All this week, Brendan O’Neill will be reporting from Beijing. Follow his Beijing Diary here.
Beijing: the new New York?
Rows of immaculately tailored, beautiful young women line the entrance to the Beijing Urban Planning Exhibition Center, forming what can only be described as a hottie guard of honour. They bow their heads as we file by. ‘Welcome, most excellent members of the press’, says Daxin Hu, our guide for the morning, a young man so accommodating that when I say ‘Daxim Who?’, he replies – in an English accent that suggests he’s watched one too many Richard Curtis movies – ‘Never mind. Call me Darcy. It’s my English name.’
Inside, beneath a nine-foot map of Beijing carved from copper and dappled with gold, another young man is playing the piano. It is extraordinary. Our guide tells us he is one of Beijing’s most gifted young pianists, and I can believe it. The assistant curator of the exhibition center – dressed in the killer black suit that is the uniform of Beijing’s go-getting working women – arrives, flanked by two similarly dressed assistants. ‘Come with us, excellent journalists’, she says, through a translator. It’s only the second time in my life I’ve been called ‘excellent’ by a stranger; the first time was by Darcy two minutes earlier.
Daxin ‘call me Darcy’ Hu
They’re clearly superkeen to impress. At press gatherings in Britain you’re lucky to get a lukewarm cup of piss disguised as tea, a stale croissant, and some stressed woman from Shoreditch saying ‘Oh calm down, he’ll be here in a minute’. Here we’ve been treated to the modern-day equivalent of smiling geishas, classical music, and the effortlessly chirpy Darcy, and that is before we’ve been shown a 3-D movie about Beijing’s history, a 4-D movie (yes, 4-D) about its future, and a look at a sprawling, lit-up scale model of Beijing that makes you feel like Gulliver stepping clumsily over a miniature space-age city. If this is the wicked Chinese showing off to the world, I must say I’m quite enjoying it.
The mouthfully named Beijing Urban Planning Exhibition Center is run by the even more stale-sounding Beijing Municipal Commission of Urban Planning – names that unwittingly reveal the main paradox of this city: behind the dynamism so palpable you can smell it there lurks the grey faces of a still brutal, unelected party machine. I feel like the woman in that advert who says ‘They should have called it Oatibix’, thinking to myself: ‘They should at least have called it the Future of Beijing museum.’ They’d certainly get more tourists.
The center is effectively the brain of the city, the place where its current flurry of skyscraper-building is documented in detail – with scale models of all the spectacular buildings that have appeared as if from nowhere over the past five years – and where its future is revealed, tantalisingly, in specially-made, big-screen movies that come complete with a sweeping Hollywood soundtrack as the narrator says things like: ‘In 2019, no one in Beijing will live farther than five minutes from a state-of-the-art subway station!’ The British equivalent might be something like: ‘In 2019, we will have completed our inquiry into whether it is feasible to install ice-filled air conditioners on the London Underground and will present our findings to 700 quangos for further discussion.’
For the 4-D film, we strap ourselves with seatbelts into aeroplane-style seats, as we are ‘lifted’ (not really) above Beijing as it will look in 2069. If I’m still alive, I’m definitely coming back. The scale models of the numerous Olympics-related buildings reveal just how daring, even cheeky in a decidedly non-Maoist fashion, is Beijing’s current building frenzy. Looking at the buildings as if one was a bamboozled bird thousands of feet in the air, you can see the emergence of a new onomatopoeic architecture: buildings that look like what they were built for. The Digital Beijing Building is designed to look like a microchip. The Loashan Velodrome, where track cycling events will take place, has a roof shaped like a bicycle wheel.
And the Beijing Shooting Range? Yep, from the skies it looks like a gun, complete with a trigger and a menacing nozzle. Britain might have that weird chalk drawing of ancient man with an erection, but what other city on Earth would design a building that looks like a gun from the heavens? The message to any overhead travellers seems clear: come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough.
The Bird’s Nest on
the morning of 15 July
It is really hard not to be bowled over by Beijing’s new architecture. In the commercial district, the new headquarters of China Central Television is the most spectacular building I have ever seen. Designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren, it is an enormous tower block with what looks like a gaping hole in the middle; a continuous loop of five horizontal and vertical sections; a kind of distorted steely, silvery square. Groundwork started in 2004; it will be open for business next year. Beijing is like the new New York. As Kurt Andersen says, ‘twenty-first century Beijing’ deeply resembles that moment at the turn of the twentieth century when ‘modern New York was inventing itself by showstopping leaps and bounds… erecting what would become its defining landmarks’.
This helps explain European elite sniffiness, if not outright hostility, towards modern Beijing: as with the rise of New York 100 years ago, the rise of Beijing reminds Europe’s cultural great and good of nothing so much as their own obsolescence. A writer for the New York Times says the sensation of seeing New Beijing must be ‘comparable to the ephinany that Adolf Loos, the Viennese architect, experienced when he stepped off a steamship in New York harbour more than a century ago. He had crossed a threshold into the future; Europe, he realised, was now culturally obsolete’. And today, Beijing’s ‘fierce embrace of change has left Western nations in the dust’, reckons the NYT.
