Coming in to land at Beijing, I always find myself thinking of the first time I came here, in 1973. The journey was interminable then. Commercial flights to Beijing did not fly over Soviet airspace but hopped across the Mediterranean and the Gulf States, stopped in the Indian subcontinent, then flew the last lap up over the Himalayas. Beijing was still, in those days, an exotic destination. As we approached, we all peered into the darkness, trying to make out the shape of the city. It was like landing on a deserted planet, with scarcely a light showing.
When the plane came to a halt, two PLA soldiers appeared at the door of the aircraft and looked over the arriving passengers. We disembarked into a small, deserted, dimly lit terminal, unadorned except for some slogans in English and Chinese that proclaimed such unlikely propositions as china has friends all over the world. In 1973, China’s friends all over the world were few in number and eccentric in their views. The country was isolated, xenophobic and inward – looking.
Almost all that is left of those sensations is the smell that greets you as you disembark, in the autumn and winter at any rate. It is the smell of burning charcoal, still an important cooking and heating fuel. Everything else has changed beyond recognition. The slogans have gone, the PLA guards have different uniforms, the old airport is a neglected and soon-to-be demolished annex of a large, modern terminal that overflows with passengers who do, these days, come from all over the world. The road into town, once a tree-lined country route more travelled by mule carts than by anything with an engine, is now a motorway. The city itself is a choking megalopolis, a maze of ill-planned and oversized high-rise developments, giant shopping plazas and hotels, cut through by urban freeways. The people who once inhabited the centre have been banished to distant suburbs. The intimacy of the city has been erased. It’s enough to induce nostalgia, even for those grim distant days of the Cultural Revolution.
I’ve landed at that airport so often since: in the seventies, as the visitor numbers began to be swelled by the first burst of commercial tourism; in the Beijing spring of 1979, when Democracy Wall briefly became the forum for outpourings of political ideas and pent-up literary emotions; in the eighties, when the pace of economic change quickened and the Maoist legacy was being dismantled; and in 1989, days after the Tiananmen massacre, when my taxi driver, still visibly shocked, pointed out the landmarks of the events – the crossroads where the people had managed to hold up an armoured column as it moved towards the square, the spot on a street where somebody had been killed, the bridge from which the troops had opened fire.
By 1989, the city had changed but was still recognizable. There were new hotels, even coffee bars. The authorities’ currency controls – their way of keeping a grip on the spending patterns of visitors and thereby monitoring the access of their own citizens to hard currency – were finally slipping. Young people were adopting bolder attitudes to fashion, music and personal freedoms. Many more of them were going abroad and not returning. Most headed for higher education opportunities in the United States where, after June 4, 40,000 Chinese students were immediately given green cards.
Ten years later, globalization and the market economy has changed the city so much that I struggle to recognize it. The city in my head, the map that is imprinted on my brain as clearly as the map of the London Underground, no longer corresponds to the Beijing I see around me. I try to superimpose this mental map on the dystopia in which I am trapped, and fail.
I learned this map on a bicycle – long, slow journeys, often in the teeth of cutting winds that penetrated the layers of clothing the city demands as the price of winter survival. The Chinese cycled slowly, almost meditatively, falling into conversation as they drifted along. There were horse-drawn carts, their drivers often asleep on top of their huge loads, and even, in the streets of the north-east quarter, where the colony of Uighur migrants from Xinjiang had made their homes, strings of moth-eaten camels. Now it is a city of cars and hardly a street that I once knew is recognizable, with the exception of those in the diplomatic quarter, where the embassies remain unaltered. The traffic patterns are so convoluted that on any journey by car I soon lose the sense of where I have been or where I am going.
My Beijing, and the Beijing of most of its residents, has disappeared. What was once the greatest walled city the world had ever known has been destroyed; a city that was the highest expression of a culture and a way of life has vanished under concrete.
Nostalgia is not an emotion to be trusted, but this visit gave me a chance to test out my own regrets for the vanished city against the feelings of those with greater rights over the place than I have: its residents, its artists, intellectuals, architects, writers and painters. I found them in mourning for the city they loved. Some were angry, some were simply grieving. None were celebrating a process that most of the people I talked to regarded as a triumph of barbarism. What pig-headed ideology had begun, globalization had finished.
