I first visited China in August 1976. After graduating in Chinese studies in England in 1967, I tried to get a job of teaching English in China so that I could continue my study of Chinese language and culture, but the universities had been closed because of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76). Another nine years passed before I joined a friendship delegation to China.
Everyone then wore similar, colorless clothes and plastic sandals. Officials and professors had leather shoes on, but only some of them rode in cars. Farmers lived in communes, where their basic needs were met. The only real variety was provided by China's wonderful cuisine.
In the mid-1980s, I saw the results of the new policy in Liaoning, where almost all farmers' houses had been rebuilt and redecorated, thanks to the rapid growth in agricultural output that the return to individual farming had brought about.
Since there was no direct flight from London to the Chinese mainland in 1976, we flew to Hong Kong and took a train to Lowu, then crossed the wooden bridge to Shenzhen. Shenzhen was just a railway station then, with not many people around. But by the 1980s Shenzhen had become the huge city that I frequently returned to, especially when I lived in Hong Kong from 1996 to 2001.
In 1976, no national statistics were available. Local-level statistics that we were bombarded with were unrelated to national trends. In those days, the National Statistical Bureau reported its data in secret to the State Planning Commission. Then in the 1980s, it started publishing annual yearbooks full of national data.
For an economist, this was like manna from heaven. The bureau now takes pride in its increased transparency, as confirmed by the IMF.
So what has really changed since I first set foot in China in 1976?
As everyone knows, bicycles have given way to cars. Private cars are no longer illegal. Indeed, China has become the world's largest car market. Well into the 1990s, most of the officials did not know how to drive. All the drivers I talked with had learned their skill in the army. Now many people, including officials, drive their own cars.
Lifestyle choices have exploded in the past three decades. In the 1970s, the CPC decided everything, from clothes and length of hair to what books to read and music to listen.
But by the 1980s, policemen had begun sporting Beatles haircuts - women were wearing pretty dresses in bright colors and taxi drivers playing tapes of rock music left by kind American passengers.
Another huge change is traveling. In 1976, few people had traveled within China, let alone abroad. Perceptions of other countries were limited to the incomplete presentation in the official media. Even in Shanghai, people would stare open-mouthed at foreigners because only a few of them were living in China then.
Now foreigners are so common that Chinese don't even spare them a second glance. Many Chinese have now visited other countries. Every large store in Paris, where I live now, has at least one Chinese-speaking staff to deal with visitors from China. And at least one the stores I know has a whole section devoted to Chinese customers. Travel within China has exploded, too. Many domestic flights are often full. Tourist spots are rarely without crowds.
Another major indicator of economic change is the improvement in housing. The housing reform of recent years has been one of the most surprising successes because the increase in the proportion of income spent on State-subsidized housing and private apartments is huge. Only the rapid pace of income growth could have made that possible.
Apartments today are stuffed with domestic appliances undreamed of in the 1970s, when most people aspired to own a watch, a sewing machine, a bicycle and perhaps a simple camera. In the 1980s this expanded to include a fridge, a washing machine, a TV set, a CD player and a vacuum cleaner. Now Chinese consumers have become among the most discerning in the world and like to have the latest gadgets, most of them made in China.
The author is head of global relations in the investment division of Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Developmet.
(China Daily 09/08/2009 page9)