Wednesday, October 24, 2007

On Beijing, Part 1

In addition to seeing the world, meeting new people, experiencing new things, and all such lovely things, I derive certain tangential pleasures from travel. For example, because I am an arrogant ass, I love to compare cities I visit to cities I've already seen. This allows me to feel very well-traveled and worldly, as well as perceptive and insightful (and completely immodest). I'm not saying I am these things, I just like feeling as though I am.

So as soon as I arrived in Beijing, I started developing my "Beijing is..." statements. The first statement came quickly: Beijing is like a Chinese Los Angeles. Huge and spread out, traffic-ridden, totally deficient in public transportation. A tough place for short-term visitors, but diverse, amusingly schizoid, and ultimately rewarding, particularly if you have an insider to shepherd you through. After a few days, I stood by all of these initial observations, but felt they provided an incomplete picture. Beijing is huge and urban and modern, but lacks the stylized cosmopolitan feel of Los Angeles. The people also don't seem to fit, and there's a greyness about the overall ambiance that decidedly un-Angelino. And so, I added a corollary statement.

Beijing is also Moscow with nice people. In architecture, lay-out, and overall feel, it makes sense. The buildings that are over 10 years old are decidedly Soviet, from the monolithic concrete palaces used by the government (with extremely similar communist iconography and sculpture) to the generic apartment blocks where much of the population lives. And also like Moscow, the city represents an interesting contrast between eras. Along with the 20th century Soviet architecture, modern skyscrapers dominate the skyline in the bustling areas that circle around the center, and the heart of each city is an enormous testament to a glorious imperial past. Like Red Square, Tiananmen Square is both the geographic and historical heart of the city, an enormous place of congregation. And just as Red Square serves as the gateway to the Kremlin, Tiananmen is the entry point to the Forbidden City, another imposing palace-slash-fortress complex that is the focal point of imperial authority for its city, if not its country.

Perhaps most significantly of all, Beijing, like Moscow and unlike the other cities we visited in China (Xian and Shanghai), seems somewhat burdened by the lingering weight of authoritarianism. The presence of government was most overt, most oppressive, in Beijing, and nowhere more than in Tiananmen Square itself. An enormous portrait of Mao sits atop Tiananmen Gate, looking serenely out over the masses. Authority figures came in four highly conspicuous flavors: the Chinese Army (green uniforms), Beijing City Police (blue uniforms), Beijing Security Police (gray uniforms), and a fourth category whose affiliation I could not determine, but whose simple black suits, white shirts, and black ties suggested they were the most sinister and dangerous of all. Those were the people who could lock you in a cell and forget about you for a day or 20. Those were the people I tried to steer clear of. Yes, the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident could never happen again, but that's because no large demonstration could ever collect there. Even tourists enter the Square through specified gates, and soldiers are on hand to inspect all bags.

But as I've said, the people are patient and nice, which marks a huge departure from Moscow (one of my least favorite cities in the world), and is actually a check in the Los Angeles column. So there you go.

Beijing: a Chinese Muscovite Los Angeles! Err...

Beijing: a Sino-Angelino Moscow! Umm...

Whatever.

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