A note on Beijing.
Just because our hotel was tucked between the AstonMartin and Ferrari/Maserati dealers is no reason to think that Beijing is in an economic boom in which at least some people are getting very rich. We saw no significant signs of poverty or anything that resembled a “slum” in travels throughout the city. But many of the people we talked with spoke of rising income inequality in Beijing. Central Beijing looks a lot like Mid-town Manhattan, except the main streets here are wider. EVERY western retail fashion brand is present on a huge scale, especially the luxury lines. The monuments of ancient China like the Forbidden City and the spectacular National Museum amply demonstrate China’s 5000 year old culture. There are remnants of the old structure of the city called hutongs that are one and two story buildings with small courtyards where some semblance of another time can be seen. However, the dominant image is a huge western city of new high rise offices and apartments with the streets filled by young sophisticates in the latest hip styles. We saw very few children.
All street and building signs are in Mandarin and English. The younger a person is, the more likely she is to speak some English. The sidewalks and streets are spotless because there are uniformed public works people constantly sweeping and picking up paper. However, the air pollution is so thick it hurts the eyes, even on an otherwise beautiful Spring day.
The picture at the top of this post was taken from our hotel room. It makes several of the points I mentioned. In the near foreground is a small hutong. Then there are many high rises, obscured by smog. About 20 miles behind the high rises there are steep mountains that surround most of Beijing. We saw them through the smog only once.
Tianaman Square is a weird place. It is vast, surrounded on most sides by monumental government buildings and Mao’s tomb (currently closed for repairs). However, access to this great open space is completely controlled. They are taking no chance that the place will ever again be used for a gathering/protest that is not approved by the government. The space is completely gated and can be closed down in minutes. Everyone entering the square must go through a security checkpoint. Bags go through an xray machine and people go through a metal detector and physical pat down. On a recent weekday afternoon there was a heavy—though seemingly normal—police presence.
I am writing this on a train to Xi’an that is going 160 miles an hour and is every bit as comfortable and smooth as American trains are not. It makes the Acela look like an outdated trolley. We are passing through very intensively planted farmlands. Every few miles there is a new city rising out of the farmlands. Each new development has broad paved streets leading through dozens of 20 story apartments under construction or recently completed. The train just stopped in a city where we can see hundreds—really—of high rise buildings under construction. Some seem stalled in construction. Others are finished but it is not clear how full they are. We saw some sights like this just outside of Delhi and some other Indian cities but the infrastructure and building scale are vastly larger here. Even more breathtaking, however, is the smog. It is difficult to describe how thick it is. Even on this ultramodern train with great air conditioning my eyes hurt and it is hard to breathe. The Chinese government and people know how bad the problem is. Addressing air pollution is an explicit part of the new national health plan. The untrammeled development of the past 20 years is taking a toll that will be costly and slow to fix.