China's 60 years of change

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 October, 2009, 12:00am

As I was growing up in the northeastern industrial city of Jilin , my family's most prized possession was a Butterfly sewing machine. We had to buy everything with coupons, and Spring Festival was the only time of the year when we could afford to have a feast of pork and fish.

Today, as the People's Republic marks its 60th birthday, China has undergone tremendous change from the backward country of my childhood. Over the past four decades, millions of Chinese like me have witnessed one of the most profound events in modern history - the rise of China. Its impact on Chinese people and the world at large will resonate for many years ahead.

I was born in 1965 - one year before the Cultural Revolution plunged the nation into one of its darkest periods in modern history.

Yet 44 years later, the nation is immersed in the most elaborate and probably most expensive one-day celebration by the Communist Party to laud China's economic rise and look towards scaling new heights. It is a good opportunity for every Chinese to reflect upon the changes brought by this momentous period of history to their own lives - good or bad, sweet or bitter.

Like many mainlanders my age, my memories are of a happy, playful and inquisitive childhood. I was largely oblivious to the tumultuous changes - the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution, the death of Lin Biao in 1971, the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 and the third comeback of Deng Xiaoping shortly afterwards.

My first hint of those troubled times came from catching an occasional glimpse of my mother weeping. She later told me her father had been badly beaten for being 'a well-to-do middle-class peasant' before 1949.

Like most mainlanders, our family lived an austere but contented life in those days of egalitarian hardship.

My introduction to English came in primary school, with the first obligatory text being an English version of The East is Red, the de facto anthem of the country at the time, lauding Chairman Mao. Going to the cinema was one of the biggest joys for us as children, even though the films were usually reruns of black-and-white Soviet films like Lenin in 1918, revolutionary Peking operas, and the tear-jerking North Korean opera The Flower Girl. Before each film, newsreels of current events such as Mao meeting Richard Nixon were shown. Whenever Mao appeared on screen, everyone in the cinema stood up and burst into thunderous applause.

My first sense of a better life in the often denounced capitalist countries occurred when watching newsreels about Chinese delegations on overseas visits as they tended to open with aerial shots of the United Nations buildings and their surrounding areas in New York or Geneva where gleaming office buildings stood along roads full of cars zooming by and pedestrians dressed in smart suits.

My interest in English deepened when I accidentally switched on the shortwave bandwidths of my grandfather's old transistor radio and came across the Voice of America and became addicted to its popular English-teaching programme called English 900. I did not realise until much later that listening to the programme posed a potentially serious risk for me and my family because 'listening to enemy radio' was considered a serious crime for which we could be jailed. Luckily, I was never caught, although the VOA programmes were later constantly jammed, to my annoyance.

My real understanding of the outside world started in 1982, when I was enrolled into what is now known as the Beijing Foreign Studies University, the most prestigious place to learn foreign languages in China. In the name of learning English, we could get the latest issues of news weeklies including Time, Newsweek and The Economist, and novels such as The Thorn Birds, watch videos including The Godfather and even the latest release of Gandhi, supplied by the US embassy in Beijing.

Outside the campus, tremendous changes were also sweeping across the country as the reform and opening up was in full throttle at the time.

My first taste of Western pop music came in 1985, when Wham! became the first Western pop group to perform in China, in front of more than 15,000 young mainlanders under the stern eyes of attendants who tried to shoo everyone daring to stand up and gyrate with the music.

But the two people who have had a big impact on my life were the two Dengs - the petite Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng Li-chun and the diminutive Deng Xiaoping. (Their surnames are the same in Chinese characters.)

Like millions of young mainlanders, I was mesmerised by Teng's sweet voice and perfect girl-next-door looks despite the government's initial attempts to ban her music, which it said was decadent and morally corrupting.

Deng's policies inspired me to become a journalist aspiring to chronicle the momentous changes happening around the country.

As my generation was growing up, we began to hear more and more stories about official profiteering and corruption among high-ranking officials and their family members. When we mourned the death of Hu Yaobang , the deposed Communist Party chief, a swelling anger at a mixture of corruption and runaway inflation led me to join tens of thousands of Beijing students and residents to demonstrate at Tiananmen Square in those fateful months from April to June of 1989. Following the crackdown, I joined the China Daily, the only English-language newspaper, but focused on writing business stories.

I was again indebted to Deng for changing my life in 1993, when I was in London, running out of money and preparing to return to the mainland after two years of studying and working in Britain.

Deng's famous tour through the southern provinces in 1992 had unleashed a new round of economic development following the trough caused by the 1989 crackdown. With its soaring property and stock markets and - most important of all - a free and thriving media, Hong Kong sounded like an ideal destination for me and an increasing number of mainlanders who went to study overseas.

After joining the SCMP in 1996 as a China business writer based in Hong Kong, my frequent trips to Beijing and other major cities afforded me a front-row seat to witness and chronicle the changes the mainland has undergone in recent years - new highways, gleaming, modern office buildings, soaring private ownership, sprouting supermarkets and multinationals setting up shop.

As elated as I am about those changes, I am equally dismayed about the rampant official corruption, widening income gap, choking pollution, muzzling of the media and clamping down on political dissent - all issues comprehensively reported and commented on by this paper.

On this historic day, there are many more reasons to be hopeful. China's reforms and opening up are set on an irreversible path, and the internet is shaping people's lives and government policies, to name just two examples.

The day that China becomes a stronger, more prosperous and democratic country will come sooner rather than later. Just look at the incredible changes the nation and its people have gone through. I am truly grateful for having the chance to write about these changes and those to come.