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China at the crossroads of renewal and breakdown

Passengers lineup outside Guangzhou railway station to board their train January 10, 2013.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Over a three-week train journey along the path of Chairman Mao's historic Long March of the 1930s, correspondent Mark MacKinnon travelled into the economic giant's heartland, beyond the horizons of Beijing and Shanghai. From rice paddies to dance clubs and corporate towers, he found the people of the rising power hopeful about prosperity but furious over corruption, and unsure of the promises of new president Xi Jinping – a country on the verge of either renewal or breakdown

The police in Liangjiahe were onto us before we even glimpsed the famous caves where China's new leader once lived.

"Come in here," a plainclothes Public Security Bureau officer said, grabbing me by the elbow seconds after I stepped out of a taxi near the walled compound that is the village's administrative centre. He steered us into a small room where other officers quickly joined us.

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The men took down our passport and visa numbers. They asked what we were doing in Liangjiahe (Lee-ung-jah-huh), a town of a few hundred people in the remote northern corner of Shaanxi (Shan-see) province.

But they already knew the answer: It was because this is where Xi Jinping, the man who became China's President on March 14, was exiled and assigned to hard labour during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.

Other reporters, we knew, had been chased away by plainclothes officers like the men around us, without ever seeing the cave-house Mr. Xi lived in during his teenage years. Now we feared the same. Our hopes sank as the police explained that we needed permission from the local Communist Party secretary to do any reporting in Liangjiahe.

An hour passed, then two. I grimly contemplated the possibility that we had spent 22 days travelling around China by train only to be stopped a few hundred metres from our goal.

We had been following roughly the route of Mao Zedong's historic Long March, which helped to give birth to the country's modern communist identity.

Mr. Xi's teenaged home Liangjiahe is just 80 kilometres from the city of Yan'an, the place where the Red Armies rested and regrouped in 1935 at the end of their march.

As we waited for a decision, the officers gave us permission to wander into the courtyard of the building, where two old men sat warming themselves in the midwinter sun.

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Their lives had to have been marked by the arrival of Mr. Xi in 1969, and I bet they would tell that story again and again to whoever asked. I squatted down and asked if they could tell me what they remembered.

BEIJING: A NATION REMADE, BUT IN WHAT IMAGE?

Mr. Xi's inauguration capped more than four years that I have been in China – all of them astonishing to experience, but almost impossible to summarize.

I arrived on the last day of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and sat that evening in the city's Temple of the Earth park to watch the closing ceremonies on a big-screen television.

The crowd seemed pleasantly surprised at how well their country had handled its moment in the spotlight.

By 2010, China had passed Japan to become the world's second-largest economy, behind only the United States. China was suddenly the other centre of the world. Economically and diplomatically, people increasingly spoke of a new superpower structure, a "G2" made up of Washington and Beijing.

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There were symbolic leaps forward too: China put its first woman in space last summer, and completed its first manned space-docking. The first Chinese aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, launched in September.

With all that has come a more assertive foreign policy, especially within East Asia, where China has deployed its coast guard and navy to back territorial claims.

A minority of Chinese are loudly supportive. The rest are proud in a more detached and uncertain way: Their country is being transformed, largely through their hard work, but they have no say in what happens next.

There is a widespread fear that their gains are not safe – polls show that more than half of rich Chinese have made some preparations to leave the country.

Much of the outcome for China and the world depends on Mr. Xi, and what he does with his decade as the country's "paramount leader."

To get a better sense of him and the challenges he is inheriting, I began compiling a list of stories I wanted to follow – economic, environmental and political – in far-flung parts of the country, including Liangjiahe.

One afternoon, I plotted them on a map and an unexpected pattern emerged: You could draw an extended arc through those dots and trace a course not too different from that of the fabled Long March that Mao Zedong and his Red Armies had taken more than seven decades earlier.

Then, Mao and his comrades were making a tortuously slow, almost fatal overland retreat from positions that had been surrounded by the armies of Chiang Kai-shek's ruling Kuomintang.

Today, Mao's former Party looks to be on the move again, at least in spirit, and almost as slowly – inching back from a totalitarian system that seems doomed to implode without reform.

By retracing the Long March of the 1930s, I hoped to discover a little bit about where Mao's heirs might be headed next.

I had fostered a love of trains by riding through desolate parts of my former post, Russia. So, along with photographer John Lehmann and Yu Mei, the Beijing-bureau news assistant, I decided to spend three weeks on Chinese trains in the middle of winter.

The Globe published individually many of the stories we found along the way. But it's the sweep of the journey that sticks with me. The trip made me fall back in love with China – or at least its people – after a period of personal disillusionment caused by living with the poisonous air, intrusive security and lobotomizing censorship that are facts of life in the People's Republic.

Beijing, the trip reminded me, is a cynical city that governs a relentlessly optimistic people.

But the journey also showed me how that Chinese sense of hope – and patience – is being tested in 2013, at the same time as their country is going through what could prove to be a pivotal change at the top.

As we rolled west and then north over those 22 days, I witnessed the first successes and failures of a local democracy movement, grinding poverty and inequality, and the early stirrings of civil society.

