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WITNESS: China's long march from Mao to modernity
Mon Dec 8, 2008 2:00am EST
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Jonathan Sharp first reported in China for Reuters from 1972 to 1974, when he witnessed the stirrings of the nation's emergence from the trauma of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. On bike-crowded streets, in spartan shops and among wary crowds of drab-clothed locals, Sharp saw a poor and isolated people groping for a way forward. Now, on the 30th anniversary of the launch of China's economic reforms, Beijing is a car-crowded mega-city of glass and steel buildings and garish consumerism. A short, chain-smoking Communist veteran, Deng Xiaoping, was instrumental in forging that transformation. And Sharp was there to watch him first re-emerge from Mao's shadow.
By Jonathan Sharp
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Amidst the cacophonous consumerism of today's China, it may be hard to imagine that 35 years ago, the sole imported item available in Beijing's main department store was cigarettes. Made in Albania.
And outside in the street that was Beijing's version of Fifth Avenue or Oxford Street, only occasional motor vehicles disturbed the ceaseless stream of bicycles.
There was no doubt about the spartan quality of life in the early 1970s before the onset of reforms under Deng Xiaoping which would eventually transform China into the world's fourth-largest economy. But the perceived tranquility was deceptive.
For behind the walls of the Zhongnanhai leadership compound, an epic struggle appeared to be playing out that would decide China's destiny.
The worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution that broke out in 1966 and formally ended in 1976 were over. In fact Beijing-based foreign reporters in the early 1970s wrote about the Cultural Revolution as if it finished in 1969, and they were not corrected by their minders in the Foreign Ministry.
But the decidedly un-comradely battle which foreign observers believed was being fought out between hardliners and moderates was still going full tilt.
According to those attempting to read the Chinese tea leaves, this conflict pitted hard-left firebrands led by Jiang Qing, wife of the increasingly enfeebled Mao Zedong, and a more moderate group, presumed to be led by Premier Zhou Enlai.
And Jiang and her cohorts, later demonized as the Gang of Four, appeared to be winning.
READING BETWEEN THE LINES
The mass of China's people, perhaps weary of being whipsawed by violent ideological crosswinds, and wary of saying anything that could get them into trouble, docilely followed this struggle in the Communist Party mouthpiece, the People's Daily, pinned up on street-side notice boards.
For months on end, the People's Daily railed against the evils of two men. One, Lin Biao, was an obvious target: his 1971 plot to oust Mao was thwarted and he died in a plane crash while fleeing.
The attacks on the other chief mischief-maker, Confucius, were more puzzling since the sage, who laid down firm precepts on relationships, including those between rulers and subjects and between parents and children, had been dead for 2,500 years.
But Chinese people were well versed at reading between the delphic lines. And anyway they had far more to think about than a behind-the-scenes power struggle taking place in a corner of Beijing that very few people were privileged to glimpse.
The world of the "broad masses," as they were termed, seemed to outside observers at least to be one of adequate, but uninspiring and often rationed necessities. Continued...
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