Back to Changsha

We are in a bus on the way back to Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, in central China.

We have been in the Zhangjiajie Forest Park. They say it inspired the fantastic landscapes of the film Avatar.

For two hours we have been passing luxuriantly wooded ridges interspersed with green, flat-bottomed valleys with rice fields. Houses are dotted round the bases of the ridges, off-white, pale brown, cream — dull, washed-out colours against the radiant green of the paddy fields.

The houses seem mostly to have three stories. The ground floor has a wide entrance with silvery metal grilles: perhaps it is used for cars, utilities, livestock.

I tried to see inside ones that were near to the road but I never could.

Ms. Tan decided we should visit a typical Chinese tourist destination at the end of our visit. The park was noisy, thronging with people, the guides with little flags and neck microphones all competing to get heard.

We went up in cable car. The walkways and observation platforms were always crowded with people too.

We stayed in a kind of lodge, like a ski lodge, with pine floors and rafters.

Breakfast was a watery rice porridge, sweet cakes, noodles, shelled peanuts and boiled eggs. I have come to like the hot soya milk. Maureen drinks hot water.

The presentations seemed to go well. Ms. Tan, very much in charge, kept interrupting if she felt something was not clear.

I went through the presentations I had been asked to do, London sights, the South West of England, Scotland, Yorkshire and the Lake District, day trips to Brussels and Paris.

They made notes.

On the last day she asked me to meet with her. She arranged for her assistant to take Maureen shopping, and then on to the Orange Island Park with the huge head of Mao Zedong.

Tan was wearing expensive tailored slacks and sweater with purple and orange stripes.

She poured tea from a little tea set on a low table between us.

“That went well,” she said. “Now I have something else to talk to you about.”

She paused: ” I think you are a political animal”, she said.

“What do you mean?” I said.

“You are interested in how things work and in people who are leaders. Many things in China will have to change.Young people in China all wonder about the future”, she said. “At certain times we have looked to the West, but maybe now in different way”.

I was not sure where this was going.

“America we cannot follow. Europe possibly. Social democracy is closer to our model but I am not sure if we are going in that direction. In the West we see many problems. Obesity. People who live on welfare, don’t want to work. Bad schools, unruly children, lacking discipline. Old people abandoned by their families. As China gets richer, we do not want these things. We have strong family traditions — in many homes three or four generations live together. We do not want to lose this.”

“But other things will have to have to change. Our banks must pay proper interest rates to savers. The one child rule will not last for ever. There  is corruption. Things like that. I may ask you to organise some other kinds of trips, visits for intelligent people from China, who want to learn how the world works and speak to people who know about such things.”

I wondered if this was “official” but I did not ask.

“Have you been following the news in China? Do you find it interesting?”

I said I had been following the case of Bo Xilai. Bo Xilai is the disgraced former party boss of the municipality of Chonquing, in south-west China. His fall from power came after his Chief of Police sought protection from an American consulate because he said his life was in danger. Then a British man, Neil Hayward, was found dead in a hotel room. Bo Xilai’s wife, Gu Kailai, was accused of his murder. Now Bo has disappeared from sight. He is probably under interrogation.

Ms Tan did not want to talk about it. She just said: “It’s part of an argument between conservatives and reformists”, she said.

Then she added: “It’s not the first time an Englishman gets caught up in Chinese politics”.

She got up.

“I have a gift” she said. It was wrapped. It later turned out to be a fine set of chopsticks.

“Take this as well,” she said. It was an orange book I had seen sitting on another side table.

“It’s about someone I admire — with reservations”, she said, as she handed it to me.

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