march 2009: beijing

When I was a reporter covering the mobile phone industry, the two most irritating things people would say to me were, “You don’t understand what’s going on in this business because you don’t have children,” and  “You don’t understand what’s going on in this business because you’ve never been to Asia.” I decided I had to go to Asia. I flew to Beijing for a week’s vacation when my friend L was going to be there so that we could go to the Forbidden City and the Great Wall together with her family. I didn’t learn very much new about the mobile phone industry but there were quite a few other surprises.

The face of China first appeared to me an iron-faced young border guard in a slightly oversized cap, grimly inspecting my passport. In front of him was a sign asking “Do you want to evaluate my customer service?” and giving his ID number. The button options were Great Service, Good Service, OK Service, and Bad Service (with corresponding emoticons), and Inspection Took Too Long (clock face). I opted not to evaluate. How could there be an upside? Low rating – probably fired. High rating – pressure to never fall short.

Airport signs were reassuringly multilingual, including a Cyrillic notice in a language inscrutable to me – Mongolian, it turned out. Getting into town on the metro went smoothly. The stations and trains had been fitted with English signs and announcements as part of a network expansion ahead of the 2008 Olympics. Each entrance was staffed by guards who helped passengers with the ticket automat, though their real job was security and in particular running bags through X-ray machines.

The hostel was in one of the last areas of hutongs: small streets of low houses, each consisting of rooms surrounding a courtyard in the fashion of a Roman dwelling. This particular hutong quarter was lined with shops selling electrical and mechanical components, rather like Manhattan’s Canal Street in the 1970s. Perhaps this is where the repair staff to the last Imperial Court once lived – the merchants who supplied switches and plugs to the royal household.

I had chosen the hostel for its listed amenity of “pretty cat,” and there were in fact plural pretty cats, as well as fantastic drawings of them in the guest book.

Despite the stellar public transportation – the city also has more than 20,000 buses – the air quality was terrible, with black and grey soot everywhere. The particles came from traffic, coal burners, construction, and the Gobi Desert, which was expanding toward the city. Even the cats were grubby. They had just given up.

My first outing was to an old industrial area that had been repurposed for art installations (798 Art Zone). Some of the installations appeared political, or at least open to political interpretation: painted soldiers with the mien and manner of Soviet statues in their junkyards, a Mercedes coated with dripping chrome, red T. rexes in tiered cages. Not very daring, but more daring than I expected.

One of my college writing professors went to live in Beijing for a couple of years and when she came back for a visit she invited her old students over for a slideshow, which in those days meant Kodachrome on a carousel. The takeaway was that Beijing was a good place to be a quietly living academic – especially, no doubt, if you were a foreign expert. People wore relaxed clothes compared to the dress-for-success suits of Reagan-era Boston, they enjoyed reading and eating healthy delicious food, they got round on bicycles, they appeared idealistic. Something like Le Guin’s Anarres, or Skinner’s Walden Two. It was not, we inferred from her account, a place where men got drunk and smashed up the town every Saturday night, or catcalled women, or insisted that other men have opinions on professional sports. Age was respected, even if it meant that young people were sometimes oppressed.

On my trip these aspects of the city were still visible – the mature days of a more modest culture – but also some things had changed. For one, fashion. The people on the subway were beautifully and often originally dressed in outfits with soft jewel-colored materials, or structured, flared silhouettes recalling ancient armor. Consumer society had returned, including Western hegemonic brands like Starbucks and Apple. The underground shopping malls overflowed with blingy accessories, as well as pay-per-hour activities like video games and ice skating. Though there were still a lot of bicycles, often with improbably large loads balanced on them, Beijing was now a car city, with ring roads and 10-lane boulevards. In some areas you could only cross the street through subterranean or superterranean walkways. The air was noisy with fireworks that didn’t stop as it was still Lunar New Year month.

Outside the hutong quarter everything in Beijing seemed oversized. Each city block felt about the size of Colorado. Once you arrived at the cross streets for the address you were seeking, you had to allow another 20 minutes to locate it on the block. Recently razed hutong and medium-rise neighborhoods were now the base for sky-piercing towers, massive ziggurats, and more fanciful buildings. The CCTV headquarters known as the Giant Shorts brought to mind A.R. Gurney’s line about Boston’s John Hancock and Prudential towers as “giant legs of a trunkless colossus.” Behind CCTV was a 44-story hotel shaped like a walkie-talkie that had been burned unfinished when an illegal fireworks display got out of hand.

Tiananmen Square goes on forever. The first time I visited, it was full of people strolling for exercise and visiting landmarks like the colorful South Gate (above), the central obelisk Monument to the People’s Heroes, and Mao’s masoleum, where he lies in a glass coffin. There were plenty of guards here too. Later in the week when we visited the Forbidden City, the entire square was closed off and ringed with guards (smoky picture below). The reason was that the National People’s Congress was having its annual meeting in the flag-bedecked buildings next to the square – the only regular occasion when all the top officials make televised speeches and talk to the press – and they didn’t want any demonstrations.

Outside the Forbidden City, there was a large portrait of Mao and crowds of tourists taking one another’s pictures in front of it. It seemed curious – surely some of them had families who suffered during the Cultural Revolution for example. Why would they want their pictures taken with Mao? Didn’t they remember? The best answer I got is that China has always had emperors, and in long perspective Mao becomes just one more emperor, not personally responsible for the empire system. The palace behind was an endless series of nested courtyards and reception rooms, the innermost sanctum always receding behind another terraced facade, another perfectly proportioned patio and rock garden.