Collectively, the people I met believe that the time has come for China to change. It does not need to become a Western-style democracy with elected leaders, at least not yet. But it does need to become a fairer place, and soon.

There are 1.3 billion people marching forward into what are unquestionably their country's brightest hours. But they do so wondering if national greatness for China – and more money in their pockets – is worth the sense of powerlessness that comes with this moment of pride.

GUANGZHOU SOUTH RAIL STATION: ALL ABOARD

To take a long-distance train through China is to travel between worlds. One moment, the scene out your window is five-star hotels and corporate towers; the next, it's rice paddies and squat homes with thatched roofs.

You have left the developed China that Western businessmen know, and entered the left-behind countryside where little has changed since imperial times.

China's rapidly expanding network of high-speed trains is an effort to patch together those different Chinas, addressing many problems at once.

The most obvious goals are economic: The construction of eight high-speed lines – four running east-west, the others north-south – over the past five years has created work for 100,000 people.

A pair of rail expansion plans worth hundreds of billions of dollars, first in 2009 and then again last year, helped to avoid predicted slowdowns in growth for the world's second-largest economy.

The high-speed network hints at what China could be. It also suggests what holds it back. Here are trains running faster than those in Europe, with the Communist Party as the metaphorical locomotive pulling along a hard-working people who are getting rich enough to afford such luxuries. But the project has been undermined by the endemic corruption that threatens seemingly every gain the country makes.

The new railways are taking some of the burden off the nation's incredibly overcrowded slow-coach services. When all the seats and bunks on those routes are sold out, they sell tickets for standing room, even on routes that are 20 or 30 hours long.

On overnight trains, it is common to see families with small children camping in any nook – often the covered area connecting the cars – that they can claim as their space.

The high-speed trains are also an environmental leap forward, emitting far less pollutants than the older versions – no small matter when many of China's large cities are among the most polluted in the world.

Another purpose – as with the Canadian Pacific Railway back in the 1880s – is nation-building.

One of the most startling things about visiting less-traveled parts of China is how disconnected this seeming monolith of a country can be. People in coastal Guangdong, the birthplace of the Cantonese language, are as different from Beijingers in speech, diet and mindset as Sicilians are from Belgians.

In some villages we visited farther inland, the first challenge was finding a local Mandarin speaker who could translate for us, since few of the locals could understand standard Chinese.

Keeping the Chinese empire intact remains as real a challenge for Xi Jinping in 2013 as it posed to emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties.

The Communist Party is betting that high-speed rail will serve to draw these different Chinas closer together, making the nation a more solid construction.

Our first train ride of the trip was on one of these new multipurpose supertrains, known as G-trains, travelling north at ear-popping speed between Guang-zhou and Changsha, the capital of central Hunan province.

The G-train slid almost noiselessly out of the futuristic Guangzhou South railway station, a hangar of a place that features a McDonalds and a Family Mart convenience store.

As we picked up speed, we were quickly back in a China that knows few such modernities. Soon, we were travelling 308 kilometres an hour, and the images out the window began to blur.

LIANGJIAHE REVISITED: EATING BITTERNESS

By the time we arrived at the gate of Mr. Xi's former cave-house, we had seen progress everywhere our trains had stopped: apartment buildings rising from the ground, dirt roads being paved, high-speed railway lines coming into service, mobile phone networks spreading to the remotest corners of the country.

But we also heard again and again how little China has changed when it comes to the rule of law. As in Mao's time, the Communist Party can still demolish your home, declare that you are a "subversive" element, and send you to prison or a labour camp without any proof or chance to defend yourself.

The system empowers the corrupt and makes dissidents out of earnest people who want to better their country. Somewhere else, the persecuted Ai Weiwei might be only a moderately successful contemporary artist; Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate now facing eight more years in jail, could have been just another grumpy author.

Xi Jinping is the first Communist Party leader who comes to power with a biography that may give him an understanding of that systemic flaw. As a 15-year-old, he had his life shattered.

The man he had grown up idolizing, his father – revolutionary hero Xi Zhongxun – had been condemned as a member of an anti-communist clique and sent to do hard labour in the countryside. The family was plunged into disgrace.

The younger Mr. Xi spent seven years digging ditches and doing farm labour in Liangjiahe, where the soil is so loose and dry that little besides corn can grow.

Like the others here, he lived in a cave-like tunnel he and his fellow labourers carved into the rocky hillside, adding only the modern touches of a metal door and windows at the entrance. Water came from a well, and there was heat only if he collected scrub to burn.

One of the old men I met while waiting in the courtyard told me that his name is Mr. Wang. He had helped to build the village dike alongside Xi Jinping 40-some years ago, in a very different China.

Mr. Wang's and Mr. Xi's lives have diverged unthinkably since the days they shovelled dirt side by side in Shaanxi province: Mr. Xi wears sharp suits and drives about in armoured limousines; Mr. Wang wears an oversized and tattered blue worker's jacket, and only black slippers on his feet despite the winter chill.

