Since then the growth rate in China has been over 10% a year for most of the time and the mud flats are now the spectacular high rise heart of a phenomenally energetic city. The people are now over 10 times richer than when I went.
The usual tale we are told about this amazing expansion is that when China adopted the free market then suddenly everything started to go well. There is a degree of truth in this but also serious flaws. Without question the over aggressive state planning of the Mao years produced starvation and misery and are an object lesson in why giving too much power to the state is a really dangerous thing to do. There can also be little question that allowing a lot more private enterprise has been good for the Chinese people on the whole. It has certainly made them a lot richer.
But, the growth came at a price. Almost every Chinese city is now covered with an appalling fog of pollution. Much of development took place without the least thought for health and safety as the accident at Tianjin clearly illustrates. People with good connections have made good profits. Anyone who has stood in their way has had a less pleasant future as land has been stolen, baby milk adulterated with deadly poisons and even critics as well connected as Ai Wei Wei jailed for a few harmless words out of place.
The growth was also every bit as much the product of strong state intervention and state planning as it was of free enterprise. Throughout the staggering phase of growth the state and the local authorities have been highly active in guiding and controlling the development of capitalism. So the huge investment in infrastructure that drove a lot of the growth came from state planning. The roads, the thousands of miles of high speed rail links, the port facilities, the airports together with huge numbers of hospitals and schools have almost all been created by conscious decisions of state planners. China isn't just a wild west for free enterprise. It is a mixed economy where the state and the communist party consciously tries to control things.
This creates some serious opportunities for dealing with problems rapidly and effectively. When the Chinese communist party sets itself an objective it can deploy enormous resources and make a huge difference. So it is brilliantly positive news that two of the five major targets in the current Chinese state plan are about environmental issues. And things are actually being done. In the first three months of 2015 China built more solar capacity than currently exists in the whole of France. The Gobi desert is the subject of a mammoth renewable energy investment programme and major tree planting programmes are underway in attempts to reverse the trend towards desertification.
When the people directing the largest economy in the world start to show evidence that they have understood that they cannot develop at the expense of the environment without creating major long term problems it has to be good news.
But hang on a minute. It is always wise to be cautious about supporting the actions of dictators no matter how well intentioned. Seeing the power of the Chinese state beginning to be used to tackle a horrendous environmental crisis with speed and energy is indeed a very welcome change. After the ruination of most of China's major rivers and the pumping out more CO2 annually than anywhere else on the planet this has to be good news. But the power of that state is not to be trusted.
The Chinese communist party would like to see itself as the wise guardians of the future of the Chinese people. A few honest comrades guiding the masses with its wise interpretations of their best interest. The most conscious and the best leading those who don't really understand what they should want.
In point of fact putting that much power in the hands of a few elderly men produces some very dangerous results. Extreme corruption and the ability of the rich and powerful to buy almost any decision they want is one. Nasty nationalistic posturing that risks war over a few meaningless islands in order to enable one senior party member steal a march on a rival is another. The jails full of dissidents, the regular executions, and the complete lack of freedom of speech are not tiny details. They are scary. Particularly if you are a minority nationality, religion or sexual orientation.
To me then China teaches us several really important things. Firstly it shows that giving free enterprise its head will give you very rapid growth but at huge price. Next it shows that combining state intervention with free enterprise is hugely effective. The fastest growing economy on the planet is one of the ones with the highest proportion of things managed by the state. (Not a message you will normally hear!) Thirdly China illustrates that some problems are so major that the only really effective way of tackling them is to deploy the power of state planning. That applies whether it is a super fast railway to Tibet or investment in green energy.
But finally, and for me most importantly, there is one other key lesson. You cannot give up freedom to achieve equality or to enable socialist or environmental policies to be implemented more effectively. Democratic control is worth fighting for. So is freedom of speech and movement. Without it you get someone like Mao who starts out as such an honest person that people would walk half way across China and fight to the death to bring him to power. But he ends up ordering young girls to be forced into his bed because he believes it will help preserve his life if he captures their virginity. He ends up causing a famine that kills over 30 million being created because no one will tell the wise leader he has made a mistake. And his rather less powerful modern equivalents end up presiding over explosions in docksides because chemicals have been stored next to dormitory homes of desperately poor migrant workers because backhanders have been taken to ignore it.
We need effective state planning but we also need democratic control of the planners!