I never knew the walls of Beijing – they were destroyed more than a decade before I first arrived – but the story of their destruction is an instructive one for collectors of examples of human stupidity. They were more than sixty feet high and thirty feet wide, punctuated by great gates and watchtowers, and they encircled a city that had been laid out not just as a majestic capital in which all that was finest in the empire was on display, but as an expression of the cosmology of that empire.
Beijing was a walled city within a walled city: at the heart of it, the imperial palace – the Forbidden City – with its vermilion walls and golden roofs, its main gate facing south. Around the Forbidden City were the palaces and residences of the princes and the emperor’s officials, their main doors facing north. On the points of the compass were the temples of Earth, Heaven, Sun and Moon, to which the emperor, as Son of Heaven, would repair at prescribed times of the year to carry out the rituals that ordered the calendar and ensured peace and good harvests. If the rituals were neglected, chaos and disorder, war and hunger would result.
As befitted the capital of what was, in its day, the world’s richest and most advanced civilization, Beijing was a city of splendours: of beautiful gardens, gorgeous temples, of an architecture that understood the relationship between mass and void, that led the eye through courtyards and gates, past spirit screens and along cunningly designed vistas. The lesser streets, the hutongs, followed the same pattern: little alleyways with grey-painted walls and dark-grey roof tiles, from which opened the courtyards that housed most of Beijing’s residents.
In 1949, as the Communist forces reached the outskirts of Beijing, this was what lay before them. The city was already dilapidated: nearly a hundred years of war had left it scarred and impoverished, but it was still there. As the soldiers of the Eighth Route Army laid siege to the walls, the military command seemed sensible of the responsibility they bore this extraordinary place. Senior officers were sent to consult Professor Liang Sicheng, the son of the nineteenth-century intellectual and reformer Liang Qichao and one of China’s most respected architects, to ask him to point out the most valuable cultural sites so that the Communists could take care not to damage them. They pored over the map of Beijing, marking the places that Liang Sicheng indicated.
I met Liang’s son, Liang Congjie, over dinner. He is a slightly cantankerous figure who runs China’s first native NGO, the Friends of Nature, founded in 1994, which campaigns on environmental issues – an uphill struggle, as he confirmed. He told me that two things were obvious when the Communists decided to make Beijing their capital: one, that the city was a unique cultural treasure, and two, that it could not accommodate the demands of a modern capital. His father had suggested a solution: to build a new administrative and political capital outside the city walls.
The city had already spilled over: the university where the commanding officer had sought out Liang was several miles beyond the walls. But Mao wanted to occupy the Imperial Palace. When he heard about Professor Liang’s suggestion he remarked ominously, ‘I hear some professor is trying to kick us out of Beijing.’
In the fifties, Mao began to destroy Beijing, clearing away memorial arches, building the vast – and at that time empty – Avenue of Heavenly Peace, and creating what was to be the world’s largest and bleakest urban open space, Tiananmen Square. In the Sixties came the greatest cultural crime, the destruction of the 800-year-old wall. It took years to pull it down and cart away the rubble. Where the wall had been, the Chinese built a subway – a circle line, punctuated with stations that bear the names of the vanished gates and watchtowers, and, above ground, a ring road. It was a poor exchange. Professor Liang and his wife opposed that project, too, but this was during the Cultural Revolution and they lost. If you ask people about the wall now, you can see the pain they feel at the memory.
But Beijing’s sufferings weren’t over. In the eighties, money began to flood in from foreign investors eager to buy a piece of China’s development. The mayor of Beijing, Chen Xitong, invited Hong Kong developers to tear down what was left of the historic city and build ever bigger and nastier office blocks, shopping centres and hotels. The mayor himself grew rich and powerful, and would have stayed that way, had not his protector, Deng Xiaoping, finally died in 1997. Chen Xitong was subsequently arrested and his deputy committed suicide. Nothing, however, stopped the destruction of Beijing.
