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Last Updated: Monday, 5 September 2005, 20:49 GMT 21:49 UK
The changing face of China
John Simpson
By John Simpson
BBC world affairs editor, Beijing

Has any country on earth changed as much, and as quickly, in the past quarter-century as China?

Back in 1978, I covered the first visit abroad of any Chinese leader in history. His name was Hua Guofeng, and he briefly succeeded Mao Zedong.

Silk Street
Beijing's Silk Street has been transformed
For some unfathomable reason he went first to Romania, and when he and his entourage emerged from their plane,there were gasps of surprise from the China-watchers around me.

Among the group of identically dressed officials in their sub-fusc Mao jackets, one woman was actually wearing a white blouse. "This is the start of something really big," said one famous expert breathlessly.

In May 1989, when I first came here to Beijing to cover the Tiananmen Square protests, the streets were mostly empty of cars, except for a few large black official limos.

Rivers of bicycles flowed ceaselessly up and down the city's long avenues, the constant tinkling of their bells making a kind of music everywhere. Westerners were still so rare that people stopped to stare at us in the street.

Rapid changes

Now I don't need to tell you that things have changed here in the relatively short space of 16 years.

And the air above Beijing, which used to be quite pleasant, is now choked with the fumes from three million cars.

What has happened here is quite remarkable, even if lovers of traditional Chinese culture regret the ugly, vast slabs of concrete and glass which are going up everywhere, with their unwholesome whiff of bad drains, and the wholesale disappearance of the hutongs, the little alleyways off the main streets, where the real life of Beijing went on.

More thoughtful Europeans and North Americans find themselves worrying whether they are about to disappear down the plughole of history

China is undergoing a social, economic, and political revolution much faster and far-reaching than any other. Suddenly, it has become the workshop of the world.

The faintly ludicrous "bra war" with the European Union, which Chinese and EU officials spent last weekend trying to sort out, in fact centred on unthinkably large numbers of pairs of Chinese-made trousers sweaters, impounded in ports all round Europe.

And if China has become the universal manufacturing centre, India has emerged as the world's service centre.

Call-centres, insurance agencies, and seemingly every other transaction that can be performed at a distance have switched from the developed world to a country where so many people are educated, English-speaking, and understand what service really means.

In the year 2000, Americans were anticipating that the next century, like the last, would be an American one, too; while simultaneously the European leaders, gathered in Lisbon, pledged themselves to overtake the US by 2010.

Only five years later, more thoughtful Europeans and North Americans find themselves worrying whether they are about to disappear down the plughole of history.

You just have to listen to Indian government ministers to realise that this is certainly what they think, even if they are too courteous to say so overtly.

Eastern 'superpowers'

Chinese ministers are more careful, and perhaps more pessimistic. They know all the upheavals, political even more than social, that are likely to come as China gets richer.

But is the West really finished, and are China and India going to be the major economic superpowers of the future?

Well, before selling up and settling in Guangzhou or Madras - or Chennai, as it now chooses to be called - just yet, reflect for a moment on similar enthusiasms of the past 35 years.

In the early 1970s, inexplicable though it now seems, various American academics and politicians decided that the Soviet bloc was the economic powerhouse of the future. By 1973, it was the oil-producers of the Middle East.

China, in particular, will have to develop politically: no more locking up people who speak their minds and tell the truth, no more being the world's leading executioner

In the 1980s and 90s it was the countries of the Pacific Rim. Now even the very expression has dropped out of use, and who speaks about Asian Tigers economies any more?

In fact it was the Americans and the Europeans in every case who did the thriving: partly, of course, because they traded skilfully with these shorter-term successes.

Still, China and India are different in almost every way from these overnight successes of the past.

Their achievements are based on real work and real value, not merely on hype. And Europe, and to a lesser extent the US, have suffered from the very globalisation they themselves created.

By allowing France and Germany to make the running in deciding Europe's political future, the EU let itself be led down a blind alley more impenetrable than any Beijing hutong.

Soon, no doubt, that will change, as Germany and afterwards France seem likely to get new leadership. Europe will pick itself up, dust off its hubris, and concentrate on being the world's greatest trading-bloc once more.

America, with two centuries of expertise in changing and redefining itself, will find new ways of staying at the top.

And India and China? Well, the world economy will grow with them, and the richest nations will have to make room for them in the club.

China, in particular, will have to develop politically: no more locking up people who speak their minds and tell the truth, no more being the world's leading executioner.

But before it happens, the rest of us may have to be patient for a while longer. Not everything can happen overnight.

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