Lessons for the visitor, a reminder to the host

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 March, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 March, 2003, 12:00am

Cuban leader Fidel Castro ended his previous trip to China with a statement that he caught a cold. It was taken by many to have been a reference to the chills he felt in the face of its rapid reform. Nearly a decade on, the unreconstructed socialist supremo probably saw enough during his latest mission to China to catch full-blown pneumonia, such have been the changes on the mainland compared to his own nation - still struggling under a US embargo and practising central economic planning.

This time Dr Castro expressed praise; indeed, he could not hide his amazement. 'I can't really be sure just now what kind of China I am visiting,' he told National People's Congress Chairman Li Peng. 'The first time I visited, your country appeared one way and now when I visit it appears another way.' The differences were not enough to end the tradition of bear hugs - that fraternal touch reserved for revolutionary comrades.

For the Chinese too, the visit was not without intrigue. In the space of a week they hosted Dr Castro, US Secretary of State Colin Powell and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov - the latter two's presence a reflection of China's growing influence on key issues such as dealing with Iraq and North Korea.

The fact that Dr Castro still got more than a mere look-in suggests that even as China's reforms, both economic and social, reach new levels, fraternal ties of long standing will not be allowed to die. The Cuban leader, it can be argued, represents values to which the Communist Party leadership still wishes to heed, even as they reach out to private businessmen and allow market forces to shake up society. There is no doubt they want swift economic change to be accompanied by political stability, and in that regard Dr Castro is an icon, even if his own school of socialism has always been a little different.

China is increasingly a model for the world's last remaining communist-ruled states. Its achievement of economic progress with stability has taken it into uncharted waters. No other nation has faced challenges of the nature and scale of those it now faces. Already, ties with Vietnam and Laos have been warming considerably as both follow in their giant neighbour's footsteps, their leaders regularly visiting Beijing to swap notes.

If Dr Castro, after a four-decade reign, can be tempted to bite the reform bullet, so much the better. That will leave North Korea alone in the darkness of the past. Whether China can help bring about its transformation is a question of a wholly different order.