It was not my first visit to China (in fact my third time climbing the great wall) but certainly the most intense: ten days from 22nd October to 1st November. Along with 26 other Overseas Chinese delegates involved in politics from eight nations in Europe and Africa, I was on a study visit at the invitation of the Chinese Government on the eve of the 18th Peoples’ Congress.
Amongst our number were an MP from South Africa, an ex-Minister from Mauritius, a special advisor to the Mayor of Cologne, Germany (twinned with Beijing), Councillors from the Netherlands and France, as well as representatives from all 3 major parties in the UK. Other Liberal Democrats included Councillor Sam Li from Lewes, Jerry Cheung from Sheffield and Anna Lo from our sister Alliance party in Northern Ireland.
A conservative estimate of the total number of Chinese living outside China is 40 million. It was the Overseas Chinese who first returned to invest and rebuild China after its reopening in 1976 in the post Mao era, and we continue to play a significant role in bridging the gap between the East and the West.
Whereas I was quietly dreading the trip anticipating countless state banquets and perfunctory meetings, it turned out to be much more informative and encouraging.
Highlights included discussions with members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (the equivalent of a second chamber), members of the Standing Committee of the People’s Congress (the equivalent of the House of Commons) as well as a most interesting visit to the Chinese Academy of Governance where Chinese civil servants are trained.
From Beijing, we were then whisked off to Chengdu in Sichuan where we were able to witness first-hand the devastation as well as amazing rebuilding of the earthquake hit district of Wenchuan. We learnt about how help from 16 provinces as well as from overseas enabled the towns and villages razed by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake to be rebuilt in just 2 years at the cost of over RMB 18 billion. Needless to say it was emotionally draining visit to the site of a school, where we each laid a flower in memory of the young lives lost on 18 May 2008. The school clock stopped at 3 pm.
In the last leg of our trip, we flew into Kangding airport (the 2nd highest airport in the world at over 4280 metres) on the western edge of Sichuan province, bordering Tibet. We spent a couple of days in the towns of Danba and Kangding, visiting Tibetan villages and homes. Apparently 3000 subsidised homes have now been built in the Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, each with satellite TV, piped water and built in prayer rooms.
We were also fortunate to have been there on the 15th day of the lunar calendar, an auspicious date celebrated by locals. A temple visit reminded me so much of the ones I had visited in Bhutan in my travels and it was certainly gratifying to see that Buddhist beliefs and practices have been allowed to thrive in communist China.
Before anyone accuses me of being an apologist for the Chinese authorities, I am proud to report that I had at times been a ‘fly in the ointment’ so to speak. I had to the surprise of some of the other delegates, raised with our hosts what would be regarded as sensitive issues, ranging from those surrounding human rights (including persecution of Falungong and the followers of the Dalai Lama), to current media control, censorship and the “firewall”.
Indeed in a debrief amongst the British delegates we agreed that we should all use our unique role as British Chinese to be critical friends of China, to continue to work towards closer understanding between our 2 nations and in facilitating more business, educational and cultural exchanges.
I shall be following the once in a decade leadership transfer in China on 8th November with great interest as well as with impatience for political reforms to come.
* Merlene Toh Emerson is the Co-founder of the Chinese Liberal Democrats.