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China: A revolution that keeps on turning

The last Chinese emperor fell 100 years ago. For Beijing, that was just the start.

I'm not here for the Great Wall (a good wall but not a great one, I fear), nor the Terracotta Warriors (much smaller in the flesh, so to speak, more a dwarf army than a real one). Rather I'm here for the revolution. Not the 1949 revolution which marked the accession of communist power, but the 1911 one which got rid of Emperor Pu Yi and 2,000 years of dynastic rule.

Considering this year has marked the centenary of a momentous event, the ending of two millennia of imperial subjugation, there isn't much celebrating going on. Tiananmen Square is enclosed in smog, with a few gap-toothed street hawkers trying to sell me Mao's Little Red Books. I'm reminded that the Mao suit is actually called the Zhongshan suit in China after its real inventor, Dr Sun Yat-sen – the man who spearheaded the 1911 revolution.

Sun Yat-sen was born in Guangdong province in 1866, the son of peasant farmers. After qualifying as a medical doctor, he lived abroad for many years building the revolution that would sweep the Last Emperor from his palace. Though he was made the provisional President of China in December 1911, he was deposed a few days later by factions that would later turn on each other while the communists seized power. But it was his decisive leadership over so many years that allowed China to break with its past.

An engine rumbles along beside me. I'm sitting on the raised second seat of a Chang Jiang 750cc motorcycle – a Chinese copy of the Second World War BMW sidecar combination. It's the perfect way to get about the clogged streets and narrow hutongs – the alleyways of the old Beijing whose demise was predicted as the capital was rebuilt for the 2008 Olympics, but which miraculously have survived.

Meanwhile, the real revolution is happening away from the centre in an area of urban upgrading characterised by the designer shops flanking the ultra-modern cuboid Opposite House hotel in the Sanlitun fashion area.

In the Opposite House my bathroom has a rectangular Japanese bath. It is made of cedar and is almost swimmable. This is the biggest luxury in a way: space. Beijing oozes space, with its ultra-wide roads and lack of the sort of frenzy you encounter in, say, Shanghai.

In the West we're all eating ourselves up, making smaller and smaller hotel rooms and fitting more and more cars on the same old roads. In Beijing if they need more traffic capacity, they just build a new highway. There are five concentric ring roads around the capital; no wonder the smog is so bad in the winter afternoons.

At the memorial hall for Sun Yat-sen, which is tucked away in the Temple of Azure Clouds in the Fragrant Hills – way out past the fifth ring road – there is a huge fat ginger cat, shaggy and overweight like the bad boss in Cats and Dogs (the DVD of which is the equivalent of just 80p in the pirate store down from my hotel). The great cat knows something, or seems to, squeezing himself up against the laughing Buddha statue, slinking past the glass coffin sent by the Soviet Union 25 days too late for Sun Yat-sen's body. (He was buried in Nanjing, the "southern capital", and the coffin left here.) This was in 1925, two years before China descended into warring anarchy. One wonders if his successor, Chiang Kai-shek, was trying to avoid a Lenin-like cult growing up around his leader's sainted features peering back though the glass box.

That empty glass coffin seems like an obscure symbol of Sun Yat-sen's heritage – pervasive and clearly well regarded, but strangely absent. He is officially recognised as the founding father of both the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China (better known as the island of Taiwan), which is about the only thing those two countries can agree on. In this absent figure lies the reconciliation of all the outlying parts of China.

In Hong Kong, where Sun Yat-sen received his early education, became a doctor and formulated his revolutionary views, he is also revered. The memorial hall dedicated to him sits a little under the expressway from the new airport, overshadowed by the glinting skyscrapers of the Central district.

Here, the luxury is sky high, luminescent in the dawn sun: my hotel, the Upper House, earns its Condé Nast Traveller "best for rooms" award with a bath view of the Peak and the harbour and a Michelin-starred restaurant for breakfast and dinner.

The people of Hong Kong have got used to luxury: it's just another export to mainland China. I felt a powerful connection to the very mainframe of Chinese renewal, that the pampered Hong Kong outpost was a permitted decadence, even a required one. Just as an experimental chef might cook a variety of forms of the same dish, so Hong Kong is one such Petri dish of the future, with Shanghai, Tianjin and Beijing as others.

Back in the Chinese capital, we are exploring the alleys behind the Forbidden City. In the future all city tours shall be made this way, I think, as my French sidecar pilot allows a Chinese fashion model to recline on his vehicle for an impromptu addition to the photoshoot we've stumbled upon. The photographer's easy acceptance of something random and new into his fashion shoot provides a sharp contrast to the testy perfectionism of a similar Western experience.

The current Chinese revolution, the lurch into supermodernity and beyond, has none of the rigid self-consciousness we deploy in the West. At the 798 Art Zone centre established by Ai Weiwei, which is like an empty factory, we view a photography exhibition with Western and Chinese contributors. Ai Weiwei is emblematic of the multiple strands of emerging China: he helped to design the iconic Bird's Nest stadium; the Art Zone grows daily as a cool venue, yet he's been arrested by police for protesting about human rights.

After the sidecar and the Japanese bath in my hotel room, the Bookworm bookstore is my favourite place in Beijing: a combined café and bookshop. A spider of power cables erupts between the tables of the coffee shop. Everyone has their laptop plugged in. Instead of the silent fight for power sockets you get in Costa Coffee, the staff have simply figured out a way to give everyone their own power supply. Trip hazard? Maybe, but I see in this tiny example of get-it-done-now a curious paradox. We have plenty of political freedom in the West, while our personal freedom gets zapped daily with health and safety, bureaucracy, nannyism... If I want to electrocute myself by pouring my latte into a mains socket, in China I can.

Outside, the motorcycle chariot is rumbling. I speculate on just how much red tape would need to be ingested and passed to allow such a thing among the back alleys of London or New York.

One hundred years ago, Chinese culture here was as ancient as anything on Earth, and now it's tearing up the future. Ridley Scott had it about right in Blade Runner: modernity won't be characterised by the deep techno-fantasy of Concorde and the space shuttle; rather it will be the defined by width, our ability to span as much human activity as possible: street markets next to Dolce & Gabbana superstores, rickety old motorcycles carrying an iPad-toting journalist, hotels that breathe in a city choking on fumes. I'm a Chinese convert.

Travel essentials: China

Getting there

* Cathay Pacific (020-8834 8888; cathaypacific.co.uk) flies from Heathrow to Hong Kong, with connections to Beijing on Dragonair or Air China.

Staying there

* The Opposite House, The Village, Building 1, 11 Sanlitun Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing, China (00 86 10 6417 6688; theoppositehouse.com). Doubles from 2,645 yuan (£266), room only.

* The Upper House, Pacific Place, 88 Queensway, Hong Kong (00 852 3968 1111; upperhouse.com). Doubles start at HK$6,050 (£499), room only.

Red tape & more information

* A single-entry tourist visa to China costs £65.25. Applications should be made to Chinese Visa Application Service Centre (020-7842 0960; visaforchina.org.uk), which has offices in London and Manchester.

* Hong Kong Tourist Board: discoverhongkong.com/uk

* Visit Beijing: english.visitbeijing.com.cn