LONDON — One Sunday morning in 1997, Chinese officials invited American reporters to the Great Hall of the People in Beijing to ask questions of Chinese President Jiang Zemin, who died last week at 96. I was working for The Baltimore Sun at the time. I headed to Tiananmen Square and passed through minimal security for a rare press conference with the leader of the Chinese Communist Party.
Jiang was practicing for a state visit to Washington to see President Bill Clinton. China wanted admission to the World Trade Organization and Jiang hoped to make a good impression on Americans. When called, I asked Jiang how he would persuade them that he shared their values. His answer: by meeting them in person.
As if to emphasize that point, Jiang stopped to speak to me on his way out. There was no translator, no one between us. I could tell he was nervous. Chinese leaders rarely interact with Chinese people — let alone foreign reporters. Concentrating on his English, which he'd been practicing, Jiang said Americans would be much more comfortable with him once they got to know him.
A different era
On Tuesday, China held a memorial service for Jiang in the Great Hall of the People in a country that is far more repressive than when he left office as president — as required by term limits — in 2002.
The current leader, Xi Jinping, does not chat with foreign reporters. Under his rule, the Chinese government is more prone to kicking them out of the country. Xi once said of foreign journalists: "Some foreigners with full bellies and nothing better to do [than] engage in finger-pointing at us."
The passing of Jiang has both Chinese and foreigners who lived in China in the 1990s pondering how much the country has changed in the intervening quarter century.
Despite the smog and the chaotic crowds, I loved living in Beijing back then. Jiang was no political reformer, but China was a dynamic, optimistic country where many things seemed possible and there was at least some space for free expression.
In 1998, I covered President Clinton's visit to Beijing. During a live televised press conference, Clinton told Jiang the government had been on the "wrong side of history" when it ordered soldiers to fire on protesters during the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy demonstrations.
"I was very surprised," Chen Yu, a filmmaker, told me at that time. "This is the most open press conference I've ever watched!"
Today, a live TV debate on Tiananmen — or most anything political — is unthinkable. China restricts speech far more now than it did back then. Some of the reasons may seem paradoxical. The Communist Party is much more confident today, but also anxious and insecure.
"Why does America love war?"
I left Beijing in 2002 and returned to China in 2011 as a correspondent for NPR based in Shanghai. So much had changed while I had been gone. Opinion of the United States, which was very high when I first arrived in the late 1990s, had plummeted. On a taxi ride soon after I had returned, a cabbie asked: "Why does America love war?" He was referring to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Other Shanghainese complained, rightly, about how lax U.S. lending laws had triggered the global financial crisis. Unlike in the late 1990s, when the U.S. was at peace and running budget surpluses, neither the Chinese people nor leaders in Beijing were wowed by Meiguo, or the "Beautiful Country," as the U.S. is called in Mandarin.
In 2016, Britain's Brexit vote and the U.S. election of Donald Trump further diminished the West's standings in the eyes of many Chinese. Some early stumbling by Western countries to the COVID-19 pandemic boosted the belief of Chinese leaders that their authoritarian system was better than often messy democratic ones.
"As long as we can stand on our own ... we will be invincible no matter how the storm changes internationally," Xi told senior party officials less than a week after rioters attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and tried to overturn the U.S. presidential election. "Time and history are on our side, and this is where our conviction and resilience lie, and why we are so determined and confident."
China was also now far wealthier. When I came to Beijing in 1997, few of my Chinese friends owned apartments or cars. In 2011, I moved into an apartment complex in Shanghai where most residents were Chinese and the garage was filled with BMWs, Lamborghinis and Rolls Royces.
With China's economy now the world's second-largest, the country was far more powerful and party leaders didn't feel like they had to put up with criticism from U.S. officials, as Jiang had with Clinton.
In the nine years I'd been away, though, corruption had metastasized inside the Communist Party and it was in deep trouble. Officials were stealing with both hands. The rise of social media empowered citizens and news organizations to expose the failures of local and provincial officials.
It was a relatively hopeful time. Online discourse was thriving, the economy was booming and China was in some ways more open than it had been in many years.
"Things have really changed"
"What kind of an authoritarian state is this?" I wondered.
Xi Jinping apparently wondered the same thing. After he took over in 2012, the Chinese government sent more than a million officials to jail on corruption charges — including many of Xi's enemies — which helped him consolidate power and begin to rebuild the party's reputation. Chinese social media platform Weibo was censored and many were delighted with the crackdown.
"I think this anti-corruption campaign is like a shot of adrenaline to the heart of Chinese society," a salesman named Liu told me while sipping coffee at a Shanghai Starbucks.
But when Xi got rid of term limits in 2018 so he could, in theory, serve until death, it made some of my Chinese friends shudder. The party had put term limits in place to prevent leadership for life and the excesses that go with it.
"I was shocked," one friend wrote when Xi killed term limits.
"What scares you," I asked.
"The possibility of returning to the past, the Mao era," he responded. "You have to watch whatever you say, so creepy."
Xi imposed the "zero-COVID" policies that locked down millions of Chinese for months and triggered the recent street protests in which a few people, remarkably, called for Xi to step down. That won't happen, but some friends, who saw their future in China, are having second thoughts.
"Many are desperate to get out," one told me. "Things have really changed."
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He served as The Baltimore Sun's correspondent in Beijing from 1997 to 2002 and as NPR's correspondent in Shanghai from 2011 to 2016. He is the author of The Shanghai Free Taxi: Journeys with the Hustlers and Rebels of the New China.