TELEVISION / Suitably shod for the long march to the West

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THE PEOPLE'S Liberation Army has started on its conquest of the American mainland. Fighting side by side with forces from Taiwan, they have already established a bridgehead and are planning further expansion. What's more, hardly any Americans know they've arrived, even though they may be collaborators. As The Giant Awakes (BBC 2, Saturday) revealed in its opening programme, the PLA has gone into business and in only five years its Haifong Footwear Company has captured two and a half per cent of the US shoe market. The battle for the sole of America has begun.

Haifong operates out of an astonishing factory complex on the Pearl River. 'Virgin Island' houses 7,000 workers, barracked and fed on military lines. They march in file to the company canteen and then march back to their work benches, where they take an obligatory catnap before production resumes. The first training new workers get is drill, conducted by a People's Liberation Army sergeant. The sight is a bit unnerving for any viewer - as if the Chinese had learnt their capitalism from their own agitprop theatre - but if you're in the shoe business, it must be bloody terrifying.

Such events, suggested the presenter Michael Robinson, are 'living history', a magnified rerun of the great population shifts of the Industrial Revolution. Of course almost anything in a documentary is living history but The Giant Awakes justifies the grandiose claim. Watching its account this weekend of how the steel town of Wuhan is accommodating to the economic reforms, you had a sense of a giant touch-paper just beginning to fizz.

The Giant Awakes shows you wonders but it isn't intimate with the people it depicts. For that you have to turn to Phil Agland's marvellous series Beyond the Clouds (C 4), which ended its run last night. A lot of people have compared it, in the intensity of its human drama, to television soaps, a comparison which Agland reportedly doesn't much care for. I don't think he should worry too much - it's just a clumsy way of saying how much we care about the characters on screen, a testimony (of a rather paradoxical kind) to his respect for his subjects.

I was in difficulties twice in the last episode, first when Dr Tang's daughter revealed that she had gained a place at college and so would be able to carry on his practice, and shortly afterwards when the teacher was shown tenderly massaging her handicapped child, Little Swallow. They were unremarkable scenes in one sense - you don't need to go to the ends of the earth to find proud fathers and devoted mothers - but they were both very moving here, as though Agland was reluctant to leave these people without offering us some reassurance about their futures.

As the title suggested, a certain wistful longing surrounded the whole series, a hint of lost horizons. Lijiang looked, in many scenes, like a place we couldn't return to, the imagined landscape of a willow pattern plate. The feeling was emphasised by Agland's irrepressible eye for beauty; even in a burnt-out house he framed the charred books into a composition, and his camera returned again and again to stare at Jade Mountain, a peak as improbably beautiful as a painted backdrop. He knew how to frame a joke too. 'It's nice having you boys here . . .' said one of the local grannies, seen in close-up, 'I feel so much safer.' As the narration told you that she had rented her house out as a police station, the camera pulled back to reveal 25 young constables crammed into her small living-room.

The policemen were watching a sword-and-sorcery drama on television, a scene that was echoed when the country teacher came to town with his daughter and she sat in front of a screen for the first time. She watched with round-eyed wonder, commenting on the figures on screen as if they were her neighbours. Not infrequently in this beautiful series Agland has returned jaded viewers to the same condition, has made us watch his human stories like children.