Beijing Forever

In China's pulsing capital, change is the only constant.

For an exclusive interview with Ai Weiwei, click here. 

Beijing, as most Chinese know it, was a neglected relic after the Japanese occupation of World War II and the Chinese Civil War. In 1949, when the victorious communists moved the capital back there from Nanjing, it was a bankrupt town of 1.4 million people; almost nothing of any consequence was made or manufactured there. But the path to the shining communist future lay through industry, at least according to the Soviets, who had already put a quarter of Muscovites to work in new factories, and from the rostrum in Tiananmen Square, Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong called for an "ocean of smokestacks" to rise over Beijing's traditional skyline of one-story courtyards.

And rise they did. From 1955, when Soviet advisors arrived to reshape the capital into an industrial base, to the early 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping's market reforms took hold, Beijing was home to 149 of China's 164 types of industry. Fourteen thousand smokestacks punctuated the skyline, proclaiming the city as the country's largest petrochemical base; the leading producer of rubber products, plastic, and refrigerators; second in pig iron and washing machines; third in power generators, wool cloth, cars, and color televisions; fourth in internal combustion engines; and fifth in sewing machines and beer.

Deng authorized the creation of a private housing market in 1980, and as China's economy shifted from planned to market, so did Beijing's. Among all Chinese cities, finance accounts for the highest percentage of GDP here (13.8 percent in 2010), as the service (and, increasingly, high-tech) sector now makes up nearly three-quarters of Beijing's revenue. It trails only Tokyo in the number of Fortune Global 500 companies that call it home.

A saying from the time of the planned economy held that it was best to move to Beijing "because that's where Mao lives," making it the vanguard of, well, everything. These days, thousands still come each year, migrating to cash in on, or physically construct, the boom. The population, which spiked after Beijing was reinstated as the capital, continues to expand -- up nearly 20 percent in the past five years alone, pushing the city outward to a series of six concentric beltways ("ring roads") and giving it the appearance, locals say, of a blob of spreading pancake batter.

Spend some time on the griddle, amid the traffic, dust storms, and inefficiencies, and it's obvious why Beijingers are renowned for their creative vulgarities -- and also, given its disparate district governments, why the city seems to be competing against itself by building two business districts, multiple pedestrian "ancient" shopping streets, and 38 golf courses. But despite its enormous geographic size -- at 6,000 square miles, Beijing is larger than the U.S. state of Connecticut -- the city's official population of some 20 million is mostly crammed into a core that gives it a population density twice that of New York, its sister city to which it's often compared.

Like New York, Beijing flaunts itself as a national cultural center; also like New York, the city's history is one of unending dynamism. In Beijing, the cycle has churned for nearly nine centuries, as the city passed through the hands of Mongol, Chinese, and Manchu dynasties, republicans, warlords, Japanese occupiers, and communist liberators, and saw several name changes, including "Peking," abandoned in 1975 when a new system of Romanizing Chinese was introduced. Many Beijingers are quick to boast that their city's history stretches back half a million years to the time of Homo erectus, whose remains were found in the area beginning in 1921 -- Peking Man. Typically for a city in constant change, his bones have gone missing, and a museum displaying the capital's Paleolithic era sits in the basement of a glitzy mall downtown, where a guide bubbles, "Even 25,000 years ago, people liked shopping here!"

Her enthusiasm is contagious. For a generation born after the bloody end to the protests in the city's vast Tiananmen Square, Beijing is the center of the universe: government, media, education, the arts, transportation. Even Mandarin, China's official language, has its roots in the region (though Beijingers, stubborn as New Yorkers, proudly slurp their sentences in a soupy, r-laden dialect). China's clocks are set to Beijing time. Since its inception, the place has been a magnet for migrants, merchants, scholars, and explorers, including Marco Polo, who, in the 13th century, marveled that "the whole interior of the city is laid out in squares like a chessboard with such masterly precision that no description can do justice to it."

Remnants of the board remain in Beijing's Old City, whose 25 square miles are roughly on par with Manhattan and where the narrow lanes called hutong still stand, lined by gray-walled, single-story courtyard homes whose tiled roofs need weeding. For centuries the hutong characterized the city's culture; the capital's rigid grid still has locals saying turn north, south, east, and west instead of left and right, even though today fewer than one-eighth of the lanes remain.

But Beijing the city is often overlooked and overwhelmed by Beijing the capital; after all, it has been the seat of national power for all but a handful of the past thousand years. Hence the architectural marvels, the engineering feats, the set-piece extravaganzas like the 2008 Olympics.

