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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."