CONSUMING TIGER, HEDONIST DRAGON
Rowan Callick considers a guide to what is permitted, and still forbidden, in Beijing
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.