In his farewell report for Foreign Correspondent, correspondent Stephen McDonell looks at the spectacular changes that have swept China during his 10 years there – and the untold sequels to some of the big stories he’s covered.
After 10 years reporting from China for ABC, McDonell is joining the BBC in Beijing.
When Stephen McDonell trekked into the remote town of Yingxiu after a catastrophic earthquake in 2008, the focus of the destruction was the flattened school. Its pupils were among 80,000 people killed in Sichuan Province.
A few weeks ago McDonell returned to Yingxiu. The school was just as he had found it – a poignant rubbled memorial – but it was now at the epicentre of an earthquake tourism venture complete with viewing platforms, tour guides and pony rides.
Hundreds more schoolchildren died when another school collapsed in nearby Juyuan. Local man Zhao Xiaofeng, whose daughter was killed, still remembers McDonell publicly challenging an official about whether the school was poorly built.
Seven years later Mr Zhao says the townspeople are still waiting for an explanation.
Again there is no official comment. Official secrecy and heavy-handedness are traits that have changed little in McDonell’s decade in China. But increasingly its citizens insist on being heard.
In 2010 villagers in Fujian province blamed a spate of cancer deaths on an industrial incinerator that was belching out plumes of thick black smoke. They exploded in rage when officials tried to stop them talking to the ABC.
Five years on, McDonell returns to find out what’s happened to the village – and feisty Mr Lin. It’s a tragic tale that says a lot about the way modern China works.
But for the vast majority of Chinese, life has improved in the past 10 years as the economy has powered ahead, towing countries like Australia in its wake. Optimism abounds amid uncertainty about the future.
Five years ago a top economist told McDonell that China’s economic trajectory was unsustainable because it was too reliant on foreign demand.
“One way or another China will rebalance. It’s not an option” – Professor Michael Pettis
That rebalancing is under way. While no one knows how much China will slow down, the economy is slowly transitioning from sweatshops and cheap exports to services and domestic consumer power.
Symbolic of the all the change is Beijing which has been transformed into a thriving modern capital with hip architecture, high speed trains, a subway network and chronic traffic gridlock.
Stephen McDonell prefers to use his bicycle. As he says, after 10 years: “For me China has been a wild ride.”
8:30pm Monday December 14 on ABC.