China has exploded to superpower status since I lived there 40 years ago. On a recent visit, the progress was unmistakable. But so were shortcomings.


The author dressed for work in many layers to teach all winter without heat in 1981-82

Thumb-sucker anniversary stories about China are ubiquitous these days.

In 2019, China marks seven decades since Chairman Mao Zedong announced its “liberation” by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Forty years have now passed since President Jimmy Carter “normalized” U.S. diplomatic ties with the nation once referred to as “Red” or “mainland” China.

The seeds of that rapprochement in January 1979 were planted years earlier, when President Richard Nixon made a bold overture to Mao in 1972.

Nixon’s gambit brought a game-changing new dynamic to Cold War power struggles. It also ended up leading to a long, prosperous era in Sino-U.S. trade that has enriched both countries and helped enable China’s dizzying ascent from rags to riches.

With these anniversaries in mind, I returned to China last month for my own retrospective look at what has changed and stayed the same since I first lived and worked there almost 40 years ago.

On December 18, Chinese President Xi Jinping commemorated a major milestone with a long speech broadcast nationwide from Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.

He commented on the four decades of growth since Deng Xiaoping, a prime mover of China’s economic miracle, ushered in market-style reforms summed up with the expression shifu guangrong, or “to get rich is glorious.”

China’s explosive rise to economic superpower status, aided by former foes including Japan and the United States, has stunned the world.

Since 1979, China has quintupled its share of global output. Boasting a growth rate that peaked at 10 times that of the United States, China today has more homeowners, millionaires and Internet users than any other country.

China, 40 years later

1981-1982: Not long after “normalization,” I took time off from doctoral studies and moved to Shanghai – China’s New York City and its traditional epicenter of wealth and commerce. In those years, the nation was still reeling and healing from the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when tens of millions were displaced, schools and university closed, and millions persecuted to death.

For a year I lived in the Jin Jiang Hotel (where Nixon signed the momentous 1972 communiqué) and taught U.S. History and Literature at the Shanghai Foreign Language Institute.

My students from distant provinces had not seen their families in several years. Higher authorities decided their fields of study and where they ended up working after graduation. Once assigned, the unlucky would have to work hundreds of miles away from loved ones and spouses — reunited only briefly every couple of years for “Spring Festival” (Chinese New Year).

Soon after the fall semester began, one of my pupils, Li Xuenong (“Learn from Peasants”), said they had noticed that I walked “with an air of freedom.”

Like many, he spoke a slightly stilted English gleaned from discarded British textbooks. Everyone in Shanghai seemed to be trying to learn English, but only young people with acceptably blameless proletarian class origins like Li were allowed to take the national entrance exam and – if they scored well enough – enroll in college.

Meanwhile, despite the staunch Marxist-Leninist spirit evident in everyone’s drab Maoist wardrobes, the first time I dropped off my clothes at the school laundry, all my underwear was stolen.

Before long, I started a side job as a stringer for United Press International — a news service that once competed with Reuters and The Associated Press — and other media outlets.

It was a thrill to hear my stories on Voice of America. The topics ranged from reports on detained Chinese citizens to draconian new regulations to combat “spiritual pollution.”

Back in that era, pundits often noted that improved U.S.-China ties might one day lead to more freedom, democracy and improved human rights for the Chinese people. In recent years, less mention has been made of that possibility.

Starting with Beijing’s Xidan Democracy Wall in 1978-79, a now almost-forgotten Chinese democracy movement emerged.

One of the leaders of this movement, a prominent Chinese dissident named Xu Wenli, was arrested and incarcerated in 1981. I obtained his smuggled diary in New York in late 1985 and published a long article about it. As Xu predicted, his sentence was then extended. He remained in Beijing’s infamous Prison #1 until 1993, when he was freed on medical grounds and allowed to come to the United States.

The death knell of the Chinese democracy movement was sounded 30 years ago this June, with the violent suppression and massacre of hundreds, possibly thousands of students activists in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

While China’s ruling party has succeeded in unleashing market forces, loosening many constraints and igniting the economy, they have maintained an iron grip on political power.

In 2003, on a week-long business trip back to Shanghai, I marveled at the astonishing upgrades to just about everything, including living standards and freedom of movement. In winter, even when it snowed, people young and old no longer swelled up to twice their size, piling on layers of sweaters and socks to keep warm without heat.

Where my students and I once had to apply for “passports” to be allowed to make a short jaunt to the city of Suzhou 62 miles (100 kms) away, now foreigners and Chinese alike could travel there freely –- and take a high-speed train to do so.

Across the Huangpu River from Shanghai’s Bund (a waterfront strip of stately Western-style office buildings built before Liberation), where once a desolate marsh covered Pudong on the eastern shore, a dazzling new financial district had sprung up, with hundreds of skyscrapers set off by the Oriental Pearl Tower.

But there were telltale signs of income inequality, as the “iron rice bowl” of guaranteed job security was shattering. In the heart of the city, I spotted mingong, or migrant workers, who had moved from poor rural areas, commuting from their construction jobs on dusty bicycles.

I heard rumors that after weeks or months of dangerous, backbreaking labor, they sometimes did not get paid. Lacking official hukou (work units) in Shanghai, they lived with their families in squalid shantytowns that often lacked schools for their kids.

