An expert's point of view on a current event.

Beijing Forever

In China's pulsing capital, change is the only constant.

Jonathan Browning
Jonathan Browning
Jonathan Browning

For an exclusive interview with Ai Weiwei, click here. 

For an exclusive interview with Ai Weiwei, click here. 

Beijing, as most Chinese know it, was a neglected relic after the Japanese occupation of World War II and the Chinese Civil War. In 1949, when the victorious communists moved the capital back there from Nanjing, it was a bankrupt town of 1.4 million people; almost nothing of any consequence was made or manufactured there. But the path to the shining communist future lay through industry, at least according to the Soviets, who had already put a quarter of Muscovites to work in new factories, and from the rostrum in Tiananmen Square, Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong called for an “ocean of smokestacks” to rise over Beijing’s traditional skyline of one-story courtyards.

And rise they did. From 1955, when Soviet advisors arrived to reshape the capital into an industrial base, to the early 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms took hold, Beijing was home to 149 of China’s 164 types of industry. Fourteen thousand smokestacks punctuated the skyline, proclaiming the city as the country’s largest petrochemical base; the leading producer of rubber products, plastic, and refrigerators; second in pig iron and washing machines; third in power generators, wool cloth, cars, and color televisions; fourth in internal combustion engines; and fifth in sewing machines and beer.

Deng authorized the creation of a private housing market in 1980, and as China’s economy shifted from planned to market, so did Beijing’s. Among all Chinese cities, finance accounts for the highest percentage of GDP here (13.8 percent in 2010), as the service (and, increasingly, high-tech) sector now makes up nearly three-quarters of Beijing’s revenue. It trails only Tokyo in the number of Fortune Global 500 companies that call it home.

A saying from the time of the planned economy held that it was best to move to Beijing “because that’s where Mao lives,” making it the vanguard of, well, everything. These days, thousands still come each year, migrating to cash in on, or physically construct, the boom. The population, which spiked after Beijing was reinstated as the capital, continues to expand — up nearly 20 percent in the past five years alone, pushing the city outward to a series of six concentric beltways (“ring roads”) and giving it the appearance, locals say, of a blob of spreading pancake batter.

Spend some time on the griddle, amid the traffic, dust storms, and inefficiencies, and it’s obvious why Beijingers are renowned for their creative vulgarities — and also, given its disparate district governments, why the city seems to be competing against itself by building two business districts, multiple pedestrian “ancient” shopping streets, and 38 golf courses. But despite its enormous geographic size — at 6,000 square miles, Beijing is larger than the U.S. state of Connecticut — the city’s official population of some 20 million is mostly crammed into a core that gives it a population density twice that of New York, its sister city to which it’s often compared.

Like New York, Beijing flaunts itself as a national cultural center; also like New York, the city’s history is one of unending dynamism. In Beijing, the cycle has churned for nearly nine centuries, as the city passed through the hands of Mongol, Chinese, and Manchu dynasties, republicans, warlords, Japanese occupiers, and communist liberators, and saw several name changes, including “Peking,” abandoned in 1975 when a new system of Romanizing Chinese was introduced. Many Beijingers are quick to boast that their city’s history stretches back half a million years to the time of Homo erectus, whose remains were found in the area beginning in 1921 — Peking Man. Typically for a city in constant change, his bones have gone missing, and a museum displaying the capital’s Paleolithic era sits in the basement of a glitzy mall downtown, where a guide bubbles, “Even 25,000 years ago, people liked shopping here!”

Her enthusiasm is contagious. For a generation born after the bloody end to the protests in the city’s vast Tiananmen Square, Beijing is the center of the universe: government, media, education, the arts, transportation. Even Mandarin, China’s official language, has its roots in the region (though Beijingers, stubborn as New Yorkers, proudly slurp their sentences in a soupy, r-laden dialect). China’s clocks are set to Beijing time. Since its inception, the place has been a magnet for migrants, merchants, scholars, and explorers, including Marco Polo, who, in the 13th century, marveled that “the whole interior of the city is laid out in squares like a chessboard with such masterly precision that no description can do justice to it.”

Remnants of the board remain in Beijing’s Old City, whose 25 square miles are roughly on par with Manhattan and where the narrow lanes called hutong still stand, lined by gray-walled, single-story courtyard homes whose tiled roofs need weeding. For centuries the hutong characterized the city’s culture; the capital’s rigid grid still has locals saying turn north, south, east, and west instead of left and right, even though today fewer than one-eighth of the lanes remain.

But Beijing the city is often overlooked and overwhelmed by Beijing the capital; after all, it has been the seat of national power for all but a handful of the past thousand years. Hence the architectural marvels, the engineering feats, the set-piece extravaganzas like the 2008 Olympics.

Yet for all that, Beijing is not quite a city as Westerners understand it. In 1962, a visiting journalist dubbed the place “the biggest village ever,” and for locals — despite having the world’s second-busiest airport, nearly 100 Starbucks, and a new subway system that, at last, covers more than the city’s core — it feels that way still. Beijingers still identify themselves by the district or lane where they grew up. Those roots run deep, the way they do in other global villages.

