I just returned from an 8-day trip to Beijing. I haven't been to China in almost exactly three years and Beijing specifically in eight. China's effort to spiff up Beijing for the Olympics has been well reported but still I was unprepared for the great leapt in general quality of life of Beijing today.
These are things I usually think of when I think about life in China: Bicycles, squatters, line cutters, phlegm, dirty bills, gray polluted skies, garish architecture. These are the truths about China today, you can choose to overlook them and focus on the positives, but it doesn't mean they don't exist. Sure, you can still find all that in Beijing today but they are nearly all gone. In their place are blue skies, stunning architecture and a flourishing art scene.
First of all, it's surprising not to see many bicycles around. This is China! where bicyles are the mode of transportation. It's like Taiwan without the scooters. Inconceivable. But there it was, roads absolutely clogged with cars, but not so many bicycles. I knew Beijingers are hot for the automobile but I was not expecting to see so few bicycles on the roads.
Another change which I was not expecting to see is that there were no longer people squatting on the ground everywhere. People actually just stand around instead of squatting on the ground.
Other things that used to drive me crazy about the mainland are markedly improved. There are still line cutters, but not nearly as many. It used to be nobody (or at least it felt that way) waited on lines, it was a mad scrum to buy anything or to enter anywhere. Now, the majority of people wait in line.
There are still people hocking up phlegm, but not nearly as many. You can go for hours without hearing it once.
Most of these points seem directly related with Beijing government's removal of migrant workers from the city. Now that I think about it, big city folk probably never really squatted or spat that much to begin with. It was always the poor, uneducated migrant workers bringing down the overall social climate of the cities.
The money is not as dirty and worn as before. I come across crisp new bills all the time. I didn't notice a lot of wallet usage and new bills get immediately crumpled up in pockets so it's quite a battle the Chinese government has to fight to keep the money in circulation not looking like the moist, soft, tattered bills I used to come across all the time in China.
And out of the 8 days I was in Beijing, a shocking 5 of them had blue skies. Granted, it's not blue like a Vancouver summer day blue. Even on a clear day you can see some light haze in the horizon, but it's not the complete gray that used to blanket the city.for days on end. The drastic measures of temporarily shutting down factories and limiting trucks on the roads have already made an impact. When they start limiting cars starting on the 20th (even number plates one day, odd the next), it can only get better.
Even the simplified Chinese characters, which used to bother me, look good to me now. I guess it was always the crappy typeface they typeset everything in that offended me, not the actual simplification. Now that Beijing and China has progressed to a point where good graphic design is employed, I'm actually beginning to like simplified Chinese characters. With their clean, simple lines, the simplified characters are very modern, in the sense of the art and architecture movement. All of a sudden traditional characters look fussy and dated.
Some things haven't changed, like the sully and indifferent service you get everywhere, from government workers on down to store employees. It's like a country full of people who openly hate their jobs. You tend to get very unfriendly, curt, and, most of the time, completely unhelpful answers to any questions you might have. Asking a Chinese a question appears to cause them great inconvenience.
Oh, and the food is still too salty.
And too bad they can't do anything about the traffic, which is as bad as everyone says it is. The ring roads, which are the major traffic arteries of Beijing, are in constant gridlock.
Most of these progress probably won't last much beyond the Olympics. Once the migrant workers return and the ever increasing cars and trucks go back to jamming the roads, the overall quality of life will likely go back to before. The Chinese government could always unilaterally decide they like their capital city to remain spiff and shine, however. In that case, perhaps this new Beijing will not be only temporary.
See my Beijing (July 2008) set on Flickr for photos and more thoughts on and reactions to the "new" Beijing.