Beijing’s Power

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.

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Slavery, Service and Tips

‘Service’ derives from the Latin servitium, slavery, which is of course itself a derivative of servus, slave.

As for the word ‘slave’ itself, the most persuasive theory is that it derives from the medieval Latin term sclava, meaning captive. But it is also closely connected with the Byzantine Greek term for Slavs, sklabos (from about 580 CE). The connection is both one of merging two terms and the political reality of Holy Roman Empire’s policy of enslaving many Slavs from the ninth century CE as a way of securing the German-Slav demarcation line.

Why the etymology?

I was confronted once again with a curious phenomenon in the strangest of countries, the United States of America. Here they obsess about ‘service’.

I had been travelling across North America by train, from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. I went via Chicago and took the Empire Builder to Portland, before running down California on the Coast Starlight. All the way I encountered one exceedingly helpful person after another. But it really came home to me in the midst of a lunch discussion as we rolled across Montana.

One of the women said, ‘That would do it for me; if the service is excellent, I’ll go back’.

Why the obsession? I wondered. So much so that it is a defining feature of travel itself.

Indeed, everywhere I turned on my journey, I was smothered in people trying to offer service. In a shop I was asked in a cheery but brittle tone how I am ‘doing today’. If the shop assistant managed to catch my name, I was forthwith addressed as though we had known each other for ages. If I paused for a moment on a street or in a railway station, someone inevitably asked if I need some help in finding my way.

Do not get me wrong. I really appreciate the effort. But I remain puzzled.

So I came to my etymological sleuthing.

Service is directly connected to slavery. I mean this not purely in terms of the history of the word, but in the actual practice. When slavery was finally abolished, those who had been slaves became ‘servants’. Lower working class men and women, often from the countryside, would also become ‘servants’ in large households. Perhaps we should say ‘wage slaves’.

Yet, this practice can be found in many parts of the world. So what is different about the United States? I suggest that tipping functions in a way to maintain old patterns of subservience.

In theory at least, the possibility of a tip is meant to encourage greater levels of service. Let us leave aside for a moment the framework of tipping that includes ridiculously low wages, or the assumption that private philanthropy makes the world go around. I am interested in the theory: depending on the ‘quality’ of the service, the tipper may choose to give nothing or give generously, or anywhere in between. The power held by the one tipping lies in the option to withhold or give.

Of course, all manner of cultural expectations and percentages now apply to what is deemed appropriate. But so is the unquestioned assumption that if the service is bad, no tip should be given. Hence the obsessing over service, the entrenchment of slave-like behavior, the etymology itself of ‘service’ and ‘slavery’. It could really only happen in a country with the complex history and continued cultural presence of slavery in its very fabric.

The Crumbling of the USA

Cracks in the ‘pavement’, torn seats, broken arm rests, faded signs, stained carpets, broken taps, and filth in all the many holes and gaps that are increasingly evident. I speak not of eastern Europe, or even of some the poorer countries in Asia, but of the United States of America.

For some reason, I notice them even more now. They had always been there, if one cared to look in the parts visitors are not supposed to see – in the southwest and even centre, of perhaps in no-go zones of the cities where even locals do not dare to tread. But people in these parts have been quite adept at papering them over and presenting to the world – through the extraordinary propaganda system called Hollywood and endless television series – an image of uniform wealth and seamless efficiency.

But now I was in the northeast, which looks with disdain on most of the rest of the United States, quivering with horror at the barbarians within, whether in the rust-belt states, the southern reaches, or the centre-west.

Here too the railing I almost held was bent and loose. The train I caught groaned and clunked and the lights flicked on and off – it had not been upgraded for many a decade. The toilet I used was barely cleaned and the tap spurted uncontrollably. The escalator had ceased functioning some time ago, for dirt had gathered in its corners. And everywhere the footpaths and road edges were crumbling, crumbling.

I am told by good authority that the United States by and large no longer invests in infrastructure. Money is to be made, obscene amounts of money. But people hardly ever get rich these days by gaining lucrative government contracts for, say, a cross-country railway line, or a freeway interstate. Instead, they speculate on the stock market, making money from the misfortunes of others (most spectacularly in the wake of the Great Recession that began in 2008). Ever new and bamboozling ways are found to make money from money – the greatest fetish of all, as Marx already pointed out. So the richest tycoons are those who so speculate, seeking to manipulate international monetary flows for their own advantage.

