Rowan Cal­lick con­sid­ers a guide to what is per­mit­ted, and still for­bid­den, in Beijing

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

AS Aus­tralia turns its at­ten­tion ever more fully and earnestly to­wards China, liv­ing here in Beijing takes on the tenor, for an Aus­tralian, of dwelling in an­cient Rome as a Bri­ton or Phoeni­cian, a global ci­ti­zen from a re­mote but un­threat­en­ing re­gion granted ac­cess to the Great Within.

Charm­ing — ex­cept in its glo­ri­ous parks — Beijing isn’t, if it ever was. Its weather is grim; for half the year too cold, the rest too hot, un­re­lieved by rain as the Gobi Desert marches in­ex­orably closer. Its to­pog­ra­phy is strange for a cap­i­tal; it was built by the Mon­go­lians, focused on graz­ing their stock, on a plain with no sig­nif­i­cant river. But riv­et­ingly in­ter­est­ing? Ab­so­lutely. This is the com­mand cen­tre of a coun­try that is con­vinc­ingly con­quer­ing its 20th- cen­tury shakes, and has de­vised a model that is lur­ing the rest of the de­vel­op­ing world to beat a path to its mas­sive doors: an open but planned econ­omy, closed but oli­garchic polity, em­brac­ing glob­al­i­sa­tion but fil­ter­ing out the global con­ver­sa­tions that its lead­ers worry may dis­tract the masses from their dogged de­vo­tion to get­ting rich.

All the big de­ci­sions about China’s fu­ture are made here, in­clud­ing those about its big­gest busi­nesses, state- owned cor­po­ra­tions now be­ing armed with the coun­try’s al­most $ US1500 bil­lion ($ 1604 bil­lion) sav­ings to ‘‘ go global’’.

This is not ex­actly a sports- mad coun­try, cul­ture or city. But ex­cite­ment is build­ing about the Olympic Games as an op­por­tu­nity to show the rest of China, and sec­on­dar­ily the rest of the world, what power re­sides in Beijing, em­a­nat­ing from ev­ery mon­u­men­tal new struc­ture.

Let the lit­er­ary games com­mence. Jan Wong’s Beijing Con­fi­den­tial nods to the ‘‘ scar lit­er­a­ture’’ that since Jung Chang’s Wild Swans has for a cou­ple of decades dom­i­nated much Western pub­lish­ing on China. It dou­bles as bub­bly trav­el­ogue, try­ing to teach read­ers about Chi­nese his­tory, con­tem­po­rary cul­ture, and the food, natch, in bite- sized morsels.

But at its cen­tre lies the im­pe­rial city that is forg­ing ahead as the great in­ter­na­tional cap­i­tal of the 21st cen­tury, suc­ceed­ing and su­per­sed­ing Washington, Moscow and Lon­don, the im­pe­rial cen­tres of the past cen­tury.

We must await the forth­com­ing biog­ra­phy of Beijing by the best of English language writ­ers on con­tem­po­rary China, Bri­ton Jasper Becker, for a de­fin­i­tive ac­count.

Wong, how­ever, pro­vides a highly ac­ces­si­ble in­tro­duc­tion. Her per­spec­tive is based on ob­serv­ing the city for three decades.

It is some­times hard even for those who have spent their whole life there, to know what to make of Beijing’s present makeover into a ‘‘ world city’’. Close to $ 200 bil­lion is be­ing spent on this cru­sade, less than a quar­ter of it di­rectly re­lated to the Olympic Games that start at 8pm on the 8th day of the 8th month of ’ 08 ( the rul­ing party, of course, de­plores su­per­sti­tion such as nu­merol­ogy).

Apart from a hand­ful of key im­pe­rial sites that are be­ing gen­uinely ren­o­vated in time for the Games, much of the rest of the an­cient city has been or is be­ing ren­o­vated in a man­ner that com­pletes the task be­gun by Mao Ze­dong, who razed the city wall and used the rub­ble to build the sec­ond ring road, with a sub­way line

run­ning be­neath. Build­ings even in dis­tricts ear­marked for con­ser­va­tion are be­ing de­mol­ished as too old to be worth sav­ing.

