Reporter Bids China Goodbye

Rob Gifford hitchhikes on Route 312 in the Gobi Desert.

hide captionRob Gifford hitchhikes on Route 312 in the Gobi Desert during a series about crossing China in 2004.

Liang Yan, for NPR

Rob Gifford sends this postcard from China, where he's filed reports for six years. China "spits in your eye and then embraces you," Gifford says. "And I can't believe I have to leave." He is transferring to London.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And tomorrow, NPR's Rob Gifford leaves China after writing about that immense country for six years. It's always hard for reporters to separate themselves from the stories they cover, but Rob says it's especially hard in China.

ROB GIFFORD reporting:

I left the office for almost the last time the other night and stepped out onto the sweating street. There was a fight going on on the corner. The car horns were honking and you could taste the chemicals in the air. Someone cleared their throat and spat a little bit too near my foot, and I thought to myself, `Boy, am I going to miss this place.'

The Middle East may be exploding, Europe may or may not be expanding and the US may be struggling to deal with the post-9/11 world, but looming over all of this is the biggest long-term story of them all, the rise of China, and there really is no better place to be a reporter.

It's been a century since the US emerged as a superpower on the wings of the Industrial Revolution. In China now, the industrial and the technological revolutions are taking place simultaneously. Communism is dead and people are groping around for what can replace it. Being bourgeois is now an aspiration and not a crime. China is socialism in reverse, where the Communists are capitalists, and the capitalists are Communists, and what's the difference, anyway?

The party started off fighting the landlords and giving land to the peasants. Now it's allying with the developers and stealing back the peasants' land. The contradictions drive you crazy. One day you're thinking this place really is going to take over the world. The next day it's all about to collapse. It's Karl Marx, it's Adam Smith, it's John D. Rockefeller and every robber baron that ever lived, it spits in your eye and then embraces you.

And I can't believe I have to leave. I'm a reporter and I'm not supposed to care. I'm just supposed to observe. But I do care. How can I not care when a fifth of humanity is being convulsed before my eyes, when thousands are making millions and millions are being crushed? And how many people have to be crushed to make the country great, and how many new middle class are there, anyway, the ones who may make the country great? And will the losers of economic reform rise up and create the new revolution, or will they, too, be dragged eventually upwards by the booming economy of the world's new superpower? And how long can they go on without reforming politically, and can they ever make the transition to democracy? And can China hold together, or will it all implode?

So many questions, and not long after you arrive, you think you have some answers. Then you start making time lines for how long till China becomes a full market economy and how long till it becomes a democracy. And then the longer you stay, you realize the less you know, until one day you stand, after six years, the day before you're about to leave, and you realize you only know one thing about this crazy, frustrating, exhilarating, dreadful, wonderful country: One day, probably quite soon, you're coming back.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, Beijing.

MONTAGNE: Not to worry, Rob Gifford isn't leaving NPR. He'll be reporting next from our London Bureau.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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