"May we walk with you and practice English?"
This was the courteous question by two Chinese college students standing in the twilight outside the Kwangchow Hotel compound for foreigners in September 1979.
My wife and I had become accustomed to the request during a journalists' tour of old China the week Chairman Deng Xiaoping opened the door to foreign visitors. This followed a 30-year blackout imposed by former Chairman Mao Zedong.
We readily agreed to walk and to talk English. We sauntered to the steps of nearby Kwangchow University. We sat for hours in the dark - streetlights off because of energy shortage -- discussing the futures of China and America.
This memory flooded back recently during a private luncheon hosted at the Punta Gorda Holiday Inn by retired U.S. Senator Iowa Roger Jepsen.
He graciously invited Sun publisher Derek Dunn-Rankin and me to break bread with three distinguished members of the Chinese Association for International Understanding.
They were Zhang Zhijun, adviser appointed by the Central Committee international department; Ms. Jiang Lin, director of American division, international department of the Central Committee; and Zhou Yongming, council member of International Understanding.
They paused here -- on a journey from Brazil to Canada -- to renew Zhang's long-held friendship with the Jepsens. The senator became involved in Sino-American relations while serving in Washington, D.C. He and Mrs. Jepson have a winter home here in Riverwood.
As I wrote in 1979 following my visit to China:
"Chairman Mao Zedong in 1966 closed all schools and colleges for a decade during his Cultural Revolution. He sought to wipe out all memories of China's 5,000-year-old imperial past and to curb a surge to private enterprise.
"For a decade, millions of teachers and "capitalist roaders" were killed and millions more sent to work camps. Colleges were shuttered. Not a single student was graduated. Ownership of farm land was abolished.
"Deng Xiaoping succeeded Mao after the latter's death in 1976 and reopened the schools. He allowed an individual to own a small "private plot and a private pig" for personal profit.
"Deng startled the country - and the world - by ordering all pupils from first grade through college to learn English. It was a subtle recognition that the language of commerce is English.
Talk In The Dark
"Our visit is the first opportunity the Chinese have had to use their new, language skill.
"Li and Chang are typical of the new generation. They are enthusiastic about the official Four Modernizations program - progress in Agriculture, Science, Technology and Defense.
"They are convinced that through "socialism, populous China will catch up with the ‘capitalist' nations.
"'When?' I asked.
"Chang -- just entering college at age 26 because of Mao's cultural revolution -- thinks his people expect too much too soon from modernization. ‘There will be change for the better, but not as fast as most think.'
"Li is younger and has been relatively untouched by past ideological struggle. He thinks China will leap into the modern world overnight.
"'What do you expect from modernization?' I asked. He replied, ‘A nice family, a well-furnished flat, a refrigerator and an automobile.'
"'What will happen if you have not obtained these things by the time you have children of your present age?'
"After a thoughtful silence, he answered, ‘The revolutionary spirit is strong in the Chinese people!'
"Modernization is a great challenge for the Chinese, but the high degree of voluntary compliance is an indication of their determination to succeed.
"'It will be a triumph for socialism,' declared Li.
"'Don't forget about the Cultural Revolution, I cautioned. ‘You can not modernize without a lot of capitalism.'
"Again, there was a long pause in the conversation. Chang replied, ‘I have thought much about this, and sometimes I think capitalism is not so bad.'
"As we parted, I gave our young guides my business cards for their English instructor. On the backs I wrote, ‘Give Li (or Chang) an A in English.'
"The genie is out of the bottle. Change is coming to China. The question is whether millennia of custom, and decades of brainwashing, can be reshaped adequately.
"If - big if - China can obtain the capital to harness her natural resources -- and backs off from communism enough to fully use her enormous human energy -- she will dominate the world."
Since those memorable first days of a reborn China, that nation has surged into the modern world - but not without travail.
The first point of interest on our tour was the five-block-long "Democracy Wall" where Chinese were permitted to paste posters expressing political views.
We were not allowed to approach the wall because the week before our arrival a Chinese student was killed there during a political argument.
Democracy Wall was only a block or so from Tianamen Square where is located a mausoleum containing the embalmed body of Mao. Four, long lines of visitors - continuously night and day - walked briskly past Mao in a glass coffin.
As we were foreign guests, Chinese visitors to Mao's sepulcher smilingly opened the queue to us.
When liberated college students in 1989 staged their pro-democracy demonstration at Tianamen Square - with their improvised "Goddess of Democracy" statue patterned after the American Statue of Liberty - I got goose bumps.
I remembered what young Li -- 10 years earlier -- said would happen in 10 years if economic progress was too slow in coming.
Chairman Deng broke the communist mold, but in 1989 he ordered the People's Liberation Army to slaughter several thousand Tianamen Square demonstrators and imprison hundreds of ringleaders.
Today, political dissidents in China still are confined to labor camps without legal recourse. However, American-style capitalism -- that my Kwangchow friend Chang thought not so bad -- has vaulted China into an economic power second only to the United States.
With 1.3 billion people, the largest standing army and the second largest economy after the U.S., China is a de facto world power.
China and the U.S. are best customers of each other, although China this year sold us $103 billion more goods than we sold them.
This translates to millions of American jobs being relocated to China. State banks there make low-interest loans to exporting industries, subsidize Chinese currency and levy high tariffs on imported goods.
Japan succumbed to this type of subsidized banking and money management until it's economy collapsed ten years ago. A vacuum was created that China rushed to fill. Storm flags are flying.
American and Chinese economists are working to balance out trade and job problems that are muddled by political/cultural differences.
Technology created their problems, but also can solve them.
China invented the wheelbarrow and windmill, but until recently has lagged behind in technology. Now, this has changed with the successful launching of astronaut Yang Liwei for 14 earth orbits. Plans are well along for Chinese satellites and a trip to the moon.
Senator Jepson's recent guests are a new generation of Chinese leaders with global savvy. Hopefully they portend a new Chinese policy of mutual cooperation with the United States and other western nations.
Socialism is waning in a new China, and democracy is gaining - a la Hong Kong and mass communication. The world's largest country - like a giant ship -- turns slowly, but inexorably.
As the famous American statesman Benjamin Franklin opined when we embarked on a journey of democratic capitalism in 1776, "We must all hang together, or assuredly, we shall all hang separately."
About the Author:
Lindsey Williams is a Sun columnist who can be contacted at: