After spending a few days in the south part of China - Suzhou, Shanghai and Hong Kong consecutively - I returned to Beijing late last night. The wind is strong and the air it carries is dry and dusty, the taxi driver is (unusually) reckless and by the time I arrive in the apartment, I am very aware of which city I am in. This change of location (and mood) immediately invoked some thoughts about what kind of city Beijing is, and perhaps more importantly, since its influence as an urban planning model throughout the country, how to define the Modern Chinese City. The three cities mentioned above serve as prominent examples of how cities in China which have a history and legacy that make them unique, but where in the new developments they are slowly becoming more and more alike.
Moving through Beijing by bicycle should be a very natural experience. Until about 15 years ago, everyone in the city were getting around by bicycle. the narrow hutongs which are nowadays almost crammed with cars, making it difficult for us on bike to get past the slow-moving, clumsy chunks of metal driven by new drivers who seem to think everything else should adapt to their new investment. Not to speak of the impossibility of anyone stopping or even slowing down at a pedestrian crossing. In Beijing in general, and in other Modern Chinese Cities I have experienced, most power is always given to those who already have it. Personally, I am reluctant to accept this kind of disrespect for fellow citizens, and as I move through the city, by bicycle or public transportation, but my fellow commuters seem to have acquired the in Japan so admired stoicism. So I start to speculate into where this silent acceptance might originate. Why are the foot soldiers of China's cities, its real flesh and blood, its blue- and white collar workers, so tolerant to this apparent and unjust stratification?
If Shanghai and Hong Kong are hyper modern post-colonial metropoles, where money equals power equals money, then Beijing is the city of Absolute Power. Ever since the city was planned and built as Dadu by Kublai Khan in the Yuan dynasty to serve as a the Chinese capital of his vast Mongolian empire has its inhabitants lived and worked to serve the emperor. As a planned entity with a rigid square shape and ethnic subdivision through layers and layers of walls, it was never really subject to market driven capitalism until the early 1980's. One thousand years of history are not abolished in 30 years and so now when Beijing is subject to the forces of free movement of capital and people, its
One of the most striking features of Beijing is its brutality. Yes, the old city and its hutongs are very charming but if you look closely, and open the city up to all your senses, you'd realise that some of the scenery are vaguely resembling medieval cities in Europe under the feudal era. The smell from open latrines (now called public toilets), the open kitchens with walls and equipment covered in years of accumulated grease, the piles of rubbish and construction material, the ubiquitous sheds and their ephemeral roof mendings using plastic sheet and bricks...I could go on for a while. The scenery is that of a place deprived of - no, not wealth, but the softer values - dignity and integrity.
In a simple comparison with Shanghai or Hong Kong, Beijing every time comes up as the fat privileged cousin from the country, who never had to do anything else than to decide for others. Because Beijing and its current emperor, the Communist Politburo, doesn't need to comply to the market (the current regime is notorious for manipulating the value of its currency, banning labour unions, subsidizing petrol and imposing high duties on imported goods, among other things), its inhabitants are not used to the real-world situation of equal competition and because of the lack of knowledge and understanding of refined products and services, the city exists almost in a vacuum, where we, the citizens of Beijing, become numb and silently accepting of the low-quality situation. The result is that people stop caring - about hygiene, about traffic, about other people. And I am no exception.
Is this why the government of Beijing consistently deprives its citizens of the comfort of a well-functioning public transport network? Even with the current planned subway lines, only a fraction of the city's population will fall within Shanghai's ambitious 10-30-60 goal (maximum 10 minutes to walk to the subway, 30 minutes to ride and a total maximum 60 minutes door to door commute). Why shouldn't Beijing be the most ambitious city for public transport - in the world? The city already has the world's biggest square and the worlds tallest looped double-skyscraper, why settle with this?
The answer is simple. The reason why the ring roads and expressways have been given top priority is because the city's VIP's, the government officials, travel by car. One car in particular: A black Audi A6 L with tinted windows. We see them everywhere since public transport is not considered safe and comfortable enough. Thus, the subway becomes the domain of the sub-pressed, the desperate white-collars and migrant workers. Conclusively, the reason why the city government has so little interest in the fate of the rest of the population is that they are without vote, and will stay so in the foreseeable future. And if people don't like it, they can move somewhere else, Beijing is anyway too big and new people are moving in every year. In the current situation, Beijing lives on its status as the city of Absolute Power, meaning, whatever works for the people in power and makes them feel good about themselves, the rest of us simply have to accept. End of story.