Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Communist China’s 60th Anniversary

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 1st October, 2009

Mao ZedongOn 1 October 1949, the People’s Republic of China was declared. I wasn’t yet born, but I remember vividly at my primary school in Eccles in the late 1950s the headmaster standing in front of a world map (the British Empire still reassuring coloured pink) explaining how ‘we’ (the Western world) were going to liberate China from the murderous Reds, by backing Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalists on the island of Taiwan. Thank God the man was only in charge of a school, not the country. But something about that lesson stuck in my mind, so that by the time I was in secondary school, I was doodling Chinese characters (some real, most imagined); for some strange reason, ideograms fascinated me. The fact that ‘Red China’ had by then cut itself off from the world and was entering what would turn into the long nightmare of the Cultural Revolution only made it more mysterious, more alluring.

Great Wall of ChinaTo cut a long story short, I ended up reading Chinese at university and was in Taiwan, doing my year abroad, when Richard Nixon went to China. The family I was lodging with near Taipei were frozen on the spot with fear as we listened to the broadcasts on the radio. They couldn’t believe that their great ally, the United States, had defected to the other side. Nixon was a class act. He was taken to the Great Wall and declared, ‘Gee, this is a great wall!’ Little did I realise that only two years later I would be asked to write a book about it (the Wall, that is). At last I got to go to the People’s Republic, to see things for myself. Beijing was all bicycles, seemingly millions of them, and most people still wandered round in Mao suits.

Zhou EnlaiSixty years on from the day that the Great Helmsman stood before the cheering masses in Tiananmen Square, China is one of the most materialist societies on earth. Skyscrapers shoot up in every city, while the streets are clogged with cars. People’s life expectancy has doubled since 1949 and for most people — not all — the quality of life has improved exponentially. China is now poised to make the 21st century its own. Should this be something we in the West celebrate or fear? As the late Prime Minister Zhou Enlai said when asked what he thought about the French Revolution, ‘it’s too soon to tell.’

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