I am sitting in my hotel room on the 13th (top) floor of a 4-star hotel in Beijing.
I was in Beijing in 1984, 1985 and 1986.
My memory of Beijing in 1984 is of almost everyone wearing green or blue Mao suits – a uniformity of dull colours. The next year, some lighter pastel colours were creeping in and I stumbled on a fashion shoot by the lake in Beihai Park where the glamorous model was wearing a mini skirt.
Back then, I remember a rather dusty, occasionally misty city with Dickensian factory chimneys, streets swamped with tsunamis of bicycles and building sites each with hundreds of workers instead of machines. This was not – and is not – a country with a labour shortage.
Today, on the 45-60 minute drive to the city centre from the giant fuck-off-and-die airport (built for the 2008 Olympics), we passed through a new city with giant, often very well-designed buildings and loads of cars on busy four and five lane carriageways.
Then we hit Tiananmen Square with its new monument to distract and disguise where the demonstrators were in 1989. It now also has an apparently permanent visible police presence plus parked police cars and vans.
Once past Tiananmen Square, we hit the more crowded, narrow streets with jumbled shops and narrow, greyish, busy alleyways I remembered.
The TV in my hotel seems to cater mostly for Chinese, not English-speaking, businessmen – a not insignificant point. And the BBC World news channel is reporting that Sony has announced a whacking $6 billion loss.
The Japanese are on their way out.
The Chinese are on their way up.
More surprisingly, the BBC still has a TV reporter inside North Korea. Why has this man not been thrown out of the country? He is still telling and showing the truth about what life is like there. He was invited in to show the glorious start to the celebrations of the 100th birthday of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung – and to report on the ‘fact’ that the North Koreans’ upcoming rocket launch is to put a satellite into space, not to test an ICBM capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
Fat chance. He is making it clear North Korea is a fantasy land of literally incredible facades.
The North Koreans have said their rocket will be launched “by 16th April”. As the late Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday is on the 15th April, guessing which day it will actually be launched does not seem like, err, rocket science.
Back on the TV in Beijing, BBC World is reporting that someone called (as far as I can figure phonetically) Nee-lu-yang, disabled and on crutches after being beaten up by the police, has been sentenced to three years imprisonment – and her husband to two years – for “provoking trouble” by campaigning against the eviction of people from their homes to make way for new building developments by the Chinese authorities.
In China, rapid modernisation comes at a price which would be unacceptably high in the UK.
I took a walk out tonight and, over the course of an hour, I passed nine people walking their pet dogs. In the mid 1980s, a friend of mine went into Canton free market a meat-eater and came out a vegetarian: “It was the live dogs and cats and owls that did it,” she told me. “All in small cages, ready for eating. It was the owls that really got to me, with their big eyes staring out at me.”
Now dogs are kept by some as pets. The sign of an increasingly moneyed society and probably the sign of an increasingly something else society which I can’t put my finger on.
People were still doing that deep, throaty Chinese spitting in the street back in 1984.
Things have advanced at an amazing rate.
And yet… And yet…
There is still that protester disabled and on crutches after being beaten up by the police, sentenced to three years imprisonment for “provoking trouble”.
Some might argue that 2012 in China is more like Nineteen Eighty-Four than it was in 1984. But with a glittering veneer.
On my walk tonight, in a darkened open space about 20 feet from one of Beijing’s busy ring roads, I heard the faint sound of traditional Chinese music and saw about thirty people of various ages dancing in slow motion. Some were waltzing; some appeared to be practising slow-motion line-dancing.
Perhaps this is a new 2012 version of tai-chi.
In 1968, Country Joe and The Fish recorded a song called Waltzing in the Moonlight. In Beijing, they are waltzing in the headlights of a fast-coming future.
China is the new Japan… with Japan, like Atlantis, cut down to size by the Gods with a national catastrophe.
It only took water to overwhelm Atlantis.
Japan, a more advanced civilisation, had visited on it by the Gods the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. Japan has stumbled if not yet been humbled..
The road signs in Beijing – and many local shop signs – are in both Chinese and English. The government is preparing for and has already entered an international future.
And yet… And yet…
The girl in this 4-star hotel’s Business Centre not only does not speak English, she does not know how to print off text from the computer she supervises onto the printer sitting beside it.
And the BBC World channel reports that the wife of prominent Chinese politician Bo Xilai has been arrested on suspicion of killing a British businessman last year. No motive is given; the businessman seems to have been a friend of the anti-corruption Mr Bo and his wife; and the Chinese leadership is changing this year.
Now, presumably, Mr Bo has been knocked out of the running.
Don’t mess with the Chinese.
Here is the sound of Country Joe and The Fish Waltzing in the Moonlight…