They are be­ing re­placed with in­tim­i­dat­ing tow­ers, multi- lane high­ways where traf­fic crawls at horse and cart pace and ‘‘ ghost malls’’ where as­sis­tants out­num­ber shop­pers, and in some ar­eas — most no­to­ri­ously in Qian­men, the for­mer heart of the old Chi­nese city — by kitsch new Ye Olde Beijing- style build­ings sell­ing Louis Vuit­ton hand­bags or trendy over­priced in­ter­na­tional cui­sine.

Bei­jingers are in some­thing of a tur­moil about all this. Some are mak­ing large amounts of money by be­ing in the right spot at the right time, es­pe­cially if their em­ployer, whether the pub­lic ser­vice, a state- owned cor­po­ra­tion, the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army or, best of all, the Com­mu­nist Party, has handed them for a pit­tance the keys to the flat, or flats, in which they are liv­ing. That be­comes the key to open­ing the door to the mid­dle class: go straight to be­ing as­set- rich, pass go, and col­lect a cou­ple of mil­lion yuan en route.

Some have been moved out of un­com­fort­able, drafty old hu­tong homes, shanty dwellings in the filled- in court­yards of what were be­fore the 1949 rev­o­lu­tion gra­cious homes of aris­to­crats and the well- to- do. They have shifted to mod­ern flats be­yond the sixth or sev­enth ring roads and some have be­gun to count the cost in terms of lost com­mu­nity ser­vices and the ex­pense and time taken to travel back in to the city to work.

Wong re- tells a Beijing joke du jour. An in­quis­i­tive girl is told that the char­ac­ter in a cir­cle crudely painted on build­ings due for de­struc­tion, some­times while in­hab­i­tants are still fight­ing to stay, is chai , to de­mol­ish. ‘‘ Mummy, is that why they call it Chai- na?’’ she asks.

Most peo­ple are proud to see the num­ber of for­eign­ers vis­it­ing and liv­ing in Beijing and are in­vig­o­rated by the con­stant change, the hec­tic pace. But there is also a lin­ger­ing sense of loss, even of anomie. Many of the new build­ings are showy ar­chi­tec­tural mar­vels but have lit­tle re­la­tion­ship to the next struc­ture, let alone to the life of the city. For pedes­tri­ans or cy­clists, or for any­one not be­ing driven by a chauf­feur, as are all of­fi­cials and many busi­ness peo­ple, it can be an im­mense puz­zle even to fathom how to ap­proach these myr­iad ‘‘ for­bid­den cities’’ with their great glass walls and their bat­tal­ions of uni­formed gate­keep­ers.

Wong is con­fronted by a puz­zle of her own: how to open doors to the re­cent but sealed- off past. The Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion de­prived an en­tire ‘‘ lost gen­er­a­tion’’ of their ed­u­ca­tion. It split fam­i­lies, killed off much of the ide­al­ism that once in­fused Chi­nese com­mu­nism, and pro­voked pri­vate grief that has yet to be healed, be­cause all of this must re­main un­spo­ken.

Mao was the driver of this dire decade, 1966- 76, and the party’s ver­dict is now un­chal­lenge­able: he was 70 per cent great, 30 per cent mis­guided. Hav­ing once leapfrogged from com­pe­tent Cana­dian jour­nal­ist to in­ter­na­tional best­seller on the ba­sis of hav­ing been a de­vout Maoist in Beijing dur­ing this chaotic, mis­er­able Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion, Wong is seek­ing to re­peat the trick. Her first, highly read­able book, Red China Blues , re­counted anec­dotes of her life in China as a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent for the Toronto Globe and Mail from 1988- 94, fleshed out by am­pli­fi­ca­tions of the big sto­ries she had writ­ten dur­ing those tu­mul­tuous years.

This time, she works up a nar­ra­tive around a re­turn visit three years ago with her hus­band and two sons. The book’s main thread is her search for a fel­low stu­dent dur­ing the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion named Yin. Wong had dobbed Yin in to the com­mu­nist au­thor­i­ties af­ter Yin had told her and a Chi­nese room- mate: ‘‘ I want to go to Amer­ica. Can you help me?’’

Wong re­dis­cov­ered the in­ci­dent — which, she feared, had led to the direst con­se­quences for Yin — in read­ing through her diaries of her time at Beida, Beijing Univer­sity.

