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Two Weeks in Beijing

May 12, 2013

Beijing – as I just learned first-hand on a two-week vacation there – is an amazing city. The nominally Communist government is hell-bent to remake China as a technologically modern country, and I would judge that effort to be a huge, albeit as-yet-incomplete success.

The Beijing skyline is studded with stunning, hyper-modern architecture. In fact, one of the more common complaints you hear about Beijing is that traditional neighborhoods, called “hutongs,” have been razed on a massive scale to make room for new office buildings, apartment buildings, hotels, and other construction.

As a New York City mass transit veteran, I was especially impressed by Beijing’s subways. New York’s first subway line opened in 1904. Much of today’s subway system still runs on century-old infrastructure. The height and width of subway cars are strictly constrained by unforgiving tunnel clearances, and many subway platforms are narrow and uncomfortably crowded. The system was built when New York was a much smaller city – as late as 1950, there were hundreds of working farms within city limits. Areas that were sparsely populated when the subways were built are now dense high-rise urban neighborhoods.

To make matters worse, much of Manhattan sits on top of very shallow bedrock, making tunnel construction extremely expensive and extremely slow. Finally, the original NYC subway was largely built by three competing private companies, who did not build to common standards and specifications, making the now-integrated system a joy of jerry-rigging.

By contrast, the first Beijing subway line opened in 1969, and 15 of the system’s current 17 lines opened after 2002. Because the construction was so recent – and because Beijing doesn’t sit on a mass of Manhattan schist – the Beijing subway tunnels and platforms are spacious. Because the system was planned by a single authority, the stations and the trains have a high degree of standardization. And because the system was built by a government that didn’t care about making a profit, it was built to handle considerable growth in passenger load.

Most of the Beijing system was built in today’s digital age, so it was presumably easy and relatively cheap to build the system to today’s standards. The stations all have modern, efficient elevators and escalators. The system is plastered with digital advertising, including displays on some of the tunnel walls that operate like movies for passengers speeding by in trains. Every tunnel, and almost every passenger area, is wired for cell phone use – a New Yorker’s nightmare that works reasonably well in comparatively soft-spoken Beijing.

But for all its super-modern construction, supported by the Chinese national budget and a disciplined and determined national government unfettered by democratic checks and balances, Beijing remains a nineteenth century city is some very important respects. Air pollution in Beijing is notorious. Food safety is very pre-Upton Sinclair, pre-The Jungle. Just while I was there, scandals broke about large scale adulteration of mutton, pork, and infant formula. And the water is not safe to drink – even in my fairly ritzy hotel (I saved a bundle on hotels.com), the room came with a daily supply of bottled water.

So in today’s Beijing, you can make a cell phone call from the subway, but you can’t drink the water.

Ironically, by contrast, in capitalist America we built our first subways by private enterprise, but we solved our air, water and food safety problems with government regulation. Even more ironically in today’s age of Republican hostility to almost any government action, both the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency were created under Republican administrations (Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon).

Beijing is a palpably youthful city. Even 34 years into China’s one-child policy, Beijing teems with children, teens and young adults. They are distinguishable from their elders not just by their age, but also by their t-shirts and sneakers, their knowledge of English, their dyed hair and pierced ears, and their dental care. Physically, they are an expressive, almost exuberant lot. Intellectually, one suspects otherwise.

I didn’t immediately realize why I couldn’t access the New York Times Web site on my laptop on the hotel’s free high-speed wifi connection. Government censorship is sufficiently outside my American experience that it didn’t occur to me right away. Then I started noticing other Web censorship: a Bing search for “gay bars in Beijing” produced an advisory that the Chinese government disallowed searches that might produce “adult” content. I went to Wikipedia to check up on the progress of same-sex marriage legislation in Delaware and Minnesota – same result, same reason.

I saw an excerpt on CNN International of Abdul Karim Hamdan’s powerful performance on Arab Idol of a haunting lament for Syria, and I tried to go to You Tube to watch the whole thing. But the Chinese government doesn’t allow access to You Tube. I tried to check my blog, but the Chinese government doesn’t allow access to Word Press – or most other blogging sites.

In the coming years, I fully expect that China will solve its air pollution problems, its water purity problems, its food safety problems, its traffic congestion problems, and lots of its other problems. Solving those problems requires only clarity of purpose and government regulation.

The solution to China’s free speech problem is likely to prove more difficult.

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