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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 reports and pictures from  ShanghaiYichangLanzhou , the train journey to Lhasa and Tibet.

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


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Jim and Chairman Mao

James Naughtie with Chairman Mao
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LAST WORDS FROM CHINA

When I came to China two weeks ago I was determined on one thing, to avoid using the word ‘inscrutable’, which would be like lacing a report from Paris with accordion music or calling the England football manager beleaguered. And when I was flying into the old imperial capital, Xian, across a landscape that was like a willow pattern plate, with layered hills disappearing into the mist one behind the other, like great slices of an exotic cake, and then heard a piece of political news from home, there would be no references to Ming dynasties and ancient things past. The Liberal Democrats have enough difficulty without laboured jokes from abroad.

And it was surprisingly easy. China is opening up like a flower, somehow tentative and determined at the same time. The young are anxious to practice their English, the friendliness is palpable, much of the city drabness now sparkles again; you can be sure that the Beijing Olympics next year will dazzle the world. Outwardly, the city has a colourful character, and though you can’t use the word ‘relaxed’ in this society – it’s just not like that, and can’t be – there’s a vigour that seems to have a good deal of optimism in it.

We broadcast our pieces from a balcony above the from door of Raffles Hotel, just off Tiananmen Square, within sight of the Great Hall of the People, and a hotel that frankly could have been in New York or even Paris – an elegant, bustling place that, like the Beijing Hotel next door (where the party bigwigs were staying for the Congress) speaks of Beijing as a city like any other, on the way up still.

Even at the communist party congress, though the speakers still rise in sequence as if they’re hammers in a piano, and the applause has the feel of canned laughter; there are doors creaking open: some hints of more open commentary on proceedings, a little informality creeping in at the edges.

Set against the background of China’s natural magnificence – the history, the landscape, the alluring texture of the place – it’s tempting to think of that now as some kind of inevitable process. But is it?

Though the uniformed police presence around the congress is, to be honest, less than at a British party conference now; and day-to-day security for a visitor less obviously intrusive – this is still a state where politics is often a matter of control. The rhetoric is about democracy, But just as government here indulges a population that treasures superstition to an extraordinary degree, and at the same time fights religion (and imprisons some of the meditating folk in Falun Gong ), so it exudes fearfulness even as it speaks of relaxation and, the word of the moment, ‘harmony’. Stepping out of line is still painful and dangerous. For some, fatal.

So it’s contradictory. Businessman turning up at the party congress, giving their testimonies like a drunks at a revivalist meeting, Shanghai looking like New York, but officials still buttoned-up, shying away from political talk, knowing the rules and when they bite. Websites still monitored and blocked; editors disciplined; some new ideas only circulating underground.

But there are real changes, and the influences coming in from outside are giving zest to the next generation. How that plays out – how fast, how slow – no-one can know. I won’t use the word that means mysterious and profound. Maybe because it’s no longer just the routine reaction of a visitor; but also the feeling of the people here. They’re on the most exciting kind of journey, where they can’t yet see the destination. They’re wondering too.


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