Yet for all that, Beijing is not quite a city as Westerners understand it. In 1962, a visiting journalist dubbed the place "the biggest village ever," and for locals -- despite having the world's second-busiest airport, nearly 100 Starbucks, and a new subway system that, at last, covers more than the city's core -- it feels that way still. Beijingers still identify themselves by the district or lane where they grew up. Those roots run deep, the way they do in other global villages.

Beijing's most ubiquitous beverage is a beer named Yanjing ("Swallow Capital," from an ancient city name). It's made in town at a brewery owned partly by the municipal government, long reliant on ex-cons to deliver the green 20-ounce bottles on flatbed bicycles as a form of work rehabilitation. The city's most popular daily tabloid -- the Evening News, circulation 1.2 million -- reads like the sort of small-town American paper that runs the drunk-driving arrests and fishing forecast. Sold from newsstands and by roving carriers who bellow its name over the drone of pet pigeons released for their afternoon laps, the Evening News gives the day's date according to the lunar calendar, tells you if tomorrow's weather will be suitable for washing clothes or airing out the house, and runs graphic photos of suicides, knife attacks, heists, and missing people (and, increasingly common, dogs) in between advertising inserts for weight-loss clinics and virility supplements that allow you to "reach fulfillment every time." It even once mistakenly ran an item from the American satirical newspaper the Onion, reporting that members of the U.S. Congress had demanded a new Capitol with a retractable roof, more concession stands, and expanded parking. In its correction, the Evening News wrote, "Some small American newspapers frequently fabricate offbeat news to trick people into noticing them, with the aim of making money."

Unlike London, Paris, and Tokyo, Beijing the capital no longer strives to be everything at once, as it did in Mao's time. Banks may have their headquarters here, but Shanghai and Shenzhen have the stock markets, and Hong Kong remains the window to international finance. The most famous universities call Beijing home, but their equals exist in Shanghai, Guangzhou, and, increasingly, second-tier cities like Wuhan. Gone are the smokestacks; manufacturing and mines were shuttered or moved to surrounding Hebei province in the run-up to the Olympics -- an anti-pollution measure whose effectiveness is eroded by the ever rising tide of automobiles on the capital's gridlocked streets.

Even as a cultural capital, Beijing falls short. Travelers in China will note that in terms of popularity, Beijing's cuisine takes a back seat to Chengdu's spicy Sichuan fare and Harbin's dumplings. Chinese identify Dalian and Suzhou as the home of fashion and beauty, and coastal Qingdao and Xiamen as the best environments in which to live. The best modern novels and films aren't set here -- the city's most famous work of fiction details the life of a 1930s rickshaw puller that ends so devastatingly that the American translator changed its ending to a happy one without telling the author. And Beijing's best contemporary film, Zhang Yimou's Keep Cool, was pulled from its screening at the Cannes film festival by Chinese censors; Zhang was given no explanation, he says. He would go on to direct the Olympics' opening ceremony at the Bird's Nest stadium, designed in part by Beijing artist Ai Weiwei, who has never been inside, dismissing it as "propaganda."

And yet: It's Beijing. First a capital in ancient times, it's home to the still-serene Temple of Heaven, to gated villa communities named Upper East Side and Merlin Champagne Town, to the world's largest duck restaurant, to a chain of lakes at the city's heart lined with cacophonous bars and quiet cafes, to the hub of high-speed trains linking the country, and to migrants who make up an estimated 40 percent of its workforce, building high-rises behind billboards that say, "One pinch of soil is one pinch of gold."

Unlike Shanghai, Beijing was not a port connecting China to the outside world. It was designed to be a seat of power, strategically located to keep the northern barbarians at bay and dampen the south's influence over the empire. (The city still feels like a garrison: In addition to the 165 embassies, plus the municipal, district, and neighborhood government offices, all the country's national ministries and Communist Party branches are headquartered here, along with the largest of China's seven military regions -- an estimated 300,000 soldiers charged with defending the capital, as well as the country's borders with Mongolia and Russia.) Shanghai has more people and a larger economy; for all its growth, Beijing's GDP lags behind Moscow's and Sao Paulo's. Shanghai even has claim to "redder" roots, as the site of the meeting, in 1921, of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.

