Often during the working day, I had begun to look longingly at the western mountains. I could see them from my small apartment and from my office (during the brief periods I spent there).
Earlier, I had used the mountains as a rough guide to Beijing air quality: if I could see them reasonably clearly, the air was fine and I could be outside without a facemask; if I could not see them, the facemask was on. When I first came to Beijing a decade or so ago, it was a rare day that I could see that far. Now, it was rare day that I could not: Beijing’s air quality – once proverbial – had obviously been improving, gradually but remarkably.
The extensive afforestation, cleaning up the water ways and Green Belts were another dimension of this ‘greening’ of Beijing. Today, I was keen to return to my discovery of the Western Green Belt. Once I again I strode along Wanquanzhuang Street, and by now the locals seemed to recognise my stride, for they barely cast me a glance: I was becoming a common sight in these parts.
A couple of kilometres later, I turned left on the Green Belt and overtook the old fogeys out for their 100 steps – walk 100 steps after a meal and you will live to be 99 (fanhou bai buzou, huo dao jiushijiu). I marched past the children playing and parents chatting.
The next link was along the Nanzhang River, with which I was also familiar. Eschewing the riverside walk itself, with myriads photographing the full spring blossoms, I sought out the byways among the trees and bushes. Here were fewer people; here one could have a piss behind a tree with no-one much bothering.
At Zizhuyuan Park, I wanted to find another entrance, the east gate. It required a little more work, winding through back streets and alleys. Yet another discovery, as one does time and again in Beijing: along the walls were a series of glorious anti-corruption posters from some years back. I was struck by the way they invoke older anti-capitalist themes from socialist art.
When Xi Jinping first became chairman and president, he inaugurated the most comprehensive anti-corruption campaign since Mao Zedong. Six years later, it has become a permanent feature of daily life, and not merely for party members. But it has shifted gear to a more positive note: promoting core socialist values, at the intersection with traditional Chinese values.
Back then, however, the targets were ‘tigers and flies’: the big and the small, from the Politburo member to the village official (and a good number of the former who had fled overseas). The posters were fascinating. Why? They evoked old communist images of capitalists: overweight, smooth, lugging bags of cash, living ostentatious lives, squeezing money from dodgy building projects, public funds, and common people.
By now, most of the tigers have been caught and sentenced; and most of the flies have fundamentally altered a way of life that had too quickly become the norm – when the law was something you knew was there but did not bother with too much.
As more than one person has put it to me: now you can trust people again.
Elated, I soaked in unexplored sections of Zizhuyuan Park, over the hills and through the bamboo forests, past the singers and old fogeys dancing, and out onto Zhongguancun Street for the march home.