BEIJING — When I first came to China in 1981, the main sound on the streets of Canton was the tinkle of bicycle bells. The only fashions in Shanghai were blue Mao jackets. The dominant color in Beijing was drab gray--gray buildings and, usually, gray sky.
The world wondered at the time, would China really stop exporting revolution and turn inward to solve its massive problems?
When I came back to China this May, just before the crushing of pro-democracy demonstrations in Tian An Men Square, I found Canton alive with the din of hawkers, cars and music. Shanghai was wearing high-heel sandals and crazy-quilt plaids. The gray face of Beijing was highlighted by an occasional burst of color--a red door here, a skyscraper there, a storefront of gold.
And the world is now wondering: Can China resolve its daunting problems and yet avoid importing revolution?
China's opening to the outside world was evident everywhere: makeup articles in magazines, television ads and Kentucky Fried Chicken. New political ideas, too--at least until the tanks rolled into Tian An Men Square.
In many ways, the crisis was built into a notion the government proposed in the early 1980s: that educated people could carry China forward without dabbling in politics. In 1983, when I left China, I wrote that Deng seemed to believe that he had found the formula to stabilize one-party rule and move the country forward.
"He lets people make money, fly kites, fire lazy workers, practice calligraphy, see foreign movies," I wrote. "But there are some things he does not let Chinese do. One is to suggest that the Communist Party should let other parties compete for power."
Through the many changes in the years since, that one policy has not changed.
By the time I returned in May, it was perhaps only surprising that the tanks had not been called out earlier. Dissent was loud and surprisingly broad. I had never seen nor heard such an outcry here. People were willing, even eager, to discuss politics. In the beginning of the decade, such talk, if articulated at all, would have been in whispers, perhaps at night in a public park where two people chatting in the shadows would not attract prying eyes and ears.
Telephone calls were out of the question back then. People assumed that some uninvited ear was listening. Many citizens expressed no interest in politics; they had enough politics in the decade of turmoil called the Cultural Revolution.
In the early 1980s, students seemed among the least interested. Many were just renewing educational careers interrupted by the Cultural Revolution. I remember Xiao, a 30-year-old woman chemistry student who had been consigned to an Inner Mongolia tailor's shop. She had spent seven years away from her books, only because her parents had been tagged as "rightist."
Xiao was willing to discuss her treatment--considered a safe topic because the government itself encouraged denunciations of the Cultural Revolution. But if the conversation turned to the new government--led by Deng, who himself was purged during the 10 years--Xiao showed no interest.
By the end of this May, how different it all was. Students on the campus of Chung Shan University were singing songs against the premier: "Down with Li Peng," they chanted to the tune of "Frere Jacques."
Such an open and whimsical attack on a leader in China seemed impossible to someone whose last memory of China was filled with paranoia.
But students were willing to talk outdoors in plain daylight. One translated anti-Li and anti-Deng posters for an outsider.
How confident he was. Like other students, he seemed naively unaware of possible danger. Students blithely said their teachers had assured them that no harm could come because of their protests.
The open dissent was not limited to students. Workers, bureaucrats and even Communist Party members would volunteer opinions, although from place to place the emphasis might change.
Canton, with its endless variety of markets and stores, jade and herb salesmen, noodle shops and fruit stands, seemed mostly preoccupied with keeping its own economic vitality going. The political subtleties of the protests in Beijing seemed secondary.
A friend visited my hotel room. In 1981, such a thing would have brought the secret police running.
He said the Cantonese did not care about Marxism. They thought the leadership was inept. They looked more to Hong Kong for a model than Beijing or anywhere else inside China.
All the taxis, all the bananas for sale in the street--there were never bananas a decade ago--all the little factories are, to the Cantonese, an affirmation of what they can do on their own.
In Shanghai, opinion was tempered by the knowledge that Beijing kept a tighter rein on the city than on Canton.
"Shanghai is always watched closely by Beijing," a steelworker said. "If Shanghai gets violent, no one can control it."