Meanwhile, the country itself falls to pieces. Those who have lost out – workers of different backgrounds (African-American, Latino, European, and so on) have moved from disillusionment to being openly angry. The cynical political machine threatens to break as people begin to vent their wrath. Killings and regular protests rock the streets, and internal ‘terrorism’ has become a far greater threat. At the same time, those in the northeast and northwest dismiss the disenfranchised as backward, racist and sexist ‘hillbillies’. I have heard a north-easterner opine that those in the centre-west and south should either be relocated, re-educated, die off, or be killed by a foreign power. It is not a country with an existential crisis; it is a country beginning to tear itself apart.

But the cracks have always been here. I have always found negotiating a footpath a tricky business, and if I cared to look I could find plenty of seedy establishments, with infrastructure barely functioning. The reality is that the foundations of this empire have always been shaky indeed, but once upon a time one could easily miss the foundations for the glittering façade built upon them. Yet, even the weakest foundations can bear only so much. Eventually, what is built on them must also begin to crumble.

Crumpled Shirt and Dirty Shoes

Sartorial elegance: the ability to appear stylish and well-groomed without appearing so. Although it applies as much to one’s hair, shaving and smell, its key is the cladding that one wears to cover the body. After all, the word ‘sartorial’ comes from Latin word sartor, tailor.

I had always prided myself on not requiring the usual signals of sartorial elegance. I would wear what I wanted when I wanted, without concern for style or fashion. As long as my single pair of shoes fit the shape of my feet, were comfortable, and could be worn on all occasions – from hiking up mountains to weddings – I was happy. As long as the pants could be worn for a week, be washed overnight and be dry the next morning, I was content. And as long as the shirt was clean and dry, I could not ask for more.

In China, others were not so happy.

For an eternity they tolerated my sartorial preferences. They did so with a glance, a stare, a polite smile. Until at last of them dared to ask.

‘Doesn’t your girlfriend or wife care for you?’

‘What do you mean?’ I asked, standing still on the footpath.

‘Well, your shirt is crumpled’, she said. The others in our group murmured agreement.

‘It’s a t-shirt’, I said. ‘Who irons a t-shirt?’

‘And when you signed the new contract last week, you wore a crumpled shirt’, she said. ‘And it was not tucked in. It was hanging outside your pants!’

‘Are you serious?’ I said. ‘I haven’t owned an iron for more than 15 years and I prefer to wear my shirts out’.

‘What about your girlfriend or wife?’ she said.

‘She is even more scruffy than I am,’ I said. ‘Crumpled shirts, old and torn clothes hanging out, hair messy … a grungy look, we call it’.

This was the moment for genuine consternation. How in the world could a woman not be concerned with creases, crumples, and tucked in clothes?

But that was not the real issue.

‘Anyone who looks at you does not think about whether you can take out the creases in your crumpled clothes’, she said. ‘They immediately think your girlfriend must not really care for you. They will think badly of her’.

‘It has got nothing to do with anyone else’, I said. ‘I prefer not to worry about these things’.

‘And your shoes’, she said.

‘What about my shoes?’ I asked.

‘They are muddy’, she said.

‘Well, yes,’ I said. ‘I have been hiking a couple of days ago, so they have some mud left on them’.

‘Your girlfriend really doesn’t care about you!’

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On Visiting a Museum to the ‘Victims’ of Communism

I had come to Transylvania for the last time, for life was calling me to other realms. Part of this visit entailed a return to one of the museums nearby dedicated to the ‘victims’ of communism. I had been taken here some years before, so this was my second visit.

The museum is located in a former prison that had once been a monastery. It is laid out in white paint, with pictures, cells, sculptures, and a distinct story, concerning both the master narrative of the evils of communism and various micro-narratives that are meant to fit within the larger whole. One may spend a few minutes or a few hours perusing the neat and well-designed display. Who could not be swayed by such a depiction, of the misery experienced by those who had simply, for the sake of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, opposed the communist ‘regime’ in Romania?