"We were farmers. I didn't think anyone I knew could ever be the country's leader," Mr. Wang said, admitting that he was nervous to talk about his old comrade.

But he would say he hoped that Mr. Xi remembered what it was like to "eat bitterness" – a catch-all Chinese expression for living though whatever hardships life throws at you.

"I think it will be helpful to him that he had this experience," Mr. Wang said. "He ate bitterness here, just like us."

TWO REVERSALS OF FORTUNE

Once I was allowed to speak with other locals, I found that they remembered a young man who arrived from Beijing speaking only standard Mandarin, unable to understand the local dialect.

But he impressed them with his willingness to work as hard as any of them, one winter taking off his shoes and rolling up his trousers to help to build a dike in the town's frigid river.

"I didn't expect a city boy could come here and live like us," said Liang Youchang, an 83-year-old farmer who worked alongside Mr. Xi building the dike. "When he came back [in the early 1990s] to visit along with his sister, she was weeping when she saw how tough his life had been."

There's a Communist star carved into the stone over the door to Mr. Xi's former cave-home, alongside Mao's famous injunction to "serve the people."

Mr. Xi's family was rehabilitated following Mao's death in 1976, which brought an end to the Cultural Revolution, and his father became a key adviser to Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, when he moved to open China's state-run economy.

The elder Mr. Xi was charged with creating the "Special Economic Zone" of Shenzhen, then a fishing village adjacent to Hong Kong. The younger Mr. Xi rose through the ranks under his father's protection. He graduated from the engineering program at Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University and by the time he was 32 years old he was executive vice-mayor of the port city of Xiamen.

Now a thick-set man who favours dark suits and red ties, Mr. Xi was introduced in November in Beijing's Great Hall of the People as the new leader of the Communist Party, the latest successor to Mao Zedong. With no hint of rancour, he makes sure in almost every speech to include a few words of praise for the man who once destroyed his family.

It's a rags-to-riches story the party is not yet sure how to tell, perhaps since it illustrates how fluid and ill-defined justice was, and is, in the People's Republic.

WUKAN: THE TOWN THAT STOOD UP FOR ITSELF – AND WONDERS WHAT IT GAINED

If our final stop reminded us of Mr. Xi's challenge – fix the system before the people's patience runs out – our first destination on our railway journey showed us how near that breaking point might be.

We came to Guangdong province (where Mao's Red Armies began their Long March) and in the southeast, to the fishing village of Wukan – a town of 1,300 people that has become synonymous in China with both rippling unrest and its primary causes: corrupt local officials and the deals they make with property developers.

Wukan is a place of squat concrete homes surrounded by palm trees, a meagre fishing harbour and two out-of-place constructions that flick at what went wrong: a sprawling holiday resort that looks like it has never had a guest (though locals say it's frequented by Communist Party officials) and the towering gold-domed headquarters of the county-level finance department.

The finance building looks fit for the government of an oil-rich sultanate, rather than a fishing village 230 kilometres from the nearest airport. Locals sneeringly call it the Gold House. The resort is the Shenzhen Air Holiday Hotel. The villagers collectively owned part of the land it was built on before it was privatized in 1999.

All those with a claim were supposed to receive compensation, but it was meagre compared with the profits developers and local officials made. It was a pattern that would be repeated again and again over the following decade.

Fury over corruption and the court system that enables it is palpable across China. Since the country's last popular uprising – which ended with the bloody military crackdown on Tiananmen Square in 1989 – the vast majority of Chinese have accepted silently the Communist Party's new deal: In an opened-up economy, people will be free to make their fortunes. Just don't challenge our right to rule.

But party cadres, all the way up, have shown themselves unable to stick to their side of the bargain. Local officials grab larger and larger shares of the wealth. Town bosses force villagers off farmland to bring in real-estate projects that deliver huge personal profits. Money earmarked for public-works projects disappears into the pockets of local officials, hundreds of millions of dollars at a time.

The anger is not so far of the focused sort that has toppled Arab governments since 2011. But without any effective formal way to address grievances, tens of thousands of protests are occurring in the country a year.

In 2010 (the last year for which statistics are available), there were 180,000 "mass incidents" around the country. They range from the brief but angry demonstrations that occasionally swell over perceived abuses by individual policemen, to full-on village uprisings. Wukan's is the most famous.

In 2009, an anonymous resident put together a pamphlet that listed all the transactions and showed how little property would be left for Wukan's future generations.

"We were supposed to have received huge compensation. The people realized that if we didn't speak up, we'd lose our last land," said Zhang Jiangxing, a 21-year-old blogger whose online writings helped to galvanize the population.

Residents realized that the problem would not change until their government did. They took to the streets in late 2011, demanding the right to choose their own representatives. (Chinese villages have held "elections" for decades, but the candidates are carefully screened by the Communist Party and the results are predetermined.)

They took over the centre of town, a pink-brick plaza known as Little Square, provoking a showdown with armed police, who surrounded Wukan and choked off the supply of food and water in an effort to force residents to back down.

