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Comparing Beijings….

Read a blog post of a friend of my daughters (Ari Herzog) that has his observations from a trip to China in 2006. Hard to make comparisons, but focussing on his comments about Beijing (the only place we seemed to have both travelled), I would say there has been some changes in four short years — a fact reinforced by comments of my hosts who indicated that the last five years have been somewhat transformative for them personally.

To put things in context, Beijing in 2006 was probably one big construction site in anticipation of the 2008 Olympics. Interestingly, there was not that much construction in Beijing as I can recall, particularly when compared to Wuhan where the building of high rises and infrastructure was substantial — there were construction cranes and street digging at almost every turn. In Beijing most of the construction seemed to be taking place in the old neighborhoods where the ramshackle “houses” (that were hidden behind newly built walls high enough to hide them from street view) are clearly being torn down and replaced.

[In a way the contrast makes sense since the focus in 2006 was on getting Beijing’s reconstruction done by 2008, and I suspect it is now Wuhan (and other cities) turn. In Wuhan I saw industrial parks, clearly high rent high rises and lots of mall spaces going up — and the “ramshackle” there were not being torn down, but rather gutted and given a brick facade. There were bricks stacked high along along the roadsides, and lots of folks working on the various construction tasks.]

Getting back to Ari Herzog’s blog post, he notes that in Beijing he saw government everywhere, and makes note of red fags and state seals. I only saw that around where you would expect it — in the government ring where there are mainly government buildings. In the third and fourth ring I saw little evidence of government, and lots of evidence of retailing. He notes there are guards everywhere, and I agree — but at places where you would expect guards in the US — entrances to parking lots and limited access places like the Renmin campus. I saw none of the “green shirted” military folks until we got to the TSA-like checkpoint for entering Tiananmen Square, and once in the square there was no more evidence of them than you might find around Buckingham Palace. Saw no evidence of weapons as they marched in small group formations to their posts. As for police (clearly marked as such), only saw some around school entrances when classes were being let out — a result of a recent series of odd knife attacks on small children taking place throughout China which no one can quite explain.

If anything, I was shocked that there were not more police or other uniformed folks at major pedestrian crossings where they were sorely needed, (I had to use my New York pedestrian stare-down technique a couple of times, with good result I might add. I finally got use to how Beijing drivers operated, and after two days in Wuhan I concluded that Beijing drivers are much better; but then again, the Wuhan had to deal with “Big Dig” level construction and there was surprise around every corner…)

Ari takes note of street “hawkers” in Beijing, but with exception of food vendors (like the carts in Manhattan) I saw little of that except around the entrances to some tourist sites (e.g. Temple of Heaven; and now that I think of it, not at Summer Palace). I did experience some hawker-like behavior the moment I went into a multistory old mall where there was one floor devoted to jewelry and “craft” type stuff (I was there to find some “jade” stones for spouse who makes her own). Literally hundreds of booths selling stuff, and I got a taste of some really intense bargaining as my host graduate student guide got the price of my purchases from 2400 to 800 — really quite and experience, with lots of shoving of calculators back and forth…

Smog was not problem most days in the part of Beijing I was situated for the visit (across from Renmin) — as it turns out, one side of the city is better than the other in terms of air quality, and my hosts told me that is reflected in rental prices.

The traffic is incredible as Ari mentions, but I expected many more bikes and cart traffic. Cars definitely dominate, especially taxis (quite a few — as it was in Wuhan); and the weaving in and out of traffic makes Manhattan taxi drivers look damn good. Given how they drive, one would expect to see lots of accidents and vehicles with dents — but saw only one minor mishap and not one dented fender or evidence of sideswipe in sight….. Biggest problem as I saw it was the right-turn-on-red which not only did not require a stop, but was typically done at 30 mph at minimum….

Ari does not mention it, but the Beijing subway was quite nice. Oldest line was built in 1968 and has a look similar to DC; more recent subway lines built more like the ones you see in modern airports. I was told that the only part still under construction is an extension of the line from the airport which is already mostly built and operational….

Lots of modern shopping malls, lots of US franchises (KFC is most popular; I spent spare hours at Starbucks, which was next to the Papa Johns pizza and down the row from Subway sandwich shop) and tons of money being spent by shoppers. There was upscale department store near my hotel, and it was definitely aimed at older crowd but was not quite as busy as the mall down the road which was always busy with fairly young shoppers. What is striking is the fashion consciousness of the women, and the sports obsessions (especially NBA) of the males (reflected in their clothing).

Ari makes some comments about the degree of government control of enterprises, and I think that has lightened quite a bit, to the point that one wonders why there is not more interference. While I was there, the news carried a watershed event as a lead story: KFC had reached an agreement with the Labor Federation based on collective bargaining and with no government interference. As I understand it, this was a first for this level of employment and included provisions to assure job security, advancement, and adherence to minimum wage laws. Union-like organizations were not allowed to develop before the current reforms (for fear of the emergence of a Solidarity-like movement that might compete with the Party), and so collective bargaining has never really been part of the system. This KFC deal is a big deal in that regard….

In another news item of historical note, the death of an American expat who had lived and worked on China’s farms since the late 1940s offered a view of how agriculture had changed. Over the years this expat and her husband (also US citizen) had developed a dairy farm with government support that became a model for others; but with the withdrawal of government support from farming in recent years, the farm became part of Kraft Foods — but not until she got commitments about how the farm would be run. The story is more complicated, but that withdrawal of government from the farm and other enterprises I think is really a major change that reflects the current reality, and it turns up in all sorts of narratives about the economic changes over past twenty years….

