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Beijing: New Face for the Ancient Capital

(Excerpts from the March 2000 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC)

By Todd Carrel

Two young women giggled under their white straw hats as they emerged from the Beijing Railway Station. Strolling arm in arm, they passed rooftops capped with satellite dishes and headed for a shopping complex where an obelisk with competing messages displayed on each side marked the way.

“March ahead along the road of building socialism with Chinese characteristics,” said one sign in Chinese script. “Descendants of the dragon use the Dragon Card,” said another sign, urging consumers to use a new bank credit card. Both messages seemed to be vying for market share in the minds of Beijing’s people.

In this and other ways today’s Beijing is awash with change, where the old Confucian ideals of personal cultivation and family values clash with a new emphasis on money and the market, where a bureaucratic culture designed to hold people in check is replaced by a rootless mobility, where a construction boom is reshaping Beijing’s low-slung profile and cramped alleys with soaring skyscrapers of glass and steel, where car traffic clogs streets that once rang with bicycle bells, where dust mixes with vehicle exhaust to form a near-constant polluted haze, where unemployment and gross underemployment create unease, where corruption has brought thousands of protesting citizens into the streets.

“Before, we were controlled by the Communist Party bosses,” said a Beijinger who has lived in America for a decade but returns home for regular visits. “Now it’s the bosses of companies. The change has been tremendous.” His friends and family, once certain of jobs and stable prices, now worry that the new money-driven economy will leave them behind.

“This has a big influence on relationships within families and among friends and across the social structure,” he said. “There is real discontent and anxiety, but people are adjusting.”

Over the centuries the people of Beijing have become expert at adjusting. Like the willows planted around the capital, people have survived by being flexible, yielding to strong winds, then springing back as stillness returns.

A few blocks from Tiananmen Square, at the center of Beijing, I ran into one of the city’s many adaptable characters, a lifelong citizen I’ll call Q. A trishaw driver who spends his days pedaling passengers around the capital in his rusty coach, Q was taking his noon break, which consisted of a cup of fiery white liquor, a steaming bowl of beef noodles, and a Temple of Heaven cigarette. He motioned for me to join him at a round folding table on the edge of the sidewalk under a locust tree.

“Now all anybody cares about is money,” he yelled. “If Deng Xiaoping were alive today, I wouldn’t let him ride on my trishaw,” he said, referring to the late top leader who began economic reforms in China. “I’d never study anything Deng Xiaoping said!”

Dressed in a sacky T-shirt, black canvas shoes, and bright green running shorts, Q has no home and no family. He sleeps under an overpass and complains about corruption in high places. “The children of officials get the door opened for them. They take all the booty and go to Switzerland,” said this fifth-generation Beijing man.

He has no regrets about his solitary life. “Look,” he said, jabbing his finger at the sky. “God above is number one. I’m number two, and the old Earth is number three.” Then he added: “What use would it be to have a son anyway? None of the young people have jobs.”

As often happens in Beijing, which thrives on gossip, a bystander horned into our conversation. She was rail thin and outspoken, a former factory worker who now dished out noodles for curbside customers like Q. She was laid off from her factory job six months earlier. I asked if she was embarrassed.

“Are you kidding?” she said. “There’s no loss of face for me. There are probably 300,000 people in this city who’ve been shucked off. Why should we be embarrassed?”...

Those two were having hard times, but their temperament seemed typical for Beijing...

They were, in short, as tough as dragon’s hide, the ultimate survivors in a city that has seen all manner of rulers rise and fall...

Since Deng Xiaoping’s experiment in free enterprise began 20 years ago, China’s production has been steadily climbing at a rate of nearly 10 percent a year, although it has fallen in recent years with a tide of deflation. Per capita annual income for city dwellers has almost doubled since 1990 to more than [U.S.] $600. But prices have risen, and foreign investment has flooded the country. Businesses, eager for a share of this vast market, have rushed in, hoping the Chinese government will soften its tough trade tactics....

The youth look outward. In the Xisi shopping district a store assistant named Xu Ke was watching customers in the Paris Bridal Shop. A patron in a white wedding dress was getting her hair wrapped into a tight bun while her fiancé, wearing a tuxedo, got ready to pose for a long round of wedding pictures.

“It costs them between 1,000 and 6,000 yuan [$120 to $725 U.S.] for the day,” said Xu Ke, who expressed no interest in getting married.

“I won’t even think about that until I’ve built an economic foundation,” she said, indicating her plan to keep living with her parents, to save money, to prepare for the college entrance exams. “My work here is only temporary,” she said. “I’m going to use my brains to get ahead. I’m thinking about leaving the country some day. I like Western culture because it seems so natural.”

