CHAIRMAN Mao Zedong looks down benignly at the crowds from his perch in Tianfu Square in Chengdu, one arm raised in friendly salutation, an avuncular smile on his face.
I wave back at the huge marble statue of the iconic Chinese leader as my Chinese friends burst into giggles. Statues of Mao are few and far between in modern China, they tell me. Enjoy this one while you can.
The country has moved on since Chairman Mao and his cultural revolution plunged China into years of deep unforgiving darkness. With or without the statues, China today bears no resemblance to the traumatised nation that Mao ruled over.
Centre stage in the brave new world of emerging nations, modern-day China is the envy of the world as its turbocharged economy continues to race ahead of the pack, ensuring a place on the global landscape not only for itself but also for other BRICs and members of the G20.
China’s new leaders — President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang — are courted by East and West even as they struggle to reconcile the high expectations of their country’s global role with looming and seemingly intractable domestic challenges.
The list of tasks they face at home is daunting. Over the next few years, China must continue to grow by about 7pc a year while shifting the focus from exports to domestic consumption, ensuring green growth, a cleaner environment, smarter cities, and food and water security for its people.
And yet, even though the way ahead is certainly going to be bumpy and difficult — and Chinese growth rates will falter again before they rise — visiting China is like a shot in the arm, a much-needed injection of energy.
Here in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, the food is spicy, the pace is hectic and pollution levels are high. Traditionally serene temples and tea houses vie for space with fast-paced cafes and restaurants. The traffic weaves crazily down massive avenues lined with all the top Western brands. Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Versace compete with each other but also with upcoming Chinese rivals which experts tell me will one day dominate Western high streets.
I can believe it. Chinese fashion — young Chinese fashion — is cheeky, fun and irreverent. Girls and boys clearly love dressing up at all times of the day and night.
At Sichuan University, the mood is bright and upbeat. Girls in funky clothes mill around looking cool, books in hand and boys at their heels.
The university is a city unto itself, with 64,000 students and a campus so big that students use motorbikes and rickshaws to get from one class to another. The head of the external relations department tells me that he can’t keep up with the number of foreign dignitaries who want to visit the university and engage with students.
US Vice President Joe Biden was there only a few days ago as was Pakistan’s advisor to the prime minister Sartaj Aziz.
At the seminar I attend with Chinese academics and scholars, the talk is serious as we discuss relations between China and the European Union. Clearly, things are not looking good — and much of the unease has to do with America’s relations with both Brussels and Beijing.
Chinese scholars worry that Europe is ‘pivoting’ to Asia along with the US and fear this is a reflection of a joint US-EU strategy to ‘contain’ China. Beijing is also clearly worried about negotiations on a transatlantic trade and investment partnership which they underline will exclude China and also kill off the multilateral trading system.
Europeans meanwhile complain that Beijing is much too focused on its ‘Great Power’ relationship with the US to pay sufficient attention to Europe — and that when China does look at Europe, it sees only its special relationship with Germany.
Both sides fret over a lack of ‘strategic trust’ in their relations. Clearly, it’s time to try and reinvigorate EU-China relations, to restore confidence and find new areas of common interest.
It’s not going to be easy given the domestic tasks facing both Chinese and European leaders. Chinese friends tell me that Beijing’s focus is on realising the ‘Chinese dream’ — and that they are convinced Europe can help them to achieve their goals.
Later, at a meeting with Chinese teachers and students, my European colleagues and I are queried about almost all aspects of modern-day Europe.
Some of my colleagues try to talk to them about human rights, democracy and environmental protection but the students really want to know more about Europe’s attitudes towards Syria, Turkey and Muslim communities in the EU.
“Is Britain going to leave the EU,” they ask. “Is Turkey excluded from EU membership because it is a Muslim country?”
It’s not all hard work, however. Out in the beautiful countryside as we visit ancient temples, centuries-old irrigation systems and panda preservation parks, the mood is lighter, the laughter spontaneous. The mountain trails are crowded as people of all ages pay respect to the sages and priests of the past. Modern China is rediscovering the wisdom of its ancients.
Later, as we come back to town, a young woman approaches us cautiously, eager to talk and show off her beautiful baby girl. Little Tan May Yen is special in a society that has long implemented a one-child policy and where traditionally families have always preferred boys to girls.
Someone tells me Chinese mothers believe that foreigners bring good luck to babies. As the baby grabs my bracelets and I caress her soft cheeks, I know that this is a moment I will not forget. China, with its mix of new and old, fast and slow, modern and traditional, will always have a special place in my heart.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.