But Shanghai was not the land of dragons, as legend holds Beijing was, nor was it designed to resemble the shape of the prince who subdued the Dragon King after fighting him nine times a day for nine days. Shanghai was not once named the Swallow Capital, as Beijing was, nor was it the seat of Kublai Khan. Shanghai never had a magnificent palace, never mind one built when Versailles was a mere shooting lodge, and it was not the place where Manchu rulers built pleasure gardens and temples and mosques and cathedrals to showcase their empire. Nor did Shanghai see a battalion of Soviet engineers and architects arrive to erase the city's feudal features and redraw them as a worker's paradise, or reverse course again and tear down the smokestacks, rebuild portions of the city's wall, and restore imperial-era parks.

For the last decade, Beijing the village has globalized, as capitals of rising countries do. Across Tiananmen Square, 72 miles from the Great Wall that marks the city's far border, that change looks like this: an optimistic banner I saw a few years ago, draped over a building's rubble, that read:

(The ancient capital reappears.) 

At least it did, until one night, when an anonymous hand neatly excised part of the second character, so that the slogan became:

(Farewell, ancient capital.) 

Passers-by note that both slogans hold true; Beijing is once again looping through an 800-year cycle of rebuilding and renewal. The altered sign was pulled down within hours, but no matter: Beijingers don't need to read it. They see it every day.

Jonathan Browning


The Rise and Fall and Rise of New Shanghai

Is history repeating itself in China's glittering global city?

See more photos of Shanghai when it was Asia's Vegas here.

The members of the Harvard Medical School Class of '08 were exceedingly ambitious -- even by Harvard standards. Not content merely to graduate from America's top med school, a small group of them set out to found an entirely new campus of their alma mater abroad. As they looked out across a world knit together by instant communications and intercontinental travel whose center of gravity was shifting to the rising Pacific Rim, there could be only one choice: Shanghai. China's financial hub and international gateway seemed destined to blossom into the leading global city of the new century. The get-rich-quick schemer's paradise that had grabbed the world's attention as an Asian El Dorado now had its sights set on becoming a cultured and cosmopolitan Paris of the East.

The year was 1909, and it took more than three weeks by ship for the Harvard doctors to cross the Pacific and make it to Shanghai. But already the city they encountered, with its Scottish opium traders, Jewish real estate magnates, Sikh police officers, Cantonese merchant princes, and pidgin-English lingua franca, was the most open metropolis the world had ever seen. Neither passport nor visa was required for entry. An introduction to the city authored in the 1920s by an American expat gushed about its worldliness: "When a traveller arrives in Shanghai to-day he is struck by the fact that to all intents and purposes he might be in a large European city [on account of the] tall buildings, the well paved streets, the large hotels and clubs, the parks and bridges, the stream of automobiles, the trams and buses, the numerous foreign shops, and, at night, the brilliant electric lighting -- all are things he is accustomed to."

But for all that, this Shanghai was a place of danger as well as opportunity: The rebellious political life it cultivated would topple China's emperors just months after the young doctors' arrival. Their own venture collapsed just a few years after its launch.

The cosmopolitan Shanghai that lured them there had been born decades earlier when, in the 1840s, the rising Western powers forced the Chinese emperor to accept the first of the "unequal treaties." Within the city limits, foreigners were exempt from Chinese law; legally it was as if they'd never left home. Soon the peculiar legal principle of "extraterritoriality" became a physical reality as Britain, France, and the United States carved out concessions from the open land surrounding Shanghai's centuries-old walled city, then a regional hub of some 200,000 people in the fertile Yangtze River delta. The settlements the foreigners built starting in 1845 looked like their home countries in miniature. The French Concession became famous for its beautiful tree-lined streets and elegant cafes, the British for its sumptuous private clubs, and the American for the bustling commerce along its main thoroughfare, Broadway. Just a decade after its creation, foreign-dominated Shanghai was China's leading international port, displacing Canton on the Pearl River. Within two decades, Shanghai was the fastest-growing city on the planet.

But for its Chinese majority, the boomtown was a deeply demeaning place to live. In the foreign concessions, Chinese, who typically worked as manual laborers (called "coolies" in pidgin English, from the Chinese kwei-li meaning "bitter strength"), were demoted to second-class citizens. Jim Crow-style segregation laws passed by the all-white Shanghai Municipal Council banned locals (and dogs) from the city's public parks. Even white-collar Chinese working for leading Western firms were forced to use Chinese-only bathrooms. For all the city's dynamism -- a dynamism to which the Chinese elite, founding their own companies and forging their own modern culture, increasingly contributed by the early 20th century -- conditions proved so humiliating that the locals ultimately formed the Chinese Communist Party, which later closed not only Shanghai but all of China to foreigners for decades.

