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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 February 2008, 21:44 GMT
China diary: Astonishing ambition

The BBC's Paul Adams is travelling with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband on a tour of China. After stops in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Chongqing, there is time for a stroll on China's Great Wall before getting down to business in Beijing.


This is the last leg of David Miliband's six-day tour of China.

The Great Wall of China
No endeavour seems too bold when China decides to get things done

After the issues of headlong urban development and China's rural population comes a day dominated by hard politics and gentle diplomacy.

It began on China's Great Wall, where Mr Miliband and his counterpart, Yang Jiechi took a stroll in crisp morning sunlight.

The symbolism of the setting, a dramatic emblem of China's determination to keep enemies at bay, was lost on no-one.

Here were two men discussing how and where China should play a more expansive role on the world stage, with Mr Miliband urging China to get out there and demonstrate that it's a force for good.

But the Wall has other significance too. When China decides that something needs to be done, whether it's a new city where once there was marshland, or the movement of millions of rural people into a city, or a wall that snakes over improbably steep slopes, it seems that no endeavour is too bold.

We arrived finally in Beijing and a day of formal meetings, banquet lunches and serious discussions. At a press conference, journalists listened hard to the language on sensitive issues like human rights.

When I asked Minister Yang about his definition of democracy (hard on the heels of another question about human rights and the Olympics, it has to be said), it seemed to touch a raw nerve.

Chinese people, he said testily, enjoyed full rights and the most anyone would get for shouting about human rights in front of a policeman would be a cup of tea!

David Miliband and Minister Yang Jiechi in discussion in Beijing
In Beijing the conversation focused on politics, sport and human rights

Mr Miliband, who clearly regards Minister Yang as a friend, chose his words carefully, saying the two men had discussed their respective political systems and the "contrasts" between them.

Privately, officials said there had been unproductive discussions on the fate of two detained activists and the question of Darfur.

But it wasn't all about diplomacy. In the course of another hectic day, we found ourselves eavesdropping on a live video-conference between young British and Chinese "climate change ambassadors".

The students put questions to the foreign secretary and a Chinese government official involved in environmental policy.

What were they doing to combat climate change, they were asked?

The questions were searching and occasionally strayed into the more touchy realms of the morning meetings.

Asked by a journalist from the China Daily if he thought western reporting of the country's human rights record was unnecessarily hostile, Mr Miliband replied that if China was really going to open its doors, it was going to have to put up with hearing good and bad things written about it.

David Miliband meets Chinese students in Beijing
The environment was discussed during a Beijing video-conference

"That's what opening up means," he said, adding that people could make up their own minds about the political situation in China and the rights of the individual.

The day brought surprises to, including an unscheduled walkabout in Tiananmen Square, scene of the bloody suppression of pro-democracy protests in 1989.

On his first visit to mainland China, David Miliband has seemed keen to seize whatever opportunities arise for a bit of history and a chance, as he put it to me, "to smell the air".

There was culture too. Over dinner, the travelling party and guests were treated to the ravishing strains of the "gu'zheng", China's distinctive "ancient harp", played by Jenny Zeng Zhen.

After a week of furious travel and constant, intense conversation, nothing could have been more welcome.


After a day in Shanghai, dominated by the challenges posed by an explosion of urban development, this was a chance for the British foreign secretary to see another side of China - almost 900 miles to the west - and another issue: the growing income gap between urban and rural areas.

Two men in Shuangxi village
Life for China's rural population is said to be slowly improving

Chongqing is already a major city of more than four million inhabitants, but under plans announced last year, it is going to expand on a massive scale - two million rural people will be moved into the city each year, for five years.

Another of those statistics that points to the astonishing ambition of China's rulers.

This is bound to create problems in a city already teeming with crumbling tenements full of migrant workers.

But it is part of a wider pilot scheme to promote "co-ordinated urban and rural development", in line with President Hu Jintao's "scientific development" policy.

Success in Chongqing and elsewhere will see the reforms rolled out across the country.

The formulaic party language masks the human dimensions of such a massive endeavour, and these are what David Miliband and his party wanted to see.

So after signing a two-year Memorandum of Understanding, pledging British assistance to promote balanced, low-carbon development, the party took to the roads, to see the pilot policies in action.

Chinese schoolgirls welcome David Miliband (background, right)
Chinese schoolchildren said they love David Beckham and Mr Bean

In a hilly suburb of run-down housing and new building sites, the children of Mao-er shi Experimental School gave Mr Miliband and his wife a noisy reception.

Unusually, the school looks after the children of migrant workers.

Under China's strict "hukou" system of household registration, migrants attracted to cities by the promise of better-paid jobs, find themselves enjoying little or nothing in the way of services, including education.

For half an hour, the spartan classrooms rang to the sound of enthusiastic children, declaring their love for such British icons as David Beckham, Mr Bean and, curiously, blue sky.

Next stop, a construction site and its team of migrant workers, grilled by the foreign secretary for their views on the relative benefits of urban and rural life.

As the authorities attempt to lure surplus rural labour into China's rapidly expanding cities, they hope to increase the wealth of those left behind in the country.

Today, city-dwellers earn, on average, four times as much as those in the countryside.

Under the pilot scheme, the government aims to reduce this imbalance to around two to one.

A 45-minute drive then took us deep into the countryside, to the muddy village of Shuangxi for what our briefing notes described as "a snapshot of rural life".

Wang Dexian, a one-time farmer, introduced these visitors from another world to his family and modest, chilly house.

He said life in the countryside was improving and Mr Miliband, with the practiced ease of a constituency MP, listened and probed.

One of the foreign office's four policy priorities is listed as sustainable development.

In the space of a busy, vivid morning, we caught a few glimpses of what this means in the world's fastest-growing economy.

The Chinese government can justifiably claim to have lifted hundreds of millions of its citizens out of abject poverty, but the scale of the tasks that remain take some comprehending.

We boarded the plane for Beijing, the last leg on the tour. Having witnessed a little of what it means to live in modern China, he now gets to talk to the country's leadership about how it intends to carry out some of these enormous tasks.


"Look east, Young Man."

Exhorting himself at the start of his blog, the youthful David Miliband sets off on his first trip to China.

The model of the future Shanghai
China's image of its future....

The blog marvels at some of the statistics that do indeed invite wonder when you arrive here.

This month, for example, China is expected to become the most wired nation on Earth, with over 215 million internet users.

In Shanghai, Mr Miliband's first stop on the mainland, the breakneck pace of China's modern development hits you in the face.

At the Shanghai Urban Planning Centre, a vast room is dedicated to a detailed layout of the city as it will look in 2015, down to the last, towering skyscraper. But the Chinese are ahead of themselves.

"Essentially, we've already got there," explains Carma Elliot, the British consul general. "It was developed so fast."

The city's growth is mind-boggling. An entirely new area, Pudong, with about eight million residents, has sprouted in just 15 years.

Here everything is on fast forward, so the challenge is bigger
John Ashton,
UK climate change adviser

"Eight years ago, there was no metro in Shanghai, and within a couple of years the metro system will be more developed than London," says Ms Elliot.

In a darkened capsule, visitors are taken on a virtual tour of the future Shanghai.

Images of a gleaming - and curiously unpopulated - city are projected all around as you hurtle through a vision of an ultra-modern urban paradise.

The effect of all this sci-fi action is faintly nauseating. You emerge, impressed and baffled in equal measure.

There's also talk of an eco city, Dongtan, to be built nearby, at the mouth of the Yangtze River, as a model for environmentally sustainable developments of the future.

Skyscrapers in the Pudong district of Shanghai, China
...and the shiny brand new

But a notional city designed to be almost carbon neutral seems a far cry from the eco-unfriendly, but very real, mega-city bursting all around us.

The UK foreign secretary's Climate Change Adviser, John Ashton, travelling with Mr Miliband, admits the challenges are very real.

"Here everything is on fast forward, so the challenge is bigger," he says, as we tour Shanghai's historic waterfront, the Bund.

"And the real conundrum is what's the pathway that will enable China to keep on delivering prosperity to its people while at the same time moving to low carbon?"

A busy programme takes us out of the city centre to Shanghai's prestigious China Europe International Business School.

In front of an audience of students, Mr Miliband speaks of shifts in global power, including "from governments to individuals".

How long is it since this kind of talk might have sounded fairly heretical to Chinese ears?

But today's young audience takes it all in its stride, and soon the foreign secretary is peppered with questions about China's environmental standards, the Taiwan question, and whether the British government fears the phenomenon of sovereign wealth funds.

With that, we head for the airport, aboard Shanghai's record-breaking Maglev train. In the course of an eight-minute journey, we hit 431kmph. Another Shanghai superlative.

The next stop on our journey is Chongqing, far to the west, where the focus will be on balanced development and China's controversial efforts to bridge the social and economic divide between urban and rural populations.

Later in the week, we hit Beijing, and questions of governance, human rights and Darfur.

Shanghai: Creating a global city
07 May 07 |  Business
Can Shanghai turn green and grow?
27 May 07 |  Business
The challenges facing an urban world
13 Jun 06 |  Science/Nature
China's rural millions left behind
07 Mar 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: China
22 Feb 08 |  Country profiles


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