Magazine article The Spectator

Steam-Rollering into the Future

Magazine article The Spectator

Steam-Rollering into the Future

Article excerpt

CHINA : FRIEND OR FOE ? by Hugo de Burgh Icon, £7.99, pp. 273, ISBN 1840467339

You'd better hurry if you want to see any of old Beijing. The lovely higgledy-piggledy brick hutongs are being blitzed in readiness for the 2008 Olympics. Even in the Hou Hai district, supposedly one of the last zones of ancient tranquillity, the imperial lakes are fringed with trashy bars and ugly black sound systems spilling on to the pavement.

Not far away tourists are taken to inspect the old codgers playing chess and mah-jong, surrounded by caged birds. The oldsters like to look at the birdies, the tourist will be told in a whisper. It was one of the simple pleasures that Mao destroyed. The dictator took it into his head that it was an act of bourgeois decadence even to admire birdsong or plumage. So children went around banging tin trays and the birds were driven from the trees.

As you look at these elderly victims of Maoist insanity, you can't help wondering whether all the pundits are right about China. This is a place that still refuses to acknowledge the evil of Mao, and where his visage still hangs, fringed with tassels, from the rear-view mirror of buses. Are those mole-covered jowls really the face of the new China? Is it possible that this one-party state will achieve the kind of global dominance that some have recently forecast? In this clear, concise and factstuffed summary, Hugo de Burgh gives you all you need to make a pretty shrewd guess.

For those who think we'd all better take crash courses in Mandarin, the statistics are terrifying. China now consumes more red meat than any other country, and in the next five years will become a bigger trading nation than the US. Last year there were 50,000 miles of three-lane highway under construction, and new metro systems were being constructed in 26 cities, as well as 30 nuclear power stations.

Shanghai has the world's tallest hotel, the biggest shop, the highest television tower and the fastest train.

The Chinese middle class is exploding -- I expect a thousand or so have been added to the ranks of the bourgeoisie since you began this article -- and will number about 200 million this year. These are of course buying ever more cars, clothes and electrical appliances, and Goldman Sachs estimates that within ten years the Chinese will be buying 29 per cent of the world's luxury goods. …

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