Another of Mao’s amusements in the sixties was to set the population to digging vast underground bomb shelters so that he could sustain his prediction that China would easily survive a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The bomb shelters were a waste of time and money, but had the people dug an adequate underground network instead, the city might have been spared the worst excesses of the nineties – the rash of urban motorways that have turned what was once the bicycle capital of the world into a place that can only be navigated by car. There is nobody to blame but the Communist Party. They had absolute control during the fifty years it took to destroy Beijing, and they had the chance to develop a modern, civilized city. Instead, they imposed outdated and discredited ideas on a population which had no means to protest. The few historic buildings that have been allowed to survive are simply poignant relics, marooned as they are in a sea of skyscrapers, some with six-lane motorways only yards away.
Life in Beijing in this, the last phase of the dictatorship of the Communist Party, has taken on some curious characteristics. One evening I visited a nightclub near the Workers’ Stadium run by Henry Li and his wife. They were a striking couple. Henry had bleached his hair white, and it went nicely with his white pleated Miyake shirt. His wife, who had been a model in her native Shanghai, moved gracefully around the bar in full evening dress, air-kissing favoured customers. The club would have been unremarkable in the West – a dance floor downstairs, and upstairs, a bar with some eight tables and a couple of sofas. But here in Beijing it was a sign of how far the Party has moved towards consumerism. You can do a lot in the city if you stay off politics, which Henry Li has had no trouble doing. His only demands from his clientele are that they be glamorous and fashionably dressed. They are mostly in new media – dot com companies, advertising and the film industry. Henry spent last New Year in Tibet. He wore a Buddhist rosary wound around his wrist. Tibet was ‘truly amazing’, he said.
Change, too, at my old college, the Beijing Languages Institute, which before the Cultural Revolution was the Coal Mining Institute, a vast, dreary place, one of a series of institutes along the imaginatively named Institute Road, heading out to the north-east, the academic quarter. When I first came to study there in 1973 it was all but empty – the students and staff had been sent to the mines during the Cultural Revolution and never returned. Now it has been renamed once more, to suit its expanded ambitions, as the Beijing Language and Culture University. We were welcomed by the new director, a cheerful, talkative man in his forties. I remarked on the absence of the giant statue of Chairman Mao that once loomed over the front gate. ‘Ah, yes,’ he grinned, ‘we have no political superstitions these days.’ There had been building work there, too – the dormitories had been refurbished, there was a hotel, and a series of restaurants and cafes to cater for foreign students.
The director had assembled a group of Chinese students of English – all of them only children – and all with clear ambitions. They presented me with their cards and told me that they planned to go into business. ‘Bill Gates is my hero,’ one of them said.
It hasn’t been easy being an intellectual in China in the twentieth century. The tradition of the engaged scholar meant that intellectuals were in the forefront of the political movements that sprang up after the collapse of the Qing dynasty at the beginning of the century and divided along party lines when the Kuomintang and the Communist Party split in 1949. Thousands left China then, but those who had thrown in their lot with the Communists stayed, only to find themselves packed off to labour camps in the fifties and sixties as Mao pursued his own millenarian ideas about the dictatorship of the proletariat.
There were two interludes in the late seventies and eighties – Democracy Wall, and the years leading up to the Tiananmen massacre – when intellectual debate flourished, but on both occasions it ended in violent repression. I discovered that the hotel where I was staying had been the private house of a man who led the persecution of intellectuals – Kang Sheng. It was a peaceful place, the central courtyard dominated by a lush bamboo garden, a place that still breathed the older values of Chinese civilization. But it was impossible to take pleasure in it, once I imagined Kang Sheng living there.
Now the younger generation of students dreams of going into business, and what remains of the culture represented by these gracious courtyards is being buried under a new wave of global consumerism. How much of it will survive is a question that bedevils the writers and artists who are tentatively exploring the new spaces that have opened up as the Party retreats from its ideological ground.
