Beijing revisited

I’m presently attending an MTV-Nickelodeon management conference in Beijing, a city I last visited in 1995. While I was primed and pumped up by cliche and high expectations, I was not quite prepared for the dramatic changes from my ten-year-old memories. The new skyline composed of new glass high-rises and cranes jostling for attention, the wide highways and traffic, and the Changi-styled airport were all within my expectations.

But there was something that has changed and was very different that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Somehow, there is a different kind of air in Beijing now. You’ll recall that while it was always the capital of the largest country in the world, the city always seemed to be on the periphery, perceived as somewhat of a backwater and largely irrelevant compared to the Tokyos, Hong Kongs or even Shanghais of the world. That has all changed as Beijing has reinvented itself. There is a confident buzz in the air, with a distinct style in architecture, art, fashion, restaurants and music. While part of this is due to the mucho dinero (US$22 billion!) being thrown into the feverish preparations for the 2008 Olympics, there is a new personality that has emerged with this reinvention.

Beijing’s inhabitants have learned how to work hard and play hard, with the white-collar and emerging middle class making their presence felt alongside the foreign residents, expats and visitors, combining into an interesting socio-economic landscape. Spoken English is still a long way from the standards of Manila but it’s catching up fast. In fact, China has more speakers of English as a second language than the US has native English speakers!

On another front, fashion, which not too long ago was a symbol of capitalism’s decadence and materialism, has become an indispensable component of the Chinese youth lifestyle, along with the mobile phone, Starbucks and, yes, MTV. Even car ownership, unthinkable not many years ago, is on the rise with two million cars on the streets of Beijing alone.

Despite the traffic and congestion, Beijing appears to be a well-planned city with its wide highways and perpendicular network of avenues and flyovers. In stark contrast to my hazy memories of bicycles, pedestrians and alleyways, Beijing now amazingly seems comparable to other capitals like Washington DC or even Paris!

For a long time now, China sews more clothes and stitches more shoes and assembles more toys for the children of the world than any other country. But it has also moved up the technology ladder and has now become the world’s largest maker of consumer electronics, cranking out more TVs, DVD players and mobile phones than anyone else.

Even more recently, it continues its ascent as it moves quickly into biotech and computer manufacturing, Heck, it even makes parts for the Boeing 757 and is exploring space with its own rockets! Something really big is going on and it’s already affecting the rest of the world.

But all this prosperity and high-visibility Western-style glitz comes with a price, as all things must. In Beijing’s case, the price of this energetic expansion, sadly, has been the thrashing of some of its precious heritage. The roads have been widened and high-rises built at the expense of the demolition of the city’s distinctive and historical hutong (alleyways) which are single-storey dwellings that crisscross Beijing’s centre, as real estate values began to shoot up. Heritage conservation has only received token attention and it seems inevitable that hutongs, temples and other historical sites will continue to give way to the slick overlays of success.

Not dissimilar to the contrasts between Manila and Mumbai, Beijing is also a mish-mash of old, new, rich and poor; where behind all the trappings of new prosperity are the markers of hunger and poverty. After dining out in a signature Chinese restaurant, my group was met outside by a horde of ragged beggars asking for money — not an uncommon sight in even the tony neighbourhoods of Beijing.

This and other scenes is a reminder to all that beneath the new construction and repackaging of Beijing’s exterior funded by the city’s economic machine, there remains millions of poor for whom the new wealth has yet to trickle down. Other development indicators have likewise lagged behind: Democratic reform, freedom of the press, anti-corruption measures, freedom of speech. Alas, there are limits to reform even in booming, bustling Beijing.

A block away from my hotel is a five-storey building referred to as the “Friendship Store” housing a vast collection of stalls selling an impressive range of Italian clothing, Hollywood movies on DVD, Japanese golf equipment and Swiss watches. Made in China, of course. But these days, what isn’t?