The Chinese Dream

Since 2011, when Xi Jinping first made reference to the “Chinese Dream,” the nation’s economic success has continued to dazzle.

Despite a cratering of the Chinese stock market a few years back, labor instability and trade tensions with the Trump administration, the New York Times newspaper recently assessed China’s remarkable rise over the past 40 years with a voluminous special report entitled “China Rules: The Land That Failed to Fail.”

Still, skepticism persists. In Red Flags: Why Xi’s China Is In Jeopardy, economist George Magnus lists four speed bumps, or  “traps,” that he says could derail China’s seemingly inexorable good fortune: debt, middle income, currency (the renminbi) and an aging population.

Magnus points out that Xi’s drive to consolidate his own power, illustrated this past year by ending presidential term limits and extending indefinitely his time in office, threatens to squelch reforms needed for China’s flourishing private sector to continue to thrive.

On last month’s visit, the digital light shows bouncing off Shanghai’s skyline at night were more spectacular than ever – and the megacity’s sprawling subway network has become the world’s largest rapid transit system.

Shanghai’s metamorphosis since 1979 has to be one of history’s best examples of fast, dramatic capital improvements and economic development. As a New Yorker frustrated by years of stalled improvement in infrastructure, I felt less than proud. As an American under President Donald Trump, with his bellicose trade war rhetoric, I felt … embarrassed.

Everyone seemed to inhabit a futuristic world where one’s cell phone takes care of everything. Only we foreigners appeared to have trouble hailing a ride without a Chinese Didi app or getting our credit or debit cards to work outside our hotels.

This time, English-speaking Chinese in Shanghai suddenly seemed few and far between. As thrilling as it was to have my intermediate-level Mandarin understood, I wondered where the legions of Chinese students of English had gone.

Previously, they had besieged me, full of questions and wanting to practice. This time, I spotted fewer foreigners than on previous trips, and I felt a bit ignored. I sensed that this new aversion to speaking English (or even just trying to connect with foreigners) signaled a healthy surge in national pride. Or was it simply that nearly everyone looked lost in their cellphones — even more so than in Manhattan?

Yet the soundtrack playing in nearly every café, restaurant or local shopping mall we visited — not just in Shanghai but all across China — was American jazz and pop music. A certain old top-40 song by The Police, “Every Breath You Take,” was unusually popular.

Given that we were being watched by the world’s largest network of surveillance cameras, the lyrics held a special resonance: “Every Breath You Take, Every Move You Make, Every Bond You Break, Every Step You Take, I’ll Be Watching You…”

Since my first stay in Shanghai years ago, its population has more than doubled. Although the city has one of the world’s lowest fertility rates, Shanghai today is home to more than 24 million people, with migrant workers spiking to nearly 40 percent of residents.

Mao Zedong must be rolling in his grave over this new Chinese communism with capitalist characteristics. Perhaps nothing would upset him more than the explosive resurgence of prostitution. After 1949, leaders took great pains to uproot a sex industry that exploited millions of Chinese women. Now it’s back with a vengeance.

Every Move You Make”

I noticed that every subway rider in Shanghai has to pass through the kind of metal detectors and pat downs reserved for plane travel in the United States. What are the authorities looking for? Security is buttressed by the use of facial recognition technology and omnipresent surveillance cameras. As foreigners, we were finger-printed when we arrived in the country.

The lock-down imposed by China’s Great Firewall of internet censorship came as no surprise, but it bothered me more than expected. When alarming news flashed on my phone — PIPE BOMBS DELIVERED TO TWO FORMER PRESIDENTS, MASSACRE AT PITTSBURGH SYNAGOGUE — it drove me mad that I could not access Western news websites or even Google or gmail without the use of a Virtual Private Network.

Lest we forget: China’s vast prison system executes more people annually than the rest of the world combined while continuing its practice of harvesting their organs for profit. In a gulag for Uighur Muslims in western Xinjiang province, up to a million people are imprisoned for “re-education” and indoctrination.

Alongside China’s surge in wealth and conspicuous consumption in places like Shanghai and the larger megacity of Chongqing, the nation remains locked down in many ways, without free access to information and with cameras watching everyone 24/7.

After years of apolitical apathy on Chinese campuses, some are protesting labor abuses and rallying for better worker protections. It remains to be seen whether demonstrations at colleges from Beijing to southern Guangdong province will coalesce into a vital student movement.

With Sino-U.S. trade tensions dragging on and China’s economy slowing sharply of late, as car and home sales sink and markets roil, the “Whither China?” question is as hard to answer as ever. Over the years I have seen enough of China’s tumultuous history to appreciate how impossible it is to predict its future.


  1. What happened in 1972 between China and the United States, and why was it important?
  2. Why does the author have mixed feelings about China’s ascendancy?
  3. Could Western-style democracy work in China?

Susan Ruel has worked on the international desks of the Associated Press and United Press International, and reported for UPI from Shanghai, San Francisco and Washington. A former journalism professor, she co-authored two French books on U.S. media history. A Fulbright scholar in West Africa, she has served as an editorial consultant for the United Nations in New York and Nigeria. Since 2005, she has been writing and editing for healthcare non-profits in New York. 

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