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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 September, 2004, 07:48 GMT 08:48 UK
China diary: Ordinary people
Former BBC Beijing correspondent Tim Luard is back in China, 25 years after his first visit, to write a series of articles for BBC News Online on how much the country has changed. He is also writing a diary during his trip, and this is his sixth instalment:

I'm conscious that this farewell BBC tour is a bit of a whistle-stop, big-city affair, with my brief stays in Shanghai and Beijing soon to be rounded off by a few days in the even bigger metropolis of Chongqing, deep in the interior.

So I took the chance today to meet people from other parts of China - and where better to find them than Tiananmen Square and the nearby shopping district of Wangfujing?

Both are high on the list of provincials' places to go in the capital. And sure enough, on another blissfully sunny, breezy day, the easily-recognisable out-of-towners were out in droves, snapping each other in front of Mao's picture on the Gate of Heavenly Peace and wandering wonderingly past the downtown window displays.

Jiang Hungliu and Liu Lili
Money to burn...

Two girls in their twenties from the northeast, Jiang Hungliu and Liu Lili, already looked almost as trendy and sophisticated as the average Beijinger, having just got temporary jobs here in a small IT factory.

The reforms of recent years had opened a new window for them, they told me, as they sipped their Starbucks coffee in yet another glitzy plaza.

But how much could they actually buy here on salaries of US$100 a week?

"We can buy anything we want," they said excitedly. "Cameras, clothes, mobiles, cosmetics"."

Well, they seemed happy. But what about this man in his fifties, waiting patiently if a little anxiously as his wife tries on exotic new outfits?

He's a factory worker called Wang from the southern province of Yunnan and tells me that if not for the opening up policies he would not be visiting Beijing.

It's his first time and he's impressed by the many tall buildings. China will soon be richer than Japan and the West, he thinks.

Sui Wenfeng
Sui Wenfeng says the reforms are good, but come at a price

Then there's Mr Sui, a 66-year-old retired worker from Heilongjiang in the far north, standing in his natty suit outside one of the few remaining big state-run department stores.

He's the first one I've spoken to today to speak of any downside to the reforms, saying the economic boom has meant a lot of trees in his province have been cut down. But they're now being replanted, he adds hastily.

Changing tastes

I head for the big Wangfujing Bookstore, which I first went to in 1979 and have returned to on each subsequent visit to do a quick spot-check of changing reading habits.

The works of Mao are still there and hanging from the ceiling are the same old series of big prints showing not just China's former communist heroes but Marx and Lenin too.

But there's a lot more interest being shown in a nearby self-help section with titles like "How to have a good self-image". And one of the hottest books of the moment is Bill Clinton's autobiography.

I stroll down to Tiananmen Square, where workmen are putting up floral displays for the coming National Day holiday. This one marks the 55th anniversary of Communist Party rule.

Tiananmen gate
Beijing is gearing up for National Day celebrations

They've been polishing up the characters saying "Long Live the People's Republic of China" at the entrance to the old imperial palace, where Mao proclaimed that "the Chinese people have stood up".

The special decorations going up in the centre of the square include a replica of the spacecraft in which China put its first man in space a year ago.

Next year there'll be a bigger and more ambitious manned space flight, a senior Foreign Ministry official told me at dinner tonight.

China was not interested in being a superpower or a rival to the US, he said. But it did see itself as a regional power and one of the major world powers, playing an increasingly influential role.

He seemed particularly interested in the fact that I'd been here for the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

The atmosphere in the world's largest square was certainly very different then.

But the democracy movement and its violent climax hasn't been forgotten.

Some I spoke to in the square today said the students had been foolish, but all said they knew their government's version of events was not the only one.

A couple of people said they had seen foreign films, strictly banned by the government, showing what really happened.

And one young man from Beijing University said that - despite the current focus on planning careers - students there talked a lot about 1989 and were "still very angry".

Are you in China or have you visited recently? What do you think about all the changes China has gone through in the last 25 years? Send us your comments and experiences using the form below:

I am a Chinese and come from Guangzhou. Both of my parents, and my grandparents, are communists. We, including me, believe Communist Party of China (CPC) is the greatest party in the history of China. I don't appreciate Mr Luard's articles at all. He has never known China, Chinese and CPC, though he lived in China for years. What his articles reflected is all about the dark side of China. CPC did make some mistakes, and some mistakes hurt millions of people, or even more than millions of people, including my family. But my family still firmly believe in communism.
Weibin Zhu, Sheffield

This article, in particular, reminds me of the months I spent in and near Beijing from November, 1985 until July, 1986. I don't remember eating any donkey hotpot, but there was a lot of mystery meat. On the way to the wall, we shared lunches with some railway workers guarding a tunnel, slept rough, and hitch-hiked in the backs of farm trucks, sometimes with the animals. The generosity of the folks in the countryside and their friendliness was genuine and I will ever treasure those times.
Chuck Felts, Ventura, CA, USA

I went to China last Christmas (2003) for the first time and was surprised by what I saw. Communism had really changed from what I saw in movies about China. Yes I did see the military, a shock anyway since I never get a chance to see the Canadian military. The most amazing thing was I was buying something for my girlfriend and beside me were soldiers buying things for their girlfriends. Another view I didn't see on TV.
Sean Henderson, Victoria, BC, Canada

China is a vast and amazing country, a country of contrasts. For all the changes that is has encompassed over the last twenty-five years it still contains many inherently Chinese qualities which is why I will always find it the most interesting country in the world. It may be moving up the ladder towards modernity and "Westernisation", but all you need to do is walk through Beijing's Hutongs (the old part of the city) to see that it is still an idea, not always a reality. Who knows how long this will last though.
Siobhan McCarthy, London, UK

My first visit to China was in September 2004. Prior to this when one mentioned China, my thoughts were: 1. Tiananmen Square massacre, 2. Communism 3. Below standard goods 4. Chinese food I must say that apart from the food, my perception has completely changed...China will have a huge influence on the world economy and all else that goes with it, in the years to come. Watch out the West!
Gerard Lafortune, Seychelles

I studied in Beijing from 1997-1998. I haven't been back since but have been told that the student residence we stayed in has been torn down to make way for brand new buildings and that the Wangfujing district has been turned into a pedestrian-only shopping street. I loathe to think that all the bars and clubs we used to hang out in have been demolished to make way for more enormous, faceless shopping centres.
Candice, London, UK

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