The villagers refused to budge, and eventually achieved a remarkable breakthrough in recent Chinese history: the right to vote freely for the village council. The new seven-man council elected in February, 2012, had only one Communist Party member on it.

The new council made a show of transparency – making its books public for the first time – and set about a series of public-works projects. But recovering the villagers' land has proved more challenging than achieving local democracy. The problems stretch far higher than the village council can reach.

"All we're asking for is fairness from the government. We want the corrupt officials to spit out the money they have swallowed. I have five sons, seven people in my family, and no land at all," said Huang Zhiliang, a 40-year-old occasional labourer who approached us as we stood on Little Square.

"If we don't get it back, we will ask our leaders to bring the people together again to protest."

CHANGSHA: A 'NAIL HOUSE' MOTHER'S LONELY STANDOFF

Identical problems – land seizures, official corruption and a sense that ordinary people can do nothing – are easy to find 1,000 kilometres northwest in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, a short drive from Mao's birthplace in the mountain town of Shaoshan.

Tens of thousands of pilgrims still make their way to Shaoshan each year to bow and lay flowers at the foot of a six-metre-high statue of the chairman – some believe Mao has become a deity, watching over the People's Republic that he founded.

We were met at Changsha South train station by Zhang Yuxiang, a 59-year-old tailor and a mother of one who had been fighting a years-long battle to stop local officials from demolishing her modest family home.

Ms. Zhang collapsed into tears as soon as we were all in a van together. "I'm so happy you're here. It gives me hope," she sobbed. "I haven't slept for five days."

She and her neighbour are two of a large, uncounted number of "nail house" owners across China – that is, "stubborn nails" who refuse to make way for development.

She took us to what had once been her neighbourhood, near the smog-shrouded centre of Changsha. Where there had been more than 100 homes flanked by farmlands now stood only a vast construction site, with apartment blocks – dozens of storeys high – rising out of the rust-brown dirt.

At the edge remained two forlorn homes, those of Ms. Zhang and her neighbour. Both had refused the local government's demand that they move out and accept the offered compensation of about $27,000.

"It's too low," Ms. Zhang said, her eyes flashing with anger. "Even if I took the compensation, I could never afford another home. Those that took the compensation were relocated to another place, and their land has already been sold from under them again."

(Land in China is owned either by collectives or by the state, meaning an individual rarely has a protected right to their land.)

Ms. Zhang's decision not to leave the home where she ran her tailoring shop for 22 years and raised her only son had turned her life into a Kafkaesque nightmare. Two years ago, the government cut off her water and electricity. Men came into her house and ripped out the sink and stove.

Now, the main room – which used to be her tailoring shop – looked as though it had been hit by a missile. Her bedroom looked like a camp erected by a homeless person, which in many ways is what she had become.

She slept at night on a hard box-spring covered with thin quilts. By her pillow she kept a toothbrush, a flashlight and an umbrella for the rain that would pour through the many cracks in her roof.

Her husband and son had already moved out. "It's too dangerous for my son to be here," she explained.

In July of 2012, Ms. Zhang – once the head of the local village committee – was taken into police custody for the first time. Though she was never charged with any crime, she said she was tortured by six men simply because she had been defiant.

"I was handcuffed behind my back," she said, crossing her hands behind her. "Then they [defecated] in water and poured it down my throat."

As she spoke she was down on her knees in the back of the van, forcing her own mouth open to show how she had been made to drink. She claimed the head of the local Public Security Bureau and the head of her village council had been directly involved.

Like many of China's petitioners, Ms. Zhang blamed local officials for what has happened to her, not the top leadership in Beijing. As the construction moved closer to her house – there was now rubble piled up on all sides of her lonely structure – she had hung a red banner her rooftop. "Protect farmers' legal rights!" it read.

The banner was positioned beside a photograph of Xi Jinping standing at a flower-dressed podium. She said she believed Mr. Xi would save her home, if only he knew what was happening.

ON THE K-TRAIN: THE NEW CHINA PLAYS ITS CARDS

Our next trip began in Chang-sha's 100-year-old main railway station. Despite the new high-speed terminal across town, the old station was still bursting with unwashed passengers, shoving and carrying humongous bags on their backs.

We headed back south aboard one of the K-train slow coaches that are the workhorses of China's rail network, crisscrossing the country at a much more modest top speed of 120 kilometres an hour.

John Lehmann, Yu Mei and I were booked in "soft sleeper" class – the nicest, with four narrow bunks to a compartment, and overhead space to cram your bags into. Sharing our room was Kelvin Chan, a 30-year-old real-estate developer from Hong Kong. "Maybe they stick all the people with [foreign] passports in the same cabin," he guessed, speaking the first English we had heard on the trip.

Mr. Chan was on the other side of China's great scramble for real estate. He is one of the people brought in by local governments to build New China after Old China – made up of people like Ms. Zhang – is shoved aside.

When the economy was roaring a few years ago, Mr. Chan's company (owned by his father) worked on developments in bigger cities such as Changsha. But the global economic crisis has tempered enthusiasm for new building even in China, where the whole country often feels like a vast construction site. The company has been forced to start looking for business at the county level.

