In 1949 foreign sympathisers came to help build the Maoist dream. Sixty years later, one of them is still there.

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On January 31 1949, when the People’s Liberation Army came marching into Beijing – heralding the imminent demise of Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomindang regime in mainland China – Sidney Shapiro, a bespectacled 33-year-old lawyer from Brooklyn, New York, rode his bicycle up to Xizhimen, the city’s north-west gate, to take a look at the soldiers.

There, he remembered years later, he saw a parade of “clean, smartly stepping, smiling young men” being welcomed by cheering crowds, and a line of American-made vehicles that the Communists had captured from Guomindang forces. Shapiro, who had spent the last year and a half in China but had been in Beijing for only a couple of months, was enchanted. “Parents held their kids higher on their shoulders for a better view,” he later wrote. “The streets were gay with flags and bunting.” The Mao era had arrived.

Almost six decades later, Shapiro is still here – a robust 92-year-old Chinese citizen with white hair, a strong handshake, and an exceptionally well-preserved Brooklyn accent. Part of a wave of westerners who settled in Beijing in the early Mao years to sign up for the “socialist experiment,” Shapiro is one of a tiny few who lasted long enough to experience the entire, ongoing era of Communist rule – and to see China stage an Olympic opening ceremony last Friday night that gave almost no acknowledgement to Mao’s legacy.

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