Further to the north-east, near the campus of Beijing University, I went into the Guolinfeng bookshop, Beijing’s first private bookstore, now the third largest in the city. Eager assistants hovered about, ready to give advice or just to straighten the shelves. It boasted a basement cafe where browsers could read before they bought – or instead of buying. The bookshop is part of another new business, an advertising company founded by one of the Tiananmen hunger strikers, and it was easy to see why it was thriving. The competition, the state-owned Xinhua bookshops, are still neon-lit temples to socialist obstructionism, with surly assistants and unimaginative stock, kept afloat only by their monopoly on the supply of school textbooks. The Guolinfeng bookshop is not allowed to sell foreign books or books from Hong Kong, though examples of both these forbidden categories were on the shelves. The manager was relaxed about it. ‘Well, if I can get hold of them,’ he said, ‘of course I sell them. It’s not breaking the law, exactly, just a regulation.’ Now they have branched out into publishing.
Officially there are no private publishers in China. But the withdrawal of subsidies has left provincial publishing houses hard up and short of expertise – years of publishing what they were told to publish is not the best training for survival in China’s socialist market economy. The only asset they have is their official quota of ISBN numbers without which no book can be published. The solution has been to sell the ISBN numbers to people who have books they want to publish. This is now such a widespread practice that the new publishing wing of the Guolinfeng store already has its own virtual list. I looked through the titles: most of them were political and eighty per cent were about democracy – unlikely fodder for publishing houses in Guangxi or remote Liaoning Province.
Mr S, a former editor of China’s leading intellectual magazine, Du Shu (the Reader), suggested we met in a branch of Starbucks. Beijing is well supplied with Starbucks and McDonalds and both are considered highly fashionable. This one was just off Wang Fujing, once Beijing’s main shopping street, but now rather eclipsed by the vast new shopping centres that have opened in other parts of the city. Mr S was a diminutive elderly man who looked like a retired worker – unshaven and buttoned uncomfortably up to the neck in a white raincoat. He was sitting at a small marble table nursing a half-empty cup of cappuccino. The opening conversation was not encouraging. ‘I can’t think why you want to see me,’ he said. ‘I’ve retired, I don’t know anybody any more. I’ve been overtaken by events.’
He warmed up gradually as I mentioned some mutual friends. I wanted to meet him because I had been told that, despite appearances, he was at the centre of the liberal intellectual movement – a group that is fighting it out with their rival current of opinion, the New Left. Both are critical of the government, and both perceive the rampant corruption of the Communist Party as the main problem China is facing. Their solutions, though, are different. The Liberals argue that only through encouraging individualism and democracy can corruption be controlled. The New Left, bizarrely, has elaborated a theory of equality and mass mobilization reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution.
Mr S’s head sank deeper into his shoulders. ‘I don’t like hearing about revolution,’ he said. ‘I’ve had enough of revolution. And it’s worse when it’s tied to culture. That makes a Cultural Revolution. The whole thing is driven by returned students,’ he continued. ‘They went abroad and read Edward Said.’
Like most intellectuals, Mr S suffered during the Cultural Revolution, though he says he got off lightly. He was a senior member of the Party and had an impeccable class background as a Shanghai worker. It didn’t save him from being sent to cadre school for two years, but it did save him from anything worse.
He invited me to his house, a tiny three-roomed flat in a courtyard just off Wang Fujing. It was crammed with books and there was a computer in the corner. He chatted about the old liberal tradition that existed in China in the forties and fifties. It had been suppressed by the Communist Party, he said, and now every middleschool student had to study an essay by Mao in which liberalism was attacked as anti-Communist. ‘This is a late totalitarian society,’ Mr S chuckled, ‘in which you see the truth of the absolute corruption of absolute power.’
There was still hope, he said. A Qing dynasty historian had predicted that from 1840, when the wave of transformation began in China, it would take 200 years to achieve democracy. ‘That makes it another forty years,’ he said. ‘I find that a reasonable prediction.’ Then he added, ‘Of course, even when we get democracy, perhaps the first hundred years won’t be too good – it will be something like Latin America. After that, it should improve.’
While waiting for democracy to arrive, Mr S had logged on to some of the New Left web sites. There are several – full of embarrassing odes to Chairman Mao, heroic images of workers depicted in Socialist Realist style and long accounts of the production of last year’s major New Left cultural effort, a play about Che Guevara.
