A book I read in preparation for my first visit to China, in the company of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, in November 2000, was the product of a conference held under the auspices of the United Nations in October 1994, looking forward to the China of the 21st century. Its wisdom now looks very prescient indeed.
Making the keynote address, former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt foresaw the growth of the country economically with remarkable accuracy, as well as the likelihood of its irresistible success because of the canny, step-wise approach to which the government had committed itself. Another of the speakers, Professor Lucian Pye of MIT in Massachusetts, was – it is now apparent – wonderfully clear-sighted about the political character of the Chinese. "What binds the Chinese together is their sense of culture, race and civilisation, not an identification with the nation as a state," he writes.
China and Scotland do not appear to have an enormous amount in common. The population of the whole world in 1900 was roughly the same as the population of China now and the entire population of Scotland would fit many times into the large cities the Royal Scottish National Orchestra was visiting this New Year. And that despite the country's one child policy, demonstrated at each concert the orchestra gave, where pairings of young ones and one adult were everywhere evident. There were a few larger families, but that indulgence means the ability to pay the higher tax bill levied as a disincentive by the state. Of course, the elderly represent an ever-growing proportion of the population everywhere, even if they were a less evident proportion of the classical music audience than the RSNO habitually sees at home.
But you would have difficulty filling a succession of spanking new, beautifully designed concert halls with Scottish punters keen to hear Eastern music, I'd wager. The curiosity of the Chinese for culture from outside of its boundaries far outstrips the appetite for Eastern culture in Scotland – the popular success of Jonathan Mills's 2011 Edinburgh International Festival programme notwithstanding. There were, you may recall, some embarrassingly parochial voices raised in opposition to that here at the time.
There was plenty of time on long coach journeys, and hanging around airports, to talk to the RSNO musicians about their impressions of this fast-changing nation, and most remarked on the remarkable building programme they had seen at first hand. Completed housing developments of over 100 tower blocks more than 30 stories high awaited their tenants and the infrastructure of new roads was expanding even faster than car ownership – with the Beijing underground being vastly extended as well.
The other common observation was about the lack of insularity the Scots visitors observed in the majority of their hosts. Contrary to the received wisdom about the Chinese superiority complex and even racism, here were a people who were embracing everything the world has to offer, in a state whose commitment to stability and gradualism appeared to be allowing more and more of them to have it. Dissent, it seemed, was simply not a popular option.
The Chinese were also curious about our own constitutional settlement, and would find every shade of opinion about that among the membership of the RSNO. But even those who thought their views were set in stone must have been given food for thought by their visit to a nation demonstrating the true meaning of accelerando in the 21st century.