Saturday, May 23, 2009

Beijing: Progress progresses

They sure have done an amazing job cleaning up this place, I thought strolling through the leafy and quiet San Li Tun neighbourhood on a beautiful May Sunday. The sun was shining from a clear blue sky and there was not a visible sign of pollution to be detected in the fresh air. It was one and a half years since I had been to Beijing last—and what a difference that short period had made. Of course, it wasn’t just any random period of time. The Beijing Olympics took place during the intervening period and the government had been determined to put their best face forward during the games. When I was here in the autumn of 2007, the frantic work of cleaning up the city was underway. It took many shapes and forms. Construction was furious, as it had been decided that it all had to stop once the games started and visitors began to arrive. Trees were planted, canals cleaned and the horrendous traffic was targeted both by limiting the access of cars to the centre and by developing the public transportation system. Taxi drivers were taught to be polite and greet people in English, while the general public was educated to line up in an orderly manner and not to spit on the streets. Polluting industries were closed down and relocated to neighbouring provinces. The biggest single culprit, Beijing Capital Iron and Steel, with all its workers was sent to Hebei Province more than 100 km out of town.

Obviously, the massive clean-up effort had been quite successful. Only China with its central command-and-control system and enormous discipline could pull off such a feat. Of course, one could argue that this was just geographical displacement of the problems. The capital had to be polished up in time for the international jamboree and the hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors that would flood the city. So the pollution had to be removed, but surely the factories and industrial complexes that were its source would not be closed down; they would just be relocated to other areas further away out of sight. These areas would now be suffering from the pollution and many people and villages would have had to be moved to give way to the production facilities. Then again, they would also bring jobs and growth to their new home areas.

Irrespective, it was indeed a fine time to spend a lazy afternoon in this privileged area of the capital where numerous cafés and restaurants compete for space with the UN offices and embassies of major and lesser world powers. The riverside park was crowded with people sitting on the benches or strolling leisurely around. A few old men were angling in the river, although I never saw anyone catch any fish—if indeed there was any fish in this urban canal. The green water definitely looked much cleaner than before and didn’t emit any unpleasant odours. There were some reed islands and green algae floating in the middle, suggesting some remaining nutrition enrichment, but all in all things seemed to be looking fine. Hey, there were even a couple of men swimming in the lazy stream! I am not sure one should go that far, but they seemed to be enjoying their frolicking and emerging unscathed from the water.

As it was lunch time and I had slept well past breakfast in the morning due to having just arrived in China the night before, I was getting hungry. Not feeling for heavy local fare, I headed towards Athena Club, a pleasant little Greek restaurant which I was familiar with from previous visits. That part of the neighbourhood is lined with small establishments serving a large variety of Asian (Thai, Indian, Malay, Burmese, Japanese, as well as Chinese of different regional specialities) and European (Italian, Greek, German) cuisines. A few beggars had placed themselves in the shade of the trees lining the sidewalk, strategically located to induce pangs of conscience in the wealthy passersby.

Athena was crowded but I managed to secure a table for one in the shady part of the terrace. The clientele was approximately half Chinese, half foreign. There were families with babies in strollers. A small group of relaxed French people were sitting in the next table. A large gathering of mixed local and European youth occupied a long table on the sidewalk. They were having a rowdy time, laughing and joking in a mix of Chinese and accented English. Many young Chinese women were dressed stylishly, a few quite provocatively, in short skirts and tight outfits. All in all, both Westerners and locals were quite well made up for the Sunday afternoon. This was the place to see people and to be seen.

On the corner of the next block I could see a troop of eight People’s Liberation Army soldiers in their pale green summer uniforms marching in strict formation, stopping with military precision before crossing the street. There were a number of guard posts in the neighbourhood due to the presence of high level offices and foreign representations.

I took my time enjoying the slow, warm afternoon over fresh Mediterranean food and some cold Sauvignon Blanc from Australia. By the time I slowly arose from my table and started sleepily walking back towards the river, only a few people remained on the terrace. The large group of merry youth had dissipated—I would later detect two of the Chinese girls enjoying cappuccinos in a different street café—and a couple of the French had scooted off on a Vespa. The beggars were gone, too, having done their time: no point in lingering after the lunch crowds disperse.

Back at the riverside there was a lovely breeze that cooled the late afternoon heat. The leaves in the trees were the light green of spring and the willows swung their long branches close to the water level. There were even more young couples now in the park, sitting tangled up close to each other on the benches or walking slowly hand in hand. Many of the couples consisted of Western males and Oriental women—hardly any the other way around. My Chinese friend in New York, Sulan, has a plausible theory that this combination works universally so well because both parties have low expectations and are therefore positively surprised with each other. In the Oriental women the men find grace and femininity that has all but disappeared in the West (especially in North America). The women for their part are used to expect rather macho behaviour from their compatriot males and are pleased to find their new partners to be sensitive and polite softies in comparison. The secret of a good relationship is low expectations, Sulan concludes.

It would get worse, of course. As the working week started, I found myself in a series of taxi cabs moving between offices and meetings around the second, third and fourth ring roads. On these multilane thoroughfares smog still hung above the traffic, but even here it seemed better than before. The lane separators had been planted with lush rose bushes this spring, giving colour to the concrete roads. Most of the cars were now new and adhering to emissions standards that would pass muster within the European Union. Equally, the traffic didn’t appear as bad as before. In anticipation of the Olympics, Beijing invested hugely in public transport, including upgrading its subway system. During the games people had to access the massive new Bird’s Nest stadium and other facilities by public transportation. New subway lines are still under construction and the goal is that in four years’ time a subway station should be within 1 km walk from anywhere in the city. Compare this pace of expansion with the fact that the promised Second Avenue subway line in New York City has been under construction since the late-1930s—and no-one can tell when it will actually be completed!

