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Years ago, several Chinese riding bikes on city street, where there are no vehicles. One Chinese guy transports a huge sofa on his bike.
Years ago, China didn't have a pollution problem on city streets since everyone bikedImage: Thomas Ach

Olympian Feat?

Diana Fong is a reporter at DW-WORLD.DE
August 22, 2008

China has a long way to go with democratic reforms, but the Olympic Games represent a milestone for how far it has already come. DW's Diana Fong looks back at how China has opened up in the last 30 years.


The year was 1977 shortly after the death of Mao, and I had gotten a special visa reserved for young “overseas Chinese” to visit the motherland.

Back then China was an impoverished police state that had just emerged from the political chaos and violence of the Cultural Revolution, a misnomer for a movement that destroyed any shred of culture whatsoever.

I couldn't even utter the name Mao in public except to glorify him, let alone criticize the Chinese government. My visa was restricted to the one city where some cousins still lived -- Shanghai, which many Chinese call the Berlin of the East for its dazzle, sophistication, progressive politics and historical baggage.

Striking uniformity

Photo of author in front of Beijing's Forbidden City with portrait of Mao in background
Mao's portrait remains, but his ideology is goneImage: Thomas Ach

I couldn't walk down the streets wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt without being interrogated by the neighborhood watchdogs about my Western apparel. Everyone wore shapeless uniform jackets and baggy trousers in faded green, blue or grey.

There was hardly a single Western face on the streets in this most cosmopolitan of all Chinese cities. If a fair-haired, blue-eyed foreigner appeared in public, he was swarmed by a crowd of onlookers. There were few businessmen and diplomats, no tourists and no accredited journalists in China.

Physical movement was restricted by lack of transport. There were a few city trams, no cars or subways and if anyone tried to bike outside the city limits, the "border police" were ever present. But at least the Chinese had clean air.

Omnipresence of the state

If you were an ordinary Chinese citizen, the state regulated every aspect of your life down to whether you were practicing birth control to make sure you adhered to the restrictive one-child only family policy.

You could forget about choosing your own line of work or place of residence -- the state assigned you a job and living quarters. And if you wanted to get married, you needed a stamp of approval from your work unit, which had to ensure that the future spouse was "politically clean."

Group of small Chinese children with their teacher in a park
Dress codes were more relaxed for children than adultsImage: Diana Fong

If you were labeled a "capitalist roader" artist or intellectual, you were sent to the countryside to be "re-educated," meaning you were tortured and persecuted. Even if you managed to come out physically alive, your spirit was broken.

This was the China that my side of the family had the luck to escape.

Rejecting the Chairman's wife

Today's China bears no resemblance to the Big Brother nation I once knew. That doesn't mean that China still doesn't have a long way to go in terms of human rights and press freedoms as the Beijing Olympics have demonstrated, but the People's Republic has also come a very, very long way in just one generation.

China has even advanced so much economically and politically now that it has become a country my family would not have fled at the time of the Communist takeover in 1949.

My grandfather had been a Shanghai industrialist who made a fortune as the Chinese agent for IG Farben, the pre-war amalgam of Germany's BASF, Bayer and Hoechst today. Being a bourgeois capitalist was bad enough for the Communists. Even worse, he had also produced movies, in which a two-bit actress named Jiang Qing was rejected for a plum role.

Author's Chinese grandfather, who was a Chinese agent for German companies
A Buddhist with German business ties couldn't survive MaoImage: Otto Wu

Jiang was to later become Madame Mao and used her tremendous power as the Chairman's wife to exact ruthless revenge on those who had slighted her.

When it became clear that the Nationalist Chinese government was doomed in 1948, Shanghai's business elite, including grandpa, knew they couldn't survive under Mao, so they had escaped to British Hong Kong before China's borders were sealed for the next thirty years.

"Hong Kong will take over China!"

By the 1970s, the combination of British governance and a laissez-faire economy enabled the Chinese from the mainland to turn Hong Kong into one of Asia's four industrial tigers along with Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, where the Nationalists had fled.

China, meanwhile, had been in the throes of the Cultural Revolution. Then Mao died and Jiang Qing was purged from the party, ending an era of totalitarian communist rule and political isolation.

After a power struggle between the hardliners and pragmatists, China's reformist leader Deng Xiao Ping emerged in 1979 with his famous adage, "It doesn't matter whether a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice."

Revolutionary ideology was out, go-go capitalism was in, and the economic advances in the last decades that have been on display during the Olympics, have been breathtaking. But along with higher living standards and double-digit growth, came greed, official corruption and environmental degradation. Why bother to ride a bike when you can drive a BMW?

The Shanghai skyline with bulbous TV tower on the waterfront is illuminated after sunset
The Oriental Pearl TV tower is a symbol of Shanghai's building boom and modernityImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

In 1997, the British lease on Hong Kong Island had expired and the former crown colony was turned over to China. When I expressed concern about the changeover, a close family friend who had been a Communist official retorted, "You think mighty China is going to swallow tiny Hong Kong? Balderdash! It's Hong Kong that will take over China!"

He was right. My German-born, teenage daughter was in Shanghai earlier this year. I asked her how it was.

"I was in the Oriental Pearl Tower, the Jewish Refugee Museum, the Shanghai Cathedral, the (famous waterfront) Bund ... and Starbucks!" she said, showing me photos of ultra-modern gleaming skyscrapers that outshone even Hong Kong.

Two steps forward, one step back

Political reform hasn't kept pace with economic growth though. The same official explained that the process of political liberalization is not a straight trajectory.

"China takes two steps forward and one step back, but still moves forward," he said.

Chinese monks at a religious Buddhist procession
Buddhist monks were able to openly worship starting the 1980sImage: Diana Fong

In the 1980s many temples, churches and mosques that had been smashed during the Cultural Revolution had been restored and religion was tolerated as long as it was kept a private matter. China opened up to mass tourism, but kept foreign visitors on a leash. Chinese dissenters were able to come out in the open and criticize the party and its policies, but then the pro-democracy movement at Tiananmen Square was brutally crushed in 1989.

Journalists can now travel in more remote regions than ever before, but during the Games their movements are restricted in the name of national security.

There are now more Internet users in China than anywhere on earth, a by product of globalization. Then China's politicos tried to control the flow of information by blocking "sensitive" news Web sites, including Deutsche Welle's, right before the Games but a media furor convinced them to change their minds.

The Chinese leadership quietly indicated they are prepared to invite the Dalai Lama to China for talks, according to The New York Times. If Tibet's exiled spiritual leader actually sets foot on Chinese soil for the first time in nearly 50 years, this would be a big step forward.

And so it goes. A political opening that goes too far and the brakes are slammed with China going into reverse gear. Two steps forward and one step back. And forward again.

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