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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 October 2006, 11:06 GMT 12:06 UK
China's 20-year growth spurt
By Stephen Jessel
BBC News, Lijiang

Twenty five years ago, Stephen Jessel went out to what was then called Peking as the second BBC correspondent to be based in China.

Naxi orchestra members play traditional songs for tourists
Naxi music is sometimes called a 'living fossil' of Chinese music

For the last four years he has been back every year, but his latest visit left him more astounded at the pace of change than ever.

In the afternoon the grannies of Lijiang come out to dance in the main square of the town, situated in breathtaking scenery two-and-a-half thousand metres up, under Jade Dragon Snow mountain in the cloudy high country of Yunnan in the far southwest.

The ladies wear the blue and white traditional dress of the Naxi minority which predominates in these parts, and blue peaked cloth caps.

In a long line they do a sort of shuffle: one, two, three, hop, check, turn.

The more adventurous tourists join in and the event is recorded by a battery of digital cameras and camcorders.

Diminishing character

Fifteen years ago, Lijiang must have been pure enchantment: before the earthquake that destroyed much of the south of the town and before it became a magnet for tourists.

A Naxi ethnic minority man walks through the street in Suhe village near Lijiang
Old cobbled streets are under threat from commercial enterprise

Cobbled streets run between tiled wooden two storey houses with tip-tilted eaves, flanked by streams of clean, clear running water.

At night thousands of red lanterns cast their warm glow.

But these days many of the wooden houses are reconstructions and virtually all are overpriced speciality food, gift and souvenir shops, restaurants and guesthouses.

Unesco world heritage site status, a new airport and the tourist boom have destroyed the old character, though traces of it can still be found in two neighbouring villages.

The streets are clogged with well-dressed visitors toting expensive cameras led by guides waving little coloured flags.

Imagine Venice in July. Think theme park.

But these are not Western tourists (who make up a negligible proportion of the town's visitors).

These are the newly affluent middle classes of China, ready and able to spend their swelling incomes on travel inside their enormous country.

Ideology and ambition

It is 25 years exactly since I arrived in China to take over from the BBC's first correspondent there, Philip Short.

Dear heaven, it was a drab, grim, surly place.

People's ambitions were known as the three rounds: a watch, a sewing machine and a bicycle

Foreigners were rare and unwelcome.

The cultural revolution was over but ideological slogans still pervaded daily life.

Holidays, such as they were, were taken at the Chinese New Year when millions packed into trains for brief visits to their families.

There is a Chinese word meaning to have fun or enjoy oneself - wanr - but not much "wanr-ing" took place in the monochrome early 1980s.

People's ambitions were known as the three rounds: a watch, a sewing machine and a bicycle.

Hong Kong-style

On the plane out of China at the end of my three-year stint, I swore I would never go back.

Map of China

Three years later I broke that promise by filling in briefly for my successor and came back open-mouthed at the changes.

Fast forward to 2003 and a decision to put a toe back in the water with a trip to the south-west, which I had visited 20 years before.

Kunming, capital of Yunnan, had been a sleepy provincial town of wooden shop houses, the usual million bicycles, lights out at 2100.

Only now it had become Hong Kong: designer boutiques, neon, traffic jams, high rise buildings, teenagers on their mobile phones.

New goals

I got back last month from another trip, my fourth in as many years.

These have taken me to Lhasa in Tibet, Kashgar in the far north-west, Beijing in the east, Xi'an in the centre, Guangzhou - or Canton - in the south, and Chengdu and Chongqing in the south-west.

In the cities the transformation has been astounding

If I had not seen it I would not have believed it.

Never in history can the living standards of so many people have risen so fast.

I suppose that is what 20 years of explosive economic growth do for you.

People's ambitions have changed a little.

They now have their sights on a computer, a camcorder and a diamond ring.

It is true that on the back roads of the provinces you see villages where not much seems to have changed, but in the cities the transformation has been astounding... and in the space of a generation.

Passing the baton

I am quite aware that China remains an authoritarian police state; the dancing grannies of Lijiang are not paid but are, how shall we put it, encouraged by the authorities to strut their stuff.

But the state seems to have given up any attempt to control personal behaviour to judge from what you can see on the streets and back streets of the cities.

In 1984 I returned to Europe and the next year took over in Brussels from my colleague Paul Reynolds, whose young son James I met briefly at the time.

James is the new Beijing correspondent, to whom I sent all good wishes while observing that he cannot possibly have the remotest idea of what the place used to be like.

Every now and then I think I may be getting old.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 26 October, 2006 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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