There had been too many stories about British businessmen found dead in hotel rooms, too many reports from Amnesty about human rights abuses, too many articles about the lack of freedom of speech. Should one even visit the country? Was doing so to somehow endorse a suspect regime? Would the act of taking tourist snaps in Tiananmen Square – something I hoped to do – be to dishonour the brave man with the shopping bag who so famously stopped the tanks there in 1989? Could one even talk openly about the events of those few tumultuous days? I didn't know. These were the thoughts in my head as I boarded the flight to Shanghai. If someone had set me in clay, I would have been the Terracotta Worrier.
Of course, as is so often the case with travel, on arrival it is the trivial that crashes into your mind, so in Shanghai – a city that makes Manhattan look like Luss – all I could think about was laundry. Not my own, but the washing that belonged to this intoxicating city's 21 million inhabitants, most of which seemed to be on display. It's everywhere, most especially on the metal washing poles that protrude from the windows and balconies of the city's high-rise towers, apartment blocks and cramped dwellings in the hutongs, the narrow streets or alleyways that afford so many classic old-against-new views.
When the washing has been taken in, the effect is curious: only the empty poles remain so that whole buildings seem to be covered with bristles resembling large versions of the pigeon spikes seen in railway stations. But when the laundry is outside, drying, it turns entire buildings into abstract paintings, covering their towering sides with splashes of colour.
I was on a three-city trip, taking in Shanghai, Nanjing and Beijing whose combined population is 10 times the size of Scotland's. In fact, Scotland is more or less the size of a suburb of Beijing, only with much, much better air. Beijing's pollution is awful, a combination of exhaust fumes, industrial activity and dust blown in from the Gobi desert. A grey film covers everything, like fall-out from some nuclear attack. The air is bad in most cities. The papers were full of stories about a man who threatened to smash his iMac outside an Apple outlet on one of Shanghai's main streets. He said it had developed dust spots and demanded a refund – Apple blamed the city's pollution.
The architecture is stunning: pointed towers that pierce bauble-like domes, flying saucer-like roofs, raised freeways that criss-cross and weave between a 1950s, vision of what the future would look like. This is Fritz Lang's Metropolis twinned with the Festival of Britain.
China is in undergoing colossal change in a very short space of time. While the Industrial Revolution in Britain happened over a century, in China it's happening much more quickly. The accelerated urbanisation is obvious to any visitor. Every corner of Shanghai, Nanjing and Beijing is another building site, another skyscraper going up. In the cleared ground below, the construction workers are invariably housed in stacked portacabins, their sleeping bags visible through open doorways as the bankers and professional class whizz by on sweeping six-lane carriageways.
I was a guest of the British Council, part of a small group of journalists being taken to meet writers and publishers with a view to increasing dialogue and trade. This made things awkward at times. Asking difficult questions felt a bit like biting the hand that was handsomely feeding us. But we plunged in. "Can you write freely about events in Tiananmen Square?" I asked a group of writers assembled by the British Council at their offices in Shanghai.
There was silence, then embarrassed laughter. "The limitations on writing about that will become a drop in history," said the novelist Sun Ganlu. Later, privately, Xiaobai Shen, a university lecturer, said: "I have my personal opinion, but I cannot comment because you are a journalist." Enough said. Yet others we met were at pains to point out that politics didn't necessarily interest every writer. What soon became evident is that the Chinese get tired of western journalists only wanting to tell one story, that of repression, just as we might tire of Chinese journalists coming to the UK and only wanting to talk about football hooliganism.
The regime is far from perfect, but it seems that, in parallel to the intimidation experienced by the families of dissidents, elsewhere there are some small wins.
Meijing He, who works for the British Council in Beijing and is not averse to poking fun at the government, said: "The Chinese government is looking at all kinds of experiments at how they can move forward. They are even allowing some independent candidates to stand in local elections."
"It is changing here," said Tim Conway, education consul at the council's Shanghai office. "People were freely critical of the government after the train crash near Wenzhou. Everyone was saying it's the government's fault. But it's complicated, because there's also a strong feeling of 'team China', that you mustn't do anything to disturb that. Stability and harmony are crucial. It's not encouraged to be awkward."
Yet it seems some small protests are being allowed. In Nanjing, to which we travelled by high-speed train, complete with a stewardess greeting passengers in each carriage – that's state subsidy for you – we met the writer Han Dong who said: "When they wanted to build a new subway line, people protested because they had to cut down the trees. People complained and the government changed their plans. So you cannot protest about the fundamental policies of the government, but you're allowed to say 'I'm against cutting down trees' – this is democracy in China."
Nanjing means "Southern Capital" as opposed to Beijing, the "Northern Capital". This former home of the Ming emperors is a huge city and although it boasts plenty of trees something wasn't quite right. Then it clicked. Where were the birds? Graham Hewitt, the English general manager of the Nanjing Sheraton, explained: "Mao had a policy of killing the birds because he thought they were eating the crops, and it seems they still haven't come back. The only place you'll see birds is the park where the locals take their caged songbirds to sing to each other."
Hewitt, who is married to a Chinese woman, said he couldn't think of any restrictions on their lives as a result of living in China. He said: "You never have to cross the road to avoid a bunch of dodgy-looking young people – there's none of that yob element here." The women in our group noted the safety of the streets too, with none of the low-level harassment experienced elsewhere. This mutual respect is appealing and makes parts of the UK coarse in comparison.
But of course, you might expect it to come at a price – that there are police on every corner. Except there weren't. Here's one of the true paradoxes of China. It has a reputation for being controlling, yet with the exception of Tiananmen Square, police seemed to be non-existent. Want to ride your motorbike at night without any lights? No problem. The roads have a freedom that makes the west seem slightly neurotic (but safer).
Nanjing and Beijing both boast "vertical" malls – shopping centres that go up, rather than out – which are a perfect example of how Mao has been replaced by Mammon. These places are more western than the west, with familiar, high-end brand names everywhere: Cartier, Dior, Versace, Mulberry. If this is communism, then it is communism clad in the most chic clothes, sashaying along in dark glasses, complete with a Louis Vuitton shoulder bag.
And so to Tiananmen Square, to which Chinese tourists flock to have their photographs taken in front of the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall (no, he hasn't been completely replaced). There are lots of police here and one gestured "no" to me when I tried to take his picture. But once I'd retreated five steps it was fine.
Then, emerging comically, in perfect formation, from a pedestrian subway that leads to the square, came six policemen marching in unison. Without thinking, I took a picture with the flash and ... they ignored me. It was almost disappointing.
If only China would stop worrying so much about political protest and realise that it won't lead to collapse, it would gain so much respect internationally. But I still felt it was more open than people imagine.
A little further along from the marching policemen I was surprised – but also encouraged – to see a young man urinating by a tree: it could have been Saturday night in a dozen UK cities.
Distasteful, yes, but it didn't look like the action of someone who was afraid. And perhaps we should cling on to that. n
Roger Tagholm travelled by British Airways as a guest of the British Council, staying at the Hengshan Picardie Hotel, Shanghai, the Sheraton Hotel, Nanjing, and the Emperor Hotel, Beijing.