China: witnessing the birth of a superpower

The primary driver for change has been the movement of people. Over the past nine years 120 million Chinese people – almost twice the population of the UK – have moved from the countryside to the city.


We had come from Japan – a democratic, comfortable, polite, hygiene-obsessed, orderly, first-world nation – to the grim-looking capital of a developing, nominally communist country that looked and sounded like a giant building site. For all enthusiasm, my family must have felt we were taking a step backwards in lifestyle.
It required an adjustment of preconceptions. Like many newcomers, I delighted at discoveries of Chinese literature and Daoist philosophy, Beijing parks, the edgy eccentricity of Dashanzi and the glorious mix of classicism and obscenity in the Chinese language, though I never managed to master it. The mix of communist politics and capitalist economics appeared to have created a system designed to exploit people and the environment like never before. It was so unequal that Japan appeared far more socialist by comparison. And it was changing fast. As swaths of the capital were being demolished and rebuilt for the Olympics, there was an exhilarating (and sometimes disorientating) sense of mutability. Everything seemed possible.
Looking back over the stories that followed, it is hard to believe so much could be compressed into such a short span of time – the outbreaks of Sars and bird flu, the attempted assassination of the president of Taiwan, deadly unrest in Tibet, the devastating earthquake in Sichuan, murderous ethnic violence in Xinjiang, as well as the huge regional stories: two tsunamis – in 2004 in the Indian Ocean and last year in the Pacific, a multiple nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, and the protracted rattling of nuclear sabres on the Korean peninsula.
One of my first tasks in 2003 was to chose a Chinese name. I opted for "Hua Zhong", partly because it sounds a little like "Watts, Jon", but mainly because the characters mean "Sincere to China" – something I was determined to be as a reporter. Nine years later, that sentiment has not faded. But at various times, I have been called a communist sympathiser, supporter of Taiwan, a stooge of the Dalai Lama.
However, my focus has been on development and its impact on individuals and the environment. In 2003, China had the world's sixth-biggest GDP. It passed France in 2004, Britain in 2006, Germany in 2009, and Japan in 2011. On current course, it will replace the US as No 1 within the next 15 years. It has already top in terms of internet populationenergy consumption and the size of its car market...

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