On the first occasion, I was somewhat confronted by it all, wondering whether such treatment of enemies of the state, aided and abetted by foreign powers, should have so. Did it not breed more resentment and resistance? Would it not have been wiser to follow a gentler, but no less firm path?

However, on the first occasion I had noticed a few anomalies in the smooth narrative. To begin with, those who had actually died in the prison were of reasonably advanced age, between their late sixties and into their eighties. Reading between the lines, one gained a sense that they had died of natural causes. And I could not help notice that there was a reasonable number of former politicians (from before 1947), military leaders and church figures. Common people, such as workers and farmers, were distinctly under-represented. How to make sense of all this?

Not until the second visit some five years later did the pieces begin to fall into place. Four features stood out in stark relief. To begin with, the museum is clearly modelled on the style of a Holocaust Museum, with portrait walls of those imprisoned, brief biographies, copies of hand-written materials, and individual cell experiences. One could stand before a touch-screen and select an individual from the picture and read very briefly about his or her experiences. One could go outside and pause for thought among the sculptures and trees of the remembrance garden. One could be brought up-to-date on the destruction of cultural artefacts (actually, only a cathedral) by the communists. Indeed, one could enter one cell and find a display of communist-era activities, such as newspapers, posters, young pioneer clothes and so on.

The intended effect was what might be called the reductio ad Hitlerum. This became clear when I overheard a discussion outside the museum. Three foreign visitors had just emerged from viewing the display, and one of them commented that it reminded him of Nazi Germany and the museums they had visited there. Another observed that they should go and see the graveyard where the victims had been executed and buried. In other words, the communist ‘regime’ was no different from the fascists.

As I stood by, I recalled the many names I had encountered inside, names of those who were released after two, three or five years. Indeed, the majority of those imprisoned had been released at some time (unless they died of age or illness). It was difficult to see how they could also have been executed and buried. Yet, this is part of the reductio ad Hitlerum, in which the fundamental difference between fascist concentration camps and communist prisons is conveniently glossed over. For the fascists, the camp was the first step to death for the majority of those who were irredeemable, whether for political (communist) or racial reasons (Jews and gypsies). For the communists, imprisonment was for the purpose of re-education and rehabilitation. No matter how much the process may have failed to live up to this motivation, it was reflected in the way many were released.

Perhaps more telling was the way fascism itself was airbrushed out of the representations and narrative. For example, the communist revolution in Romania encountered significant opposition from fascist forces, especially in the southeast near Bucharest. Romanian troops had fought with the Wehrmacht on the eastern front, many generals felt at home among the Nazis, as did politicians during the second world war. Yet all of these simply became the part of the ‘resistance’ to communism, a resistance that was recast as a desire for ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’. After all, fascists do make the best anti-communists.

And this brings me back to the former detainees of this monastery-cum-prison. Most, although not all, were what would count as the old ruling class: ancient nobles, landlords, political leaders, generals, priests, and bourgeoisie. They would have been pointedly disgruntled at losing their assumed power under the barbarian workers and common people. Indeed, the period of communism was too short in Romania, and the communists made too many mistakes – such as prisons like this – in their attempt to overcome entrenched assumptions about class privilege. In many respects, this old ruling class is now back in power in Romania, feeling the world is once again as it should be, that Romanian society is ordered for their benefit. And they are the ones who tell the story and build museums like this one.

A Journey of Rediscovery

It began as a delayed mutual promise: to travel around much of Australia by rail. Often we had put the journey off, due to commitments, time pressures and responsibilities. In the end, some years ago, we simply decided to go, frazzled and pressured as we were.

The journey would take us northwards from Adelaide, two days on the Ghan train to Darwin. A car was needed for the next leg, almost 2000 kilometres through the Gulf Country, heading eastward to Mt Isa in far north Queensland. Another train would take us a further 1000 kilometres to the coast, and then we would wind our way some 3000 km southwards on a couple more trains, down the coast to home. It was to be a 9000 kilometre journey in all.

We began wearily, with long months of disrupted sleep behind us and expectations from work weighing upon us, all of it symbolised by the creaking burden of books in our packs. Initially, on the Ghan we plunged into our books and opened our computers to get some headway on the many tasks we hoped to complete on our way. Gradually, we turned less to the books and the computers began to be lie dormant for longer periods. I pulled out my camera and spent long hours walking the train and standing at windows, testing the capabilities of the camera. She slept much and gazed out the window, an open book lying on her lap unread.

