Page last updated at 23:50 GMT, Wednesday, 30 September 2009 00:50 UK

Mooncakes and money: 60 years of change


Views from the market in Xi Bai Xin

As China prepares to mark the 60th anniversary of Communist rule, the BBC's World Affairs Editor, John Simpson, reflects on the extraordinary transformation of the country and its people.

In the 60 years since Mao Zedong proclaimed the establishment of the Communist state, China has seen more changes than almost anywhere else on earth.

In Xi Bai Xin, on the northern edge of Beijing, I met an old man who has experienced it all.

His name is Mr Wang and he is 78 years old. When I spoke to him, he was standing at a market stall heaped high with produce, appraising the "si gua" - big vegetables like outsized courgettes.

A man prepares his hair in front of a Chinese flag in Beijing
People have been getting ready for the celebrations

The changes he has seen include: the establishment of Marxism-Leninism and the collectivisation of the land; the appalling upheavals of the Cultural Revolution; the great famine that killed millions; the alleged coup headed by Mao's favourite, Lin Biao, and his escape and death when it failed and the rise of the radical leftist Gang of Four.

Then Mao's own death, followed a month later by the Gang of Four's arrest; the remarkable programme of modernisation spear-headed by Deng Xiaoping and the doomed attempt to get rid of him and establish greater democracy, which ended with the Tiananmen massacre.

Most important of all, he has seen the way a backward peasant society has transformed itself into the greatest manufacturing economy in human history.

Naturally, all Mr Wang wanted to talk about was the vegetables on the market stalls. "We've never had as much food as this before," he said proudly, and shuffled away.

Secret pleasures

The rules controlling everyday life have veered as wildly as everything else over the years.

In the 1970s a friend of mine who was one of only two or three Western correspondents based in Beijing came to know her government-appointed translator well.

Decorations depicting Mao Zedong
During Mao's era everyone was forced to wear identical clothes

The translator revealed her deepest secret - on their wedding anniversary she and her husband would give their children sleeping-pills, take up the floor-boards, and pull out a hidden trunk containing a ball-gown and a dinner jacket.

They would dress up, take a few dance-steps round their tiny room in utter silence, then hide the trunk away for another year.

If their children had seen them, they would have informed on them to the police.

There were snoopers everywhere, reporting the slightest misbehaviour.

Single uniform

Everyone in the entire country, male or female, young or old, wore precisely the same clothes: a Mao jacket and trousers, in black or dark blue. The slightest deviation was punished brutally.

In August 1978, Mao's successor, his former bodyguard Hua Guofeng, travelled to Romania. Together with dozens of the world's China-watchers, I went to Bucharest to report on his visit.

As Mr Hua and his team came down the plane's steps there were audible gasps from the Sinologues around me.

An undistinguished-looking woman walking behind him was wearing a Mao suit that was dark brown.

Such revolutionary non-conformity, clearly sanctioned by the leader himself, was a sign that things were suddenly changing.

In 1989, during the Tiananmen demonstrations, one of the ways young people showed their new independence was to walk around hand-in-hand, something the government snoopers disapproved of.

Nowadays, people wear pretty much what they like.

But there are still snoopers, and though the politicians have changed remarkably (one leading figure sends his son to Eton), the police are still largely unreconstructed.

Mooncakes and money

There is a national complaints office in Beijing. People often travel for days, but when they get there they risk abuse, beatings or arrest by the police who man it. At present, during this period of national thanksgiving, the complaints office has been closed.

A man outside his small shop on the outskirts of Beijing
Change has been uneven across China, especially in rural areas

Leading dissidents are under house arrest. When I visited one, a man who was shot and injured at Tiananmen, I found he had just been arrested. The alley where he lives was still swarming with police.

The authorities are determined that no-one will spoil the celebration.

They are particularly worried about protests connected with Tibet or the Muslim parts of China.

But none of this affects ordinary people. In the main street of Xi Bai Xin, Mr Wang's village on the northern edge of Beijing, there are no flags, no banners greeting the 60th anniversary, and little sign of local party officials.

There is an air of genuine relaxation and enjoyment. The Mid-Autumn Festival is coming, and people are buying their mooncakes. After 60 years of Communism, life has never been so pleasant.

Yet it is utterly meaningless to talk about Communism here nowadays.

Outside the village of Xi Bai Xin there are big commuter estates where the houses can cost a million pounds ($1.6m) each. And how do many of the villagers earn a living? They work as servants in the houses.

Things are right back where they started in 1949. Only now life is a lot richer and more relaxed.

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