No, I thought as I puffed through the small ornamental park, I couldn’t see one of them behind me. I chugged on past the Gate to the Forbidden City and the warty visage of Chairman Mao, thought to have been responsible for the deaths of up to 70 million people.
I ducked under the subway and — puff, puff, puff — I was waved on by some soldiers, on past the Great Hall of the People and Mao’s Mausoleum. I looked back again. There was no doubt about it. I was not being tailed.
My early-morning run was evidently a subject of supreme indifference on the part of the Chinese secret service — of course it was. Why should they give a monkey’s? The Chinese are themselves addicted to morning exercise rituals.
Their parks are full of tai-chi exponents and people doing fascinating keepy-uppy routines with oversized shuttlecocks, and Beijing is positively bursting with hungover Westerners out for jogs.
Never in the millennia of the great city’s history has the Chinese capital been so open to foreign influence, for good or ill, and never has there been so dizzying a rate of change. On my supposedly censored hotel television, I had watched, the previous evening, an excellent BBC documentary about the massacre in this same Tiananmen Square.
Would the Chinese have allowed that to be shown five years ago, in their own city?
This is a country powering through the credit crunch with a growth rate of 12 per cent. There are more Bentleys on the streets of Beijing than there are in London, and the very bendy buses have flatscreen television sets.
The Chinese are in the grip of a consumerism so rampant that more than 60 million of them are now classified as obese and their appetites for beef, grain, steel and other commodities are now so great that they are causing inflation in Britain.
Such is the lunar pull of the Chinese economy that my own brother has spent the past nine months here in Beijing, learning Mandarin, and he now speaks it so fluently that he was able to knock hundreds of renmimbi off the price of my new suits.
Would I have dreamed of learning Mandarin 20 years ago, when I was his age? I would not, and I was wrong. When you look at the Chinese achievement, at the funky post-modern shapes of the office blocks, at the hotels with their walk-in humidors and their glistening pyramids of fine French wine, you can’t help wondering whether this is it, whether this is the shape of the China to come.
With clubs sprouting up called things such as “The World of Suzy Wong”, with more and more Western tourists threatening to profane the Forbidden City with their jogging shorts, you can’t help feeling sad that something may be about to be lost and that the old China is at risk of being gradually homogenised, Westernised, Americanised, pasteurised.
I felt it particularly keenly yesterday afternoon, when a small group of us went to the Great Wall. It was just magical. We looked out at the silent ranges of improbably angular mountains, covered with chestnuts and oaks, with buzzards wheeling overhead, and at the silver-grey ribbon of stone winding from peak to peak.
We saw how the colour of the mountains receded from dark green to pale blue, while the wall went marching on. It is 2,200 years old and it stretches 3,000 miles, east to west, along the border between China and Inner Mongolia.
It is one of the great sights of the world, worth coming to China to see; and yet for two hours there was only a handful of Western tourists on the site. It could not last, I felt, as we tobogganed down a winding metal chute that takes you back to the foot of the mountain.
In another five years, the package holidays would be here and the toboggan would be closed for some namby-pamby health and safety reasons.
When we found a fantastic fish restaurant in the foothills, one of my companions became almost despondent as he looked into the future. A dozen local delicacies were brought, quite unlike what we know as Chinese food, and fish yanked before our eyes from a big stone tank. There were no other tourists, no ready translated menus, and he was filled with foreboding.
“I remember going to the Sporades 30 years ago,” he said, “and how wonderful it was before the tourists came.” We turned to our Chinese guide and mentor. You’ve got to stop them ruining this place, we pleaded. Don’t let them develop it. Don’t let them put in McDonald’s.
Then I looked at our table again and I wondered if our fears were overdone. These things I was holding so clumsily in my hand, what were they? They were a pair of chopsticks. Now it may seem blindingly obvious to you that chopsticks are less efficient than a fork, but that is not how it seems to the Chinese, and who is to say they are wrong?
It may seem to you that English is the master language, destined to be the lingua franca of the global economy, but I am not sure that is how it seems to the Chinese, many of whose most distinguished leaders seem no better at English than I am at Chinese.
The bourgeoisie of China shows plenty of interest in money, but not much in multi-party democracy and the joys of a free press. And there are cities in China with many millions of people, whose names you would barely recognise, where you would certainly not see Western joggers in the morning.
China is changing, but in some ways there are still walls against the influence of the West, ancient walls that seem to stretch on forever.
[First published in the Daily Telegraph on 26 August 2008 under the heading, “China is changing but the walls against the West are still there.”