They found that the economic downturn had not dampened the enthusiasm of local officials for big-money projects. Mr. Chan was headed to southern Hunan to oversee the construction of a 13-building apartment-retail complex – each building 18 storeys high – in a town of 70,000 people.

According to Mr. Chan, the economics of such transactions heavily favour the local government. For his upcoming project, the town council had compensated residents at roughly 50,000 yuan, or $8,000, per mu (a Chinese unit of land measurement – 15 mu equals one hectare). The town then sold the land to Mr. Chan's company at closer to $225,000 per mu, an astonishing 2,800-per-cent markup.

Even still, Mr. Chan said that his company can still make a 20-per-cent profit by selling the finished properties on to eager buyers. The only hiccups were residents like Ms. Zhang who refuse to take their cash and leave.

"We do have some problems with them," he acknowledged as our train rumbled south. "But we just give some more cash to the government and eventually they solve it."

GUIYANG: LEFT BEHIND BY CENTURIES

Another six hours south by the slower T-train – this time by "hard sleeper" class, six bunks per berth – sits Guiyang, the capital of China's poorest province, Guizhou. Guiyang is what they call a "third-tier" city in China – one left behind not just by the racing coastal economies, but even by interior cities that have geographical advantages that places like Guiyang do not.

Guizhou province has nothing: no sizable industries, no natural resources other than coal, not even the farmland that so much of the country has as a fallback plan.

Its main export is its people, who travel to the first- and second-tier cities to work in the factories, often leaving their children in the care of elderly grandparents so they can make an extra few thousand yuan a month needed for the kids' education.

The wealth gap in China can be staggering to observe up close. Parts of Guizhou feel not just thousands of kilometres but hundreds of years away from the ultramodern skylines on Beijing and Shanghai. Even more jarring is the evidence on the streets of Guiyang, where you can see a family of three sharing a mud-covered scooter on one street and an immaculately clean Lamborghini on the next.

The outgoing tandem of president Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao made Guizhou the focus of their Construct a New Socialist Countryside campaign, pouring billions into building new roads over the past decade, connecting many villages to water and electricity for the first time.

The improvements in poor provinces such as Guizhou – nearly everyone we spoke to said their lives had improved in the preceding 10 years – will probably stand as one of the chief accomplishments of the Hu-Wen era.

Much of that effort, though, was undermined by official corruption at the local level, blended with impunity and a disregard for those less fortunate.

IN WANZI, THE CHILDREN OF CONFUCIUS WAIT IN VAIN

By chance, the taxi driver who collected us from our hotel in the morning was named Kong Dezheng, a member of one of the most unique families in China: The Kongs are the direct descendants of Kong Qiu, the sage the outside world knows as Confucius.

A thousand men with Confucius's last name ("We don't count the women," a village elder told me) live in a hamlet called Wanzi, a collection of concrete homes clinging to the side of a dirt road that is a winding, five-hour drive west of Guiyang, through the mountains.

The descendants of Confucius live little differently now than their ancestors did centuries ago, when part of the family first moved here from the northeast of the country. The Kongs grow enough corn in the rocky land to get by, but not enough extra to sell. The young and able leave Wanzi to go work in the coastal factories, leaving their children in the care of the grandparents who remain.

This is a village of old people and babies. It's also a place of extreme poverty. The homes are clustered around a single dirt road that turns into a mudslide when it rains.

"Being related to Confucius hasn't brought us any extra food," said Kong Lingmei, a 69-year-old retired teacher and chief source of family lore.

He poured green tea that he boiled on a hot plate built into the centre of his family's dinner table – a uniquely Chinese apparatus that also served as the only source of heat in their home. Nineteen others lived in the two-storey, eight-room building.

None of the money Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao spent on Guizhou appeared to have reached Wanzi.

Indeed, the drive there would have been quicker had local officials not siphoned off much of the cash they were allocated to build a four-lane highway and decided instead that the western side of the province could get by with just two lanes.

"We have too many corrupt officials. If they receive 10,000, we only receive 1,000. The poorer a place is, the more corrupt it is," said Kong Wei, a 44-year-old farmer. "We sometimes hear money is being sent, but we never receive it."

CHONGQING: POPPING CORKS AND PARTY INTRIGUE

"Put your fuckin' hands up! Put your fuckin' hands up!"

Chen Qiming, a 26-year-old who performs as MC Tequila, was trying to get the crowd going on a Saturday night at Club TNT, in the Yangtze River metropolis of Chongqing, cursing at them in English and spinning pop songs that a radio listener in Canada would know well: We Are Young by the band fun., one of the most-played songs anywhere last year, merged into Bon Jovi's celebratory It's My Life.

The crowd of glitteringly dressed twentysomethings obligingly put its hands up.

Bon Jovi's ode to seizing the moment accurately captured the ethos of the crowd in Club TNT, where it cost $100 to book a table on a Saturday night, and the bottles of Moët & Chandon champagne that decorate most tables cost $200 per popped cork.

"In Chongqing's club scene right now, more and more people like to buy champagne. They want to let others know 'I'm rich, I can afford this,'" MC Tequila explained.

