As China prepares for its 50th birthday, just how modern has it managed to become? By Neil Taylor
WHEN TOURISTS first came to China in the 1970s, the 20th century could be largely ignored. Foreigners came to admire what earlier dynasties had bequeathed, the Han tombs, T'ang pagodas, Ming ceramics and Qing palaces.

Most tourists' only glimpses of modern China were of a few posters promoting increased industrial production or reduced family sizes. Everyone seemed well fed, occupied and in reasonable health, with no beggars to cause embarrassment. The civil war, droughts or floods since 1949 could be forgotten and the Communist government credited for the higher standard of living.

These days, however, tourists have little such opportunity for political escape. The building boom and traffic jams ensure that at least half a day in any city will be spent confronting contemporary China. The hotel will provide no respite, being equally modern and free of any foreign TV channels currently out of favour. No "ism" can conveniently summarise what the tourist will see.

Socialism is clearly no more as the private sector has torn down the courtyards and large department stores in favour of franchised boutiques and luxury flats. Beijing Airport was recently linked to the city centre not by a railway but by a motorway, perhaps on the assumption that those who could not afford a taxi had no business to be there. All major air routes in China now have several competing carriers. As "no frills" becomes the trend in Britain, the Chinese carriers concentrate on the millions of nouveaux riches who can afford to fly and demand the level of service they now receive in their offices and homes.

The differential pricing scheme that once applied to foreigners visiting the main sites such as the Great Wall or the Terracotta Army in Xian has been abolished - but the prices now applicable to all will hardly have mass appeal. The Chinese there will be as representative as a Briton who can afford to visit Hampton Court.

Yet capitalism does not seem to be a correct description of the China that awaits tourists. The "Forbidden City", where the Chinese Leadership works, still lives up to its name. "Guiding" (Regulation) is a word that brings dread to any foreign resident in China, as legislation constantly changes on a seemingly whimsical basis. The tourist sees this in the sudden arrival of a new tax on a bill, a new visa form at the London Embassy or, more positively, in a faster train service on all major trunk routes. Such items will be reported, but not discussed, in the English- language China Daily pushed under bedroom doors in most hotels. There is no point in asking for a different paper since none exists. For criticism and dissent, tourists look to the reports on football and baseball matches on the back pages, not to the politics at the front. The tourist will also see beggars and be accosted from time to time, although far less than, say, in Egypt or India.

UK tour operators largely decided to avoid running tours around 4 June this year, the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen "incident" as it is still officially described. Yet the issues raised then are still evident. Can every new tower block really be the result of long discussions at the Planning Committee or are corruption and networking more to blame?

As many more farmers' mansions are provided with high walls, guards and satellite dishes while peasants drift into the towns for work, will the tourist not wonder if much of the former idealism centred on the farmers' communes has not evaporated? Mild dissent may even face the tourist head- on. Some local authorities have felt that demonstrations are safer than repression and that a few critical posters are not too serious a threat. There are now echoes in China of Easter Europe in the late 1980s, with religious parades masking a wide range of political and economic demands.

China's 50th birthday on 1 October, 1999, should present the country at its political best and most astute. A restored Tiananmen Square will be covering in thousands of stone slabs the memories of June 1989. The current leadership will look down on cheering supporters; by day bunting and by night fireworks will bring colour to an otherwise austere environment. Those who are out of favour will be unseen and sadly forgotten.

Traveller's Guide

BETWEEN THEM, Air China (0171-630 0919) and British Airways (0345 222111) fly daily, non-stop, between Heathrow and Beijing. Virgin Atlantic flies twice-weekly between Heathrow and Shanghai. Expect to pay about pounds 500 return, or perhaps less if you book an entire trip using Air China flights - these have been advertised recently at below pounds 400.

Even lower fares, and more choice, can be found on flights to the Hong Kong Special Autonomous Region of China.

British passport holders need no visa to enter Hong Kong, but beyond that you need a Chinese visa, which is most easily obtained through the China Travel Service, 7 Upper St Martin's Lane WC2H 9DL (0171-836 9911); this agency charges pounds 10 on top of the normal pounds 25 fee. You need your passport, a completed application form and one photograph. Allow a week for processing. You can obtain a visa more quickly in Hong Kong if you are travelling to China via the SAR, and pay only HK$100 (about pounds 8).