BEIJING — When I left here in 1981, the city was known to most of the world as Peking, and Chinese friends all seemed to be saving for distant dreams: color television sets and sewing machines. When I returned for the first time to Beijing one polluted afternoon this spring, the hot ticket items were portable telephones and air conditioners.
I had left a serene, monochromatic China, a universe not only committed to an ideology but also palpably different from most of the rest of the world because of it. I returned to awesome vitality and dynamism, to riotous color and excitement by the bushel.
While I was away, China had grown up--and out--to become a booming Third World country. It has the same superpower pretensions as ever, but now they are based less on ideology than on newcomer economic strategies adapted, like the politics, from Western sources.
I have lived on three continents since leaving China 12 years ago. In the interim, the Chinese capital has become, at least superficially, one of the world's shiny places.
In the old Beijing, I lived in a Russian-built hotel called the Qianmen, where the drapes were red velvet, the furniture was '50s clunky, hot water was a fitful visitor and Chinese were not allowed. Nowadays, the hotel is all dark wood and mirrors, with an atrium in the lobby. One recent morning, hotel manager Wang Changjun listened to my reminiscences with the polite bemusement of an astronaut summoned to tea with Rip Van Winkle.
"Now, most of our guests are Chinese from the provinces," he said. "We prefer them, in fact, because they spend more in our restaurants and shops than foreigners."
Wang thinks there were nine hotels for foreigners in 1981; there are now more than 100, many of them luxury palaces built in partnership with investors from then-off-limits places like Taiwan.
New construction, including thousands of high-rise office buildings and apartment houses, has overhauled the face of urban China as it rushes to catch up with the rest of the world.
There is heady mental change as well. The party's not over, heaven knows: There are now 52 million card-carrying members of the Communist Party, and uncounted thought police are ever ready to prune serious dissidence: There are thousands of political prisoners in Chinese jails.
Still, lock-step discipline is out. Individualism is in. Nobody calls anybody "comrade" anymore. "The East is red!" ideologues once shouted. More important for success nowadays is to be well-read.
The times are thrilling. And unsettling.
"Ten years ago, life was easier for many people because everybody understood the rules," said Wang Gangyi, deputy editor of the English-language China Daily. "A person's work unit was the center of his life. Now man as an individual has his own values. We are in a transition period in which people believe in everything, and yet in nothing."
I gawked like a hayseed wherever I went in China last month. But I was reassured to learn that I was not the only one.
"Shanghai has changed more in the last 10 years than in the rest of my lifetime," said Chen Genbao, 60-year-old chief reporter for the newspaper Wen Hui Bao.
"For 20 years," said 52-year-old historian Sun Zhaiwei, "I rode my bicycle through Nanjing every day. Its face didn't change, its pulse didn't change. Now, the pulse is racing and the face has some new feature every day."
In their global context, the changes I saw are breathtaking. Think about this: There are five Communist countries left today. Four of them are economic dodos: Vietnam, Laos, North Korea, Cuba. The fifth, China, is growing faster than any other country on earth.
"In 1981, I went to school in Hawaii for a year. I came back here and saw little change. We seemed 50 years behind. In 1992, I went back to Hawaii: It seemed about the same. All the dramatic changes had happened here," said Wang at the China Daily.
And change has only begun. More than 100 high-rises are in prospect for the downtown area of Nanjing alone, said Vice Mayor Zhong Yahui, a one-man chamber of commerce. Across the Huangpu River from the old heart of Shanghai, a whole new city is rising on what was farmland of the Pudong district. It is designed for 2.5 million people by 2020, but it will probably be full long before then, Shanghai city planner Lin Weiming told me at his office.
If China regained its color in the years I was away, it also lost much of its mystery. Austerity and off-putting uniformity symbolized by Mao jackets and baggy pants are as dead as the Cultural Revolution. China's women, particularly, seem to be enjoying belated new times.
"It is a great joy to be able to stroll through the streets with money in your pocket looking at clothes you might want to buy," said Hao Wei, a 24-year-old secretary in Shanghai. It floored me that modish, well-coiffed women are hardly rarer on the streets of China's cities today than they are in Italy.