Then there is the limited internet access and the Google fight. Interestingly, Google Hong Kong (which is where they moved their operations after the fight with the Chinese government) is one of the biggest advertisers on the bus ads and other prominent billboards. Gmail was easy, and even google buzz and my google voice access. Blogspot sites would not be accessed (unless I used my VPN access). Other things were cut off, and there was no way to access Twitter or Facebook — well almost. I am no hacker, by any means, but it did not take long for me to figure out how to access the blocked sites by using VPN and some tools built into my blog site. I could basically access almost any site I tried without those “hacks” (made lots of use of skype); and my impression is that China’s homegrown social media operations are no problem to use — if you read and write Chinese. As is the case everywhere these days, people of sending messages and doing all sorts of other things on their cell phones — which seem to be everywhere….

In short, even assuming the biases of two different observers, the comparisons of Beijing 2006 with Beijing 2010 is striking….

June 22nd, 2010 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

More on Beijing…

A few hours have passed and I have since been talking with colleagues at Renmin University about academic publishing, etc — and warned them they take my advice at their own risk. I forgot to mention that I was posting that entry from a Starbucks located near the hotel, which is probably another factor in making this city feel so much like any city in the US — except cannot take my “Starbucks card” for payment. (I was in Newcastle UK about two or three weeks ago and it was accepted at all the S-bucks — a fact that even surprised the baristas there. Here they won’t even try since the card swiping is set up so differently…)

Back to my point (if I had one), i.e. the familiar feel of this Beijing neighborhood…. As I read my last post again, I realized one of the countries I left out of my list of places traveled was Israel — perhaps the country I felt least comfortable in. It is tough to get use to walking streets where folks in civilian garb are carrying assault weapons over their shoulders, and where the level of suspicion is so think in the air that you cut sense it everywhere. Other countries I’ve been to also had somewhat of an “garrison state” feel to them — at minimum there was always a heavy sense of police presence and surveillance even in the UK (those CCTV cameras were everywhere, whether we are talking London or Belfast — and they weren’t just for the auto speeders…). I think I expected the same here — or perhaps even more so given the images we’ve had of protests in Chinese cities and the treatment of reporters, etc.

Coming back to the hotel, however, I realized that was what was missing — the only sign on any kind of police or military presence are the uniformed folks who guard the gates at the University or shopping mall parking lots. I may be under constant surveillance, no doubt, but there is a notable lack of authoritative presence in the streets here. (As I cross some wide streets where cars are indifferent to pedestrians and cyclists, I wished there was some authoritative figures out there enforcing some rules. Seems the taxi drivers might have trained in Manhattan, but the typical pedestrian has yet to develop the assertiveness of the New Yorker….)

Tomorrow is a free day — nothing scheduled until a lecture at 4PM on Friday — and I plan to do plenty of walking about. Will try to fit in the normal touristy things (Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, etc.), but really looking forward to heading around more neighborhoods aways from the University to see whether my impressions hold up….

June 9th, 2010 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

The familiar “feel” of Beijing….

I was a late starter when it came to international travel, but since my first (non-Canadian) trip around 1994 I have accumulated quite a few passport notations: Panama, France, Brazil, South Korea, Japan (including Okinawa), Australia, Austria, the UK (esp two years in Northern Ireland), Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Netherlands, Belgium, Mexico — and I might be missing a location or two.

The current trip to China (I am now in Beijing and will visit Xiamen and Wuhan before returning home) is perhaps among the most interesting not because it is the most exotic I’ve taken, but rather because it the most “familiar” (i.e., western; almost American). The architecture, cars, the fashions, the chatter (that which I can understand) — all seem very comfortable. I may be in a strange land, but I hardly feel like a stranger….

Maybe it is a matter of location (I am in what is called the “3rd ring” of Beijing — the 1st being the Forbidden City, etc, and the 2nd being major government offices), but this is by far the most visibly “middle class” setting I’ve visited outside the US. Yes, it is the location of a major university (I am staying across the road from Renmin University), but it is also residential and commercial — as in many modern and very familiar stores and shopping malls.

It is hard to describe, but even though there are as many bicyclists and street vendors I expected, they are part and parcel of a bustling urban dynamic the includes mass transit, major thoroughfares, neighborhoods lined with shops of every sort, and auto traffic that far exceeds what I expected. I cam expecting a Third World city in transition — but I entered a world class city that seems to be very comfortable with whatever changes have (and might) occur.

Maybe it was the “cleanup” for the 2008 Olympics that can account for the modernized and up-to-date Beijing that I am seeing, but in conversations with folks in their twenties and thirties it is clear that the social and economic transformation has been massive and quick. One noted that when she was a child, her family were constantly preoccupied with the price of basics — food and shelter — but that now her parents and she are more focused on the concern of all middle class folks on amenities, lifestyle and status. It is far more than a physical transformation — it is deeply social and cultural…..

Maybe a few more days of walking around will lead to a change of mind. But at the moment I have to say that I am very impressed….

(PS: This is also a terrific way to go cold turkey in re Twitter and Facebook — no access, and you can definitely sense that there are walls up all around the internet….)

June 9th, 2010 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments