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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Why Do We Have to Leave? A Little Boy in Canada

‘Why do we have to leave, dad?’ He said to me as fired the ball into the net with an ice hockey stick.

He was playing street hockey with his friends on this last summer in Montreal, as he had done the summer before and the summer before that. Soon after an early breakfast they – he and his brother and other boys and girls – would be out on a street that was more for people than for cars. The hockey would go on for hours, and in the breaks they would roam the park across the street for tossed-aside bottles, take them up to the depanneur on the corner and buy a ‘Mr Freezy’ – a long cold piece of red or green or blue or yellow ice, full of those dreadful colours and tastes that kids love because they are bad for you. Or they would go to someone’s place for a toilet stop or lunch or dinner. Or perhaps they would venture a great distance, perhaps a street or two away, seeking some mythical treasure. The adults of course knew them all, and kept a quiet eye on them. Not a difficult task, for most of the adults sat out on their balconies in the summer heat, vainly seeking relief and wondering how the kids kept up their energy levels all day … and almost all night: for they would play on after dinner until the light faded. Reluctantly, after repeated calls from parents, they returned home, for a quick wash and then bed, before beginning the whole process again the next day.

—–

‘Why do we have to leave?’ He asked me again, with a pure Canadian accent.

When we arrived he had an Australian accent. But he was at that age – four – when you can gain a new accent without a trace of the old. And the change marked his own sense of home, for at his age he could not remember Australia. Canada, or rather Quebec, was home. He had his friends, loved the winters and summers, mixed his English in with French exclamations and phrases, and couldn’t imagine another life.

Yet he was the same little boy. He saw opportunities to test out the world around him, opportunities that passed others by. So, having noticed that one put air into a car tyre through the valve, he reasoned that air must also come out by the same mechanism. Out on the street, with a glance around to make sure no-one was looking, he bent down by a car in the front of our place. Valve cap off; stick small finger in valve; hear air hissing out with its rubber smell. A neighbour quietly sitting on his balcony wondered and smiled to himself – and told me later with a laugh.

And he did everything at full throttle, with a full zest for life. When alighting from the yellow school, he would toss his bag out on the snow first and then leap down. Then he would tear off home, through the park.

‘Don’t run so fast’, I would call after him. ‘You’ll fall’.

‘No I won’t’, he would yell back.

Of course he did, and I would have to pick him up.

Or in the first full Montreal summer, he was given a bicycle for his birthday. He pedalled around for a little, gaining his balance and working out how the bicycle functioned. Then he was off, noticing quickly that on a downhill run the bicycle went much faster. The longer the slope the better – especially the one that ends on a road. Setting off from the top of the hill, he spun a few times and then took his feet off the pedals. He dropped like a stone, in a way that would make a professional cyclist green with envy. I suddenly had images of him careening out of control onto the road, so I ran after him, calling out in alarm. Just as my hand was about to grab him from behind, he simply veered off the path at the last minute and fell down in the grass.

Frightened and angry, I said, ‘Don’t do that again! You’ll run into a car. You’ve got your feet up and don’t have control of your brakes!’

‘It’s fine, dad,’ he said. ‘I knew I could fall off on the grass first’.

He still lives that way, although with age and a little more wisdom, he realises that one has at least some limits.

—-

‘Why do we have to leave, dad?’ He said again.

We had arrived a little more than three years earlier. Three deep winters, heavy with snow and endless hours skating and sledding in the park across the road; three springs in the riot of life and fecundity; three hot summers of 20-hour days; three autumns of the deep yellows and reds of maples preparing for the cold to come. Enough time for the local accent to sound normal, enough time to explore a city, a province, a country (we travelled to its eastward, westward and northern parts), enough time to settle in and feel at home.

He had turned seven in the last summer, and already wanted to stay the rest of his life. His father was a little bit older (30), but he too deeply wanted to stay.

Of course, you can only feel that way, only appreciate a place with such intensity, precisely because you know you are leaving.