Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future

Excerpted from Chapter 1: Walls, from Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future by Tom Scocca, published August 2011. Copyright © 2011 by Tom Scocca and reprinted with permission of Riverhead Books, a member of The Penguin Group (USA) Inc. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Chapter 1: Walls

The first important fact to know about China is that it has a lot of Chinese people in it. I always knew it, sort of, the way everybody in America knows it. The way we know that Antarctica is pretty cold or Germany is unusually efficient. There’s a billion of them, the Chinese: 1,000,000,000. Big number.

The actual figure—I checked—is more like 1.3 billion. That means the rounding error, that stray 0.3 billion, is as big as the entire population of the United States.

Book: Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future

Author: Tom Scocca

Publisher: Riverhead

Publication date: 2011-08

Format: Hardcover

Length: 384 pages

Price: $26.95

Affiliate: (Riverhead Books)

Image: I already knew the numbers, more or less, before I ever got to China. The reality behind the numbers was something else. It began to register with me at the Great Wall, at Badaling. I arrived there in August 2004, my first time on the Chinese mainland. It was almost exactly four years—1,458 days, to be exact—before Beijing was scheduled to host the Summer Olympics. This meant very little to me at the time. Experts were proclaiming or warning that the world was at the dawn of a Chinese Century, and China saw the Olympics as a chance to prove the proclamations true, to demonstrate that its capital city had become a great global metropolis. Though I didn’t yet know it, I would be living through that demonstration from the inside. I would become the audience for the display of the New China and a part of the display itself—tied to Beijing by habit and blood, but still a foreign body, for China to tolerate or not.

First, though, I was a sightseer. Badaling was one of the closest stretches of the Great Wall to the capital, in the mountains about an hour north of the city. Tourists in search of the authentic, ancient China prefer to go farther afield, to the more desolate and ruinous parts of the Wall. I was not looking for optimal tourism; I was jet-lagged and baffled by everything around me, and my Chinese-born father-in-law took charge of the project, leading the way to the bus depot and buying a pair of round-trip tickets. I followed.

The global metropolis, where the bus passed through it, was a mass of apartment towers and unidentifiable commercial buildings, tall and bulky but loosely spaced—a bit like Queens, if all the buildings in Queens were doubled in height. Rather than dwindle in size, the clusters of buildings gradually grew fewer in number as we passed out of Beijing’s urban districts. The road began winding its way through steep, picturesque hills, past river valleys. Sharp gray patches of rock cut through thick greenery on the slopes; shreds of mist and cloud hung down from the overcast sky. I began to think I understood the national tradition of nature poetry: “the frayed green shawl… rocky shoulders…”

Then we hit the traffic jam. Between its embankments, the road was clogged with buses, all of them closing in on the Great Wall site. They curved ahead, around the bend and out of view. Our bus stopped and showed no signs of moving again.

We got out to walk. The mist had become a fine but soaking rain, and a man was hawking ponchos right outside the bus for one yuan—flimsy blue trash bags, basically, with hoods. Mine tore almost immediately, and I knotted the sides of the rip together as we trudged past the line of immobile buses, breathing in their exhaust. Water beaded on the impenetrable outside of the plastic, and the inside got clammy.

At last, past yet more poncho vendors, we reached it: the parking lot. Oh, and behind it, up the rise, there was the Great Wall, too. But first there were the buses, and the people getting off the buses, and then rows of stalls full of Great Wall knickknacks and Great Wall books and Great Wall T-shirts, with customers swarming the doorways. The people streamed up into the visitors’ center, where they filled a round theater to watch a 360-degree panoramic movie of the Great Wall.

And with only a few exceptions, they were Chinese. High-minded Westerners tend to think of tourism—swarming, grasping tourism—as a vice we carry with us. It is a mobile gravitational force surrounding white people, warping the pure and genuine local culture into a caricature of itself.

But there was no place for Western anxiety or guilt at Badaling. All the available room, psychological and otherwise, was filled by Chinese people—Chinese vendors selling Chinese-made kitsch to Chinese sightseers, all bundled in their clear blue Chinese ponchos. The Great Wall undulated along the ridgeline, softly framed by the mists, and an unbroken mass of blue ponchos undulated right with it, along the top, up and down the wet stone course, and steeply up again, toward the clouds. It could have been a scroll painting.

Beijing is a city of walls. Physically, it is shaped by nothing but itself. It does not harmonize with the natural landscape; it was not laid out along a fertile river valley, for instance, or wrapped around a secure harbor. It was definitely not placed to take advantage of a pleasant climate. The city was raised up, instead, where its rulers more than a thousand years ago saw the need for city walls—at the far end of a hot, dusty plain, at the foot of cold, windy mountains. The winters run long and the water supplies run short.