It seems unlikely that Che Guevara should become a hero in China at this point in history, but he fits with the New Left’s underlying ideology – a nationalist, anti-imperialist, anti-globalization position. The main issue, as they see it, is not China’s lack of democracy, but global hegemony – by which they mean the United States. The web sites make particular reference to the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo campaign in 1999 and the demonstrations outside the US Embassy in Beijing that the New Left organized on the anniversary. The Che Guevara play was a big hit in Beijing last year and provoked emotional post-performance discussions.
I met one of the key figures in its production, an Oxford-educated professor of Chinese drama. He invited me for tea at his flat – though he was visibly upset by the presence of workmen who had come to fix the heating system and kept going out to check how long they were going to be. The professor was an expert on Chinese opera, once China’s most popular form of entertainment, all but destroyed by Jiang Qing in the Cultural Revolution. Now it can be performed again, although most Chinese would rather go and see Titanic. Opera audiences are dwindling and fewer and fewer artists are prepared to take on the years of training required.
I took with me an essay by a Chinese academic, Ben Xu, entitled ‘From Modernity to Chineseness: the rise of Nativist Cultural Theory in post-1989 China’. It discussed the emergence of postmodern and post-colonial perspectives in China and their relationship to the new nationalism. What has resulted, the author writes, ‘mixes xenophobia, polemical rhetoric and nationalist sentiment’ – and he sees the adoption of nationalism as the only remnant of Maoism left in the official position. The drama professor was unfazed. He was rather proud of Che Guevara. ‘It annoyed a lot of people who have been corrupted by the market,’ he said.
The government has so far not interfered in this debate, except to crack down from time to time on liberals who argue too cogently for democracy in China. Superficially, the New Left would seem to be a most attractive group from the government’s point of view, except that a key part of their argument is a fierce rejection of the globalization that has enriched the Party elite. It cannot be entirely comfortable for the Party either, that their own brand of rhetorical nationalism has proved no defence against the destruction of Chinese culture globalization is bringing. Nobody can answer the basic question: What does it mean to be a Chinese nationalist?
This is not a new problem, though. It is a question that has been asked ever since the 1840s. The assumption then was that China was the centre of civilization and had no need to explain herself further. That assumption crumbled in the face of expanding Western power. Now China is an empire in search of a modern identity and a coherent ideology, and it has failed to find either.
As long as the debate is confined to ideas, the government seems willing to let it continue. It is action that worries them: any action taken by any group that is formed around a rival ideology or a set of political demands. Hence the long sentences handed down to the founders of the Democracy Party earlier this year and the continuing persecution of followers of Falun Gong, the semi-religious movement that panicked the Party leadership eighteen months ago when it demonstrated its power to organize. It took just one demonstration to do it: several thousand men and women who appeared one morning and surrounded Zhongnanhai, the well-guarded compound where the Party leadership lives. Ever since then the Party has tried – and failed – to stamp Falun Gong out. Now that the Party has vacated the moral high ground, it is particularly sensitive about other groups that seem able to occupy it. Falun Gong preaches honesty and morality. In the Chinese version of the market economy, that is a subversive message.
The fate of Chinese culture under the impact of globalization was a concern of intellectuals such as Xi Chuan, a poet whom I visited in his grimy office in one of Beijing’s many universities. For 3,000 years, writers and poets were at the heart of this society. ‘Even in the seventies and eighties,’ he said, ‘the poet was still a hero and thousands would turn out to attend a reading. Now young people think poets are crazy.’
‘Most writers are thinking about what it means to be Chinese today, but they are at a loss, theoretically,’ he said. ‘For instance, if you talk about postmodernism here, it has a totally different meaning from in the West. In North America people think that postmodernists are in crisis because the whole theory is so intellectualized it is bad for creativity. But here people think postmodernism just means not writing in the style of a newspaper article. Young writers don’t believe anything. They just go to extremes, cursing others, using dirty words. It seems that this is postmodernism. Is this the Chinese way or is it part of globalization?’
