Humphrys: 'I was wrong about China'

Image caption, John Humphrys investigates the reality behind China's remarkable success

How is China changing, and can you find out in just two weeks there? A sceptical John Humphrys reports.

When you've been a hack for as long as I have, you start to think you've seen it all and there's nothing left to surprise you. I've reported from every corner of the world in my 52 years in this strange job.

I've covered wars and revolutions, seen new countries born and some old countries effectively destroyed. I've interviewed world leaders from Nelson Mandela to Ronald Reagan and more prime ministers than I can count.

I've been shot at and bombed and locked up by mad dictators and, very occasionally, carried through the streets in triumph when the BBC has been seen to have supported the right side in whatever war has just come to an end.

I have wept quietly at the hideous suffering wrought by earthquakes and famines and have marvelled at the courage and compassion of those who risked their own lives to save others.

I thought I'd seen it all.

So when Ceri Thomas, my editor at Today, suggested I should spend a couple of weeks in China reporting on how the country has changed I was, to say the least, sceptical.

I know China, I said. I've been going there for more than 30 years and it's virtually impossible to do any proper reporting there.

You need to live in the place, establish contacts, set up your own network so that you can speak to people without being harassed by so-called "minders".

We'd spend our time being endlessly frustrated. No-one with any real power will talk to us and we won't get within a mile of the dissidents.

We'll leave none the wiser. China will remain as big a mystery to an outsider as it has ever been.

I was right on one count and wrong on every other.

I was right when I suggested that you cannot spend a couple of weeks here and even begin to answer the most basic questions: where is this country heading and what are its ambitions?

But that's not saying much. I've been talking to people who have lived here for years, not weeks, and they can't answer them either.

Where I was spectacularly wrong is that we have not spent our time here being frustrated. Exactly the opposite.

I have been free to go where I want, when I want, and talk to just about anybody I want to talk to without anyone trying to stop me.

This country has opened up in a way I had not even begun to imagine.

No minders. No travel restrictions, except for Tibet of course. No hassle. For a journalist plying his trade, this country has been transformed. Almost.

One man I'd have dearly loved to talk to is Liu Xiaobo, the country's most famous dissident. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the way he has fought for human rights and democracy in China. But he's in prison: jailed for 11 years for "inciting subversion".

I tried to talk to his wife, but her phone has been disconnected. And when I went to the apartment building in Beijing where she lives, the guards wouldn't let me through the barrier. Would they deliver a message to her from me? They would not.

Instead they pointed me to a notice that had been stuck on the gates at the entrance to the complex: "No interviews".

I was told, politely but firmly, to leave and when I did, two of the guards - one in plain clothes and one in uniform - followed me down the street. When I hailed a cab they noted the driver's number.

But that was the closest I came to any form of harassment.

My only other contact with the police was in Chongqing.

This is a dystopian vision of a city. The fastest growing metropolis in the world, where the pollution is so bad you can barely see the tops of the high rise buildings that are being thrown up every five minutes and some days you can barely breathe.

Free to travel

On my second night there, a police officer came to my hotel to welcome us to his city and wish us a pleasant stay. Oh, and when we talked to local people, could we please remember that many of them are not sophisticated and might not understand my questions, so could I please try not to embarrass them? And that was it. We never saw him again.

This was one massive change. Where once foreigners - and especially foreign journalists - were treated as a potential threat to the State, to be watched and guarded at all times, now they are welcomed.

These new freedoms seem to apply equally to the Chinese people themselves.

I spoke to one senior government official who admitted frankly that it had been too restrictive in the old days. When he was a student, he had been spotted trying out his few words of French on a couple of tourists - not much more than "bonjour" and "comment ca va?"

Back at school he was hauled in by his head teacher, warned never to do it again, and told he was lucky not to have been arrested.

Now, he said, Chinese people are encouraged to talk to foreigners because the government wants them to learn about the world outside China.

Image caption, Unlike in the past, Chinese people are encouraged to talk to foreigners

Whether that's entirely true or not, it's certainly the case that the Chinese have no problem travelling around their country or getting visas to go abroad. Unless, of course, they are deemed to be dissidents. Then it's different.

A dissident, if you strip away the official language, is someone who wants the people of China to be able to vote for a different government and dares to say so publicly.

When prominent figures in the Chinese leadership talk about democracy, they do not mean western-style democracy.

When they talk about other "parties" being allowed to function in China and send representatives to the People's Congress, they do not mean political parties who might oppose what the Communist Party does. They are no more than consultative bodies.

But nor, interestingly, did most of the ordinary people I've been talking to seem terribly interested in western-style democracy. Not even a group of extremely bright young students, some of whom have spent years studying in foreign countries, including Britain.

Yes, they thoroughly enjoy their new freedoms and they want political reform to continue. And they also want their country to keep growing richer.

And so long as the Communist Party continues to deliver all that, they don't particularly see any reason to look for a different system.

They seemed genuinely baffled by my insistence that the ultimate freedom is the freedom to throw out the people in power if you don't like them.

"You do that in your country all the time," one of them pointed out to me, "and it doesn't seem, to make much difference. What we want is stability - and that's what we've got."