Today, that same Communist Party, founded in Shanghai's French Concession in 1921, is guiding the city's re-engagement with the wider world, hoping to prove that Chinese-run Shanghai can be bigger, better, and more globally important than the city ever was under Western domination. Mindful of the city's complicated history, the authorities have been trying to let it breathe economically while stifling the cultural, intellectual, and political openness that made the metropolis so vibrant -- and unruly -- a century ago. But they are all too conscious of what happens when you lift the lid on Pandora's box: The hubris of the first global Shanghai took down an entire country.

That happened after Shanghai had already been open to the world for 100 years. By contrast, Shanghai's current re-engagement is still young. Lobbied hard by Shanghai Mayor Zhu Rongji and impressed by his iron-fist-in-velvet-glove management during the Tiananmen Square crisis, paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in 1990 authorized redevelopment of the city. On a visit to the city two years later, he doubled down on the project, anointing Shanghai the "Head of the Dragon," China's leading city, and supposedly uttering the exhortation "faster, faster" as he crossed a bridge between the old foreign concessions and the new downtown rising on the opposite bank of the river.

Almost overnight, the metropolis, mothballed since its 1949 "liberation," took on a momentum reminiscent of its pre-communist heyday. Having expropriated the city's land under Mao Zedong as part of the communist abolition of private property, the local authorities leased it out to real estate developers in the 1990s, raising tremendous sums for infrastructure improvements. With its newfound billions, the municipality soon built the world's greatest civic infrastructure, including a brand-new international airport linked to downtown by magnetic-levitation train, a new subway system larger than that of New York or London, and a tangle of bridges and tunnels connecting the historic center of Shanghai in the former foreign concessions to the new financial center of Pudong rising across the river.

Shanghai residents whose homes stood in the way of this government-backed progress were forcibly moved. More than a million families were evicted and rehoused in the effort to resurrect Shanghai as an international business hub. Dismissed as a white elephant or even a delusional throwback to discredited Soviet-style central planning, the reopened Shanghai was soon birthing fortunes in real estate and finance and luring top global companies, including many, like HSBC and Citibank, that had dominated the city's economy 100 years earlier. Late-1990s Mayor Xu Kuangdi's oft-mocked remark that he was purposefully overbuilding Shanghai like a savvy parent who buys an oversized suit for his growing boy came to sound prophetic. The city's stunning growth vindicated its Communist Party planners, but it also threatened to spin beyond their control.

Pudong, the sparkling new glass-and-steel downtown that Deng had exhorted to rise faster, soon dwarfed the 1920s Art Deco edifices of the foreign-built Bund directly across the river. Known for the flashiness befitting a city that went from rags to riches in just two decades, the most eye-catching of the new skyscrapers is clad in an enormous LED screen illuminated at night. Like a giant television set over a bar, it's almost impossible to look away -- regardless of what's on. One expatriate European architect compared the mismatched towers of Pudong to women's outfits at the opera, where standing out and being noticed are more important than looking tasteful or, even, good. In the opinion of one American architecture critic, the point is size, not style: "Pudong's priapic towers literally overshadow the relics on the other shore, as if lifting a collective middle finger to the West."

Beyond the city's physical structure, economic and social policies were put in place to ensure the reglobalized Shanghai would not host a repeat of the city's dynamic but demeaning -- and ultimately revolutionary -- past. In stark contrast to the days of open immigration, when neither visa nor passport was required for entry, foreign visitors and expatriates are closely monitored. They make up just 1 percent of Shanghai's population today, a far cry from unregulated, polyglot Old Shanghai, let alone today's more typical global business hubs. (New York, for example, is 37 percent foreign-born.) Rather than import millions of foreign experts to help run Shanghai's global businesses, the authorities have goosed the number of Anglophone Chinese professionals in the city by treating the municipality as if it were an elite college with a competitive admissions process: Hinterland Chinese can obtain a Shanghai residence permit by earning a degree from a national-level university and passing tests in computer literacy and English fluency.

