Thursday, 7 June 2012

Beijing: Blade Runner without the flying cars

On the set of the old Peking
Geographically, Beijing is in the northeast of China, in a similar position to where New York is in the United States. But my immediate impression of the city was that it is far more similar to Los Angeles than New York. Like LA, Beijing is a sprawling mega-metropolis of 20 million people, with terrible pollution and chaotic traffic (although the pollution is significantly worse in Beijing). The streets are wide-open boulevards and the urban areas are flat, though distant mountains are a defining feature of the landscape. Unscrupulous property developers have destroyed the concept of open-access public space in both cities. But while the sun in Los Angeles is relentless, in Beijing the noise and the appalling air literally invade the senses. The 1982 film Blade Runner is set in a dystopian vision of Los Angeles in 2019 where the pollution is a permanent, thick haze enshrouding the city, and where overcrowding and overbuilding have made the natural world a thing of the past. Director Ridley Scott said that the setting was based partly on ‘Hong Kong on a very bad day’, but the closest I’ve ever come to the set of Blade Runner is not Los Angeles or Hong Kong, but Beijing.

Blade Runner Beijing
Up in the smog above Beijing
Big Oil, cars and chaos
If Los Angeles is the Western world's most western city – not just geographically but psychologically – then Beijing may well be the East's most eastern city. Confucianism, big bureaucracy and a tightly regulated 'free' market powers Beijing and China towards the glorious promise of being the 21st century's greatest superpower. Just as the city of Los Angeles, as well as its image to outsiders, has been shaped by Hollywood, the power of illusion is equally important in Beijing. As far as it possibly can, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) shapes the perception of its capital city that it would like the rest of the world to have. If you’ve read any of its celebrated crime fiction, such as James Ellroy and Michael Connelly, or seen the recent Woody Harrelson film 'Rampart', you’ll know that Los Angeles is often imagined as a sub-urban dystopia, controlled by a fascistic police force and a corrupt cabal of businessmen, lawyers and an elite political establishment. It's individualistic and dog eat dog. In reality, LA is as fascist as Beijing is communist, which is to say it depends on your perspective, but the rest is true, and from the many and varied talks we were privileged to attend over the course of the week, it sounds as if Beijing is pretty similar.

Tiananmen Square - Sentry City
Sub-urban Beijing
Expats frequently compare China to the Wild West, where a lot of people are getting very rich, very quickly doing illicit things, and where mild forms of bribery are an everyday part of doing business. Doing a PR campaign? In the UK, you might take them out to lunch but it would be unethical to pay journalists to attend your press conference; in Beijing, journalists will only attend if they're paid. If you're buying, leasing or developing property, strong relationships with the government are essential. Indeed, the success of a business is likely to depend on the strength of a person's 'guanxi', as a network of business connections is known. Perhaps most striking to me was the idea that urban China is not the collective society that socialism seeks to foster. Rather, 35 years of a one-child policy for urban families has created a highly individualistic society, especially amongst those now in their 30s or younger. Differentiating themselves from their peers as well as the ghosts of generations past is a primary aim. And status, or 'face', as the Chinese call it, is very important. In response to a semi-serious question about love in China, the native Chinese rep from the Beijing British Council said 'love does exist in Chinese relationships, but Chinese people are far more practical in their approach than people in the West. To get married, a Chinese man must own an apartment, a car, and have career prospects'.

