I spent the last week in China. It was the first time I had been there since 1978. The change is dramatic.
Then, everybody seemed to be wearing the same colour boiler suit and the roads were thronged with bicycles . Now , high fashion is on display and the sound of bicycles bells has been replaced with that of accelerating cars and trucks.
Some things did remain the same. In the fields of southern China one could still see farmers doing their backbreaking work, under the eyes of their ancestors. In rural China, the bones of the deceased are buried under tombstones in midst of the land they once tilled, rather than in graveyards .
But ,even in the remotest areas of China, change is under way. We met a young man in Guilin , in the south west. He approached us and asked in good English where we were from. When we said we were from Ireland, he immediately responded “O , Yes, Riverdance!” .
It emerged that he himself was a student of Chinese calligraphy, and was the first person from his village ever to go to college. His village was up in the mountains, three hours walk from the nearest road and six more hours by road from the university.
He said he was almost a celebrity at home because he had gone to college. His parents were tea planters and neither could read. He said his mother still could not believe him when he told her he had learned English. He said he would love to travel outside China, but that his main ambition was to return to his village and help the children there to learn English.
There are still big gaps between income levels within China. Incomes range from a GDP of 72000 RMB per head in Shanghai ,down to just 12000 RMB in Kansu.
In Guangxi, the province where we met the student, GDP per head is 15500 RMB. These gaps in income are no wider than those found within the European Union between, for example, London and Latvia.
Labour shortages will eventually become a problem in China. Honda is facing a strike by workers demanding higher wages in their plant in Guangdong. Food prices will also come under pressure as arable land is taken over for development and water shortages affect irrigation.
We visited some tourist sites, like the Great Wall and the tomb of Confucius. What was striking was that the overwhelming majority of the other tourists there were the Chinese themselves. They are able now to afford to enjoy their own country. It is a remarkable contrast to the situation that existed in China throughout the nineteenth, and most of the twentieth centuries.