[Picture: The view from my hotel widow in Longhua, on the outskirts of Shenzhen, overlooking the as-yet unfinished subway link with Hong Kong]
That's how long I had been away from China when I got back there for a quick visit at the start of last month. The changes?
1) Within 24 hours of crossing the border into Shenzhen I had five people independently and without prompting tell me that they hated the communist party and wanted to be rid of them. Particular ire was directed at ex-president Jiang Zemin. Given the number of campaigns designed to 'increase patriotism' that have occurred over the past two years you would have thought that support for the government would have increased. In the small sample of people who I met in Shenzhen the reality was emphatically the opposite.
2) Following a successful strike (euphemistically labelled 'a collective tea-time') the taxis outside the system of checkpoints which surrounds the centre of Shenzhen now all work off the meter, charging a basic 15 RMB per ride. Let me emphasise here that the metered rate is set by local government, and how unlikely such a strike being successful would have seemed two years ago. I guess I should add that of the five people mentioned above, two were taxi drivers.
3) Development. Everywhere I looked I saw large-scale projects which had not even started two years ago but which had already been completed in the meantime, areas which were dusty and vacant lots two years ago but which are now bustling communities. Longhua, where I formerly lived and worked, is to be the central hub for transportation links in and out of Shenzhen, with a direct connection to the Hong-Kong subway.
4) The future. Two years ago people were still trying to understand the Hu/Wen team. Now people are already looking forward to the new team which will most likely come to power when the current government's term ends in 2012. Xi Jinping remains the front-runner, but to many this by itself may be considered reason enough to dismiss him. Sitting down to dinner with a factory-owning friend of mine along with some other well-heeled Shenzhen-ites (the richest person there? A fortune teller), the consensus was that, given the rise of a politically-conscious middle-class, the next government would simply have to make political concessions, and that these would be the end of communist rule. I take all this with a pinch of salt (the same friend swore blind to me that Ma Yingjiu would never be Taiwanese president), but I can't say that I don't hope it's true.