When he hears someone talking about Chinese culture, Xi Chuan assumes they are either very rich or foreign. ‘Rich people and some foreigners, they live a much more Chinese life than ordinary Chinese people live. If you want to live in a Chinese way today, you need money to buy antique furniture, and traditional courtyard houses are very expensive. Poor people have to move into tower blocks. So when people stress Chinese culture I know they are not typical Chinese.’
Jing Jun is a sociologist and one of the few intellectuals to have returned to China after a long stint in the United States. When we met for coffee, he pointed out that it was the season for arresting prostitutes. Every year around October the police are given quotas to meet: one Beijing district reported the arrest of 1,700 prostitutes in a single weekend. The women are picked up and shipped back to their native provinces after a night in the cells without food. But the provincial police are not keen to keep them, so the women’s pimps just wait at the station and put them back on trains to the capital. The sex industry, suppressed in the puritan days of Maoism (though not unavailable to Mao himself) is a huge business in which the police have a major stake.
Attitudes to prostitution were mixed. I have a friend who lives in a new housing development run by a group of peasants in the suburbs who decided they’d had enough of back-breaking agricultural labour and built apartments on their fields instead. Each peasant had three flats and now they lived off the rents, cheerfully passing their days playing cards. Quite a few prostitutes lived there, my friend told me, but they didn’t seem to attract any particular opprobrium. Meanwhile, in Guangzhou, in the south of the country, there was a scandal about the number of Hong Kong businessmen who have set up bigamous second households there, to the distress of their legitimate wives across the border in Hong Kong. The story had come out in the press because the province of Guangzhou – where this was considered largely a question of assets – had passed a new regulation allowing a man’s wife in Hong Kong to claim property to the value of half of anything that is given to his mistress. The first court cases are awaited with interest.
The re-emergence of the sex industry has brought other problems. I went to one of Beijing’s few gay bars, its clientele an equal mix of Chinese and foreigners. A large television set on the wall was showing images of Jiang Zemin on an official visit, shaking hands with a Saudi sheikh. Beneath it, a drag queen was performing simulated sex with a willing customer. In the interval between floor shows, there was a speech about Aids and safe sex, and condoms were handed out. Aids is still a taboo subject – the official line until recently was that it didn’t exist in China. But there is an alarmingly high rate of infection in the south-west of the country, where heroin leaks over the border from Burma, and doctors in isolated country villages elsewhere in China are reporting frightening numbers of people dying from a wasting disease. Now that the commune system has been abolished, there are almost no medical services left in the countryside, and as long as Aids is officially denied, there seems to be nothing to stop it spreading.
The lack of access to medicine has some bizarre consequences. One morning I got up early and went to Ditan Park, the old Temple of the Earth, a beautiful place full of ancient trees, its lovely square altar still undamaged. Chinese parks are delightful in the early morning, thronged with people devoting themselves to an infinite variety of eccentric pursuits. In one corner, tango music was blaring out from a loudspeaker and I watched couples dipping and swooping, perfectly in time. On another patch, a group leader was chanting some thirty elderly people through their morning exercises. They were slapping different parts of their bodies and chanting, ‘My neck is healthy. My legs are strong. My head is in fine shape’ – an exhortation to fate to stave off illnesses for which they can no longer afford treatment. A couple of years ago there would have been Falun Gong practitioners here, too; one of the attractions of Falun Gong was that it promised good health. Now its followers are in hiding or in jail, persecuted by a Party that no longer provides either medicine or a moral example.
As I left the park I paused to watch an old man writing Chinese characters on the path. He had a long-handled brush which he dipped in a bucket of water. He was writing the lines of a Tang poem in exquisite calligraphy on the hard, packed dirt path. By the time he reached the end of the poem, the first characters had dried out and disappeared. He noticed me watching and, smiling, offered me the brush. I dipped it in the bucket and wrote the first line of the Daodejing, Laoji’s Daoist classic: ‘The way that can be known is not the constant way.’ My characters looked terrible next to his, but he seemed pleased, nevertheless, by this trace of civilization in a passing barbarian. He smiled and took up his brush again, bending to the pleasure of creating this transient beauty.
Image © Rob Schleiffert