Emperors favored the site as the capital off and on through the centuries precisely because it was a nonplace: it occupied the spot where the northern frontier of Southern China faded into the southern frontier of Mongolia. From there (with the help, just to the north, of the principal Chinese wall, the most celebrated wall in the world) a ruler could knit together both regions. Genghis Khan seized the city from the Jin dynasty rulers, and his grandson Kublai made it the capital of his Yuan dynasty. The Ming dynasty seized it from the Yuan, and the Qing seized it from the Ming.

So old Beijing was centered on the seat of the emperor—the city’s heart sealed off by the towering, dull-red walls of the Forbidden City, built in the fifteenth century. Inside, inaccessible, were the nested halls and courtyards of the palace complex, with only the gleaming yellow-tiled roofs of the buildings showing to the outside.

Those two colors, the red and the yellow of the Forbidden City, were part of the official Beijing 2008 Olympic palette: “Chinese Red” and “Yellow Glaze”—or, in the international language of color, Pantone 186 C and Pantone 123 C. (They were joined by “Scholar Tree Green” and “Blue and White Porcelain Blue.”) The East was not simply red, it was twelve parts Pantone Warm Red, four parts Pantone Rubine Red, and one-quarter part Pantone Black.

The Olympic organizing committee also included, last on the color list, the other main shade of historic Beijing: a dead medium-dark gray. Color was for the emperor; that gray—the essence of colorlessness— was for the rest of the city. It spread outward from the palace, on still more walls: low, gray-brick ones surrounding the courtyard houses, or siheyuan. Each home sat squarely on a north-south axis, facing in on itself, like a small-scale version of the imperial compound; the window-less outer walls, one story high, ran together in a common gray surface.

The narrow spaces between one common wall and the next formed the old city’s lanes and alleys, the hutongs. In the hutongs, the orderly geometry of the courtyard houses was everted into chaos—right-angled jogs and branchings, blind turns and dead ends, parallel lines suddenly swinging perpendicularly away from each other. A labyrinth, meticulously detailed from above and confoundingly featureless if you were inside it.

Many of the courtyard houses, built for single households in Imperial times, had a dozen or more families’ electric meters clustered together inside their front gates. On my first trip into the hutongs, this was one of the features the tricycle-rickshaw tour guide pointed out, along with the stones and beams by the doorways marking the original occupants’ rank in the nobility. Beijingers’ daily life spilled out of the courtyards and into the alleys; people sat out there, gossiping or cleaning scallions or playing Chinese checkers. But the maze was both intimate and desolate at the same time. Walking through an unfamiliar hutong was like playing an old-fashioned first-person video game: one gray box after the next. These are the actual directions I was given to the courtyard house where a friend lived: Take a taxi to the end of the nearest big street, then get out and turn right. Take the first left, then the first right, then the first left, then the first right. Knock on the second gate.

The hutongs, in their own turn, had once been enclosed by the outer city wall, a squarish sixteen-mile circuit, fifty feet high and built of yard-long bricks. There were no elevated prospects within that perimeter, and few significant open spaces. Save for a few protrusions—the gate towers of the wall, the Drum Tower and Bell Tower, the temples—a Beijinger’s line of sight and line of movement ended wherever the next wall happened to be.

A Sprig of Baby’s Breath Dropped Into a Smokestack

Is architecture destiny, or is destiny architecture? The history of Beijing is a history of rebuilding projects, at least as far back as Marco Polo’s report that Kublai Khan had built an entire new city right next to the existing one, on the advice of an astrologer. The Communists, in their push to overturn the old order, demolished the city wall in the 1950s and 1960s. But they did not obliterate its course. Rather, they built a road, the Second Ring Road, along the pre-revolutionary boundary.

As a result, the ghost of the wall still confined the city, with a band of clogged traffic rather than brick fortifications. The names of its vanished gates—“gate” in Mandarin being men—survived as the names of interchanges and the neighborhoods around them: Dongzhimen, Xizhimen, Chaoyangmen. In its new form the wall’s influence was echoed and amplified as the city spread—by the Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Rings, each one a mile or a mile and a half farther out. (There had never been any First Ring, and the reason behind the numbering is lost to history.)

The pollution was first of all a mark of China’s sudden emergence as a rival economic power—both a metaphor and an actual problem, the smoke and dust and chemical vapor of a growing industrial monster (a dragon, if you must) gobbling down ever more of the world’s raw materials at one end and squeezing out container ships full of finished goods at the other.

No matter what form renewal took in Beijing, there was usually another barrier. The eight- and ten-lane boulevards, expanded by the Communists to open up the city, were impassable; pedestrians who would cross from one curb to the other confronted not merely a seething mass of cars but a row of metal wickets running unbroken down the center line, fencing off foot traffic. As the old hutong neighborhoods, with their close-in walls, were leveled, developments rose to fill the newly cleared megablocks—as separate and inaccessible as ever, if on a grander scale.

