I am leaving China with much more than a plastic plaque

 

ASIA LETTER: Confirmation that my tour of duty in China was sadly coming to an end came last Tuesday when I was presented with the infamous "black plate" by the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

This plastic plaque, decorated with Chinese drawings, is given to all departing correspondents as a memento of their time in the country.

It was with a heavy heart that I graciously accepted the plate from my Foreign Ministry "minders" after only 18 months in China.

Sure, it only seemed like yesterday that I arrived, with my husband and two children, to the world's most populous country, petrified and bewildered.

We had been warned about Beijing's ruthless winters, but nothing prepared us for the minus 13 degrees temperatures which greeted us on arrival at the city's impressive Capital Airport on a grey January morning. As we did our final packing this weekend, Beijing was basking in temperatures of 30-plus, and the sky was clear and blue.

Just like its weather, China is a country of huge contrasts and contradictions. Officially, China is a communist state whose leaders keep a tight grip of its 1.2 billion people. But this rapidly emerging economic powerhouse, and new member of the World Trade Organisation, is embracing capitalism with enthusiasm.

One of the most significant political changes in my time here, and probably since the Communist Party was founded by Chairman Mao Zedong more than 80 years ago, was the announcement by President Jiang Zemin that business people will be allowed join the party for the first time.

The natural entrepreneurial instincts of the Chinese are being encouraged like never before, and the levels of car and house-ownership will soon be comparable to the West.

There is much we will miss about China. First and foremost, the kindness, gentleness and courtesy of the people. And the feeling of being safe on the streets.

We often never bothered to lock our apartment door. We were happy for our 12-year-old to cycle the two miles to a courtyard in the centre of one of Beijing's busiest hutongs to play with his friends.

I will miss the great characters I got to know on my daily 10-minute walk from our apartment compound to the office in Ritan Park.

There was the tough, wizened old woman who stood outside our compound gate waiting to earn a few RMB (local currency) lugging clothes on her cart to the stalls in the nearby Silk Alley market.

I often stopped and watched in admiration as she beat off younger, male competition to bully her way to the top of the queue to bring the first load of the day. A bit farther down the road, past the Irish Embassy, there was the little hunchback who cleaned cars for a living. He always had a smile and wave.

And outside my office, if I got there before 10 a.m, there were the same two elderly men sitting on the wall gossiping, with their birds in cages perched beside them.

That walk down Ritan Dong Lu has changed dramatically since September 11th. It is no longer possible to amble down the tree-lined street without showing your passport or residence card, and the number of security guards has increased tenfold.

In response to the recent North Korean refugee crisis, all the embassies, including ours, have had ugly barbed wire fencing erected outside their walls, transforming what was a sleepy boulevard into a fortress.

I will miss Beijing's wonderful restaurants and my Saturday mornings in the famous Silk Market haggling with the traders.

If you visit, be sure to go to Joan in number 45. She looks after all the Irish. (And let me say it once more, never pay more than a third of the asking price!)

There are also things I won't miss about China. I won't miss the spitting, the filthy air, and the nightmare traffic. And because of my complete failure to learn Mandarin, I won't miss not being able to speak freely to people without the help of a translator.

I won't miss difficulty in accessing information, and the freedom to operate as a journalist that I took for granted at home. But improvements, although small, are being made.

For example in the last few weeks, blocks have been lifted on many foreign media websites such as Time Magazine, the BBC and the Washington Post.

Beijing's success in landing the 2008 Olympics has prompted massive development in the city.

The skyline from our apartment window has changed dramatically in 18 months and is now dominated by huge construction cranes.

Planners appear to have lost the run of themselves and, sadly, every day some of the city's old buildings and streets are being levelled to make way for new high-rise apartments.

China still has a long way to go when it comes to human rights. The increase in executions, lack of religious freedom and the harsh one-child policy are all hard for Westerners to accept.

But time spent living here teaches you that nothing is simple and that the successful governance of 1.2 billion people requires a heavy hand.

One of the big joys here has been seeing happy foreign couples pushing their newly-adopted Chinese babies in buggies through the streets.

More and more Irish are adopting Chinese babies, ensuring the links between our two countries will only become stronger and lasting.

Last month we were delighted to meet one of these gorgeous babies, Lucy, with her proud new mother, Caitlín.

We look forward to catching up with them in Dublin.

We leave China with much more than the Foreign Ministry "black plate". The four of us go home hugely enriched, with a wealth of experiences and wonderful memories.

And we all leave a little bit of of our hearts behind.

Zaijian Beijing.