The Battle of Beijing

Visions of the Northern Capital.


Beijing is two cities. One is of power and of money. People don’t care who their neighbors are; they don’t trust you. The other city is one of desperation. I see people on public buses, and I see their eyes, and I see they hold no hope. They can’t even imagine that they’ll be able to buy a house. They come from very poor villages where they’ve never seen electricity or toilet paper.

Thus begins Ai Weiwei’s concise and lucid evaluation of Beijing, in which he alludes to the myriad indemnities of the city. In roughly chronological order: poor treatment of migrant workers, official corruption, unaffordable house prices, preferential treatment of foreigners, lack of health care, lack of an independent judiciary, rule of power, Beijing’s lack of vitality, black jails, arbitrary justice. He ends with a simple conlusion:

Beijing is a nightmare. A constant nightmare.

Though I think Ai’s piece faithfully captures the polarization of Beijing and Chinese society in general toward boundlessly rich and interminably poor, I can’t help but wonder why he wrote it. Is he fed up? Or is he back to his old tricks?

Last time I wrote about Ai, he had just been released from jail and taken a job at a university in Berlin. There weren’t any follow-ups to that report and I can’t find any definitive information on where Ai is now so I assume he is still under house arrest in Beijing.

His piece is purposefully dark and hyperbolic, and intensely critical of almost every aspect of Beijing life. (He gives the city some credit: “People still give birth to babies. There are a few nice parks.”) Beijing, the seat of power and a first-tier city, represents the direction that the country, along with many second- and third-tier cities, will take in the future. It is a scary vision to be sure.

Compare this with James Miles’ response in The Economist to the question, “What is the capital of the world?”:

Sadly, the answer has to be Beijing. Sadly because it is a city neither of physical charm (except in the few remaining neighbourhoods of imperial-era alleyways), nor of great culture (few are in awe of Beijing’s museums, theatre or music), nor even of breathable air (the Olympic games in 2008 marked a rare smog-free period). Its politics win few admirers. Citizens enjoy far more freedom than they did 30 years ago, but not to oppose the Communist Party. Beijing is not even especially welcoming to outsiders. No matter how long they stay, foreigners cannot acquire citizenship. It has just put up new barriers to migrants from the rest of China, making it almost impossible for most of them to buy cars or homes (to ease traffic jams and keep housing affordable, ostensibly).

Praise doesn’t get more begrudging than that.

It’s true though, no one seems to like this city. Conversations with locals, most of them originally from somewhere else, often drift toward complaining about the traffic or the weather; people are genuinely puzzled when I tell them I chose to be here.

And yet there are 20 million people in this city, and most of them choose to be here too, though many, I imagine, had few other options. Beijing boasts the most prestigious universities in China, the largest companies, one of the highest per capita incomes, and the best job prospects for corrupt officials and migrant workers alike. But people lament this city just like they lament the government, because they are powerless to change either—it’s just another force you have to live with.

They always tell me, “Weiwei, leave the nation, please.” Or “Live longer and watch them die.” Either leave, or be patient and watch how they die. I really don’t know what I’m going to do.

That’s basically the choice people make every day, and students at least are overwhelming choosing the former. China Daily reported that since 1978, only 30 percent of Chinese students have come back after studying abroad. (In fact, my parents are among the 1.6 million who never came back.) Countless times I’ve heard students sigh, “I can’t change my country, so I have to change myself.” Perhaps Twain would have rendered it, “I can’t change my country, so I’ll change my country.” For students today, going abroad is as much about escape as it is about education. What kind of life these students face overseas is another story, but many think it can’t be worse than what they have now.

I won’t go as far as Ai—I don’t think Beijing is two cities, but it’s getting there. It’s becoming a city of haves and have-nots. A city of fuerdai and qiongerdai. A city of those that can do anything and those that can do nothing. The only choices in a world like this are escape, resignation, and violence.

What will become of Beijing? If we look to the past, one thing’s for sure: the ones who steer this city won’t be the critics outside the system, or the foreign countries angling for control and influence. It will be, just as it was in the age of emperors, those cloistered in the heart of the city, those with all the power, the few who decide the fate of the many. At least for now.