Less-educated Chinese hoping to work in Shanghai are on a much tighter leash. Cognizant that it was the discontented proletarian masses of Shanghai who turned communist and rose up to overthrow Shanghai 1.0, today's authorities use the hukou registration system, the internal passport regime in place since the late 1950s that officially binds Chinese citizens to their hometowns, to control the new coolies building the city's muscular skyline. Rural Chinese are brought in by the millions to work in construction, only to be sent back to the countryside after their job is done. According to an official government estimate, widely regarded as a lowball figure, roughly 6 million of Shanghai's nearly 19 million people are internal guest workers. Although they often overstay their official welcome (precise numbers are never reported), ID checks and domestic immigration sweeps are common, especially before high-profile international events like the 2010 World Expo. Such humiliations breed tensions between the city's ragged, leather-skinned migrant workers and its privileged official residents marked by their cosmopolitan fashions and good health. (Official Shanghai residents now have a longer life expectancy than Americans, not to mention better school-test results.)

Wary of the days when Western companies like Standard Oil and British American Tobacco siphoned off their locally earned profits to New York and London, leaving most Shanghainese impoverished (life expectancy in the 1930s was just 27), regulations today push multinational companies to partner with local Chinese businesses. In Shanghai 1.0, the Pudong district was home to the notorious sweatshops of Western multinationals. But the garish towers of Shanghai 2.0 rise quite literally atop Old Shanghai's shame. The sweatshops now, of course, are on much cheaper real estate inland up the Yangtze -- and owned by locals. With China standing proud, foreigners, once resented as leeches and locusts run amok, are now seen as a pleasant reminder of the city's global cachet. Even the return of a modified extraterritoriality -- expatriates enjoy more freedom of worship and association than locals do -- has not become a source of tension. At least not yet.

Mindful that it was exposure to foreign ideas, the heady brew of liberalism and communism, as much as to foreign people that destabilized Old Shanghai, today's authorities keep a tight lid on the city's intellectual and cultural life, even by the strict standards of the People's Republic. At the turn of the last century, Chinese journalists in the foreign concessions, safely beyond the reach of the emperor's censors, launched China's freest press. And seizing on the republican principles of the Shanghai Municipal Council, local Chinese taxpayers in 1905 created their own elected city council, an unprecedented form of representative government in the empire. Needless to say, contemporary authorities have no intention of allowing freedom of the press or electoral democracy in Shanghai today. Notably, Chinese authorities tar such human rights with the pejorative term "global values" (meaning: not ours), dismissing them as irrelevant -- even to China's most proudly global city.

Even less overtly political ideas from abroad are monitored and controlled. United Artists, MGM, and Warner Bros. all had major offices in 1930s Shanghai; today only 20 foreign films a year are permitted to be screened in all of China. And for all the international flights landing at Shanghai Pudong International Airport, which opened in 1999 and already has annual passenger traffic comparable to New York's JFK, Shanghai is far less open to foreign culture now than it was back in the Roaring Twenties. In those days, top jazz musicians from New York, New Orleans, and Chicago were in residence in the city's famed nightclubs. But ever since 2008, when Björk shouted "Tibet! Tibet!" from a Shanghai stage during a performance of her song "Declare Independence," local authorities have subjected touring artists to strict scrutiny. In 2009, the nascent Shanghai Fringe Festival -- an offshoot of the low-budget, high-ambition live-arts festival that takes over Edinburgh, Scotland, each year -- was forced to move its international performances to smaller peripheral cities because, as the organizers complained, the Shanghai government had "some nonsense issues." Chinese performers find the Shanghai cultural commissars particularly meddlesome. As Zhang Shouwang, the lead singer of Beijing rock band Carsick Cars, told me after a gig on his U.S. tour, "Shanghai is more restricted than Beijing.… Once, when we played there, someone called the police. That kind of thing always happens in Shanghai."

Turning down the volume on all forms of free expression is part of a bid to build a Shanghai that is seen rather than heard. The goal is a city that imports all manner of global commodities without the dreaded "global values." For the modern rulers in stodgy Beijing, the ultimate aim of Shanghai 2.0 is a sparkling model metropolis (The fastest train in the world! More skyscrapers than Manhattan!) to vindicate the top-down system that built it.

As one top reform-era Politburo member explained with uncharacteristic candor, the resurrection of Shanghai is best understood as a bid to make up for the Communist Party's Maoist-era mismanagement of the city -- a record of folly that called into question the party's right to rule. "Before liberation," former Premier Zhao Ziyang wrote in his memoir, "Shanghai was a highly developed metropolis in the Asia Pacific Region, more advanced than Hong Kong, let alone Singapore or Taiwan. But after a couple of decades, Shanghai had become run-down and had fallen far behind Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan. This made people ask, What exactly is the advantage of socialism?"

Today, China's new mandarins hope that Pudong's skyline is the answer.