Sunday, July 31, 2011

Red China, white knuckles

I was walking through a subway station tonight when I saw an ad for the Harry Potter movie (out August 4th here) next to an ad commemorating the Chinese Communist Party's 90th anniversary. The station was in an area with a lot of that crappy architecture from the '80s and '90s, the time when China opened up and everyone thought it would become a Western-style democracy in a matter of time. As the last few years have shown, certainly the time since the Olympics, China's grip has tightened rather than relaxed.
Before the Olympics, I think, all subway stations introduced x-ray scanners for all bags. This was widened to all bus and train stations in the country; I've taken buses in towns without running water or shower which had a scanner at the bus terminal. These also exist at underpasses allowing entrance to Tiananmen Square. Somewhere in the time I was gone, the Public Security Bureau decided to build a permanent structure in the square, so now you can cross the street into Tiananmen Square without having to go overseas.
Alongside all of that, Beijing has matured nicely to the point where it reminds me of Taipei, even far superior in many ways. That is, of course, because I spent the day in the Wangfujing shopping district and the ponds and willows of Beihai Park. Government and military buildings occupy much of the space, but there is no shortage of newly-minted middle class Chinese tourists taking it all in. I would say, in fact, that tourism in Beijing is now almost entirely a Chinese phenomenon than a foreign phenomenon.
This is hardly surprising, though I think it's clear that the opposite was true not too long ago. The Chinese will be the world's largest group of tourists in not too long, and it figures that they would conquer Beijing along the way. What this means, hopefully, for the rest of us is that there will be a slow but steady decline in the sort of menu scams (teahouse, art gallery, rickshaw ride even?) you can expect in this city. I'm sadly on nerve whenever someone tries to speak to me in English because I can see where it's headed.
While China ascends to being a middle-income country by global standards, I would dare to say that the poor here are as poorly off as the poor in just about any city in the world. If you wander the much-romanticized hutongs, the tiny homes in alleyways have gotten standardized bathrooms, which is a plus but still puts them as a block of ancient houses sharing a public bathroom. If you see the homeless sleeping on concrete blocks on the sidewalks or the beggars walking through subway trains, I'm reminded of Pakistani beggars or the literal heaps of homeless men and boys I saw sleeping on each other in Kathmandu.
I started to write a post on my phone about just why it is I ended up in China when so many others in Korea, Korean or not, end up in warmer, beach-based locales. The draw is not some kitschy clash of old or new, nor is it some cliche about a rising dragon. Rather, I came here maybe for some of the same reasons that pull an additional 700,000 Chinese to Beijing each year, along with a sense of gawking at how this poorly understood one-fifth of humanity lives.

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