He said that he sings and performs in English to give the club a more "international" feel.

Despite the prices, many in the crowd were students home from university to celebrate the Lunar New Year. As they danced under a ceiling of blinking chandeliers, the revellers around me were proud that this club in middle China looked like a nightspot in Paris, London, New York or Montreal.

The students represent the positive side of China's trade-off: They have more money, and more opportunity, than any Chinese generation before them. They just want their country to be normal, and on this Saturday night in Chongqing, it very much was.

The Red Armies did not pass through Chongqing on their Long March in 1935. But in 2013, it's impossible to properly take the pulse of China without visiting the sweaty metropolis that has dominated headlines while I have been reporting from the country.

Chongqing has long been compared to Chicago, another populous river city that is considered a "heartland" place even as it is overshadowed by the political and economic capitals on the coast. But it's the Chicago of the 1920s that many see as a parallel for Chongqing – a place that gives rise to heroes and villains, provocative politicians and infamous gangsters.

At first, Bo Xilai, the high-profile Communist Party boss, came across as one of the heroes. Instead, he would become perhaps the most notorious cautionary tale of the new Chinese era.

Like Xi Jinping, Mr. Bo was a "princeling" of the party. Both their fathers had been revolutionaries who were then persecuted by Mao and finally rehabilitated by Deng Xiaoping, allowing them to protect and guide their children's careers. But that is where the similarities end.

While Mr. Xi was rising quietly through the ranks, Mr. Bo was making headlines wherever he went. After arriving as party boss of Chongqing in 2007, he launched a spectacular campaign to crush the powerful local mafia, as well as the corrupt officials who abetted them, while charting a populist leftward course economically.

Along with his cult of personality, Mr. Bo worried Chinese intellectuals with the show trials and lack of due process that were part of his anti-mafia campaign. One of his victims was Ren Jianyu, a 25-year-old civil servant whose online comments comparing Mr. Bo's tactics to Mao's.

In the summer of 2011, a team of Chongqing public-security agents went to Mr. Ren's house, and told him he needed to go to the police station.

He was sentenced to two years in a labour camp, where he was forced to work 10 hours a day welding copper rings together (he never knew why) and relearning his Communist Party history.

"I went through every feeling: pain, hate, denial," Mr. Ren recalled in an interview after his release.

Still, Mr. Bo was seen as a sure bet to join the top of China's power pyramid, the seven-man Standing Committee of the Politburo. Some predicted that he would become Mr. Xi's vice-president.

As much of the world knows, the November, 2011, death of British businessman Neil Heywood changed all that.

Mr. Bo's wife, former lawyer Gu Kailai, would confess that she came to see the family friend as a threat, invited him to a Chongqing hotel, she got him drunk and slipped him cyanide.

Ms. Gu was handed a suspended death sentence last summer. Mr. Bo was arrested on unknown charges that will almost certainly include corruption and abuse of power – an extraordinarily sensitive moment for the regime.

The irony is not lost on Mr. Ren: Mr. Bo, the man who persecuted him for speaking his mind, is now the one missing inside China's justice system. He has not been seen or heard from in a year. Unlike Mr. Ren, Mr. Bo is likely to eventually see a judge. But there's no chance that he will be found innocent.

LANZHOU: THE GHOSTS OF TIANANMEN SQUARE

From Chongqing we took a three-hour fast train west to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, not far from the edge of the Tibetan plateau. From there it was an epic 22-hour rumble north and west to Lanzhou, not far from the endless sands of the Gobi desert.

Lanzhou is a grim and dirty city of 3.2 million people supported by coal mines, chemical factories and, on the outskirts, a large People's Liberation Army base. To the east is the city of Huining, where Red Armies that had marched thousands of kilometres finally met up with local Communist forces. The Long March was almost over.

Because of the city's strategic location and ethnic mix – Lanzhou is a city of Han Chinese, Hui Muslims, ethnic Uyghurs (Muslims from Xinjiang province), Tibetans and Mongolians – it is also one of the most tightly controlled places in China. The few people here who spoke of politics said they longed for the freer air of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

In another area, Yu Nan might have been a city councillor, but instead he lives under tight scrutiny. He agreed to meet us, but would not name a place until he was already there and convinced he had not been followed. We joined him in a curtained-off private room in a tea house near the centre of Lanzhou. Even there, Mr. Yu kept a ball cap pulled down low over his eyes.

The 45-year-old said he had first encountered the Public Security Bureau in 1989 while he was a university student in the ancient Silk Road city of Xi'an. As students took over Tiananmen Square in Beijing that spring, students in Xi'an and dozens of other cities took to the streets to show their support. Mr. Yu joined them, and emerged as one of the leaders of the democracy movement in the city.

But when the tanks and troops were sent in to crush the protests at Tiananmen – leaving hundreds of people, maybe thousands, dead – Mr. Yu and the other student leaders quickly decided that the protesters should be sent home to avoid another massacre. The leaders remained in the walled city centre to ensure that all the protesters were gone before the soldiers came.

