Having been awoken at 5am in order to nurse my “Beijing cough”, I think now is as good a time as any to reflect on my whirlwind visit to China, a 9 day tour which allowed us just a glimpse into China’s extraordinary development, and a taste (literally) of what makes China so different from the West.
Beijing is a city of contradictions: it is developed but unsustainable; it is modern but lacks modern amenities (such as drinking water); it has barely any rubbish on the ground but a dirty sky, it has many ancient buildings but lacks character; it has many tall, modern buildings but lacks a skyline; it has many friendly, enterprising people but doesn’t feel welcoming.
That being said, I am hesitant to make sweeping claims about Beijing (as I did in my posts about Santiago structurally and politically) because I was unable to overcome the language barrier, and my experiences were limited to just a fraction of what is on offer in a metropolis the size of Beijing, but I will enlighten you with some of my observations:
Probably my most welcome surprise upon visiting Beijing was the friendliness of the people I met: from taxi drivers to the little lady who sold me bottled water and coke each morning, many people would greet me with a smile and were generally very happy to welcome us. I had envisioned Chinese people to be dark and gloomy, depressed by the tyrannical oppression of their Communist leaders, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. People are humble and friendly. Yes, the government bothers the people (as I will mention later), but in general they just seem to be happy to be where they are, living the lives they lead.
Similarly surprising were the pockets of beauty and creativity I found in Beijing, albeit few and far between. The 798 Art Zone in the North East of the city offered a neighborhood that was more reminiscent of Williamsburg or Berlin than Communist Beijing, with stunning street art, impressive sculptures and free, open galleries interjected by contemporary coffee shops and cool bars. Clearly, this area is the hub of creativity in the capital. During our visit we stumbled across a TEDx style presentation… if only we could speak Chinese!!!
Amongst the main tourist attractions, the Summer Palace and The Great Wall were the clear standouts. The Summer Palace may not match Versailles’ grandeur and opulence, but it exceeds the French chateau in terms of its breathtaking scale and spectacular setting. We attempted to walk around the entire Kunming Lake, but nearly 3 hours and 4 miles later we were still only 3/4 of the way around. In the same vein, The Great Wall’s scale is impossible to comprehend until experienced firsthand; I was bracing myself to be let down by the first “Wonder of the World” I had visited, but I was very happy to be proven wrong. Just 3 hours and 1/2000th of the wall covered were enough to impress me. If you ever get the chance, do not pass up on the great wall!
In quick succession, some of the other great elements of Beijing include: haggling on the street markets (always start off at 10% of the price they quote you); enjoying an advantageous exchange rate for meals, drinks, taxis and more; the subway! 30 cents a ticket, fast, modern and offering complete phone service!; exploring the “hutongs”, especially in search of the wonderful Great Leap Brewing company; and finally eating Scorpion, like a crunchy piece of chicken!
Two problems plagued my experience each and every day in Beijing, and in all honesty I have no idea how Beijing residents deal with them on a day to day basis. No, I’m not talking about the authoritarian government or the lack of drinking water (both of which are very real problems), I’m talking about the smog and the traffic.
The EPA offers an index for air quality, with anything above a PM 2.5 of 150 being deemed unhealthy, and anything above 300 deemed as being hazardous. Well during our visit Beijing’s air quality index never dropped below 150, and on one day where the smog was so bad we could feel the air we breathed in, the AQI reached 306. I can’t explain how miserable an experience this was; we had members of our group throw up, while I personally felt nauseous and dizzy. Even away from the city while climbing the Great Wall we couldn’t escape the smog, which restricted our lung capacity just when they were needed most. Even Los Angeles, which is renowned for its poor air quality, has a mean AQI of 72. You can’t understand how precious clean air is until you visit Beijing.
Westerners who are well versed in global politics are quick to blame China’s dependence on dirty coal-burning power plants for its disastrous air quality levels, and while that is partially true, the real culprit is cars. Beijing has an estimated 5.5 million cars. In a city which 15 years ago was predominantly traversed by bicycle and rickshaw, Beijing’s rapid growth has led to an unbelievable influx in car ownership, with residents perpetuating a vicious cycle in which they travel by car in order to escape the awful air quality, only to exacerbate the problem.
I would hazard to guess that each journey we took in Beijing, whether by taxi or bus, whether for one mile or thirty mile, lasted 30% – 40% longer than it would’ve taken without any traffic. I was filled with road rage on a daily basis, and I wasn’t even driving. I couldn’t imagine attempting to commute by car in Beijing.
Among some of the other problems encountered in Beijing were: being very disappointed by Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City (both very impressive in size, but nothing to boast about); the Great Fire Wall, the supposedly oppressive censoring of Western sites which are actually accessible by using mobile data; the nightlife (can’t say I experienced the full range, but the superclubs such as Mix are just a playground for rich Chinese, and the bars – with the exception of a Western bar called Lakers – disappointed); and finally silkworm, a hideous, hideous Chinese streetfood offering which I was foolish enough to try. STAY AWAY. Stick to the Scorpion!!
Ironically, the cloudy elements of my trip do not include the smog (which is just plain bad); instead, the elements that I am still uncertain about are my feelings towards the Communist Party, and Beijing in general.
Our contact with the government bureaucracy was limited to bribing the security at Tiananmen Square to let our big group in without hassle, but in our lectures we heard all kinds of horrifying stories about the government: tales about the inability for foreigners to obtain mortgages or get married, the propaganda that gets spouted in the English language newspapers, the corruption and misallocation of resources which prevent money being spent on schools or healthcare infrastructure, the impromptu business inspections that can only be passed with an undocumented “service fee” to the inspector, the nepotism, the hesitancy to act for fear of repercussions, the unaccountability for anything, the ruthlessness with which the party enforced the one child policy.
That being said, it seems like many people are able to live normal lives. China does not seem to physically oppress its people on a day to day basis, and while web censorship is high, I only felt as though “big brother” was watching me to the extent it does in CCTV-ridden Britain. In fact, I actually liked the fact that you had to put your bag through a scanner to get on a subway, and that the airport used thermal monitoring sensors to see if anyone might have a fever that they could be bringing into the country.
Clearly, the Communist party is aware that the only way it is able to retain complete control over its citizens is to continue on its route towards development and addressing the concerns of its population. This can only be achieved through continued economic liberalization in terms of information transparency and enhanced accountability. We have already seen glimpses of this future, with the party allowing companies to default on their bank loans for the first time. That does not mean the party is going anywhere soon, and its grip over the country has never been stronger.
The final element of my trip which is neither black nor white is my overarching view on Beijing. It is simultaneously more developed and less developed than I had anticipated. Beijing is bigger than I could ever have imagined, yet it lacks much of the infrastructure necessary for a city to thrive. While we fret in the West about a rising China, we currently have nothing to fear – China’s biggest problems are internal: education, environmental, agricultural and water concerns top their list over territorial aggression or cyber-hacking.
There remains amazing opportunity in Beijing and China in general (a charter school system could be phenomenal if it were allowed), and we were fortunate enough to meet some of the Westerners who are taking advantage of these opportunities; however, I think that I would rather invest my time and effort into undervalued markets (cough, cough The Bronx) that also offer me the ability to breathe!!
If you get the opportunity to visit Beijing, take it. I’m so glad that this opportunity was presented to me by GBHP at Fordham. Given China’s might, I am sure that I will return to the land of dragons… but let me get over my cough first!
Until next time!