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Beijing. Two Worlds. Multiple Metropolises.

September 1, 2011

城市. chéng shì. city.

“If you’ve been in China for one day you feel like you can write a book.  If you’ve been in China for 6 months maybe you can write an article.  But if you’ve been here for one-year than maybe you can’t write anything.”

This is what Professor Wang Chenguang said during our Chinese Law & Society class.  It took me a second to understand the meaning of it–and he continued, “because maybe on the first day you find stories everywhere you go. The people you meet, the different things you see, in just one day.  But once you stay here longer, and get below the surface you realize that China is more complex.  That there is a lot going on.”  These words could not have come at a more timely moment, for I am now approaching that one-year mark, and this sentiment rings true.  It has meaningful implications.

For purposes of this blog I wish to portray China as it is.  And being here now certainly puts the observer in the position to do so.  Yet I do not want this blog just to be about my personal experiences, another “noodle blogger” as those at China Law Blog would label it.  So what to do?  What to reflect on without making this just another average travelogue.

Last post I wrote about some of the initial impressions I had regarding Tsinghua University, the University I am currently attending.  Having arrived about ten-days ago it was a premeditated decision to live ‘on-campus’.  I do not regret this decision, but I question whether or not it is the right choice.  Two-years ago, during my very first days in The People’s Republic I lived far outside of Beijing proper.  What is Beijing proper anyway?  The city is massive.  One musician who came here to perform last summer described Beijing as “multiple metropolises within one.”  This couldn’t be more accurate.  It’s certainly not a walking city–although walking around does have its moments, particularly while getting lost in the evaporating hutongs of this old city.

Beijing used to be a city of hutongs.  Sadly this cultural dimension of Beijing is disintegrating before our eyes to make room for modernity.  To say this is happening slowly would be inaccurate–and to say that this occurrence is limited to the municipal region of Beijing would also be to narrow.  So what is this ‘occurrence’?  Is it development…sure.  Is it destruction…sure.  How to reconcile the two? There are big themes here–socio-cultural economic  elements that demand thoughtful attention moving forward.

Yesterday, artist and government branded ‘political dissident’, Ai Weiwei, wrote a pretty abysmal article about Beijing.  He concluded this stream of consciousness expression  by saying, ” Cities really are mental conditions. Beijing is a nightmare. A constant nightmare.”  I was able to catch a very cool and rare Ai Wei Wei photography exhibition last month in New York City.  The exhibition, hosted by the Asia Society featured shoeboxes of undeveloped film from the artists life in the 1980s while living in Manhattan.  It was a very intimate portrayal and it proved how close Ai Weiwei was to the pulse of the times–the pulse possibly inseparable from himself.  In other words, through a camera lens you witness the close proximity of Ai Weiwei to numerous demonstrations and movements taking place. Firsthand images of Reverand Al Sharpton, to numerous pictures of various artists in his small studio apartment in the lower east side–names like Ginsberg.

“I see people on public buses,” he writes, “and I see their eyes, and I see they hold no hope. They can’t even imagine that they’ll be able to buy a house. They come from very poor villages where they’ve never seen electricity or toilet paper. Every year millions come to Beijing to build its bridges, roads, and houses. Each year they build a Beijing equal to the size of the city in 1949. They are Beijing’s slaves. They squat in illegal structures, which Beijing destroys as it keeps expanding. Who owns houses? Those who belong to the government, the coal bosses, the heads of big enterprises. They come to Beijing to give gifts—and the restaurants and karaoke parlors and saunas are very rich as a result.”

These two realities: the one outside of the academic sanctuary of Tsinghua, and the one inside the walled classrooms have such far-reaching implications.  It is a constant struggle for co-existence–between rhetoric and practice, intellectuals and workers, academics and farmers, law and reality, politics and rights. China is not the only developing nation struggling with such pervasive issues, but it is unique.  “You have freedom of speech in this classroom,” says our Chinese Civil Law Professor Chen Weizuo, “you are free to discuss anything.”  And we do.  We take time to dissect the framework and structure of China’s legal system.  We learn about its ancient history and influences of traditional thought.  We study its decision-making process and are encouraged to think critically about the contemporary times–which I believe are in constant motion, towards a country that is becoming a nation where rule of law is authoritative, not rule of man.  In a cheap one-liner, China has come a long way.  The major challenge is not establishing proper legislation to protect people’s rights, it is deeper, way deeper, and it is  multidisciplinary journey that quests into the heart of the nation–from the Autonomous regions of Tibet to a sometimes dismal Beijing.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 1, 2011 6:33 am

    Interesting post – I’ll look forward to more – just a quick note though your link to the China Law Blog is broken…

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