Navigating the traffic
Playing the Guqin in the hotel lobby
Good hygiene at the 7-Eleven 
The Forbidden City
Tank man
China is the world's oldest civilization, but Beijing's development and growth has been remarkably quick and recent. 100 years ago, Los Angeles was a collection of orange groves in the Mojave Desert; just 30 years ago, Beijing was simply Tiananmen Square and the old, walled Forbidden City surrounded by 'hutongs' - neighbourhoods consisting of narrow alleyways and tiny grey houses (the term is Mongolian for 'water well'). In the 1970s, during and in the immediate aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, China was in turmoil. As late as 1979 there were very few cars on the roads in Beijing, farm workers occupied the highest strata of society, and fashion looked a lot like the green army uniforms and soft military caps we stereotypically associate with communism. Teachers, doctors and other professionals were paraded through the streets as social pariahs, while China's main international trade partner was Romania. Ten years later, in June 1989, hundreds of people were killed in Beijing when Deng Xiaoping’s government ordered the military to put an end to student-led protests demanding economic reform and freedom of the media. It gave the world the unforgettable image of the 'tank man', and made Beijing even more paranoid about controlling information and limiting what its citizens and the rest of the world know about China. 'Tank man' is an image whose legacy is still felt – in the bizarre restrictions on the internet (social media sites like facebook, twitter and blogger are completely inaccessible unless you have a VPN connection), and the controls placed on the media, where foreign firms have to partner with a local publisher if they wish to operate in China and national media outlets such as the China Daily newspaper and the appropriately named Chinese Central Television (CCTV) are blatant propaganda channels for the CCP. But if the Chinese people are fervently apolitical when it comes to big-ticket issues, for fear of government reprisals, they are extremely outspoken about localised matters. A polyphony of opinions are exchanged online, on sites like weibo, China's version of twitter, about regional social problems such as pollution and migrant rights.

The CCTV building
China's outsiders
Old man smoking in the hutong
Asleep in the hutong
The 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles transformed the Games forever with the introduction of corporate sponsorship and advertising (coincidentally, 1984 was the first Olympic Games that China participated in since 1932, when the Games were also held in Los Angeles). The transformation of Beijing, which began in the early 1980s, went into overdrive when Beijing won the bid to hold the 2008 Olympics. Beginning in 2003, the modernisation process began in earnest. The scale and cost, monetarily and on the environment, of the development was phenomenal. Over five years, US$180 billion was spent, building the Olympic Park, more than 100 venues, significantly expanding the Beijing subway system and giving the city major road networks. In early 2008, the International Olympic Committee visited Beijing and were disgusted at the level of pollution. In response, all industry within a 100km circumference of the city was stopped dead for two months, to bring the pollution down to an acceptable level, just in time for the Games. However, that was just a temporary reprieve – in late 2010 the level of pollution in Beijing went 'off the charts' on the Air Quality Index. The US embassy in Beijing tweeted that the air quality was 'crazy bad', because they’d run out of adjectives appropriate enough to describe the severity of the pollution.

Water Cube in the Olympic Park
Street food seller in Sunlitun
Snake skin, snake meat
Baby ducks on a skewer
The Bird's Nest stadium
Private industry was invited to help fund the development of stadia like the Bird's Nest, which today is mostly unused and falling into disrepair. But 10 years after the drive to modernise in anticipation of the Olympics began, the hyper capitalism that we associate with the West is alive and well in Beijing. With 1.3 billion people, competition to succeed is intense, and for the first 18 years of their lives, Chinese youth spend a huge amount of their time preparing for the 'Gaokao', the university entry exam. Those who succeed in getting into Beijing's best universities will have to finish in the top percentile of the 500,000 people in their region who are also taking the exam that year. China's best and brightest excel at functional skills like maths and literacy, and in subjects like computer science and engineering, but don't readily develop so-called 'soft' skills like leadership and creative thinking. China today has the world's second largest economy, but only ranks 93rd in real GDP terms. It's still very much a developing country. China's leaders know this, and recognise that the country's future development rests on its ability to innovate if it is to compete with the world's most developed countries. Rather than advertising billboards, Beijing's wide, bustling boulevards are lined with signs bearing slogans of thought leadership from the CCP, encouraging the people of Beijing to be more creative and behave more magnanimously if the country is to prosper further. They reminded me of the freeway signs that gave Steve Martin advice in the film 'LA Story'. Whether it's in the restricted corridors of power or in the freedom of the open road, god is always in the machine.

Embrace the Beijing Spirit
LA Story

1 comment:

  1. thank you - iteresting and informative. Would you e able to expand the meanings of the word "inclusiveness" in that "embrace the Beijing spirit" picture?