In 1961, when John Gittings graduated with a first from Oxford, he was one of a tiny number of British students to have studied Chinese.
The "bamboo curtain" seemed impenetrable. Despite the American embargo, some British companies had continued to trade with China throughout the Cold War, yet in the 1950s and 1960s economic, social and cultural exchange between Britain and China was minimal. China seemed to most people in the UK a closed and mysterious place in which they had no interest. Even today, despite all the hype about China's economic growth and the Chinese future, knowledge of China remains superficial and Britain still produces very small numbers of China specialists - in British universities fewer than 70 students a year take single-honours degrees in Chinese.
Gittings has devoted much of his life to convincing the British that China is both important and worthy of study. Unusually, he has worked both as an academic and as a successful journalist - most recently he was East Asia editor of The Guardian , 1998-2003, stationed in Hong Kong and Shanghai. He has a string of books and articles to his name, of which The Changing Face of China is the latest. It offers a discursive overview of events and developments in China in the 60 years since the establishment of the People's Republic, arranged thematically rather than chronologically.
Although most attention is focused on China's politics and economy, the book also gives an excellent sense of how developments affected ordinary people's lives and provides a brief survey of literature, poetry and the role of intellectuals since 1949. A final section offers an examination of the prospects for China's future.
Like Gittings's earlier book China Changes Face , from which it draws heavily in some of its historical sections, The Changing Face of China is based on the thesis that there have been two revolutions since 1949, the first under Mao that swept away an old corrupt society and attempted to replace it with a "spotless" socialism built behind closed doors, and the second that has embraced the power of global capitalism and has made China the economic superpower that Mao hoped it would one day be. This perspective is a healthy antidote to all the writing that presents the Chinese economic miracle as totally inexplicable, or the period of the economic reforms as having no connection with the Maoist past. Gittings does not neglect the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, but he gives detailed attention to the positive and idealistic side as well, pointing out, for example, that the World Bank has acknowledged China's remarkable achievement over three decades in assuring the basic needs of its poor.
Gittings's chapter on the 1989 student movement and Tiananmen Square massacre is one of the most compelling and lively of the book. He was an eyewitness to the events and recreates their course from the heady optimism of the first days to the terror of the last hours when the tanks rolled in.
He pays proper tribute to the ordinary people of Beijing who showed extraordinary courage in supporting, protecting and eventually hiding the students. Yet his sympathy with the activists does not blind him to Deng Xiaoping's extraordinary success in the early 1990s in resisting a conservative backlash and accelerating both the pace of change and economic growth. Gittings is perceptive about the paradoxes of China's modernity, well represented by the book's dust cover - an image of a fashionable young visitor to Beijing with heavy make-up, dyed hair and a pierced lip, posing for a photograph in front of giant portraits of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai.
China's rapid economic transformation has not been without its problems.
Numerous commentators, including most recently a UN Development Programme report, have discussed the growing inequality between the rich and poor and between the coastal regions and the interior. Corruption, unemployment, environmental degradation, rural unrest about arbitrary taxation and uncompensated land seizures, continued human rights abuses and the failure of the authorities to deal openly and honestly with health crises such as HIV/Aids and Sars are all unresolved concerns.
Gittings argues that the main threats to China's future come more from the deteriorating environment - all too obvious to any visitor to China - and from the uncertainties of the global trade system than from political unrest. But of course these factors are closely connected. The Chinese Communist Party avoided the collapse of power suffered by its Soviet and East European counterparts, but its legitimacy in practice now rests on an economic rather than an ideological basis. A decline in economic performance would probably produce a decline in political stability. Growth is therefore all important. This constrains the centre's ability to deal decisively with many problems.
Beijing has passed sensible legislation on such matters as environmental protection, land use, property rights and labour and welfare protection.
However, central control often falters when it comes to local implementation. Vested interests and corruption are increasingly difficult to deal with. There is a reluctance to intervene against enterprises or local officials if they are economically successful.
Gittings's predictions of how the current leadership will deal with these tensions and conflicts are well informed, perceptive and cautious. His book should be read by all those who want to get a better understanding of a country that will play a major role in shaping all our futures.
Delia Davin is emeritus professor of Chinese studies, Leeds University.
The Changing Face of China: From Mao to Market
Author - John Gittings
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 372
Price - £9.99
ISBN - 0 19 280734 X8