For Europe’s elites, the rise of Beijing is the Second Great Humiliation (if you will forgive the CPC-style lingo… hope I’m not going native). It is in the rarefied antechambers of the European Union and the leader pages of Europe’s haughty liberal press that you will see and hear the most semi-Sinophobic commentary about China’s filthy, vile, thuggish polluting antics. Europe’s snobs don’t treat China as ‘the Other’ in the way they did 100 years ago when they feared and pitied the poor populous nation; instead their relationship to Beijing is more like their relationship to America from the turn of the twentieth century, underpinned by cultural envy, moral disgust, and a dash of old snobbery that is really a defence mechanism against the explosion of the new. Beijing, with its cocksure architecture, reveals to them their own staleness, slowness and inability to dream about anything big, much less get it done. They’re so vain they think the rise of Beijing is a personal smack in the face.
Revealed: facts about the opening ceremony!
I hope this doesn’t get me thrown out of the country by China’s still authoritarian, paranoid rulers, but I can now reveal to readers of spiked one of the Chinese state’s most madly guarded secrets: what the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games will involve.
Workers clean the Water Cube’s
vast outer bubbles
Well, kind of. We get to visit the Olympic Central Area, where we see both the Bird’s Nest (the new National Stadium meshed in metal) and the Water Cube (the intriguing aquatics centre that looks like it is covered in massive blue bubble wrap). There is only we few journalists, and some labourers: women whose triangular straw hats clash with their blue Beijing 2008 uniforms sweep the empty sidewalks meticulously; six men sitting on wooden swings hang from the roof of the Water Cube, swinging wildly to and fro, laughing as they try desperately to clean the enormous plastic bubbles with window-wipers.
And then I hear it… from deep within the Bird’s Nest, a practice run of the opening ceremony! I definitely heard drums. And what sounded like singing. Maybe opera-style singing; it was hard to tell through all those vast metal zig-zags. And er, that’s it. Still, you read it here first.
The ‘aflutter’ generation
We wind down in an area known as the ‘798 Art Factory’, a vast, buzzing collection of streets, avant-garde galleries, edgy bookshops and restaurants in the Dashanzi district of Beijing. It’s like the Old Truman Brewery in London – that is, arty and government-funded.
Jazz music leaks from the cafés. Young men and women – including large numbers of Westerners – sip coffee alfresco. Someone is reading a book about Andy Warhol. The area is so uber-cool that, for the first time, I see Chinese people with brown or copper-coloured hair – dyed, perhaps, to show that they are distinct from the uniformly black-haired Chinese in straight Beijing. A young Chinese man wears an old green Mao-era hat with a red star on it, and you can buy Mao posters, t-shirts and postcards – all strictly ironic, of course.
These avant-garde Chinese seem not especially keen on China’s economic miracle or new consumer society. In contrast to the futuristic displays at the Beijing Urban Planning Exhibition Center, one of the main exhibitions here is a collection of black-and-white photos by Yang Yankang celebrating rural and religious life in the Sichuan province. The photos have titles like ‘Women gathering sheep manure’.
You can buy t-shirts that have a grainy black-and-white photo of the Bird’s Nest stadium surrounded by ruins and battered by rain. A vast painting by Wang Guangyi seems to mock Chinese capitalism: it shows Lenin and Stalin flying the red flag under the words ‘COUNTRY. FAITH.’, and then at the bottom of the painting two advertising slogans appear: ‘TIME. OMEGA.’ Other paintings show obese Chinese children competing in Olympic events and have titles such as ‘Always Must Be the Best’. Even the slogan of the 798 district – ‘Thinking Hands’; that is, hands which create art – seems designed as a contrast to the unthinking, labour-intensive hands that are building the new Beijing outside.
There’s a fascinating exhibition of work by the ‘Aflutter Generation’, a group of artists born after 1980 in the prosperous Guangdong region. Their paintings are cartoonish, two-dimensional; they show Mickey Mouse having a nervous breakdown, or consumers being bombed with mobile phones, washing machines, robots and gadgets. The curator tells us that these artists – who were only children, of course, and generally well-off and gadgetised – have led ‘the richest material life ever possible’, but they struggle to make sense of ‘problems concerning real society, life and youth’.
Even in deeply censorious China, there are flickers of disgruntlement in these artworks. They suggest that some of China’s avant-garde art scene is influenced by similar anti-consumer, anti-production trends that are widespread in the West. And that young, materially-secure Chinese want to know: ‘Isn’t there more to life?’ Material wealth has made their lives easier, but what’s the meaning, the narrative of modern China?
All this week, Brendan O’Neill will be reporting from Beijing. Follow his Beijing Diary here.