Her sense of self seemed to encapsulate the character of many young Beijingers I met: rooted in the ways of the past, determined to cultivate personal skills, ambitious and independent, restless to see the world. She was ready to flower, thinking of the future. Across town, Min Wanbao, 75, was living for the present, going out for a morning stroll with his pet bird.

Min seemed relaxed sauntering down an avenue lined with ginkgos, willows, and pines. He carried an exquisite bamboo cage covered with a blue cloth. He hooked the cage to a branch, unzipped the cover, and smiled as his pet—a thrush—greeted the morning with a chorus of chirps and trills.

Min had just fed it a breakfast of crushed peanuts, egg yolks, walnuts, and insects, with a strip of cucumber garnish.

As the bird sang, Min mused about how life had changed since he was young, working as a cook in Beijing. Like others of his generation, who lived a hard life barely above the level of organized poverty, Min was proud of his past. “Now it takes at least three young people to do the work that one of us could do,” he said. “We all worked so hard. These days the young only watch other people work.” Then he reared back his head and laughed.

“The young just want to eat well and wear nice clothes,” said the crew-cut Min, dressed simply in blue shorts and a white T-shirt. “They don’t care about work,” he said. But he didn’t dwell on the complaint. Min has learned to keep his expectations low, taking his pleasure in small things, like birdsong....

* * *

Stability is a constant concern to those who govern this nation of 1.2 billion. The leaders fear that the populace could easily spin out of control in times of economic or political turmoil. That is why Communist leaders get edgy as June 4 approaches each year—the anniversary of the Chinese Army’s attack on demonstrators in central Beijing. The attack on unarmed citizens, which killed perhaps as many as 2,000 people, came in 1989 after more than six weeks of peaceful protests in and around Tiananmen Square calling for an end to government corruption....

The Communists remain deeply fearful of any unauthorized activity involving large numbers of people. That is why they arrested hundreds of adherents of the Falun Gong group, which practices breathing and exercise rituals to seek spiritual well-being. The government waged a vigorous campaign to ban the group in 1999, even though many of its members are elderly. The Falun Gong people did the unthinkable, protesting the government’s interference in their private affairs by turning out, 10,000 strong, to meditate quietly in front of Zhongnanhai, the imposing compound where party leaders live. The group’s organizational abilities unnerved those leaders.

* * *

In Beijing people find their victories in small ways, as I was reminded one morning when the unmistakable sounds of Strauss drew me toward the Temple of Heaven complex, where emperors once communed with the gods about harvests. The place was filled with couples in their 50s and 60s, gliding over the dusty hardpan, twirling in their measured joy to music from boom boxes scattered around the improvised dance floor. I thought back to 1978 and to a factory worker I met in a park. “The Chinese need the right to free expression,” he had said. “But the thing we need most, and the thing I cherish most, is the right to dance.”

Now Beijing’s youths gyrate to the throb of disco music at nightclubs like the Hot Spot, where the girls have tattoos on their shoulders and glitter on their eyelids. By day they visit the city’s new cafés and bars and show off their beepers and cell phones, symbols of success. They seem fairly normal, following a deep impulse to be modern and to separate themselves from an older generation.

I found Wang Yingchun and her boyfriend practicing their bowling technique in the basement of an apartment building, where the crack of bowling pins mingled with piped in clarinet tunes. She was dressed in a fashionable short skirt shredded like Robin Hood’s tunic, with a pixie haircut and a jade bracelet. A college graduate, she planned to continue study at a business school in America.

And what do young Beijingers want? “To get on the Internet, to play sports, to dance at the discos,” she said.

Among the youths like Wang, you find a sense of vibrancy, an urge for self-expression, and a willingness to spend money for the latest technology. You find hundreds of customers poring over the latest equipment at computer fairs like the one I visited in a Beijing mall, where IBM, Hewlett Packard, and local brands like Legend and Great Wall were on display.

Nearly one percent of Beijing’s households have an Internet connection, and that figure will undoubtedly rise. Annual computer sales are expected to hit ten million nationwide in the near future. “It’s a trend,” said a public relations spokeswoman for the computer show. “More and more people will want to get this know-how.”

Access to the outside world, though restricted by the government, is freer than it used to be, which gives some Beijingers a new sense of autonomy. “The government doesn’t bother us,” said an engineer I met at a job fair. “We’re independent. I think our society is fair to people under 30.”

This new possibility for a greater sense of independence explains precisely why so many parents are investing so much in their children—eagerly buying them computers, hiring private tutors, enrolling them in special classes. No one wants the children to lag behind. A generation burdened by successive political traumas and frightened by new economic contractions has fortified its children with love and education, and the hope that they will have a chance to chart a new path for their city and their country.

* * *

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