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Thirty years of China's rise to power

Watch where you point that thing. Even school girls learn marksmanship in China. Photo by Betty Souther
  • Watch where you point that thing. Even school girls learn marksmanship in China. Photo by Betty Souther

By Jack Souther

"So sorry — only teachers on this trip. Maybe you go later."

And so it was that my intrepid traveling companion waved goodbye at YVR and took off for China on her own.

As part of a teachers-only tour Betty was among the first tourists to squeeze through the bamboo curtain. In August 1977, less than a year after Mao's death, the new leaders were in no hurry to throw open the doors to China. The excesses of the Cultural Revolution still resonated through Chinese society. Foreigners were still regarded with a mix of curiosity and suspicion, and only a few closely monitored groups from the west were allowed into the country. I didn't make the cut. But Betty and her cadre of 21 schoolteachers were given the grand tour. Here are a few entries from her journal, plus some snippets of background history.

"Our itinerary was carefully planned by Chinese bureaucrats. Beginning in Peking (now Bejing) we were shepherded by bus, boat, and plane through Tsingtao, Jinan, Shanghai, Guangzhou and finally to Hong Kong. Along the way we were escorted to the usual tourist spots — Great Wall, Ming Tombs, Forbidden City, and Tiananmen Square. But the focus of the trip was to showcase the communist regime's social and economic progress — a tour de force of communes, schools, and factories. At each facility we were greeted by the `responsible person’, served tea, and given a lecture laced with statistics, production figures — and of course a tribute to Chairman Mao, a condemnation of the ‘gang of four’, and an affirmation of how much better things are under the present communist leadership."

Although never formally occupied, Imperial China, during the latter half of the 19th century, was virtually controlled by foreign interests. Using gunboat diplomacy the European powers moved into China and proceeded to exploit its resources. The opium wars of the mid 1800s inflicted humiliating military defeats and draconian reparations on the Chinese people and Christian missionaries blatantly undermined traditional society. Against this background it's not surprising that China was slow to adopt western values. While its Asian neighbours, especially Japan, modernized China's economy remained mired in the past.

"Peking Airport is austere and quiet — no crowds or lineups and no incoming or outgoing flights. We are met by our guides, two girls and two boys, who accompany us on the long bus ride into the city. The tree-lined road is crowded with a mix of horse-drawn wagons, bicycles, carts, oxen, and goats who pay little attention to our driver's incessant honking. We see no cars until we reach the outskirts of the city. There, a few cars and other buses weave slowly through the maze of bicycles and pedestrians. The vehicles honk, the bicycles ring their bells, and the pedestrians shout to be heard above the din. A cyclist with a bundle of 20-foot bamboo poles over his shoulder yells a warning and people duck. Another weaves through the maze of pedestrians with a squealing pig lashed to his carry rack."

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