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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 October 2006, 11:32 GMT 12:32 UK
China's new wealth and old failings
During his eight years as correspondent in Beijing, Rupert Wingfield Hayes has been called to frequent meetings by officials from the foreign ministry keen to discuss the way he covers China for the BBC.

Maglev train
Shanghai boasts the world's first commercial maglev train
"Why are you so down on China?" is a refrain I have got used to hearing. And not just from the foreign ministry.

I remember my brother visiting Beijing. It was his first trip to China in more than 10 years and he was astonished by the huge transformation of the city.

Gone were the streams of bicycles and blue-clad workers he remembered from 1990. Now Beijing's wide new boulevards were clogged with cars, its skyline filled with gleaming office towers.

At the supermarket he goggled at Chinese families stuffing the weekly shopping in to their new family hatchbacks.

Economic superpower

Out where I live on the edge of Beijing he marvelled at China's new rich, cruising home in their Volvos and BMWs to their mini mansions.

"Why do I never see any of this in your reports?" he complained. "Why do you only focus on the negative things that happen in China?"

Clearly, in my brother's opinion, I keep getting it wrong.

And he is not alone. I have heard the same complaints from businessmen, from friends, even from editors visiting from London.

"We need to reflect the huge changes taking place here," one told me recently, "not just what is happening to Chinese peasants in the countryside."

And they are right, China is changing, at astonishing speed. It is rapidly becoming an economic superpower.

The Chinese Communist Party... continues to refuse, any form of political liberalisation..
But there is a danger in looking at China's shiny new cities and airports, and making the mistake that China has suddenly become a normal country, that new wealth is bringing a freer, fairer, China, and that democracy is just around the corner. There is danger in thinking that soon China will be just like us.

Nie Shubin's story

Those sympathetic to that view might be interested to hear the story of Mr and Mrs Nie.

They are a couple I met last month at their little brick house in a village three hours south of Beijing.

They perched on a couple of old stools in their tiny courtyard. Both are in their mid 50s, but Mr Nie looks much, much older.

He can barely hobble, with the aid of a stick, pain etched on his face with every step.

Ten years ago, Mr Nie drank pesticide to try to kill himself. He was driven by madness and depression brought on by the death of his only son Nie Shubin.

Nie Shubin was barely 20 when he was killed by an executioner's bullet to the back of his head. While in police custody, he had confessed to the murder of a young woman.

"They beat him," Mr Nie tells me, tears now glistening in her eyes. "They beat him until he confessed. They did not care about the truth. They say you are guilty, so you are guilty."

A group of members from various committees for the Abolition of the Death Penalty carry placards, featuring Hong Kong drug offenders who had been executed in mainland China, July 14, 2005.
China carries out the death penalty on an industrial scale. As many as 8,000 to 10,000 people are executed here every year.

Mrs Nie got to see her son only once before he went to his death.

"I found out which day he would be in court and fought my way in," she told me.

"The police did not want to let me in, but I pushed and screamed until they let me through."

"Then I saw him. In shackles, he was being led away. 'Shubin,' I called. He turned and saw me. 'Ma,' he shouted, tears flooding down his cheeks."

Mrs Nie rushed towards her son, but the police held her back. There would be no last goodbye.

Ten years after Shubin was executed, another man came forward and admitted he had murdered the young woman. Mrs Nie has appealed to the police to review her son's case. They do not want to know.

The reason I tell you this story is that Mr and Mrs Nie are far from being alone. Across China there are tens, even hundreds of thousands of people with similar stories to tell - stories of brutality and injustice at the hands of those in power.

Twenty five years ago the Chinese Communist Party decided to scrap Marxist economics and pursue a capitalist free-market economy.

But, at the same time, it refused and continues to refuse, any form of political liberalisation. The result is what we see today - astonishing growth, combined with astonishing greed, where wealth means power, and without power you are nothing.

Harvesting organs

Take the example of another story I recently did about harvesting organs from executed Chinese prisoners.

This is not a new story. China has been taking organs from executed prisoners and putting them into other people for the past 25 years at least.

Foreigners in need of transplants are flocking to China. But most of those coming here probably do not enquire too closely about where the organs come from. If they did, what they would find might make them feel a little queasy.

China carries out the death penalty on an industrial scale. As many as 8,000 to 10,000 people are executed here every year.

Most, like 20-year-old Shubin, will have been tried and convicted in a court system that does not even pass the most basic of international standards, where torture is routine, and where all too often convictions are based on confession.

Where else but China would it be possible to find such a grim nexus of industrial scale death, hi-tech medicine, and untrammelled capitalism?

Beijing's Olympic Stadium
Preparations for the Olympic Games symbolise the new China
As I look out of the window of the BBC office in Beijing, I can see all around me the hustle and bustle of preparations for the 2008 Olympic Games.

The vast Olympic stadium, shaped like a giant steel bird's nest, is nearing completion. A vast new airport, built in glass and steel, is taking shape on the edge of the city.

New elevated highways sprout overnight, while beneath the ground an army of mole-workers tunnel a multitude of new subway lines. The city is being remodelled to welcome the world to China, and to welcome China to the world.

Many who come to the Games will, no doubt, be bowled over by the vibrancy and modernity of China. They may even tell you it was not what they expected, not what they had seen on TV.

To them I would say, remember Mr and Mrs Nie and the tens of millions of ordinary Chinese who to this day are denied the basic freedoms of speech, of a fair trial, and to equal treatment before the law.

My friends at the foreign ministry will, no doubt, think that I am once again up to my bad old ways, and that after eight years I still don't really understand China.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 12 October, 2006 at 11:00 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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24 Aug 06 |  Country profiles
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