No country can match the sheer mass of China. Images of China as the archetype of a mass society have dominated Western observation since the very first encounters. They still do: a million Red Guards assembled in Tian An Men Square to have their zeal blessed by Chairman Mao; a hundred thousand peasant labourers, with buckets and spades, digging a new course for a mighty river; the human waves of the Peoples Liberation Army rolling over enemy resistance in time of war.

Chairman Mao himself chose to liken the Chinese people to an ocean. Chinese society, the Chinese nation, is of a scale that the human mind baulks to comprehend, as it baulks from the vastness of the universe. And China seethes. China has always seethed - if not with revolution, then with enterprise; if not with renewal, then with struggle to survive; if not with dissension, then with mass mobilisation.

In a world of shrinking distances and finite resources, the spectacle of China's looming bulk - one quarter of the human race under a single, purposeful government - can seem fearful. Most thinking Chinese, themselves, fear the size of their nation's population. They prefer to think, and to live, within the microcosm of their town, their work unit, their family, the four cement walls of their own quarters.

I am driving at night up Chang An Avenue - the long, straight boulevard that has been bulldozed through old Beijing, across the front of the Forbidden City, bisecting the capital from west to east. Though the road is very broad, car drivers must go with care. Long, articulated buses snake in and out from the kerb, and cyclists swoop from lane to lane without a sideways glance.

Peering ahead, I see the road blocked by a dark mass, flecked with the glint of metal, moving towards me. As we close, I find it is a throng of thousands upon thousands of young men on bicycles, in such numbers that they have taken over six of the avenue's eight traffic lanes, by sheer weight of numbers forcing all other vehicles into the remaining two lanes. Even those are invaded from time to time by swooping young outriders. Many seem to be shouting, and the air vibrates with the shrill of bicycle bells.

`It's the football', says a passenger. The Beijing Workers' Stadium holds eighty thousand spectators, and more than sixty thousand of these arrive and depart from a big match by bicycle, in a vast living tide such as this one in which I am now caught up.

Through inexperience, I am slow to steer to the side of the road in the face of this wave, and am forced to slow suddenly to a crawl when the wave hits like surf - ranks of jostling, weaving cyclists passing me on both sides. Alarm must be evident on my face, as I notice that many of those gliding past my window are taking an amused interest in me and my foreign passengers, marooned in the capsule of our car on this alien flood. Some rap cheekily on a window with a knuckle as they pass. Others peer in with a grin and make some personal remark or other about the foreigners inside. A number shout `Hurro!', in the strangled, parrot-like tones they consider a fair representation of the English language. Competitive youths make specially daring swoops across our oncoming path, to show that they are not intimidated by foreigners, nor by motor cars.

After more than ten minutes, the horde begins to thin, and I am once more navigating on something approaching my normal expectation of a road - a space designated for motor traffic. But in those minutes I have been impressed with an elementary lesson about China. Those tens of thousands of young cyclists are acting in the certain knowledge of their mass power, as they flout rules and take over the road, secure in their numbers from any police retribution. And yet, as each one passes my window, his reaction is totally individual.

The life of the Mass is real enough, but the life of the Individual is just as real, and more absolute. This ought to be self-evident, but the seething, mass nature of China makes it all too easy to overlook, which is why the lives of individual Chinese are the basis of this book.

China has been the very definition of a mass society for two thousand years. Its population has been at the limit of what its environment could support, with known technology, for most of that time, and with almost no margin of security against famine. Survival itself required mass action - to build irrigation schemes, to raise flood dykes, and then to defend the fruits of what had been built against hungry marauders.

Mere bully barons could never last long - the next bad years would find them wanting, and, in the end, the survivors would be those who had planned, built, and organised the peasants on a mass scale.

The ideal Chinese state was not simply an environment of basic securities and services, but an organic society, in which each individual had fixed and clearly-defined responsibilities. An Organic State, in an Organic World, in which the human hierarchy was an extension of the general laws of Heaven. Heaven and Earth met in the person of the Emperor, the Son of Heaven, whose shamanistic rites ensured the correct turning of the seasons.

By Mandate of Heaven, the Emperor ruled not merely over one nation among various, but over Tian Xia, All Under Heaven. The practical limits to his actual domain at any period reflected merely the ignorance of those Barbarians who still refused to recognise the Emperor as Son of Heaven. Borders of China were, simply, the borders of civilisation. Let barbarians howl and cavort as they may, beyond that pale.

`Taming the barbarians' was of course both a practical goal of Chinese governments, and commendable in the eyes of Heaven. An expansionary Emperor was almost certainly a good Emperor, but successful government of the interior was, ultimately, a more decisive assessment of his reign. An unworthy, incompetent Emperor could lose the Mandate of Heaven itself, and could be replaced by anyone, from prince to peasant rebel, whose very ability to attain and hold the throne would be certain proof that the Mandate had been passed, by Heaven, to him. Thus dynasties rose and fell.