On Monday night, my old pal John who has lived in China for more than five years picked me up from my hotel and we crossed the third ring and again headed towards San Li Tun. The night was balmy with a pleasant breeze. We spent the evening chatting in a café garden enjoying pizza and Great Wall wine, both rather novel innovations in the country that still relies on rice for both food and liquor. The Great Wall is a perfectly drinkable dry red wine, in fact better than some of the heavy and sweet New World concoctions that are popular in America. When we were ready to go, the tall and funny waitress in micropants and a t-shirt that boldly stated "You Should Not Be" came to enquire how the pizza had been. They had just added it to the menu very recently. John in his fluent Mandarin assured her and all the staff that had gathered around to hear our answer that it was indeed very good.

A couple of days later I was lunching with a group of colleagues at a brand new restaurant in a brand new shopping mall called Solana. The construction had failed to complete before the Olympics—and during the games any works that might disturb the calm were not allowed—so it had opened only very recently. Fancy boutiques with brands that even I recognized lined the corridors and on the courtyard there was a musical fountain that played fanfares as pillars of water sprouted rhythmically towards the skies. Even on this weekday lunch hour plenty of mostly young people were milling about the shops, although the place could not be described as packed. The economic crisis is said to have depressed commerce in China but people in the modern economy of Beijing still dress and eat well. Poverty and inequality, however, remain huge problems. Millions of poor migrant workers were sent packing back to their depressed rural homelands from all the booming cities of the East as the economy tanked and construction slowed down.

The restaurant, Veg-On, where we sat served purely vegetarian and fully organic fare in a spic-and-span setting. Given the various food scares emerging from China—from pesticide laced vegetables to tainted milk and pet food—the clean and organic concept appealed to me. We had ordered in Chinese style: many small (and as it turned out, not so small) dishes to be shared communally. The food was extremely creative but at the same time enormously tasty. Some dishes were familiar, like the spring rolls and dumplings dim-sum style or the delicious pineapple fried rice. Others were just plain original, yet not a bit overdone or pretentious concoctions. The mushrooms in tomato and cucumber sauce over sticky rice and the green eggplant with hot peppers were gorgeous; the green tomato mash a local version of comfort food. Having stuffed myself with the tasty grub, washed down with fresh lemon and honey juice, I still felt light and healthy.

Post-Olympic Beijing is definitely a much cleaner city than before. The frantic pace of change so evident everywhere in China was further accelerated by the international event. Apart from replacing decrepit houses of the Communist era with spanking new steel-and-glass skyscrapers, the city invested hugely in increasing the greenery. Beijing never was a city devoid of parks, but today one can see recently planted trees and flowers everywhere and the highways are lined with blooming flowers. I heard a figure that over forty percent of Beijing was green. My travelling mate, Shiv, who makes his home in another teeming metropolis of Asia, New Delhi, remarked how impressed he was with the cleanliness of Beijing and the attention everyone seems to pay to the environment. Despite the recession that has also hit China, creativity still thrives. The contemporary architecture is amazingly varied and imaginative.

All of this, naturally, comes with a price. The old neighbourhoods—hutongs—with their narrow streets, wooden houses and peaceful courtyards have had to give way to the expansion of the new and glitzy. What is preserved is done so with a commercial purpose. A good example of this would be the Houhai lake area adjacent to the Forbidden City where Shiv and I spent one pleasant evening amongst the crowds. This is an area where the old traditional wooden buildings have been turned into entertainment centres housing a wide variety of restaurants, bars (we spent time in a very comfortable rooftop one), funky music joints (in front of one such, I observed an energetic rock band through the open windows; the tune was classic Smoke on the Water but I could swear the lead singer was singing it to the lyrics of Born in the USA), and apparently cabarets (at least that was the impression I got from a couple of hawkers who approached me suggesting that I might wish to observe—or more—beautiful young Chinese ladies). Shiv successfully haggled for a quite unique battery-powered t-shirt for his daughter that had lights that blinked to the beat of the music, before we settled at one of the tables by the lakeside. Couples were paddling on the dark surface in romantic little vessels.

It is easy to dismiss all this as crass commercialism and to condemn the admittedly garishness of much of the new developments in Beijing. Cynics would question the ulterior motivations of the authorities cleaning up the city for foreign visitors as whitewash. However, it is also possible to see that the games provided an opportunity for a big push to improve the conditions in the metropolis. The congestion and pollution had actually become so bad that they hampered the development of the capital. China’s rulers are very smart and the top elite fully realize that the country must develop in a sustainable manner if it aims to assume its rightful place amongst the world leaders. Getting the message through to the obtuse bureaucracy is a challenge that needs to be overcome little by little. Even more so, the growing inequalities between the thriving East and the poverty ridden West pose a grim test to whether China can reach sustainable development. The decades lost in Mao era social experiments and the Cultural Revolution created huge obstacles that cannot be easily overcome. Whatever its defects, Beijing’s progress presents giant steps forward in ways that would be hard to imagine in most other countries in the world. The key question is whether such progress can be spread beyond the rich East to the struggling periphery fast enough.