Those who lingered were arrested. Mr. Yu spent six months packaging garlic at a re-education-through-labour camp outside the city.

Twenty-four years later, he was still being watched by the police. His more recent troubles stemmed from a 2011 effort to do something the Chinese constitution suggests he should be able to do: run for elected office. Like nearly all candidates who did not have prior Communist Party approval to run in the village elections that fall, he was thrown off the ballot on a technicality before a single vote was cast.

Mr. Yu said he knew in advance that he would never be allowed to win a spot on the village council, even though it's a nearly powerless body. His aim had been to raise awareness about how the election should have been run, and perhaps to inspire more ordinary citizens to follow his lead the next time around.

"I wanted to witness how the election went so that next time I can tutor others on the process. If there are more people involved, it will be more difficult for them to stop it," he said.

He used almost the same language I had heard a dozen times already on the journey – that all he wanted was for the Communist Party to follow its own rules: "They didn't consult us when they wrote the Constitution. At least they should respect what it says."

That is the bitter irony that is transforming China: Those who were once resigned to Communist Party rule (even some party members) now defy and mock the system.

Many see idealistic socialism being replaced by brutal every-person-for-themselves capitalism. Others, however, are connecting and trying to rebuild the fabric of a society they see as torn.

SMOG CITY: WELCOME TO 'MORDOR'

The day after we met Mr. Yu in the tea house, we were invited to visit Bao Xianbing, one of the more inspiring characters we encountered on our long, winding journey.

Tall, gregarious and energetic, Mr. Bao seemed the opposite of the stereotype of the Chinese civil servant. When we arrived at his office on the 14th floor of a government building near the centre of Lanzhou, he literally bounced up with excitement, pouring us tea and then refilling our paper cups faster than we could sip.

"You're my first foreign friends!" he smiled, clapping his hands together and pouring more tea.

We had come to see Mr. Bao because I was interested in Lanzhou's nascent environmental movement.

Last year, Lanzhou was named the most polluted city in China by the World Health Organization, based on the amount of particulate matter in the air. That makes it the second-most polluted place in the world, after the bicycle- and tractor-manufacturing hub of Ludhiana in northern India.

And Lanzhou seems intent on topping the next pollution chart – the city's latest expansion plan involves shaving the tops off about 700 barren mountains to create flat space for more apartment blocks and shopping malls.

The entire time we had been on the train, we had been reading and hearing of the air pollution emergency that had carpeted Beijing since we left the capital, a pall so thick and otherworldly that many residents had taken to referring to the city as Mordor, the always-dark city from The Lord of the Rings.

Fictional Mordor is home to orcs and ogres. Beijing is where my wife and asthmatic young daughter live.

Since 2008, the U.S. embassy in Beijing has been posting on Twitter its in-house evaluations of the air quality in Beijing, much to the chagrin of a Chinese government that preferred telling its citizens that it was only a thick "fog" lingering out their window.

The air quality index used by the embassy measures the amounts of ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, and plots the total amount of pollution in the air on a scale of 1 to 500, with 1 being a perfect day and anything above 300 considered "hazardous."

The scale proved to be too small to measure Beijing's air-pollution problems. In November, 2010, the AQI rating went through the roof to an unheard-of 522.

At a loss for a term that captured an AQI of 522, someone at the embassy tweeted that the air was "crazy bad," drawing a grumpy rebuke from the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

This January was even worse. The air in Beijing soared over 500 for 17 consecutive hours in Jan. 12, hitting an unimaginable 755 at one point (which a chastened U.S. embassy called only "beyond index").

The good news was that the Chinese government had by then been embarrassed into releasing its own air-quality information.

The official figure was a significantly lower 498 on the government's own scale of 500. But it was nonetheless an acknowledgment that China's growth-at-all-costs economic model had come with real and serious side effects.

Even in Lanzhou, there is a realization that something needs to change. Despite the city's repressive atmosphere, a group of about 200 concerned citizens came together in 2004 to form the first local non-governmental organization.

The oddly named Green Camel Bell environmental group started out on the city's university campuses trying to raise awareness and arranging trash-pickup days.

More recently, it joined environmental organizations in cities around China in taking independent measurements of the city's air quality and posting the information online.

Mr. Bao was this week's volunteer air tester.

"I'm a Communist Party member, if you can believe it," he told us, still grinning behind his oval spectacles and placing a device that measured air quality outside his 14th-floor window. "This is change and progress, the fact that I'm speaking out. My parents never could."

He pulled the device in and posted the result on his account on Weibo, the Chinese social-media network. It's a typically smoggy day with an air quality rating of 310, or "hazardous" on the international scale.

"Our civilization is not as good as yours," Mr. Bao sighed. "And it's getting worse, not better."

Such a public challenge to the government's grip on information has drawn the predictable reply. Mr. Bao said he was now on his fifth Weibo account after the first four were blocked.

The founders of Green Camel Bell have got used to visits from the local Public Security Bureau, although they have managed to maintain a working relationship.