In early 1978, the Peoples Republic of China was seething inwardly, with particularly powerful currents of change in the body politic, while outwardly in something of a hiatus. Like a dormant creature sloughing its chrysalis, a few splits along the crusty spine were revealing bright and promising colours beneath, but with yet little indication of what final form was to emerge. The programs of extreme Maoism had been officially rejected. Their figureheads had been imprisoned and reviled as the Gang of Four, led by none other than the revered Chairman Mao's own widow, Jiang Qing. The coup against them had been a tactical masterpiece, relying on the support of some of Mao's own closest protegés in the national security apparatus. It had left the formal mantle of leadership resting uneasily on the shoulders of Hua Guofeng, a man of unknown convictions, unimpressive track record, and uncertain power base, whom few foreign observers could see as more than a regent, in the old Chinese tradition.

The image of the Great Leader Mao Zedong himself remained sacrosanct. His body, contrary to his own recorded wishes for a humble cremation, lay embalmed in a huge, garish new mausoleum which, symbolically, destroyed the last remaining vista of Beijing's former imperial splendour - the view from Qian Men gate tower across Tian An Men Square to the Tian An Men (Gate of Heavenly Peace) itself, with the golden rooftiles of the Forbidden City rising beyond it. On the terms of the coup alliance, Charman Mao's prestige was not to be destroyed, and the future question would be just how the mystical, magical authority of his name, invested with thirty years of Party eulogy and credited with all the Party's achievements, could be used to support future policies beyond the ken of the dead leader himself.

The final decade of Chairman Mao's declining years had seen conflicting currents in China's relations with the world. The hysterical fears and conformism of the Cultural Revolution in China had paralysed China's international diplomacy for a number of years. Yet in the midst of these posturings and futile denunciations, a wave of anti-conservative governments were elected in a number of Western democracies. These governments opposed the diplomatic isolation of China which had long been a fundamental plank of the United States strategic world view. In 1971, the Peoples Republic of China was voted back into the United Nations, displacing Taiwan.

Premier Zhou Enlai initiated the famous ping-pong diplomacy, using non-political, `people to people' exchanges to moderate lingering cold-war hostilities against Communist China. US Secretary of State Dr Henry Kissinger paid a secret visit to Beijing on behalf of President Richard Nixon, and the resulting Shanghai Communiqué made it clear that the United States itself was seeking eventual restoration of diplomatic ties. The next twelve months saw a flood of diplomatic `normalisations' with China by America's traditional allies, including Australia. As a standard feature of these diplomatic packages, there was exchange of foreign correspondent accreditations, and by late 1973 the first three Australian correspondents had joined the tiny foreign press contingent of Beijing.

By mid-1978, the size of the foreign press corps had grown only slightly, to around thirty. Of these, around one half were the `Easties' - communist-bloc correspondents left over from the days of socialist internationalism, by now treated with suspicion and disdain by the Chinese officials assigned to facilitate and monitor their work. They ranged from acute and experienced East European sinologists to the most obtuse KGB disinformation agents, and included a despondent fringe of Vietnamese, North Koreans, a wild-eyed Albanian (soon withdrawn), and Lamzhaw, known affectionately as `Lambchop', the wistful, Chinese-speaking correspondent for the official newsagency of the Mongolian Peoples Republic, who took his briefings from the Soviet Embassy.

Another third of the number were the Japanese, who had built a rapid reputation on arrival as newbreakers, for their ability to read the ideographs on Chinese wall-posters. They were also prized, as colleagues, for the propensity of visiting Japanese officials and businessmen to give them full and flavoursome briefings after talks with interesting Chinese individuals, in marked contrast to the timid practices of Western visitors. The Japanese reputation for accuracy, however, was beginning to tarnish somewhat, as Chinese-reading correspondents from other countries became able to check the same sources, often with much tamer conclusions.

The final third of the corps were the `Westies' - basically Western Europeans, with the honorary addition of Australians, a Canadian, and a stray Filipino who happened to be the son of the Ambassador, who happened to be a close associate of the President's wife, and who happened to spend almost his entire time elsewhere, engaged in pursuits unknown. When I joined the corps in June 1978, only one other Western agency, Agence France Press, considered it useful to keep a Chinese-speaking correspondent in Beijing. `You can't talk to anybody, anyway', was the prevailing view. But when I left, five years later, there were more than a hundred foreign correspondents accredited to Beijing, amongst whom all the major agencies numbered proficient Chinese-speakers as a matter of course. The China Story, in journalistic terms, had ceased to be a curio piece. It was recognised as an assignment of serious reportage and significance to all nations.

Beijing of 1978 was indeed a bizarre world for a Western journalist. As far as China was concerned, journalism was an extension of government information and propaganda effort - in the case of foreign correspondents as much as for themselves. Any such thing as `right of access' or `freedom of information' was absolutely unthinkable.

The basic principle of China's method of handling foreigners within its frontiers has not changed in centuries. That principle is that every foreigner on Chinese soil must come under the direct responsibility of an identified Chinese authority which, in the last analysis, is responsible for his `friendly' behaviour. Hence all diplomats are the responsibility of the Foreign Ministry Protocol Department, trade delegations are the responsibility of the particular ministry with which they happen to be negotiating, visiting foreign communist delegations come under a special department of the Chinese Communist Party organisation, and foreign tourists belong, during their stay, to the China International Travel Service. Visiting overseas Chinese have their own, separate host organisation.

