'Corruption-Free' Days Under Mao

Even the dairy cows on Joan Hinton's and Erwin Engst's state-owned farm outside Beijing have lost their revolutionary purity. The American couple milked the herd's ancestors in Mao Zedong's guerilla base in the northwest more than 50 years ago. These days, though, the cows have been crossbred with American and Canadian stock. "I guess they're part socialist and part imperialist," joked Ms Hinton, 78.

She is far less amused, however, by other changes all around her. "The country's going to hell," she said. Ms Hinton and her husband were part of a small band of  foreigners who left their homeland in the 1930s and 1940s to dedicate their lives to building an egalitarian New China. Referring to capitalist-style economic reforms since 1979, she said: "They took everything away, everything that belonged to the people." In the run-up to today's festivities, the American couple are among the last of the Maoist true believers.

Twenty years of capitalist-style economic reforms have abandoned Mao's vision of utopia by breaking up communal farms, dismantling the state welfare system and opening the door to private enterprise and foreign investment. Mr Engst, 81, said: "It's reform, yes. A few people are getting filthy rich. They couldn't before and they can now." The reforms have lifted 200 million people out of poverty but brought a plague of corruption and social ills, which had been wiped out in the early years of communist rule. It was the decadence and corruption of the nationalist government that inspired Mr Engst to quit his United Nations job in Shanghai and join Mao's rebels in 1946. Two years later, he was joined by Ms Hinton, a nuclear physicist from the United States' top secret Los Alamos laboratory, which is now at the centre of US charges of Chinese spying. "I decided I wasn't going to spend my life making bigger and better bombs for the US," she said.

A frayed sepia wedding photo shows the couple wrapped in padded peasant clothes overlooking Mao's city of cave dwellings in Yanan, the communist rebels' base in the 1940s. Ms Hinton was introduced to the communist underground movement by Sidney Shapiro, a lawyer from Manhattan who went to Shanghai in 1946 and married a Chinese actress and intellectual. "I was not a communist and not even a Marxist, but I was a sympathiser and I had an understanding that a revolution, a complete change, was indispensable," said Mr. Shapiro, who moved to Beijing in 1949.

Now 83, Mr Shapiro does not like everything he sees in modern China. "I am very happy with the material gains that have been made, but there has been a certain sort of backsliding," he said. "China's not becoming capitalist, it's more and more feudal." Most worrying, he said, was the rampant bureaucratic corruption and the dismantling of a state welfare system that once guaranteed free medical care and schooling, and cheap housing. "There's a lot of doubt and uncertainty," said Mr Shapiro, who sits on the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the top advisory body.

Among the few other foreigners in the CPPCC is Betty Chandler, who arrived in China as an exchange student in1936. "I was from Eugene, Oregon. I hadn't been anywhere," said the fragile 84-year-old at her flat in Beijing's Friendship Hotel. She recalled the moment when the Red Army marched victoriously into the eastern port city of Tianjin where she was living. "They explained everything, they didn't take anything from us," she said. "Life after liberation was not glamorous, but it was exciting and clean and there was no more opium."

All four are nostalgic about the early years of the People's Republic, when Mao's new government reined in hyperinflation, balanced the budget and stamped out corruption and prostitution. "There was deprivation, but it was an orderly and happy society," Mr Shapiro said.