China Still Aiming High

In writing about the ferocious pace of change in modern day China, there is always some temptation to temper one’s enthusiasm. Remember the euphoria with which some highly respected American and English journalists greeted Stalin’s Soviet Union in the late 1920s? Apparently the home of the Five Year Plan and centralised socialism was the future and a model that the world would soon follow. Yet even sceptics recognise that China’s phenomenally rapid emergence as a leading world superpower is probably the most sensational development of our age.

As September meandered into October and London experienced the first signs of autumn chill, I spent a fascinating eight days in Shanghai and Beijing.

Unusually my trip was not a parliamentary delegation – instead I was joining half a dozen local British-born Chinese businessmen from the London Chinatown Chinese Association. This gave me many new insights and also an opportunity to see parts of these two great Chinese cities which I might otherwise have missed.

During the first leg of our trip we stayed in the Pudong district of Shanghai. Only fifteen years ago Pudong itself existed only as a handful of small farming villages. Since then it has been swallowed up into the enormous Shanghai metropolis and from scratch the Chinese have built a financial district which in addition to countless skyscrapers is populated by 2.8 million people. Indeed Shanghai’s overall headcount is now around 20 million, three times the population of London, which is in turn Europe’s biggest city.

We visited the fascinating Shanghai Museum of Science and Technology which housed extraordinary 4-D cinema ? the onscreen performance there also helped convince me that lavatorial humour is not confined to the English!

We also travelled on the Maglev train which links Pudong to Shanghai’s international airport. The technology of this electromagnetic train system dates back to 1930s Germany but has only recently been adapted for commercial use. Smoothly as you like, we travelled at some 430 kilometres per hour (275mph) on this state of the art transport system. In all the twenty mile journey took eight minutes from start to finish ? I reflected that if this could be replicated between the City of London and Heathrow it would ease the strain of doing business here.

We also visited the sparkling state-of-the-art dock development, which involved driving across the twenty-one mile Donghai bridge (the longest bridge across water in the world) which took a mere three years to build. The port that has been developed on largely reclaimed land in the bay outside Shanghai features acres of containers stacked up as far as the eye can see.

It is only three years since my first trip to Beijing, yet the change in China’s political capital has been enormous not least as that metropolis prepares for next year’s Olympic Games.

Certainly Beijing was a lot cleaner ? and greener ? than it had been on my previous visit and it is clear that no expense is being spared in preparing Beijing for next summer’s sporting extravaganza.

I had the chance to see the development work at the new Olympic stadia at first hand. It is a quite breathtaking sight ? the ‘bird’s nest’ design for the main Olympic stadium fuses both East and West ? the architect is a US national of Chinese extraction and the main developer is a Japanese company. Work is already far advanced on the main stadium as it is on the array of other Olympic venues all of which have this exciting fusion of architectural styles.

Whilst in Beijing I also had a chance to see the very building from which Chairman Mao spoke across Tiananmen Square as well as strolling through a number of the delightfully traditional parts of old Beijing; the haphazard Huton villages which are fast being obliterated as new high rise blocks are being erected in their place.

There certainly appears to be a greater openness amongst the everyday Chinese people, especially in what is an increasingly global capital city like Beijing. Many of those with whom I travelled from London have visited China on several occasions over the years and reflected upon the ever more apparent cheerfulness and more open approach towards foreigners that is evident amongst everyday Chinese people in the big cities. It was clear that huge wealth is being made and, for now at least, the demand for fundamental political reform is on hold whilst the economic revolution continues apace. It is probably the case that for as long as tens of millions of Chinese men and women join the ranks of the middle-class every year, the opportunities for financial enrichment put the demand for political freedoms in the shade. This may change, but it would be wise for those in the West not to impose their own views of freedom, democracy and openness upon the Chinese, for whom respect for those in authority is deeply engrained.  

It is clear to me that next year’s Olympic Games in Beijing are regarded as a crucially important showcase for China by its government. These three weeks next summer will allow China to display itself to a global audience, taking pride in its rich history, but also to indicate that it is a forward-looking and modern twenty-first century superpower in the making.

Equally importantly, the Olympic Games are manifestly an important force for unity within the entire nation. While the fast developing economic riches of China’s eastern seaboard have not (yet) been replicated in more far flung rural areas, the immense pride surrounding the Olympic Games is designed to bring together all 1.3 billion Chinese citizens.

I am confident that when I read these words again in twenty years’ time, China will by then have firmly established itself as a great global power, playing a leading economic, military and political role in world affairs.