We journalists were marshalled under the Information Department of the Foreign Ministry, who were solely empowered to authorise all entry and exit visas, travel permits, official government briefings, requests for government interviews, and, in the early days, any liaison whatsoever with other Chinese organisations for the purposes of setting up stories. In this context, it was entirely futile for a journalist or any other foreigner in China to try to insist on his `rights'. China's only experience of foreigners having `rights' in China was when such concessions were forced out of weak Chinese governments by foreign powers through force of arms, and these so-called Unequal Treaties were always considered an intolerable affront to Chinese sovereignty. Rather than sojourners with rights, roughly equivalent to citizens of China, foreigners in China must learn to consider themselves as `guests' - with the significant difference that while we were totally without rights, we could be allowed extensive privileges, at the discretion and grace of our hosts, the Chinese people. We had been admitted to China, on the insistence of our respective foreign governments, as part of the terms of diplomatic relations - and hence our role was presumed to be closely identified with that of our respective embassies.

In those early years of China's re-opening, when the total foreign community in Beijing was still a mere handful, practical and social reasons ensured that journalists did indeed maintain close relations with their embassies, though with nothing like the relationship presumed by most Chinese. It was a long time before most could come to terms with the fact that Western journalistic reportage on China was often at variance with official embassy reportage, and it was not unusual for embassies to be powerlessly infuriated by the activities of journalists whose work hampered their own diplomatic objectives, but whom they were powerless to control.

Some journalists, particularly those inculcated with the highly competitive values of domestic political reportage, were almost obsessive in their desire to `beat the embassy' political reporters. The most common attitude was one of guarded co- operation, with embassy staff usually prepared to swap views and limited information, sometimes on a `background' basis, with journalists who would, equally, guard the independence of whatever individual sources they had been able to develop. The more interesting briefing sessions, then, could take on something of the character of a card game - journalists and embassy staffers fencing, bidding, perhaps bluffing a little, to draw the maximum of each other's information before, if ever, revealing their full hand.

For journalists brought up in the tradition that their role required strict independence from government, it could be a galling irritation to have Chinese organisations persist in sending personal and official mail to the embassy, presuming we were all part of the same foreign team. On the other side of the coin, the same quasi-diplomatic umbrella for a time gave foreign journalist bureaux a number of customs duty and taxation privileges, soon to disappear as the size of the press corps, and China's hunger for foreign exchange, increased.

After 1978, many of the hostile presumptions regarding contact between Chinese and foreigners were undermined. Overtures to the west, at the official level, made it marginally more difficult for watchdogs at local level to treat any informal, personal contacts between Chinese and foreigners like a national betrayal, as had been the case for so long. As a result, personal contacts became possible to an extent that had been scornfully derided as impossible, only months before. There were still risks for a local Chinese in making contact with a foreigner - suspicion alone can be highly dangerous in a country where `political reliability' is essential to career prospects.

It still took motivation and courage for any unauthorised Chinese citizen to confide to any degree in a foreigner. Those Chinese whose work brought them into regular contact with foreigners, such as the office and domestic staff supplied to foreigners exclusively by the official Diplomatic Service Bureau, were under constant mutual supervision, and were expected to report all details of the foreigners' and each others' failings at weekly meetings called by Bureau officials. All foreigners residences were concentrated in a few fenced compounds, guarded by armed PLA soldiers and with each gate monitored by Public Security police whose sole duty was to keep tabs on contacts between Chinese and foreigners. Such was their zeal at this that, on one celebrated occasion, the Fire Brigade was prevented from attending a blaze in the Qi Jia Yuan diplomatic highrise apartment block compound because the engines arrived at the gate without the proper letters of authority to enter.

In most such apartment blocks, the `automatic' elevators were manned with entirely superfluous staff, whose work kept them in such a state of perpetual boredom that they were only too keen to keep a detailed eye on the comings and goings of foreigners' apartments. We resident foreigners soon realised that there was no such thing as a private relationship in Beijing. This was sufficient intimidation to deter almost all casual local contacts, and to eliminate any faint-hearted Chinese from even attempting to make friends with a foreigner.

Most foreigners who did develop personal relationships of any kind with Chinese found that their friends fell into three general categories: the reckless, the naive, and those secure enough of their place in society, or of their family's standing, to feel they could ride above any petty harassment. The Government of the Peoples Republic of China officially defines itself as a `Dictatorship of the Proletariat', and the definition of State Secrets in China covers, in effect, every single item of information which has not specifically been authorised for publication. In this context, any Chinese who confides in a foreigner without prior government authorisation, even in relatively liberal times, runs the risk of being accused, perhaps at some time far in the future, of disloyalty to his nation, or worse. Chinese themselves are extremely sensitive on the matter, and it imposes on any author, writing about real Chinese people, a grave responsibility to respect their confidences. For this reason, whilst all the personal stories in this book are true as told to me, in many cases I have made changes to names and other facts which might identify the individual.