In Alice Springs, Katherine Gorge and Darwin we simply walked all day. Still our talk was around projects, plans, grant funds, writing tasks and ways around problems at work. We went over difficult conflicts and frustrated projects, looking for new ways to achieve them.

The talk continued in the car we rented for the next few days. We intended to belt along the main road and get to Mt Isa as soon as possible. Soon enough a turn beckoned, into Arnhem Land and Kakadu National Park. Our talk turned to other matters, of life and death and love and the endless, endless land. We stayed a night in a remote community or two, struggling to find accommodation. Until we happened upon an extraordinary road.

Named innocuously the Tableland Highway, it was barely a ribbon of undulating and wavy asphalt across vast spaces and beneath infinite skies. Water was scarce on the way, marked by the regular wind pumps of yesteryear. Now we fell silent as we were absorbed by the land. Occasionally, a native animal would pass our way, especially as dusk drew near. We stopped regularly to soak it all in, simply standing and looking out, aware that we were possibly the only human beings as far as our eyes could see.

On every roll in the road, I felt as though I left behind one more expectation, one more pressure, one more plan, one more struggle. Into the sky and the open plains went my sense of self-importance. I had begun against my best intentions to believe in the hype and to throw my weight around, feeling that I had the gravitas to do so and thereby change the world around me. As the road unwound through the vastness, that whole sense was simply taken away, little by little. By the end of that road, as we drove into Mt Isa, I had rediscovered myself.

I did not realise it at the time. In Mt Isa, I slept deep and long for the first time in months. The sleep would continue all the way home. Her process was more gradual, for she was processing much about identity apart from her work. She spent the 28 hours on the amazing Innlander train, from Mt Isa to Townsville, looking out the window and snoozing. I found this rail journey one of the most fascinating I have done for a long time. I absorbed everything around, thrilled by the experience. The train played only part of the role, for it was the rediscovery of myself now expressing itself.

By the time we left Cairns a few days later (after a short bus ride north from Townsville), we realised what we needed to do. The train helped, with its rail-bed sleepers on the run south to Brisbane. She would disconnect from what frustrated her at work, pursuing her passions in new areas, wherever that took her and wherever that might be in the world. I would resign from the many editorial boards, networks and leadership roles, disconnecting from the identity that had been forced upon me. I too would recover my passions and pursue them, anticipating the opportunity to join her wherever she went.

The return home, after the day-time XPT train from Brisbane, saw an immediate manifestation of all that we had experienced. We had a massive purge of books, thousands of them. Books we would never use again, crap books we had kept, and anything deemed fit to go. Our home opened up and we felt we could breathe again. The resignations and disconnections took another day. We were full of enthusiasm, freed, passionate and rested. The summer that followed was long, quiet and simply glorious. It was perhaps the most important journey we have undertaken for quite some time.

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The Strange Tea of Rijeka

Perhaps it was the tea, strangely coloured, with an unknown spice that evoked the ‘east’. After one sip, I paused, drew in my breath and retreated from my immediate involvement in the world. I raised my eyes after a moment and saw it in very different way: my retreat and abstraction from the world now meant that I was intensely aware of the moment, sensing all that was going on around me.

A portly middle-aged man sauntered past, with pointy shiny shoes off to do some business, whatever that might be. Two women in impossibly high heels puffed on their cigarettes and walked in the opposite direction. An older woman, with dyed red hair curled in a tight frizz, sat at the next table, smoking a long thin cigarette and sipping on her first of many coffees for the day. Her formula for keeping her slim figure was obviously one would ensure she remained so in her soon to be occupied coffin.

The tea belonged to the old square in the middle of a town called Rijeka, a forgotten place in today’s world, a place we had not imagined we would visit. But this was our time, which stretched out to infinity and yet would not be repeated.

