Rich all around

Rich all around

Rich all around
Standing in the middle of the historic, breathtakingly large Tiananmen Square in Beijing, my mind is suddenly crowded with a panoply of thoughts.

It was 1989 when the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev crumbled into 12 different republics, the Berlin Wall came down, and the Communist regimes across Eastern Europe began to collapse. In April the same year, hundreds of thousands of students and workers began a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square demanding freedom, democracy and the end of dictatorship. The strike spread to other cities, provinces and universities as well.

Winds of change

After ruling the country with an iron hand for 40 years, the Communist Party of China faced one of its worst-ever crises. The winds of change across the world had led to confusion and panic among a section of Communist leaders as well. Zhao Ziyang, the Communist Party chief, was one among them. He advocated negotiation and arriving at a compromise with the protesters.

But, Deng Xiaoping, the supreme leader who had watched protests grow over six weeks, ordered the troops and tanks to move in on the night of June 3, 1989 to Tiananmen Square and evicted the protesters.

Hundreds, or perhaps even thousands, died that night... but at a crucial juncture in history, China had clearly and unambiguously chosen its path. It possibly prevented its disintegration like the Soviet Union.

While Mao Tse-tung gave China unity, nationalism and self-respect, Deng helped make it prosperous. It was Deng who proclaimed that "it doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white so long as it catches mice," and took tentative steps at opening China to the rest of the world, after centuries. He boldly embraced quasi capitalism after the Tiananmen shock, by turning Communist philosophy on its head and subordinating ideology to wealth creation. He famously declared, "Poverty is not socialism. To be rich is glorious."  The spectacular progress that China has made since 1990s has to be seen to be believed.

My 12-day trip took me to Shanghai, Beijing, Xi'an and Hangzhou, and gave a glimpse of a country that completely boggles the mind: witnessing excavations that go back to a civilisation that's 6,000 years old to travelling by the fastest train in the world...

Coming back to Tiananmen Square, you take a while to soak in the atmosphere: it’s the world’s largest open space (4,40,000 sq m) of paved stones in the heart of Beijing that houses the Great Hall of the People, where the national people’s congress convenes, and Mao’s mausoleum, which has his mummified body on display (some believe that it's his dummy as the original one had to be replaced), attracting millions of Chinese and tourists to come every day to pay their respects.

From there, you move on to The Forbidden City that served as the imperial palace for 24 emperors during the Ming and the Qing dynasties (1368 to 1911). The palace’s imposing beauty, history and craftsmanship are well captured in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 classic movie, The Last Emperor. The Jingshan Park that follows is a nice place to wind down and have a quick packed lunch before proceeding to the Temple of Heaven, whose 267-hectare park offers a taste of local life and culture.

A visit to the Great Wall had to be a dream come true, and it certainly was. There are three possible approaches to the Wall, but on the guide’s advice, we took the route from the less-crowded Muitanyu than the famous Badling, which proved to be a blessing. A short cable-car trip takes one close to the steps… you stand and gaze for the next 15 minutes at the most incredible wall on earth.

Every emperor from 210 BC to 1644 AD contributed to the construction of the wall, which is at least 6,000 km long and more, if fortifications are included. The sheer physical labour that has gone into its building is marvellous; but one shudders at the ruthlessness of China’s rulers who apparently used soldiers and convicts as slave labour, of whom some 4,00,000 died and whose bodies were buried within the wall.

For centuries, the wall gave the Chinese a sense of security from their enemies, but in mid-17th century, it did not stop the Manchus from central and southern Manchuria to break through the wall, forcing the fall of the Ming dynasty.

A tour of Beijing city the next day was like being brought back to the 21st century. Travelling by taxi, you marvel at all those skyscrapers that usually go beyond 80 to 100 floors, till your neck begins to ache, as the taxi crawls through the traffic jam. The infamous Beijing smog is very much evident, but the effort to curb it is equally so.

Attention here!

In China’s major cities, buying a new car has been made tough, while only the electric version of two-wheelers is allowed. China has developed a fantastic network of bullet trains, one of which took us to the ancient city of Xi’an. Apart from a visit to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, the City Wall, the Muslim Quarters and the Bell and Drum Towers, the highlight had to be the excavation site of the Terracotta Warriors.

Belonging to the Qin dynasty (221 BC), the elaborate mausoleum of Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China, contains the life-size pottery soldiers, horses, chariots and weapons, virtually in battle formation. They were accidentally discovered by the farmers in 1974. By taking up painstaking restoration work and building a live museum at the very spot in less than five years, the Chinese government is showcasing its ancient history and culture to the world.

If Deng Xiaoping were to be alive today, his city of dreams would have been Shanghai. The best of capitalism has tied the knots with the best of communism here. Shanghai’s Bund area, the five-km-long avenue that curves along the Huangpu river, dotted with some of the most spectacular buildings, is an unabashed combination of Manhattan and Champs-Élysées. As the sun goes down, a boat ride along Huangpu, when the tall structures – some modern and some built in 1930s in the European architectural style – are all lit up, offering a glitzy sight straight out of a fairytale, but very real.

One final thought — on the streets, in the cities, and even in the countryside, and on the ubiquitous metros, the Chinese people look a happy, smart and contented lot. They may not have tasted democracy. But totalitarian regime is nothing new to them, and they are clearly on the way to becoming gloriously rich!
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