Our day trip to the Great Wall was made easy by a relative of L’s husband who drove us to a section that was further out of the city and not heavily trafficked. There was a camel resting near the parking lot when we arrived; it had some kind of tourism job but we never figured out what. We took a funicular up to the wall and there walked as far we could. The wall was as magnificent as it always looks in the pictures – one of those places like St. Petersburg that automatically arranges itself into shots of postcard quality – and the many-times refreshed bricks were adorned with many-times refreshed graffiti.

The essential sights seen, I went shopping. First to the Silk Market, a stacked-up indoor shopping mall full of grey market goods. There was a seemingly infinite variety of China-only brands, as well as bootlegs of iPhones, Nokias and other foreign marks. That was my main revelation, or rather confirmation about the mobile phone industry; I had read about this brand profusion and reported on it secondhand using consultant quotes, but it was something to see it personally. I considered getting a bootleg Nokia N97 to see if it worked better than the original, or worked at all. However, a Chinese mobile phone subscription was probably required.

The next stop was the city’s and probably the country’s biggest bookshop, the Xidan Book Building, which also sold periodicals, art, music and electronics. In other words, this was a department store with all of the interesting departments, and none of the boring departments. Bookshelves were signposted in English and included the following place-specific categories: Marxist Philosophy, Comments and Researches on A Dream of Red Mansions, Book Collection of Public Morality, Artistic Calligraphy and Masthead Design, Theory of Calligraphy, Rubbings from Stone Inscriptions, Collection of Bird-and-Flower Paintings (these seemed to be mostly tigers though), Biographies of Famous Scientists, Technology of Living, Metal Cutting and Machine Tools, Machine Manufacturing, and DDE (CAD) Software.

US President Barack Obama was an exemplar figure in the English language learning section which occupied most of the basement floor, and if you were looking for English for non-instrumental purposes, there was a display of biographies of Michael Jackson. The electronics department also had a language learning section, featuring multimedia digital dictionaries that looked like expanded pocket calculators or keyboard phones. In the vast music arcade I bought CDs of Cui Jian, a dissident rocker, and Han Hong, a Tibetan-Chinese pop star, and helped a couple of other patrons find a Pussycat Dolls disk. They weren’t sure if Pussycat Dolls was a person, a song, an album or a band, but they’d heard something labeled Pussycat Dolls and they liked it. We’ve all been there.

The periodicals section stocked several dozen colorful magazines, all on the lighter side: hobbies, fashion, art, travel. There was nothing that looked like news or politics although of course I was nearly illiterate and just going by the design. Elsewhere I did see a few newsy looking magazines, including one called Blog Weekly. But during the entire trip I didn’t see one newspaper or one person reading a newspaper (or indeed a magazine). It was as if the city had gone directly from wall newspapers to news on mobile phones, skipping the stage in the middle that demands mass processing of tree meat.

On the last day I took a high speed train to Tianjin, a port that was the nearest city of any size. Tianjin is China’s fifth-largest metropolis, a ten-million city to Beijing’s twenty-million. In pre-revolutionary times it was a treaty port with an international quarter, as well as a significant Muslim population (mainly the Hui group, who outnumber Uyghurs). The train departed Beijing South Railway Station, the biggest station I have ever seen. It took a quick, smooth half hour to cover 177 miles. Tianjin too was growing like a bomb, with massive new buildings surrounding the vast windy plaza in front of the station and its requisite shopping mall. It was too large and too cold to explore very far, so I got back on the beautiful train while there was still daylight to see things. Between the outskirts of Beijing and the outskirts of Tianjin there was an empty quarter, and it was easy to imagine the buildings would soon spread from both ends to fill it in.

So my two biggest takeaways were first, the sheer critical mass and explosive growth of Beijing, which seems even more striking now after eight years in Britain. It was no wonder that Western companies were striving to get into China and stay there. And second, the subtle but ever-present marks of government limitation and control. The flip side of the border guard with RATE MY PERFORMANCE was the consumer jamboree of shopping malls and hotels with guards everywhere. It seemed that a significant fraction of the population was a guard of some kind: army in green, less official police such as the metro guards in black, streets and shopping malls patrolled by still more guards in black overcoats and earflap hats, all the way down to old people with some kind of Neighborhood Watch armbands buzzing around their apartment buildings.

Most of the guard categories appeared to be unarmed. But still the combination of city complexity and visible, small-scale control was intimidating. It is easy to keep tabs on small communities – Finland can probably calculate how many people are in the country on any given day, with the margin of error limited to a few cross-border beer shoppers in Lapland. You’d think you could lose yourself in a twenty-million city. But with enough guards and cameras and mobile towers, in modern architecture designed for clear lines of sight, you probably can’t. That much control over a population that big is especially frightening, and dissenting individuals and minorities are too tiny to push back with much effect. Of course, the same case can increasingly be made against Western surveillance capitalism, which the Chinese social credit system has much in common with: judicial, financial and political conformity are continuously evaluated and tracked, used for exclusion and sanction. The mobile phone and software industries are enablers here.

Beijing was a pleasant place to spend a week, and for a scholar or foreign expert who keeps their head down, probably still a nice place to live. But a nation should not be judged by how it treats its most timid citizens. The measure of a nation is how it treats its people like John Brown, Rosa Luxemburg, Hans and Sophie Scholl, Alan Turing, the McCarthy targets, the Black Panthers, the Chicago Eight, the Stonewall activists, Nelson Mandela, the Greenham Common women, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and Aaron Swartz, among many others –
internal opposition, activists, and those who do not fit the mold, however attractive it seems to the very vast majority.

PS Some of the good ideas from China spotted on this trip:

– Pre-brewed green tea in recyclable packaging
– Foreign language textbooks with masks for reading just the Chinese characters or just the transcription
– Massage sandals, which I have also bought in Chinese neighborhoods in the US
– Free hot water for your thermos on the train (not shown)
– Mobile phone and device charging station – shown here before plug shapes converged