'A new harmony' China and change

| May 18, 2009

In October 2008 former Foreign Secretary, Lord Hurd, accompanied a Cox & Kings tour of China. Here he gives his impressions of a country much changed since he spent two years there half a century ago.

new harmony

Ever since the Ming Emperors made Beijing the capital of China, no Chinese has seriously doubted that the city is the centre of the world. It is a city of power, which has to be displayed as well as exercised. In Beijing today there are three centres of power on display, all in their way formidable, and the Chinese, tireless tourists in their own country, hurry to see all three.

The most modern is of course the centre of the Olympic Games. The Birds Nest itself is set among a collection of handsome and stylish buildings which make the whole site memorable – in particular the aquatic centre and the buildings devoted, as seems right in the 21st century, to the media. In the centre of the city, the second display of power is centred on Tiananmen Square. The Square seems too big for the buildings that surround it and the result is somehow rather tatty. A huge portrait of Chairman Mao still presides over the scene from the Gate of Heavenly Peace. Beneath him the stands are still in place from which, as a young diplomat more than 50 years ago, I watched the massive parades on May Day and October 1st; half a million Chinese paid their respects to the Chairman who stood up there for hours, a tiny figure on a balcony above his own huge portrait. The parades have been abolished and the national holiday in October is now celebrated with friendly slogans and plastic figures which might have come from Disneyland.

Immediately to the north, the Forbidden City remains as the oldest centre of power. It was wet on the day of our visit. The many courtyards were thronged with a forest of coloured umbrellas as thousands of Chinese peered at the white stone dragons, the majestic lions, the sloping roofs and the thrones of emperors long ago. The other proof of ancient authority is of course the Great Wall. Cox & Kings wisely arranged for us to visit the Wall, not at its most frequented point nearest to Beijing, but several miles further to the east at Jin Shan Ling. There are fewer tourists there and it is possible to walk, without too much distraction, from tower to tower along the wall as it climbs and dives, always keeping to the mountain crests. At first we were put off by the swarm of mountain villagers who welcomed us but were soon glad of the helping hands which steadied us on the steep and tricky stretches of the path.

The two years that I spent in Beijing in the 1950s were some of the happiest in my life and I have always had mixed feelings when going back. On the debit side the walls of the city have been destroyed and the pollution is often atrocious. I even feel a little nostalgia for the enforced puritanism of those days, when there was no tipping, no thieving and the world rode on bicycles. But these regrets for the most part fell away when confronted with the great surge of progress that has transformed the cities of China and made Shanghai, for example, probably the most enterprising capitalist city in Asia, if not the world. The dignified buildings erected before the war by European banks on the Bund are now dwarfed by the gleaming skyscrapers on the other side of the river, where 50 years ago there was empty marshland.

China still lives under the dictatorship of the Communist Party but politics are less evident in daily life than they used to be. Elderly groups still gather in the colonnade near the Temple of Heaven in Beijing to sing the old revolutionary songs, but they seem to do this for the sake of a good tune rather than a political message, just as the Labour Party sing the Red Flag and the Tories Land of Hope and Glory. Red flags are everywhere, but the banners strung across a street are now more likely to advertise a business conference than a Communist slogan. I do not doubt that the authorities would be ready once again to suppress by force any serious challenge, but there is now more criticism of the powers that be, particularly through the internet.

The Government can use the internet too. The local authority in one province recently reported a mine explosion, saying that it was the result of natural causes and that 11 people were killed. A blogger insisted that 40 people had been killed and that the explosion was set off by the illegal storing of dynamite. The Prime Minister read the blog, believed the blogger, and the local authorities were punished.

We saw all around us the striking results of many years of rapid economic growth. Substantial growth remains crucial, but there has recently been a subtle change of emphasis. The talk is now of harmony – harmony between town and countryside, harmony between economic growth and the protection of the environment, harmony in our uneasy world of nation states.

As an ancient people the Chinese, even under Communist rule, like to link the present with the past. Confucius was the great preacher of harmony based on mutual respect. In the centre of Nanjing huge sums of money have been spent on rebuilding the Temple of Confucius; slightly bewildered young guides are now being instructed in his biography and message.

The Chinese are only at the beginning of rediscovering their own past. We marvelled in London last year at the Terracotta Warriors displayed in the British Museum. But they were only a platoon of the army of warriors whom we visited outside Xian, standing guard in the pit where they were buried. And we saw only one part of one of these military camps. The tomb of the Emperor who created them has not been excavated at all. Not far away are the tombs of the Han dynasty, roughly contemporary to the Romans. Here we saw not dignified soldiers but pathetic naked models of officials, eunuchs and concubines, the garments in which they were buried having long rotted away. There were many Han emperors and many tombs; yet only one has been excavated. There are formidable financial and technical difficulties in pressing ahead; the buried emperors can afford to wait a little longer.

After visiting the cities of Beijing, Xian, Nanjing and Shanghai we ended with an excursion into Yunnan Province in the far south west of China, bordering Tibet, Burma and Vietnam. The ancient town of Lijiang was paradoxically made famous by an earthquake and is a growing centre of tourism. We stayed there in the Banyan Tree hotel and then pressed on into the mountains to another hotel of the same brand. In the valley named Shangri-La (after the story in James Hilton’s war time best seller ‘Lost Horizon’), we found ourselves somewhat breathless at 3,500 metres, encountering a hoar frost at night and hot sun by day.

I ventured on a five hour trek up through a forest of pine, azalea, and aspen turning orange in the autumn sun. Just beyond the crest in a bowl of hills lies a stretch of pasture more than a mile long and half a mile across. The villagers move their animals and themselves wholesale up the hill to this pasture where they subsist through the summer on yak meat, yak milk and yak butter, keeping themselves warm at night under yak skins in simple wooden houses which have to be rebuilt each year. In the first week of October only one lady was still there with her horses and black pigs, very willing to enjoy the company of our guides and wave us on our way. We were distant indeed from the Birds Nest in Beijing or the skyscrapers of Shanghai. Change will certainly come to those valleys bordering on Tibet but with luck it will not entirely overwhelm the simplicity that we found and enjoyed.

For a copy of Cox & Kings 2009 Far East brochure call 0844 576 5518 quoting ref COMPASS.


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