June 13, 2008

Letter from Beijing

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Walking down the streets of Beijing is a surreal experience. There are times when it doesn’t even seem like you’re in the same country, let alone same city. On the one hand there are towers of steel and glass and deluxe shopping malls with high-powered brand names pasted on the walls, but there are also areas of poverty, where resident are just waiting for an eviction order to make way for the next shiny development. Throw this on top of thousands of years of Chinese history and the upcoming Olympics and you have the stage set for quite the experience.

The last time I was in Beijing I didn’t notice the contrasts so much. I don’t know whether it was because I was in a middle class area of the university district or because the Olympics were farther away. Things didn’t seem quite so shiny. This time around I live in a wealthier area, and it is much easier to see the daily expression of economic development- both the benefits and costs. And of course it’s not as simple as entire districts of wealth and poverty. It’s more of a patchwork of blocks. In one there will be a brand new commercial development where wealthy Chinese and foreigners browse Gucci and Prada and eat at restaurants with names like Café Paris or Texas Steakhouse, while the next block over is a housing development from the Maoist era, and though a little worse for wear, is bursting with personality from street vendors to the old men playing mah jong and cards in archways. In my view such contrasts seem to exemplify the issues that will drive China’s future development.

In the new commercial and housing developments, it’s really quite difficult to say that you feel like you’re in China, because if it weren’t for the signage and the language people are speaking, you could be in a high-end mall anywhere from New York to Paris to Tokyo. There’s something very generic about smooth glass and steel. Now it’s certainly not my place to bemoan economic growth, and it is quite obvious that it opens up the opportunity for a better lives. But the loss of the atmosphere of old Beijing should be a cause for mourning. I would have hoped there would be a way to keep the feeling of those back alleys intact, even as China’s wealth grows. After all, when justifying market reforms, Deng Xiaoping referred to the Chinese system of economic liberalization as “Socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Now, as reforms pay off it would be nice to see some of those Chinese characteristics remain.