But she had no idea about Yin’s true fate. So while her fam­ily — she met her hus­band, an Amer­i­can and also at the time a true Maoist be­liever, dur­ing that stay at Beida — looked around ever- chang­ing Beijing, Wong pur­sued clues that might lead her to Yin. Not so easy when, as Wong says, China has 400 mil­lion mo­bile phone users, all un­listed. Ev­ery­one changes num­bers as they up­date their phones, of­ten more than once a year. No one uses the few phone di­rec­to­ries that may be un­earthed. And 40 per cent of China shares 10 fam­ily names, about 52 mil­lion peo­ple per name. Peo­ple used to stay in their dan­wei or work unit for life; now they jump jobs, and cities, rou­tinely de­fy­ing the resid­ual rules re­quir­ing a hukou or res­i­dence per­mit.

She con­sid­ers tak­ing on one of Beijing’s many new pri­vate eyes, a for­mer sol­dier and po­lice­man, whose card list­ing his agency’s ser­vices pro­vides a poignant and pithy sum­mary of con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese chal­lenges: ‘‘ Ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fairs; track­ing of debtors; theft of trade­mark; prop­erty searches; trac­ing phone calls and con­tent of text mes­sages; as­sist­ing school trans­fers for Beijing chil­dren; help­ing out- of- town chil­dren en­rol in Beijing schools; spy­ing on sons and daugh­ters who are away from home; in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty rights in­spec­tion; pro­vid­ing proof of in­dus- trial es­pi­onage; search­ing for miss­ing per­sons.’’

It would be un­fair to re­veal to po­ten­tial read­ers the outcome of Wong’s search, for this nar­ra­tive is the de­vice that holds to­gether a host of ob­ser­va­tions about the city, about chang­ing Chi­nese life.

Her old Maoist stu­dent friends, she is as­tounded to dis­cover, now em­ploy maids, own cars and in­vest­ment prop­er­ties, talk con­stantly about the price of ev­ery­thing and own pam­pered pets, whose food, in one case, costs more than the wages of the maid.

The ed­u­cated class, the in­tel­lec­tual elite, which was on the verge of be­ing alien­ated en masse at the time of the Tianan­men mas­sacre 19 years ago, is now back in the com­mu­nist fold in a big way, and is lov­ing it. They are the party’s pam­pered pets, and how­ever many trips they make to New York or to Nagoya, they mostly re­turn with rel­ish to their com­fort­able new life in the world’s cap­i­tal. Their chil­dren queue for the party mem­ber­ship that will re­in­force their ac­cess to in­flu­ence and wealth.

But on the way to learn­ing all this, we have to find out what tele­vi­sion shows Cana­dian teenagers want to watch, or what mu­sic they lis­ten to. For this is one of those books where the au­thor seeks to put us at our ease about what’s likely to be fresh by telling us stuff we al­ready know.

This is a clas­sic tem­plate into which pub­lish­ers squeeze books, so they can feel com­fort­able about mar­ket­ing them.

So while in this case we read­ers do need to know the back­ground of Wong’s Maoist youth, we don’t re­ally need to know as much as this fa­mil­iar­ity- first for­mula re­quires Wong to tell us about, say, her teenage sons’ pre­dictable food likes and dis­likes, or shop­ping in an Ikea store.

It as­sumes that with­out the Westerner in the cen­tre of the frame, lead­ing us by the hand through the ex­oti­cism of China, ush­er­ing us bravely on through the hor­rors of the in­dige­nous driv­ing style, of the tex­ture of braised don­key pe­nis, or of clouds of tobacco smoke, we read­ers will swiftly shrug our alien­ated shoul­ders and re­turn to watch­ing Home and Away .

But our ef­fu­sive guide does teach us en route much about this an­cient, some­times alien­at­ing city, dur­ing her ac­count of the fam­ily’s 28- day stay one breath­less, fetid Au­gust: the same month in which the Olympic Games will be held this year.

And a hero­ine of sorts emerges. Not the city it­self. And, to the au­thor’s credit, not her, but an in­domitable fig­ure who has re­fused to yield her in­de­pen­dence of spirit and who is now at last en­ter­ing a de­served time of grace, even in the midst of a city with too lit­tle of it. Rowan Cal­lick is The Aus­tralian’s Beijing cor­re­spon­dent.

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