The Christian Science Monitor

Return to China: One reporter finds a nation that has gone from bicycles to bullet trains

People walk around a Buddhist shrine in Rejabgeh, on the Tibetan Plateau, in China. Source: Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File

The ultra-sleek bullet train, floating on a magnetic cushion, accelerates as it leaves Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport for the megacity of 24 million people. Outside, a futuristic metropolis unfolds. Curved skyscrapers and raised freeways flash by until they blur. Inside the car, green digits above the doorway shoot upward: 200 kilometers per hour ... 300 ... 431. 

The car is uncrowded, its well-dressed passengers unimpressed by the world’s fastest commercial train. Some riders stare at mobile phones. No one speaks. Less than eight minutes later, the train glides to a stop and passengers alight, stepping past stewards wearing long coats into a high-ceilinged station. 

I’ve arrived in China, but I feel worlds away from the country I first encountered decades earlier. A gray, frozen landscape greeted me when I flew into Beijing one wintry November day in 1983. The airport road was empty but for a few people bundled in ragged clothes pedaling bicycles, and a panting horse pulling a wobbly cart. I was fresh out of college and taking up residence as a novice reporter.

It had been only seven years since Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 and the end of his fanatical Cultural Revolution. The country was isolated and poor, its
1 billion people exhausted and traumatized by economic stagnation, famine, and political purges. China’s 800 million peasants toiled on “people’s communes.” Urban workers had an “iron rice bowl” of assigned jobs and food rations.

For most of the next decade, I lived in Beijing and Hong Kong, taking a front-row seat as pragmatic leader Deng Xiaoping jettisoned communism for capitalism, and China sprang to life. In the spring of 1989, I watched the buildup of a pro-democracy movement. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese rallied in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, only to face a brutal military crackdown on June 4.

Many of my contacts disappeared into hiding, jail, or exile. Few Chinese dared speak with me. Taking my infant son for a stroll in Beijing’s

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