Beijing Fading: A Decade of Promise?
It's been a decade since I was in Beijing studying the language and culture of China. It's amazing to think of how much has changed in me as a person since first getting on a plane and jumping head first into a culture as ancient and deep as that of the "Middle Kingdom," but while many things change some simply stay the same.
My studies of Chinese culture and society have surely not slowed in the years since spending a summer in Beijing. You'd have to live underneath a rock or in a cave somewhere to avoid the constant media message of a surging China, both economically and politically, and yet the thing that has stuck with me the most in the past decade has been the way things seemed to stay the same for the Chinese. In analyzing their history one would come to the conclusion that the current leadership of the People's Republic of China is simply nothing more than another dynastic family holding onto power the only way they know how- by applying it.
Perhaps all the statues of Sun Yat Sen that revere him as the "Father of the Republic" are the equivalent to our own glorification of George Washington, and by that rationale Mao is China's Lincoln, Deng their Nixon, Jiang their Clinton, and Hu their Bush. But how much can a modern nation expect to depart from its ideological roots? What is change? How do we truly measure it? Does a society in change need to be held, cradled, nurtured and protected by those around it like an infant to ensure that it grows up right? Once it does change, how do we judge whether the change is good or bad? By what standards do we assail such judgment? From whose perspective?
After being back in Beijing for a week now I think I can comment on the Beijing that has replaced the one I came to love and hate on equal footing.
The China that I encountered a decade ago was still in the process of distancing itself from the Tiananmen Square masacre. A Beijing where thousands of dissident voices rallied together to create one epic chorus calling for change. Change from the dark and seedy lives steeped in poverty and disease, change from the age old process of simply being told how to live, how many babies to have, what job to report to, what language to speak, and what politic to unquestionably press to one's heart. We all know how the story ended. We all know because we saw at least a smidgen of what the leadership did not want the world to see. We all saw the tanks, we heard the machine guns, and the scene of that man standing off a line of tanks is etched in our brains just like the image of Kirk Gibson pumping his fist as he rounds the bases into World Series history will always be there. The fact that the former should hold a greater place and relevance than that of the latter is of no major
consequence. Nonetheless, it will always be there for me. I was just a little child when I saw it, but I remember everything about it the way my dad remembers seeing Vietnam on the TV. It stays with you.
It clearly it stayed with the leadership too as a decade later Tiananmen Square was still closed on the anniversary of that defiant call for democracy and change. However, Beijing had already begun to change. China had already begun to embrace the reality of what it had to do economically in order to maintain its hold politically. The China we have today is in direct response to Tiananmen, just perhaps not the way most of those students and citizens had hoped for.
They called them F.E.Zs or "Free Economic Zones". Only the major cities had them. They considered them "experiments in capitalism", and allowed private businesses to exist via permit as long as their owners didn't challenge the leadership and their hold on society. Foreign investment flowed in like a raging river. It was swift. The Hard Rock was there for our weekend enjoyment, McDonald's was like a nightclub behind the velvet rope, the Colonel (KFC) already had his 100th franchise in the former imperial gardens of Beihai Park adjacent to the Forbidden City. Fresh veggie markets still lined the streets, meat stick hawkers still dominated the corners, the bicycle was still numero uno in transport, but all our counterparts at the university triumphantly commandeered their motor scooters, proudly wore their beepers on the outside of their belts, and most worked for American and European franchises where they made more money in a night than their daddies were making in a week, and in some cases a month, of sixteen hour work days.
The Hutong were vile places where ten to fifteen would stack up in little cement prisons; where the wash was done right next to where the cooking occurred; where the streets were muddied with human waste and around every corner your face was slapped with the stench of urine. Around the corner from each shadowy Hutong was a pillar of Chinese excellence, be it culinary, performative or architectural, and even a decade ago one could simply side-step the grim reality of what life was really like for the average Beijinger. I almost side-stepped it myself. Almost walked right past it, never glancing seriously at the country I was "studying". If not for the need to break free of the monotony that was our academic regiment and site-seeing itinerary I might have missed it altogether. But I didn't. I took that walk down the dark alley just round the corner from the Peking Duck House where George H.W. Bush and the lot used to be pampered to the finest Beijing had to offer after visiting the Chinese Opera. What I saw changed me. As I think back, it was that night and that silent ride home in a cab after a seemingly endless hour of wandering through the labyrinth of poverty in that Hutong that flipped the switch in me.
So, we were talking about change. Change? In the past decade China most certainly has changed, but for whom? The China, or at least the Beijing, that people attending the Olympics will walk away with in their minds will be a very different Beijing than the one that has continued to stir within me. They will walk away with exactly what the leadership wants them to walk away with- an image of extreme efficiency, cleanliness, organization, modernization, and prosperity. But where did all the people from the Hutongs go? It's not as if they have all suddenly entered the middle class and can now afford to buy Prada and shop in the malls that seem to be everywhere. What's really behind all those glitzy "One World One Dream Beijing 2008" billboards absolutely everywhere you look?
Will those here for the Olympics interact with any of these Chinese or will they walk away with a sense that China deserves its rightful seat at the political and economic table with the rest of the 'modern' world. Will they venture twenty kilometers out of the city center and see the real China where people still live in the garages where they work or will they walk away mesmerized by the glitz and flamboyance of the spectacle that is the Olympics "Chinese-style"?
Considering the four hours I spent as the only Western face on the local buses that took me out past the fifth ring in search of the Marco Polo Bridge I have the feeling that they will walk away not seeing any Hutong other than the ones that promote traditional architecture or have been refurbished to the point of being suitable enough to sell tourists little trinkets, bamboo hats, and knock-off bronze Buddha statues.
Unfortunately my gut is telling me they will walk away feeling that the world shouldn't be so hard on China for its human rights record, or their state stranglehold of the media. They will walk away from Beijing thinking that perhaps it is okay that China is on the Human Rights Council; that it is understandable and responsible that China has a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council; that China should be celebrated for its progress and superb performance as a gracious Olympic host. They will not walk away with a mindset that will see China's epic rise as a zero-sum game for a major chunk of the host's very own citizens. They will simply swallow the red pill, enjoy their vacation, support their nation's effort in the games, and get on the plane none the wiser to the realities and impacts of current policy in China. They will not see the face of the losers in the equation. They will only see the winners because they are the only ones who are on display. I know this because part of me will walk away just the same.