Walking the Great Wall was fun, but Beijing is more intense, leaving me with strong and mixed feelings. There’s a lot to dislike, and on balance I can’t imagine wanting to live there. (But see also On Liking Beijing.)
To start with, it’s flat and sprawling, built for cars not people, and the pollution is bad. We arrived on a nice sunny Monday and the air was pretty clear. But by week’s end it was gruesome.
[This is part of The Surface of China series.]
As they say in Green and Urbanist communities, if you build a city for cars, you’ll get cars.
Not only do Beijing’s ring roads (seven of them!) have a collective Wikipedia entry, each of the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th has its own. The streets are big and wide and full of aggression; traffic is a competitive sport which you win by convincing others that you have fewer fucks to give. Lane invasion is basic, and a key technique is that neither a lane’s invader nor its defender must ever look at nor otherwise acknowledge each other until someone inevitably brakes and gives way.
All the roads are full, all the time. “The airport’s half an hour away, better allow ninety minutes to be sure” they said, and it took us sixty; things got faster after we got past these guys.
The roads are full and the sidewalks and subways are too, full of people. One place they’re especially full is around Tienanmen square. You arrive at the subway and have to parade through endless packed passages and staircases, emerge across the street, then through another tunnel to come up into its vastness.
And I just can’t talk about that place without getting into politics. Let’s be clear: In 2019, the Communist Party of China is the world’s leading oppressor of human beings. I’m not going to enumerate all the sins here, but it’s worth mentioning the pervasive censorship, the savage oppression of ethnic minorities, and the corruption that flows Lamborghinis steadily onto the streets of Vancouver. It’s not just the air that stinks.
The Great Wall was built at extreme cost in blood and treasure to protect the Chinese people from the barbarians outside. To me it looks like the barbarians won, and are now headquartered in the Great Hall of the People.
Which is of course overlooks Tienanmen. To be honest the whole place made me shudder. The security apparatus is ubiquitous, in-yo-face every moment. Quite likely, one of these years the people of China will run out of patience and terminate the barbarian claque. But you can be damn sure that the trouble isn’t gonna start in Tienanmen, that puppy is locked down so tight it squeaks.
Everywhere in Tienanmen there is shouting — the tour-group wranglers I mean, chivvying their parties, usually dressed in matching T-shirts or caps, this way or that. Look around; the square may be at the city’s center, but you can’t really get onto it from any of the surrounding roads. Nor out, either; the barbarians learned an important tactical lesson.
Below, a close-up of one of the stones. Quite likely it was soaked with blood on June fourth, 1989. I watched that on live TV — here’s BBC footage and I’ll never forget and the world shouldn’t either.
Below is another Tienanmen tour group, with flags the color of blood.
Yeah, China may have lifted a billion people out of poverty, but they didn’t have to do this to do that.
No Truth here · In China, your phone can’t get to the BBC or CNN or Google or Twitter or Facebook. Unless you’re running with a foreign SIM. But if you have one then you can’t connect to the hotel or any other public WiFi.
I look at China’s generations and they look more different from each other than ours do. The oldest ones saw endless war, the middle-aged ones went through the Cultural Revolution, and there are all these sharp-dressed young folk who’ve only ever known a modern-ish fast-growing China where all your daily needs are probably pretty well satisfied, as long they don’t include knowing what’s happening outside China, or the truth about what’s happening inside. Old people aren’t just short, they’re beat-down; but many young Chinese men are taller than me.
Behind Tienanmen is The Forbidden City. They had some lovely things and quiet courtyards in the Treasure House, but frankly, it mostly wasn’t that beautiful and there was nothing to warm your heart. It is huge beyond hugeness, and entirely designed to assert the power of the State over its cowed citizens. The State in those days was personalized, with a living breathing Emperor. Some of those were barbarians too, by birth or by habit.
Also breakfast · Along with the car-centrism and the barbaric dictatorship, there are the breakfasts. I loathe, loathe, loathe Chinese city breakfast and it cast a pall over every day I had to start with one. But this prejudice is a failing in me, not in the city.
I was awfully happy to get in the bus and head out to the Great Wall.