Beijing’s most ubiquitous beverage is a beer named Yanjing (“Swallow Capital,” from an ancient city name). It’s made in town at a brewery owned partly by the municipal government, long reliant on ex-cons to deliver the green 20-ounce bottles on flatbed bicycles as a form of work rehabilitation. The city’s most popular daily tabloid — the Evening News, circulation 1.2 million — reads like the sort of small-town American paper that runs the drunk-driving arrests and fishing forecast. Sold from newsstands and by roving carriers who bellow its name over the drone of pet pigeons released for their afternoon laps, the Evening News gives the day’s date according to the lunar calendar, tells you if tomorrow’s weather will be suitable for washing clothes or airing out the house, and runs graphic photos of suicides, knife attacks, heists, and missing people (and, increasingly common, dogs) in between advertising inserts for weight-loss clinics and virility supplements that allow you to “reach fulfillment every time.” It even once mistakenly ran an item from the American satirical newspaper the Onion, reporting that members of the U.S. Congress had demanded a new Capitol with a retractable roof, more concession stands, and expanded parking. In its correction, the Evening News wrote, “Some small American newspapers frequently fabricate offbeat news to trick people into noticing them, with the aim of making money.”

Unlike London, Paris, and Tokyo, Beijing the capital no longer strives to be everything at once, as it did in Mao’s time. Banks may have their headquarters here, but Shanghai and Shenzhen have the stock markets, and Hong Kong remains the window to international finance. The most famous universities call Beijing home, but their equals exist in Shanghai, Guangzhou, and, increasingly, second-tier cities like Wuhan. Gone are the smokestacks; manufacturing and mines were shuttered or moved to surrounding Hebei province in the run-up to the Olympics — an anti-pollution measure whose effectiveness is eroded by the ever rising tide of automobiles on the capital’s gridlocked streets.

Even as a cultural capital, Beijing falls short. Travelers in China will note that in terms of popularity, Beijing’s cuisine takes a back seat to Chengdu’s spicy Sichuan fare and Harbin’s dumplings. Chinese identify Dalian and Suzhou as the home of fashion and beauty, and coastal Qingdao and Xiamen as the best environments in which to live. The best modern novels and films aren’t set here — the city’s most famous work of fiction details the life of a 1930s rickshaw puller that ends so devastatingly that the American translator changed its ending to a happy one without telling the author. And Beijing’s best contemporary film, Zhang Yimou’s Keep Cool, was pulled from its screening at the Cannes film festival by Chinese censors; Zhang was given no explanation, he says. He would go on to direct the Olympics’ opening ceremony at the Bird’s Nest stadium, designed in part by Beijing artist Ai Weiwei, who has never been inside, dismissing it as “propaganda.”

And yet: It’s Beijing. First a capital in ancient times, it’s home to the still-serene Temple of Heaven, to gated villa communities named Upper East Side and Merlin Champagne Town, to the world’s largest duck restaurant, to a chain of lakes at the city’s heart lined with cacophonous bars and quiet cafes, to the hub of high-speed trains linking the country, and to migrants who make up an estimated 40 percent of its workforce, building high-rises behind billboards that say, “One pinch of soil is one pinch of gold.”

Unlike Shanghai, Beijing was not a port connecting China to the outside world. It was designed to be a seat of power, strategically located to keep the northern barbarians at bay and dampen the south’s influence over the empire. (The city still feels like a garrison: In addition to the 165 embassies, plus the municipal, district, and neighborhood government offices, all the country’s national ministries and Communist Party branches are headquartered here, along with the largest of China’s seven military regions — an estimated 300,000 soldiers charged with defending the capital, as well as the country’s borders with Mongolia and Russia.) Shanghai has more people and a larger economy; for all its growth, Beijing’s GDP lags behind Moscow’s and Sao Paulo’s. Shanghai even has claim to “redder” roots, as the site of the meeting, in 1921, of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.

But Shanghai was not the land of dragons, as legend holds Beijing was, nor was it designed to resemble the shape of the prince who subdued the Dragon King after fighting him nine times a day for nine days. Shanghai was not once named the Swallow Capital, as Beijing was, nor was it the seat of Kublai Khan. Shanghai never had a magnificent palace, never mind one built when Versailles was a mere shooting lodge, and it was not the place where Manchu rulers built pleasure gardens and temples and mosques and cathedrals to showcase their empire. Nor did Shanghai see a battalion of Soviet engineers and architects arrive to erase the city’s feudal features and redraw them as a worker’s paradise, or reverse course again and tear down the smokestacks, rebuild portions of the city’s wall, and restore imperial-era parks.

For the last decade, Beijing the village has globalized, as capitals of rising countries do. Across Tiananmen Square, 72 miles from the Great Wall that marks the city’s far border, that change looks like this: an optimistic banner I saw a few years ago, draped over a building’s rubble, that read:

(The ancient capital reappears.) 

At least it did, until one night, when an anonymous hand neatly excised part of the second character, so that the slogan became:

(Farewell, ancient capital.) 

Passers-by note that both slogans hold true; Beijing is once again looping through an 800-year cycle of rebuilding and renewal. The altered sign was pulled down within hours, but no matter: Beijingers don’t need to read it. They see it every day.

Michael Meyer is the author of The Last Days of Old Beijing and In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China.
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