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EDITIONS
Saturday, 28 December, 2002, 13:09 GMT
China's dream of reinvention
The 88-story Jin Mao Tower stands as a new symbol of Shanghai
The Chinese elite reach for the skies

The BBC World Service has just celebrated its 70th anniversary. To mark this, leading correspondents look back on major world events they have covered in recent decades.

Kate Adie recalls China's landmark student protests in 1989, and the beginnings of the country's march towards material splendour.

Sunday morning, and the students at Shanghai University were gathered in their grim little rooms noisily discussing the demonstration far to the north in Beijing.

Some were huddled on the three-tiered bunks, among tidy piles of books and clothes, others stood or squatted on the floor among pots and rice bowls and shoes.

It was as if a large revivalist religious rally had squashed itself into a railway carriage, over a dozen excited people jostling in each compartment.

Tiananmen Square Massacre 10th Anniversary placard
The Tiananmen Square demonstration had not caught on in Shanghai
We found it difficult to film. Not just because of the crush, but because faces grew nervous and voices subsided as we approached.

Change, reform, perhaps even a kind of revolution was being talked about, and the Shanghai students had not yet had the confidence to stage the kind of demonstration that had been going on for weeks in Tiananmen Square in the capital.

Future direction

I had come to China - yet another correspondent added to the team - as the Beijing student protest had stretched into weeks, then months - producing daily pictures of posters and speech-making and thousands of young people camped messily in the heart of the orderly and tightly-disciplined heart of a rigidly Communist nation.

Arriving initially in Shanghai, we thought we were merely at the sideshow; and in many ways, this was true. The city wasn't seized with fervour, the students here were disorganised and poorly informed about events in the capital.

I realise that in Shanghai, there were no pointers to the long-term future which indicated the road which China would take in the subsequent decade

And, of course, what happened subsequently in Tiananmen Square and the surrounding streets, was to horrify people around the world.

However, I realise that in Shanghai, there were a few pointers to the long-term future which indicated the road which China would take in the subsequent decade - and I gave them little thought at the time.

I'd started the morning in an eye-blinkingly opulent new hotel, rearing its angular features above the heaving alleyways of a rather down-at-heel city, its drably dressed people elbowing each other off spit strewn pavements.

The hotel was an oasis of cringe-making luxury - breakfast offered exquisite titbits of both East and West, an army of waiters darting forward to minister with a permanent smile.

Temple to success

All the while, a string quartet twittered away pleasantly, accompanied by the faintest of glugging sounds, as the indoor stream curled gently from waterfall to rock pool, from third floor to basement.

The waiters spoke limited but precise English. Two looking after our table had degrees in Geography and Russian. Not quite on a par with the room-boy, who had happily volunteered that he had a PhD in Philosophy.

"Why are you working in a hotel?" I asked. "Best job," he said, "lots of people want". "Big prospects," he added.

A young Chinese boy makes a call on a mobile phone during a visit to the Great Wall of China
The Chinese elite embarked on building shiny hotels and importing mobile phones
I wondered if he was thinking of getting out of China somehow, I didn't cotton on to the effect the hotel was having in the city - it was a temple to success, never mind its foreign ownership.

It was shiny, bright and represented a way of making money never before set before the eyes of people who toiled in ancient workshops and lived in tiny rooms.

After breakfast, I walked across a field of marble in the lobby - no doubt being polished by several physics graduates - skirting the ornate pool and heading for a breath of fresh air, only to be stopped by a nervous young man in the regulation hotel blazer.

'Bad elements'

"Moment," he said. "Please. Wait." He was embarrassed - also irritated.

His colleagues were brutally manhandling a young couple out through the glass doors, delivering a kicking for good measure.

But those who cannot climb aboard count for little, and can be pushed around and kicked hard

"Bad elements," he whispered.

I went to stand outside, and in the next half hour saw the scene repeated several times. The supposed bad elements were ever-so neatly dressed - Sunday best - black trousers, fresh crisp shirts, very young, and poor.

Lots of couples stood shyly at a distance, gazing at the twinkling hotel. Then tentatively, then eagerly, they tiptoed to the door to peer and point and gasp, some of them eventually sneaking in for a Sunday treat of staring at luxury.

With savagery, they were hurled back out.

What I failed to realise was that I was watching the new China arise: where material splendour is the goal, and those with the ability and drive, and opportunity - just a fraction of the population - are jumping on the golden bandwagon.

But those who cannot climb aboard count for little, and can be pushed around and kicked hard.

However, we concentrated on the students in 1989, their complex demands for more accountability from the regime, an end to corruption, and perhaps a smidgeon of democratic reform.

The regime was appalled and frightened, and sent in troops to murder them.

Meanwhile, though, they embarked on building shiny hotels and importing mobile phones and sumptuous bathrooms. And keeping the bad elements - the entire rest of the population - at bay.

We should have talked more to the hotel staff - they had seen the future.

See also:

09 Sep 02 | Rob on the road
21 Nov 02 | Asia-Pacific
09 Nov 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
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