I first visited Wuhan, the capital of Central China’s Hubei Province, in 1986. My visit – which was also my first to China - was sponsored by The British Council and I was a guest of Huazhong University of Science and Technology (HUST), one of the key universities in China. In January this year, nearly 27 years later, I returned to Wuhan. This time, I was invited by Wuhan University of Technology (WHUT), another great University in the city. The differences that I saw between the two visits could not be more marked.
On my first visit, I flew into Wuhan from Beijing on a propeller-driven plane. There were hardly any activities at the small sleepy airport. My hosts greeted me at the airport, their University’s official limousine parked almost next to the plane. I had the use of that chauffeur-driven car throughout my stay in Wuhan. The only other means of local transport I could have been offered was a bicycle, a thought which my incredibly hospitable hosts categorically refused to entertain.
This time, the aircraft was powered by jet engines. The brand new airport was large and bustling and there was no possibility of the official car being parked next to the plane. However, it was outside the airport that I saw the major changes that had happened in Wuhan between my two visits.
It took some 50 minutes to reach my hotel from the airport. Modern and wide highways full of cars had replaced narrow roads and dirt tracks populated with millions of bicycles and the occasional ox-drawn carts. Skyscrapers had sprung up everywhere. There were signs of new construction throughout the city which, in all respects, looked incomparably more prosperous than the Wuhan I had seen 27 years before. However, part of the price of this rapidly acquired wealth was pollution - a threatening fog of dust and smoke dominated the atmosphere in stark contrast to the fresh air of the semi-rural Wuhan I had once visited.
Talking to my hosts and touring WHUT facilities, I gained further insight into the changes to living and working conditions in Wuhan. Whereas 27 years ago, most people would be happy staying in basic state-provided accommodation and riding bicycles to work and most would consider a colour TV a luxury item, nowadays, many have bought air-conditioned apartments, cars, computers, iPhones, iPods and other modern gadgets.
In 1986, HUST had many staff, but only a handful of Professorial rank, and relatively few students. The Head of the Mechanical Engineering Department did not have his own office. Laboratory equipment was mostly old and basic. WHUT now has nearly 2,000 Professors and Associate Professors and some 70,000 students including those enrolled on online programmes. My host and long-time friend, Professor Zhou Zude (admittedly a former President of WHUT), had two large and smartly-appointed offices. There was no shortage of new and advanced equipment in his research centres.
Another change that I noticed was the level of English of the staff and students. In 1986, all my lectures had to be interpreted and there were almost no questions or comments from the audience. This time, there was no need for interpretation and quite a few interesting questions were asked at the end of my presentation.
However, some things remained the same as they had been many years ago. What had not changed were the hospitality, generosity and politeness of my hosts. I was again driven door-to-door everywhere I went. There was a lavish multicourse dinner every night during my visit, including a banquet given by President Zhang Qingjie of WHUT and a dinner with two of the hosts of my first visit, Academician Professor Yang Shuzi and Academician Professor Xiong Youlun. And, as usual, there were many rounds of toasting at each event.
What had not changed was the excellence of the people that I met and the research that I saw. Of particular note were the farsightedness of the leaders – President Zhang shared with me his 50-year vision for the development of WHUT, the dedication of researchers – Professor Yang, in his eighties, still writes books, their adaptability – Professor Xiong, a mechanical engineer in his seventies, is working on the Internet of Things, and their laser-like focus – Professor Zhou has a large research centre devoted entirely to the development and application of fibre Bragg gratings.
Seeing Wuhan again and appreciating the qualities of the people I met there, I am not surprised about the miraculous development of China between my two visits. The momentum is set to continue with growth nearing 8% in 2012 when other economies in the world were shrinking. I am not surprised why the country has been predicted soon to become the world’s top economic superpower. Clearly, after many years of being asleep, Napoleon’s giant has awakened. Let the world tremble.