During the night, on the long train trip back to Beijing from Pyongyang, I mention that, since an accident in 1991 in which I was hit by a truck, I have not been able to read books. I can write books, but I cannot read them.
Our English travel agent guide tells me he was recently mugged in the street in Bristol. “They hit me on the back of the head with a baseball bat,” he told me. And roughed me up a bit at the front, too. I have had difficulty reading – and slight speech problems – since then. It’s very frightening when it affects your mind.”
I develop a slight toothache.
As soon as we crossed the bridge over the Yalu River which divides North Korea from China, two smiling strangers (everyone was smiling) separately observed to me how strange it was to feel that entering China was returning to ‘freedom’.
A woman I did not know said to me, smiling: “It’s like a weight has been lifted.”
Somewhere between a station signposted Tanggu and Tianjin city, I noticed there were satellite TV dishes on some of the old, single-storey peasant homes. Not Party buildings, not notable buildings, not in any way rich homes. And occasional clusters of buildings had solar panels on their roofs; possibly communal buildings; impossible to tell.
Then, for mile after mile after mile, a gigantic new elevated road/train track was being built. Make that plural. Over mile upon mile upon continuous mile, new highways, new tower blocks were being built. It is as if the country is building a new city like Milton Keynes every week or a new London Docklands nationwide every few days.
So very different to when I was last here in 1984, 1985 and 1986.
The irony with China is that, in the Cultural Revolution – the Chinese call it the ‘Ten Year Chaos’ – of 1966-1976, the Red Guards wanted to destroy the past, to start from the ‘now’ and build a new society. That now has happened. The irony is that it is not the future they envisaged; it is the future they feared.
Would this giant leap forward have been possible in a country without the unstoppable anti-democratic will and irresistible totalitarian power to push it through? Who knows? But it is an interesting thought/dilemma.
As we arrived at Beijing railway station, someone told me they had seen on BBC World TV that the North Korean satellite launched last week had exploded shortly after launch. Back in North Korea, of course, they will ‘know’ that Satellite 3 was a glorious success and will ‘know’ the giant leaps which their country makes continue to be the envy of the world.
If you live in a self-contained village isolated from all outside knowledge – or, indeed, in The Village in The Prisoner TV series – you know only what you know. There are no known unknowns, only unknown unknowns.
Living standards and social/technological advances are comparative. The North Koreans can see for themselves – they ‘know’ – that their society has advanced in leaps and bounds – from the electricity pylons of the 1980s to – now – mobile telephones and three satellites in space. And they have seen the tributes brought to their leaders by the admiring leaders of other countries.
China – with 7.5% growth per year – is living the advance a stagnant North Korea falsely believes it is making.
In the afternoon, in Beijing, I go into a Bank of China branch. It is in a suburb of the city. The door guard and staff look shocked that a Westerner has wandered into their branch.
I get a ticket to go to the cashier. A recorded message on the loudspeaker tells me when my number – Number 46 – is ready to be dealt with and which cashier to go to. The recorded message is in Chinese… then in English. Like the road signs, the metro signs and many shop signs. It is not just for my benefit. Each customer announcement is made in Chinese… then English.
At the cashier’s desk, facing me, is a little electronic device with three buttons marked in Chinese and in English. By pressing the appropriate button, unseen by the cashier, I can say if her service has been Satisfactory or Average or Dissatisfied.
Welcome to capitalism. Welcome to China 2012.
About half an hour later, near the Novotel and the New World Centre shopping complex, I pass a woman with one eye, begging. Welcome to capitalism. Welcome to China 2012.
Close to a nearby metro entrance, an old grey-haired woman is lying flat on her back, immobile, on the pavement. Beside her, by her head, a middle-aged man, possibly her son, kneels, rocking backwards and forwards, bobbing his head on the pavement, as if in silent Buddhist prayer. A large sheet of paper with Chinese lettering explains their situation. Passers-by drop Yuan notes into a box.
Welcome to China 2012.
At dusk, walking back to my own hotel from a metro station on one of Beijing’s busy, modern ring roads – a 45 minute walk – I see some movie trucks belonging to the China Film Group – dressing rooms, a director’s trailer, equipment vans.
Further along, down a side street, they are shooting second unit photography for a movie called Man of Tai Chi – actor Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut – in an area of grey, old-style, single-storey streets just a 15 second walk off the busy ring road.
In Pyongyang, the North Korean film studios had clearly been doing nothing. But they wanted – they liked – to pretend they have a thriving film industry.
In China, they do.
But they also block Facebook, Twitter and, indeed, this very blog you are reading.
Welcome to China 2012.