We had not planned to spend a day in Rijeka, but our ship had arrived in the morning and our overnight train left in the evening. The ship was old but serviceable, for it was still to catch up with the emerging tourist appeal of the Dalmatian Coast of the new country of Croatia. It sported streaks of rust and a massive image of a leering Pope John Paul II. After some searching, we had boarded at the walled town of Dubrovnik further south. Many slept in open spaces and on the lounges scattered about the deck, although we had opted for a cabin at little extra cost. The food had been cooked long before and kept in a warmer for meal times – at least it meant one did not have to wait longer than 60 seconds for the meal to appear on the table. Two days later, at first light, we arrived in the port of Rijeka, with its old fishing boats and a few cargo ships.

The town had not always been forgotten, since for long had it been at a cultural crossroads. First settlements were by Celts and Liburnians, well before the ancient Greeks took notice in the fourth century BCE. Since then, the place has been the site of fierce struggles, given its deep-water port and strategic position. Romans, Italians, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Lombards, Avars, Hungarians, French, Yugoslavs and Croats have claimed the town as their own. Needless to say, it has also changed its name time and again: Tharsatica, Vitopolis or Flumen by the Romans; Terra Fluminis Sancti Viti (after dedication to St. Vitus in the 4th century CE); Sankt Veit am Pflaum by the Germans; Fiume in Italian (which was also adopted by the Hungarians); and initially Rika svetoga Vida in Croatian after Croats began to settle there in the 7th century CE. Eventually, it became simply Rijeka after it was made part of the state of Yugoslavia in the early 20th century.

Once upon a time, it may have rivalled Venice in power and wealth, especially when Frederick III, Archduke of Austria, purchased it in 1466 – the beginning of 450 years as the main port of the Habsburg Empire. But these days, after the devastation of the NATO led breakup of Yugoslavia, it is far less ostentatious. The walk up from the harbour revealed a town that had been in better condition under the communist government of Yugoslavia. Footpaths  and roads and stairs need constant maintenance by active local and national governments. The liking for cement rendering on buildings may work well when the rendering is maintained and painted. Without such attention, money and time, it soon begins to look cracked, tattered and broken.

But for us at this moment, the town had a distinct appeal. No matter how tough times may have been in the last two or three decades, no matter how ‘informal’ the economy, men and women made sure they dressed as well as they could. Not a few years before we arrived, the new state of Croatia had staked its elusive search for prosperity on tourist euros. But then the 2008 economic crisis hit, and prayers were uttered in parliament that the tourists would still come. Not so many did while we were there, so we felt as though we had the town to ourselves.

So we sat on old wicker chairs, sipping evocative tea in the town square. Our cups seemed to fill of their own accord, no matter how often we tried to empty them. Eventually, the lanes of the town beckoned and our legs needed to stretch. So we left the tea to for others to finish if they could and disappeared into a lane. Out of nowhere a Roman Arch appeared. It remained part of the house structures on either side, with it worn hand-cut stones still tightly bound overhead. I stood beneath, imagining the slaves’ hands at work on the stone, the ancient scaffolding needed to place one stone upon another until the last slid into place at the crown. The Greeks did not know the arch as an architectural feature, for the Romans had conjured it up from somewhere. For two millennia it had stood here, its original function now forgotten. How many more millennia would it hold, until the stone finally wore away?

A narrow door appeared with the word ‘Biblioteka’. Our desire to sit quietly and read drew us inside and up the stairs. Two chairs were free. The rest were filled with quiet readers. I perused the books, journals and newspapers on display. But not being able to read the new ‘language’ of Croatian (invented after the 1990s when Serbo-Croatian ceased to ‘exist’), I sat and opened one of my own books. I read little, for the tall windows drew my gaze outside and into the town.

A taste of eternity remains a taste, for we became conscious of the fact that our train would leave soon. We found the railway station but could not find the train. The station bore the dust of its former Austro-Hungarian glory, with a carefully constructed main building to give the impression of power and importance. Stone work and arched windows featured in the three stories. But it was also festooned with graffiti and rust. The tracks could barely be seen for the grass that grew around them. It was a long time since a train had run here. Were we in the right place?

Eventually a conductor appeared and we asked, having determined by now that German was the old lingua franca of these parts. He pointed to a siding in a corner we had missed. There sat a new train run by Deutschebahn. This was our train and this was our sleeper for the journey north, taking us eventually to Copenhagen.

We boarded and immediately knew we had at that moment left Rijeka, with its past and present, not quite sure now if it is part of Italy, Austria, Yugoslavia or Croatia.