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19th January, 2004

James Naughtie in China

China is the coming superpower, from which astonishing statistics emerge daily. We know the facts; but what is China like today, and how is it facing the problems that come with success and openness?

See blogs and pictures from Shanghai , Yichang, Lanzhou , the train journey to Lhasa and Tibet.

Read Jim's final thoughts on his stay in China.



By chance, I was in China for Today ten years ago when Deng Xaioping died, the leader who started the economic revolution. So I’ve gone back to see the China that is preparing to host the 2008 Olympics, as a national showcase to the world, and where its 17th Communist Party Congress is starting – slowly – the business of choosing the next generation of leaders. With my producer Alexis Condon, I started, as before, in Shanghai.

listen icon James Naughtie reports on the death of Deng Xaioping in 1997

I suppose arriving in Shanghai in the tail-end of a typhoon is an appropriate way to come to a city whose life is the sea. It was certainly dramatic, the plane almost touching down and then zipping upwards as if it had just changed its mind at the last minute. The cross winds had been too dangerous. The rain was thundering down and on that first night that shape of the city was invisible in the mist.

ShanghaiBy next morning the sky was clear and I was able to see what had changed since I was here ten years ago. The developments in Pudong, across the river from the old city, had been staggering then: people spoke of the farms that had been working alongside the river only a few years before. But now, a veritable Manhattan has sprung up. The city has more than 2000 buildings more than thirty storeys high, and the effect – especially at night – is startling. The cityscape is illuminated by the advertising lights that turn the sky into a Chinese riot of colour and movement. By day, Pudong is like Canary Wharf or Wall Street, though bigger. Glass doors whisper at your approach; contented-looking men in sharp suits climb into limousines; the streets have none of the raucous disorganisation that you still find in old Shangahi, they’ve been turned into 21st avenues with one purpose, the making of wealth.

James Naughtie on the streets of ShanghaiIt’s through this city that China accumulates much of the $1 million a minute in foreign currency that is pouring in, and here that much of its business is done. American business delegations are everywhere; it seems that in every hotel lobby a deal is being done.

We spoke to young lawyers and businesspeople who all claimed to have one feeling above all: optimism. No wonder. They’re making money, and the world seems at their feet. They’re aware of China’s vast problems– the gap between the urban wealthy and the rural poor, the need for cleaner energy, the sheer magnitude of the task that handling ten per cent growth involves, the pace at which this country has been growing for more than a decade.That is unmatched in modern industrial history, and it throws up deep problems – many of them political. Can the system survive? It has managed to allow a great deal of economic freedom in the last generation but still operates as a distant and sometimes brutal force that is self-perpetuating and without any democratic instincts. If it has to change with the social and economic changes that are being introduced, how will that happen?
More of that in Beijing, where we’ll end this short journey, during the 17th communist Party congress. How much we’ll find out about what is really happening is anyone’s guess (mine is: not much) but we’ll get a glimpse of how the party is moving to face these challenges, and perhaps how the manoeuvring is beginning to produce the next generation of leaders, the ones who will succeed Hu Jintao in 2012 and may be responsible for the emergence of China as a genuine superpower.

In Shanghai it is easy to get carried away. Everything is fast, energetic, even reckless. The nightlife is untamed, the streets choked, the chatter endless. But this is China’s powerhouse, not the country itself.

James on originality streetWe’re going to try, briefly, to glance at the country away from this city – up the Yangtze, where’s they’ve built the Three Gorge Dam, in north west China, where the people think they’ve long been forgotten by Beijing and where the big cities sit in bleak country still inhabited by nomadic people, and finally in Tibet – or as the Chinese have it the "Tibet Autonomous Region" -  which was annexed in 1950, subjugated with great brutality, but is now a Chinese boast.

sculpted plastic businessmenNowhere is the collision between the old and the new China more obvious. In Shanghai, you hardly notice it. The office blocks are busy; the bars and restaurants are full. Everywhere there is something new – even, in high-rise Pudong, a business quarter that is going to be devoted solely to the creative industries. At the moment "Originality Street" – that is really its name – is deserted. The offices aren’t occupied yet. There are some fetching plastic cows for artistic decoration; a couple of sculpted plastic businessmen with mobile phones to their ears, in pop-art style. Otherwise, silence.

But I bet if I came back next week, something would be happening. In Shanghai nothing is quiet for long.

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