It was inspiring and worrying all at the same time. I asked Mr. Bao if he wanted us to protect his name. Instead, he snapped a picture of me visiting him in his government office and posted it on his Weibo account.

"In a country with one-party rule, the reforms must come because of pressure from below, from the citizens demanding more and more," Mr. Yu, the would-be council candidate, told me. "Only when the pressure reaches the top will the leaders realize they need to do emergency surgery."

BACK TO BEIJING: ON REFORM, TALK VS. ACTION

China's new leaders say they get the message. This month, after returning from our journey, I sat under the chandeliers in the Gold Hall of the Great Hall of the People as China's new Premier, Li Keqiang, promised a "self-imposed revolution." His would be a smaller, cleaner government, he vowed.

Mr. Xi, too, has said it is time to put power in China "in a cage of regulations." But four-plus years in China have made me deeply cynical about speeches given by Communist Party leaders.

Mr. Xi's push to battle the culture of corruption within the bureaucracy seems impressive so far. Yet a quick search turns up similar speeches given by Jiang Zemin a dozen years ago, where he vowed to "curb and eliminate corruption from the root." And the labour-camp system that Mr. Xi has made a show of targeting was first declared on its way out in 2005.

Does Mr. Xi have the desire – and just as important, the power – to make real changes?

He has more control than his more recent predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, in large part because he has spent much of his career forging links to the leadership of the powerful People's Liberation Army.

In addition to being head of the government and the Communist Party, Mr. Xi is chairman of the Central Military Commission, giving him immediate control over the three institutions that matter most in the People's Republic.

But he rose to the top largely because he was a well-liked compromise candidate, and is only first-among-equals on the seven-man Standing Committee of the Politburo, the group that collectively governs China. The majority of the rest of the committee are seen as conservatives resistant to major reforms.

One touchstone for my understanding of China has been Bao Tong, who was once the top adviser to another general secretary of the Communist Party, Zhao Ziyang, before both men were purged for siding with the students on Tiananmen Square.

Twenty-four years later, Mr. Bao still lives under loose house arrest at his apartment in Beijing. But he is one of the few people who truly know the workings of power in China who will discuss the topic with a foreign journalist.

Visiting him means running through the same surveillance gauntlet we had avoided in Lanzhou. Plainclothes security men photographed John and me as soon as our car pulled up in front of the apartment block in west Beijing.

In the lobby of the building, two more officers – one uniformed, one not – asked to see our identification, scribbling the information into a giant book.

Only then was Mr. Bao, a rail-thin and eternally cheerful 80-year-old, allowed to take us up to his apartment. "They don't do this for the other apartments," he smiled sadly.

Upstairs, in a narrow living room lined with books, Mr. Bao was cautiously optimistic about Mr. Xi, but worried he would be constrained by the same system that elevated him.

But he placed some hope in Mr. Xi because his father, Xi Zhongxun, was always willing to push against the grain.

There are two stories whispered around Beijing: One is that the elder Mr. Xi wore a watch given to him by the Dalai Lama long after it was politically smart to be associated with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader. The other is that he was one of very few senior members of the Communist Party who criticized the decision to use force on Tiananmen Square.

Mr. Bao cannot confirm that anecdote – he was incarcerated by then – but he does not think that it would have been out of character. "Xi's father had great integrity. He was very clear about what is right and what is wrong, and very brave in expressing what he was thinking. I hope that the son inherited some of his merits," he said.

I asked what advice he would give to Mr. Xi if the new leader unexpectedly sought it. Mr. Bao took a long pull on one of the cigarettes constantly in his mouth before answering.

"I would tell him to work according to the laws of China," he said, referring to a post-Mao Constitution that was passed in 1982, guaranteeing rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and the ownership of private property, protections that remain only theoretical three decades later.

"Even if the laws are uncom-fortable, they should follow them."

THE MEASURE OF MR. XI

Back in Liangjiahe, where our trip ended, residents were also waiting for Mr. Xi to reveal himself, to show them a sign that he remembered the time he spent there.

Was his fast start – the more open leadership style, the crackdown on corruption, the noises about dismantling the labour-camp system – a sign that he intended to repair China's broken system of governance? Or was he just another apparatchik like Hu Jintao before him?

My trip convinced me that China is going to change dramatically over the coming decade. It is up to the Communist Party – especially Mr. Xi – to decide whether it wants to lead that change or dig in for an existential crisis.

The People's Republic must redefine itself, or risk being pulled down by its people.

As we chatted with Mr. Wang, the old man who had worked alongside Mr. Xi on the village dike four decades ago, the Liangjiahe party secretary finally had emerged into the courtyard, surrounded by perhaps a dozen similarly dressed men.

They walked briskly past us without acknowledging us or our shouted attempts to get their attention. They all stared down at their feet or up at the elm trees that winter had stripped of leaves.

It was as if they were pretending they had not seen us. It was as if the old strictures – the ones that applied under Hu Jintao – no longer applied, and no one yet knew what the new rules were.

We were free to go. And for the moment, anyway, it felt like something had changed.

Mark MacKinnon is the The Globe and Mail's correspondent based in Beijing.

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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