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Passengers lineup outside Guangzhou railway station to board their train January 10, 2013. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Passengers lineup outside Guangzhou railway station to board their train January 10, 2013. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

China at the crossroads of renewal and breakdown Add to ...

Over a three-week train journey along the path of Chairman Mao’s historic Long March of the 1930s, correspondent Mark MacKinnon travelled into the economic giant’s heartland, beyond the horizons of Beijing and Shanghai. From rice paddies to dance clubs and corporate towers, he found the people of the rising power hopeful about prosperity but furious over corruption, and unsure of the promises of new president Xi Jinping – a country on the verge of either renewal or breakdown

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The police in Liangjiahe were onto us before we even glimpsed the famous caves where China’s new leader once lived.

“Come in here,” a plainclothes Public Security Bureau officer said, grabbing me by the elbow seconds after I stepped out of a taxi near the walled compound that is the village’s administrative centre. He steered us into a small room where other officers quickly joined us.

The men took down our passport and visa numbers. They asked what we were doing in Liangjiahe (Lee-ung-jah-huh), a town of a few hundred people in the remote northern corner of Shaanxi (Shan-see) province.

But they already knew the answer: It was because this is where Xi Jinping, the man who became China’s President on March 14, was exiled and assigned to hard labour during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.

Other reporters, we knew, had been chased away by plainclothes officers like the men around us, without ever seeing the cave-house Mr. Xi lived in during his teenage years. Now we feared the same. Our hopes sank as the police explained that we needed permission from the local Communist Party secretary to do any reporting in Liangjiahe.

An hour passed, then two. I grimly contemplated the possibility that we had spent 22 days travelling around China by train only to be stopped a few hundred metres from our goal.

We had been following roughly the route of Mao Zedong’s historic Long March, which helped to give birth to the country’s modern communist identity.

Mr. Xi’s teenaged home Liangjiahe is just 80 kilometres from the city of Yan’an, the place where the Red Armies rested and regrouped in 1935 at the end of their march.

As we waited for a decision, the officers gave us permission to wander into the courtyard of the building, where two old men sat warming themselves in the midwinter sun.

Their lives had to have been marked by the arrival of Mr. Xi in 1969, and I bet they would tell that story again and again to whoever asked. I squatted down and asked if they could tell me what they remembered.

BEIJING: A NATION REMADE, BUT IN WHAT IMAGE?

Mr. Xi’s inauguration capped more than four years that I have been in China – all of them astonishing to experience, but almost impossible to summarize.

I arrived on the last day of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and sat that evening in the city’s Temple of the Earth park to watch the closing ceremonies on a big-screen television.

The crowd seemed pleasantly surprised at how well their country had handled its moment in the spotlight.

By 2010, China had passed Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy, behind only the United States. China was suddenly the other centre of the world. Economically and diplomatically, people increasingly spoke of a new superpower structure, a “G2” made up of Washington and Beijing.

There were symbolic leaps forward too: China put its first woman in space last summer, and completed its first manned space-docking. The first Chinese aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, launched in September.

With all that has come a more assertive foreign policy, especially within East Asia, where China has deployed its coast guard and navy to back territorial claims.

A minority of Chinese are loudly supportive. The rest are proud in a more detached and uncertain way: Their country is being transformed, largely through their hard work, but they have no say in what happens next.

There is a widespread fear that their gains are not safe – polls show that more than half of rich Chinese have made some preparations to leave the country.

Much of the outcome for China and the world depends on Mr. Xi, and what he does with his decade as the country’s “paramount leader.”

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