Why is Beijing so appealing?
It took me some years to realise its appeal. Initially, Shanghai felt friendlier and more appealing. It has always been a port city, at the intersections of the world. Foreigners have been in Shanghai for centuries, leaving their mark in the fabric of the city, in its architecture, spatial configurations and even culture. Somehow, a massive city like this seemed to enable one to find a corner in which to be at home.
Beijing, on the other hand, was too vast, too polluted, too constrained, too fast, too foreign, and simply changing too much. In my early years, I had gone a little crazy, preferring to get out of Beijing whenever I could, taking the train to various corners of China while supposedly a resident and working in Beijing.
But gradually it grew on me. More recently, I found myself wanting to pause in Beijing, for a reason that was not entirely clear to me.
Initially, I simply stayed in my apartment, venturing out for food and exercise. But after a week or two, I found myself setting out to the find out a bit more about this constantly changing city.
It helps if you know someone, who knows someone, who knows someone … (guanxi). Things happen this way, from getting a phone to finding an apartment. Speaking a bit of the language makes a huge difference, but you will always be a foreigner, even if you were born and bred in Beijing. But if you know someone, then you may as well be a local. No more special prices for foreigners. No more smiling deals where you think you have bested someone in bargaining only to find you have not. Guanxi goes a long, long way.
Initially, I began to think it might be the beautiful days, with clear skies and crisp air. I kid you not, for Beijing has plenty of these (as well as plenty of days where it is better to stay inside). A clear Beijing day calls you outside in a way that you cannot resist.
Or perhaps it was the food. Again and again, I found that a famous chef in charge of a major restaurant had decided to go back to basics and make one dish she or he loved best. It may be a simple noodle dish or dumplings, but all attention would be focused on making sure that every iteration of the dish was as simple and as perfect as it could be. No second best would be allowed.
Perhaps it was the language, which I had been learning slowly but surely, putting it together piece by piece. I am not a natural when it comes to learning language, for I need to work persistently and doggedly until it ever so slowly becomes part of my ways of thinking.
Or perhaps it was the regions of Beijing, from the huangsheng (close to the old imperial centre, within the second ring road) to the jiaoqu or shijiao, the outskirts of the city. Here are the villages being absorbed by the ever-expanding limits of the city. Here are the small plots where one can grow vegetables. And here are the traditional compounds (siheyuan) where one can ‘buy’ (really, a long lease) a place to get away from it all.
Perhaps it was the seriousness with which Beijing takes public transport. For instance, the metro is one of the best in the world. Already, its 550 km take 6 billion passenger rides a year (almost the total of the world’s population). Within ten years the total distance will almost double. You can literally get everywhere in the expanse of Beijing by metro. Why would you drive, as the beautiful people like to do, or indeed take a taxi, as foreigners do?
But I finally realised that Beijing’s appeal is none of these things. Or rather, they might be part of it, but they do not constitute the main reason.
Quite simply, Beijing is the centre of power. Not just any power, but the centre of the most powerful socialist state in world history. To be sure, Beijing has been a capital for a few centuries, but even this makes it a relative latecomer on the scene of political power in in light of China’s long history. But it oozes power. Power is part of Beijing’s fabric. It is not for nothing that the communist party chose it as their capital. Here the communist party continues to wield power, with President Xi Jinping invoking Chairman Mao in a way not seen for quite a while. Here security is a paramount issue, so much so that you know when a major event – the annual parliament, a meeting of the politburo, a congress – is happening due to the security personnel everywhere.
And here Chairman Mao lies in state at the fulcrum of this power, in Tiananmen, the gate of heaven. This is socialism in power, and it fascinates me, draws me in, makes me want to be part of it and understand it.