new millennium, and after half a century of hard struggle with mixed results, China is poised between these alternatives. Either way, the consequences will affect us all.

Finally, as we contemplate these large and daunting questions, let us not forget the Chinese people as people, all 1.2 billion of them. The history of these thirty years is not just about political upheavals and economic reforms. It is about an amazingly variegated society - or perhaps of collection of societies - composed of individuals, often fascinating, sometimes maddening but almost never `inscrutable'. In what can only be an inadequate attempt to make the point, I have concluded this selection of writings with a few sketches of just a small handful of them, and it is to the Chinese people and their future that I offer this book.


July 1998



Note: All the material in this book, with the exception of the introduction, originally appeared as news articles and features based upon my visits to China -- by far the greater part in The Guardian. Most of the material is reproduced without alteration, except where small changes or deletions have been made to establish a common style, e g in the spelling of Chinese names, to correct obvious errors which may have arisen in sub-editing or transmission, and to avoid repetition. A few longer articles have been excerpted: these are indicated in the list of sources which appears before the index. Dates given in the text at the start of an article refer to the timing of the events which it describes, not to the date when it appeared. Titles and sub-titles are also new: original titles and dates of publication are given in the list of sources.

The same team of friendly critics who helped me to put my last book - Real China - into shape, has done so again with this one. My deepest thanks to Michael Simmons, Aelfthryth Gittings and Helen Lackner.