Humphrys in China

The Bund in Shanghai Shanghai is a symbol of China's economic ambition

John Humphrys is travelling through China examining the social, cultural and political realities of life in this global economic powerhouse.

He will be presenting the Today programme from Beijing on Thursday 4th November.

You can read his daily diary contributions and track his journey together with his reports on our interactive map.

Day One: Touch down

Just arrived in Shanghai. Long flight, no sleep, utterly knackered. Been working all day. Fascinating stuff though.

We're here because we want to find out what makes China tick - a ludicrously ambitious target because I don't suppose anyone has ever done that or ever will.

Today in China branding

Listen to the Today programme's reports on the future of China, broadcast from Beijing on Radio 4 onThursday 4th November

The real object of the exercise is to see whether the growth, which has characterised China for so long, can continue.

If it doesn't, what does that mean for the Communist leadership. What do they want to happen over the coming years? Is China sustainable?

There is a massive gap between rich and poor and they've got to close that gap, otherwise there will be serious social unrest. There already is unrest in various forms.

What I want to find out is how real that is and what people think of the direction in which China is heading. Big ask, isn't it really?

Day Two: Shanghai Expo
The Seeds Cathedral The Seeds Cathedral has been very popular with visitors

Did the Shanghai Expo this morning. What a site - or do I mean sight? Unbelievable.

They've spent $3bn on it - you can build a sizeable town for that amount - and they'll be knocking it all down again soon because it closes on Sunday.

The UK pavilion is modest but different. They call it a Seed Cathedral… a weird structure with 60,000 clear tubes, each containing different seeds. The message is "the world's changing and the environment matters".

That's a bit of a parody, but actually the thing's rather impressive and it's certainly been popular with visitors.

Compared with the Chinese pavilion it's… well actually it's silly to try to compare them. Bit like comparing a garden shed with an aircraft hanger.

The size of a big city fits into Shanghai Expo every single day

The Chinese one is a little scary: vast, monolithic, slightly threatening. A bit like the country in fact. But very impressive when you go in.

Not that it's easy to get into ANY of the pavilions. The Chinese turn up in vast numbers (a million visitors in one single day) and then queue for hours to get into the different pavilions.

The Saudi one is the most "popular" - at its busiest, people had to queue for nine hours. Really. Why? Because it's got the biggest Imax screen in the world.

Went to a hospital as well… a very big and very modern one. Not easy to get a grip on how the health system works… except that it's obviously much better to be rich than poor. So what else is new? More on that later. Much more...

Day Three: Migrant workers
Welder at Shangai's building site There is a building site on just about every corner of Shanghai's streets

Managed to find a park. Not a very big park but I'm addicted to jogging and it doesn't matter where I am I've got to do it every day.

Let's be honest, by jogging I mean more of the sort of controlled forward stumble… a bit like a two year-old who is trying to get used to walking.

Yesterday, I was reduced to slogging around the streets - not very nice with a thousand cars a minute roaring past - so my little bit of green was very welcome.

But I did some work as well.

Went to a building site.

That was a lot easier to find than a green space.

The building work is done mainly by migrants

There's one on just about every corner. Massive tower blocks, still being built and all of the work done by migrant labour.

You have to feel sorry for these poor men who've left their families in a village maybe a thousand kilometres away, and won't see their kids for more than a few weeks a year.

Off to Chongqing this evening.

If you think Shanghai has grown quickly, it ain't nothing compared with this place.

Thirty million people, compared with a puny 20 million in Shanghai. So that's about the population of England in just two of China's cities.

More from there tomorrow.

Day Four: Tough life in Chongqing
John Humphrys tries the work of bang bang men John "the bang bang man"

Went to market today … the wholesale clothes market in Chongqing city. Sounds boring. It wasn't.

I wanted to talk to one of the bang bang men. Mr Tan is one of them.

They're porters. They carry enormous loads balanced on the ends of a bamboo pole resting on their shoulders.

You see them struggling up the steep hillside, weaving their way through the crowds in the alleys and up the steep steps and wonder how they do it.

Mr Tan left his home to work here. He can earn £230 a month at about 50p a load working seven days a week. That's big money. But it means he's had to leave his wife and children… he hardly ever sees them.

John reflects on the huge effect of outward migration on the countryside

I went out to his village a hundred miles away and talked to his father.

He was never allowed to travel under Mao. He's sad about it… and sad that his son can't be with him and his family.

Chongqing is hideous. It's the biggest city in the world you've probably never heard of.

How big? Hard to say because it's growing so fast. It'll reach 30 million pretty soon - if it hasn't already. And they're throwing up high rise buildings (VERY high) faster than you can count them.

The result of all that building and all the factories - unbelievable congestion but far, far worse, foul pollution.

You can't see the tops of buildings. It chokes you. I've started coughing. No chance of jogging here. You'd suffocate.

Day Five: Dissident in the making
Motorbike factory workers Factory worker "a potential dissident in the making"

Went to see a factory.

They build motor bikes.

Loved the slogans plastered across the factory walls. You can't miss 'em as you approach. Very strange, some of them: "To compete in price: live in shame. To compete in quality: live in wealth."

And there was me thinking competing on price was exactly what got China where it is today.

Here's another: "Hundreds of people will lose their jobs without strict management."

Think I might suggest to my bosses that we slap that one on the outside of TV Centre in London.

Then again…

'This is what makes modern China tick'

Talked to one of the assembly line workers: pleasant young man, 29 years-old, been working here for ten years.

Says he has two big ambitions: to earn enough to buy his own flat so he can live with his wife and daughter together and buy a car.

I asked him: "Would you like to be able to vote?" He said: "I'd love to!"

Ah… a potential dissident in the making.

Not at all. He wants to vote because he'd be fulfilling his obligation to the state.

Hmm…

Day Six: Dodging the guards
John Humphrys interviews a lawyer John talks to a lawyer who represents dissidents

What a trip! Every day here is more fascinating and revealing than the last.

Extraordinary interview this morning with a leading Communist Party figure, who admitted China's failings but defended its "democratic" system.

Highly enjoyable punch-up with some pretty robust exchanges.

I tried this afternoon to get an interview with the wife of Liu Xiaobo, the dissident who won the Nobel Peace Prize a few weeks ago.

I didn't hold out much hope, because her phone seems to have been disconnected.

And when I got to her apartment building, the guards wouldn't let me past the security barrier.

John attempts to speak to the wife of Liu Xiaobo

Then they started following us, and we had a bit of fun swapping cabs and dodging them on our way to an interview with a lawyer who represents dissidents.

On the lighter side of life, I still can't get over how few bicycles there are in Beijing.

Last time I was here the whole city was one big cycle lane.

Now you see more bikes in London. Pity.

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