The cyclist, an elderly peasant farmer, swerved into the path of our minibus on the quiet road in rural China.
He went flying. He was clearly badly injured. We shouted at the driver to stop and get the man to hospital. But our Communist Party minder ordered him to drive on.
It was 1979, and a tiny, but horribly revealing, reminder of the callousness of a regime that had killed more of its own citizens than any other in history.
Under Mao, tens of millions died in the so-called Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Now he was dead and his successor Deng Xiaoping wanted to show a different face to the world through foreign journalists like me.
HMS Queen Elizabeth is pictured above. It was revealed that our military chiefs have drawn up plans to base one of our two new aircraft carriers in the Far East early next year to play a part in countering an increasingly assertive China
A few years earlier, farmers digging a new well had found the remains of an ancient tomb. It would lead to one of history’s most extraordinary archaeological discoveries: the Terracotta Army.
We were taken to a dimly lit underground museum. Lined up were endless rows of full-size clay soldiers, each immaculately preserved, each with distinctly different faces and different uniforms to denote their rank. There were several hundred of them.
And that display, breathtaking though it was, turned out to be a mere taste of what was to come. A vast archaeological dig eventually unearthed more than 8,000 soldiers with 130 chariots and 670 horses.
This terracotta army and its massive mausoleum was created on the orders of Qin Shi Huang when he became first emperor of China nearly 2,500 years ago. He, like Deng, wanted to send a message to the known world.
Under Mao, tens of millions died in the so-called Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Now he was dead and his successor Deng Xiaoping (above) wanted to show a different face to the world through foreign journalists like me
His was a very simple one: China is the mightiest nation on Earth. You mess with us at your peril.
Remind you of anyone still around today?
We know that the emperors lasted more than 2,000 years. We know that Mao’s reign of terror died with him. But the People’s Republic of China that he founded survives.
It is now led by a man, Xi Jinping, whose ambition equals that of any ancient emperor.
China has become the second most powerful country in the world. Xi wants it to be the first. And he has changed the rules of the Communist Party to keep him in the job for life.
Should we fear that prospect and is there anything we can do to stop it happening?
The first is easy to answer. China under Xi has become an increasingly malign regime — both at home and abroad.
Not only was it the source of Covid-19 but they tried to cover up the outbreak in Wuhan and then strong-armed the World Health Organisation into underplaying the danger. We are all paying the price.
China also ripped up a decades-old agreement with Britain on Hong Kong, meant to last for another 27 years, and imposed tough new security laws on its people.
The world condemned it. Beijing ignored it. There are worrying signs that Taiwan is the next target.
The Chinese people themselves have nothing to complain about — just so long as they don’t worry about trivial stuff like basic human rights and do precisely what their communist leaders tell them.
And just so long as they were not born into an ethnic group of which those leaders disapprove.
This terracotta army and its massive mausoleum was created on the orders of Qin Shi Huang when he became first emperor of China nearly 2,500 years ago. He, like Deng, wanted to send a message to the known world
The treatment of the Uighurs has grown ever worse under Xi. There are more than a million of them, many locked away in what the authorities call ‘re-education’ camps.
Others call them concentration camps. Uighur women are threatened with forced sterilisation. Revolting. Inhuman. But, despise it though we may, it is an internal matter.
China’s foreign policy is something else completely. Especially when it risks destabilising the region and, ultimately, the global order by, for instance, building military bases on reclaimed reefs in the South China Sea.
And when it tries to persuade other governments that a mighty Chinese company like Huawei is independent of the state in just the same way as BT is independent of the British government. It’s not. It does what it’s told. There is a law that says it must.
Which is why, after we spent years cosying up to Beijing and giving Huawei the power effectively to run our communications network, the worm has turned.
It is a humiliation for Boris Johnson. It will cost billions to turn elsewhere for the kit to make our 5G mobile network function. It will set back the programme by at least a couple of years. And China, inevitably, is threatening to retaliate.
But all that is a price worth paying. The alternative would have been to give a potentially hostile foreign power the wherewithal to hold us to ransom and spy on us from within the very heart of our communications system.
The next big question for the Government is whether to allow the Chinese to design a new nuclear power station in Essex — crucial for future energy supplies.
And then we face the even bigger question of how we deal with the menace of a country whose economy will soon overtake the United States to become the mightiest in the world, and whose military power should scare us all.
We had a worrying pointer this week as to how we should not do it. It was revealed that our military chiefs have drawn up plans to base one of our two new aircraft carriers in the Far East early next year to play a part in countering an increasingly assertive China.
Vice-Admiral Jerry Kyd, the Royal Navy’s fleet commander, announced that, ‘Our ambition is to be absolutely persistent and forward-based there.’
If that does indeed happen it will be a reversal of a decision taken in the Sixties to withdraw Britain’s military presence ‘east of Suez’.
I try to picture President Xi summoning his generals to an emergency meeting at the news. Panic is etched on their faces. The British bulldog is baring its teeth, he will tell them. We must back down.
Really? The days when Britain roared and the world quaked have long gone. And that is no bad thing. Quite the opposite.
Sadly, it is far too late to reverse the ludicrous decision that led to us wasting so many billions on aircraft carriers we did not need and which have proved technically hopeless. And which would be sitting ducks for one of China’s new long-range missiles.
China under Xi has become an increasingly malign regime — both at home and abroad. Not only was it the source of Covid-19 but they tried to cover up the outbreak in Wuhan and then strong-armed the World Health Organisation into underplaying the danger. We are all paying the price
We even have to rely on the Americans for the aircraft they will carry. Just as we would have to rely on them if, God forbid, we ever threatened to use our ‘independent’ Trident nuclear missiles.
You can just about see why our top military brass (though not all of them), and a dwindling band of patriotic politicians, want to cling to the notion that Britain is still a so-called ‘Tier One’ force on the world stage. Look at our proud history, dammit!
Well, actually, no. Let’s look at our future instead. The past is the past.
Let’s accept, for a start, that we simply cannot afford the vast defence spending that’s needed. Just in case no one’s noticed, we’re a bit strapped for cash right now. As in an overdraft of a few hundred billion. And will be for a very long time to come.
But, crucially, if China or, indeed, Russia really does pose a threat in future it will come not from the barrel of a gun or a nuclear missile. It will come from a computer keyboard.
Cyber warfare has the potential to bring a sophisticated country such as ours to its knees terrifyingly quickly.
We panicked a few months ago when shops ran out of loo rolls. Try picturing supermarkets with no food. Or garages with no fuel. Or homes and hospitals with no electricity. Civilisation has never been more vulnerable.
Lenin famously said society is only ever three meals away from anarchy. That was before computers controlled the world.
And that’s why we are right to jettison Huawei and wrong to rely on aircraft carriers.
They’re about as much use as a terracotta army.