Pictures at a Chinese Exhibition

How does China’s capital Beijing compare to Asian mega-cities?

September 17, 2001

How does China's capital Beijing compare to Asian mega-cities?

I had always been told that Beijing was a boring and bloated government town, full of administrative drudgery — and no excitement and vivacity whatsoever. All the action, all the fascination, it is said was to be found in Shanghai, and (still) in Hong Kong. But definitely not in Beijing.

Maybe it all depends on where you arrive from. In my case, before arriving in Beijing, I had spent the previous four days in Tokyo. And I must admit that I came away with a very clear view. On my trip, I visited one city that was very definitely the capital of a very stolid, stifling, even depressing country, a country that was control-minded — and clearly the last global remnant of stifling state planning and socialism.

Meanwhile, the other city I visited, while strange in some ways, was clearly full of hubbub. It was thriving, with people purposefully going about their ways, with some inner sense of expectation — even happiness.

The trouble is, pairing these images to the cities in question yielded the opposite result from what one would expect. To my mind at least, the city I described first is Tokyo — while Beijing, unexpectedly, proves to be the happening place.
Unlike Tokyo, Beijing offers the unassuming foreigner at least some breathing space — and some sense of spatial openness. In contrast, every last square inch of Tokyo seems to be totally packed, even cramped. Beijing has some vistas of parks and tree-lined avenues and the city government is working hard to put in many more.

But my amazement did not end there. During the obligatory trip to the Great Wall, I witnessed first-hand another instance of how things got criss-crossed in ideologically unexpected ways. Westerners usually pride themselves that they live in a market economy, with all the sense of private initiative and negotiation that this entails.

And yet, at all the sales booths near the Great Wall, it was really the Westerners who acted as if they had grown up in a planned economy. To be specific, they were quite taken aback at the Chinese vendors’ constant insistence on suggesting a price for this baseball cap, that T-shirt — or miniature -ize Mao bible.

Most foreign tourists would have rather preferred if a fixed price had been attached to each item, so that they could have executed the commercial transaction pretty much without talking.

By the way, the Great Wall — at least at the spot near Beijing which we visited — was everything but an easy thing to handle physically. It’s surely nothing for ailing heads of state to take a comfy stroll on, as we have been told been endless reams of news reports. In many sections, the Wall is in fact very steep.

But I did appreciate not just the opportunity for exercise away from my conference, but really also the ingenuity of the Chinese construction engineers that began working on the Wall in the 7th century B.C. Following re-enforcement work in the 14th century, it stands now at over 6,000 kilometers.

In particular, its steps came in all sorts of height and depth. Some were very steep and short, others almost flat and long. It was an almost permanent mix, forcing the eye — and the body — very closely to the climbing task at hand.

Having grown up in Germany, I came to realize how awful the experience would have been if the German concept of mandatory standardized sizes for steps would have prevailed in China. After a few steps, one would have gotten spasms in both legs and the back, from the constant overuse of one specific group of muscles.

But the way the Chinese built it, all muscle groups were used at various times — making the excursion a thorough work-through virtually for the entire body.

On the way back, our tour guide in the bus explained some of the current state of home affairs for Beijingers. Inevitably, she talked about the one-child rule — and how that has made all those single children, evidently sensing their special status, rather difficult to deal with for parents.

Our guide explained that the youngsters were commonly referred to as little “princes.” This reference to the feudalist world struck some of the members of our traveling party as pretty peculiar. After all, in much better keeping with communist traditions, these Westerners realized that they tended to refer to their own kids back home as “little dictators.” Once again, the world of ideology seemed to have been put onto its head.

Now for the more seamy side of things. A friend had warned me to expect mid-night phone calls in my hotel room, offering massages and the like. Properly forewarned, I found myself regularly accosted — but in broad daylight, not the dark of night.

On Beijing’s main shopping street, pairs of girls kept approaching me, with the seemingly innocuous opening line of: “Sir, where you’re from?” Fortunately, though, the purpose of that exercise was entirely non-commercial. The girls were just keen on having an opportunity to practice their English with some real foreigners.

This keenness on learning English also became very apparent on the sidelines of the financial conference I was attending. To my surprise, quite a few of the young Chinese reporters covering the conference had to use the headphones to listen to the simultaneous translation services. During one break, I asked one of them through an interpreter whether she had not learned any foreign languages.

Full of self-contempt, she said: “Yes, I spent six years learning Japanese — and I’ll never make that mistake again. It’s almost completely useless. I would have been much better off had I learned English. And I would have a chance to earn a much higher salary then as well.” So much for the love lost by the young Chinese for their Japanese neighbors…

And, finally, for another highlight of our trip, we got to see a varieté show in a Beijing theater. Now, I don’t think you could get me into a show in Las Vegas. And even if you did, I probably wouldn’t enjoy it much.

But this event was different. The simple reason for it was that the troupe, consisting of some 60 dancers, offered a visual smorgasbord of all the different regions of the country.

In other words, the faces and characters of the dancers before our eyes took us on a spellbinding trip throughout China — and its history. The main impression I got out of it was an understanding for the human depth, variety — and pride — that, in its totality, makes up modern China.

In my memory bank, out went all the images of blue-clad, Maoist look-alikes. In went vivid pictures of a much more refined China, a China which had dominated the world in the past — and may yet again in the future. That final night in Beijing, I felt as if I had caught a glimpse of what’s to come.