Only in Tian’anmen Square, at the center of Beijing, did open space prevail. There, below the imperial compound’s southernmost gate—the Tian’anmen, or Gate of Heavenly Peace—Mao had razed the surroundings to create a gargantuan forecourt for the masses. His monumental portrait still gazed out from the center of the gate, toward his mausoleum and the gray bulk of Qianmen, the surviving Front Gate of the city wall. It was a blank, imposing open space, one that exposed the viewer more than it revealed the city.

And everywhere in Beijing in 2004, there were construction fences. As developers, civil engineers, and star architects frantically tried to get the new metropolis built, the construction fence was the dominant idiom of the cityscape, the latest and most characteristic form of the wall. There were steel-panel fences and masonry ones; plain beige fences; fences painted with inspirational slogans; fences covered with block-long full-color advertising banners for the malls and business parks and luxury apartment buildings to come. There were fences made of mirror like chrome facets. One fence was made by filling a framework of wide-spaced red wire mesh with smooth river rocks, to make a loose, unmortared stone wall, with daylight showing through the gaps. The actual building seemed to be in danger of being an anticlimax. The construction walls came right up to the sidewalk, if not to the street. In some neighborhoods, they were all that could be seen—them and, above them, in every direction, the gleaming yellow of the working cranes.

I had never planned or expected to become involved with China. The People’s Republic was on the other side of the world from the United States, in symbol and in fact. Though the two countries had begun restoring relations soon after I was born, China remained a symbol of antipodal remoteness: still Communist, still largely closed to outsiders, still aloof from the otherwise irresistible charms of late-twentieth-century American living. When I was seventeen and Western-style democratic ideals were apparently triumphing over totalitarianism around the globe, China was the exception—a styrofoam Statue of Liberty went up on Tian’anmen Square, embodying the hopes for a unified world, and then the tanks rumbled in, and we and they were two worlds again.

Like most other Americans, I didn’t think much about closing the gap. I did not pursue a degree in East Asian studies or a career in low-cost manufacturing. In college, I took one course on the history of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the period from 1966 to 1976 when Mao had tried to renew the spirit of proletarian fervor by turning the whole country over to rampaging gangs of teenagers. It was a popular course, and it counted double toward graduation requirements.

College was also where I had met my future wife, Christina. Her parents had left mainland China for Taiwan as children to escape the Communist Revolution, but had moved on to upstate New York, where Christina was born. When I met them, they lived in Ohio—the same part of Ohio where my mother was raised. My midwestern mother had married my father, an Italian-American from South Philadelphia, third-generation but unmixed, raised in a house amid immigrant grandparents, foreign language, foreign cooking. That was what people did in America. For our wedding, my mother sewed banners with the Chinese double-happiness symbol.

The actual China was an abstraction. A few of the most serious and hardy souls we knew had gone abroad to study or work in its capital—a grim and daunting city of cabbage, cold water, and coal smoke; of Mao suits and jingling herds of bicyclists. Or maybe it wasn’t exactly that way anymore. The news said there was a New China, capitalist and modernizing, interwoven with American (and European, and African) life, by strands visible and invisible: cell-phone chips, structural steel, movies, contemporary art, foreign debt. We would all reckon with it, sooner or later.

For our household, the moment of reckoning came in early 2004. My wife and I, living outside Washington, D.C., got simultaneous job offers. Mine was a newspaper columnist’s job in New York, at The New York Observer; hers was with a nonprofit opening an office in Beijing. We couldn’t pass up either one. I would move to New York, to start with, and get away to China every three or four months, while she settled into Beijing.

While I waited for my first trip, I had Christina’s reports from her travels: In the city of Harbin, she had been to a zoo for tigers and lions where visitors could order live animals from a menu to be served to the zoo’s inhabitants—chickens for the budget-minded, a lamb if you wanted to splurge. The lamb hadn’t put up much of a fight. In Beijing proper, she had endured wrangling with customs officials and a confounding search for an apartment. The household Chinese she’d grown up speaking, as the firstborn daughter of immigrants, was quickening, spreading to cover professional, technical, and idiomatic language; the manners her parents had pressed on her at boring Chinese-American community functions were guiding her through the rituals of formal banquets. She took taxis that broke down in the middle of the road. It sounded chaotic and harrowing and wholly, satisfyingly foreign.

My own experience of the city began the moment my flight touched down, with the air: a brownish smog over the airport runway, as a summer day blurred into an open-ended dusk. The dimness deepened more by the time I made it out of the terminal and into a taxi on the airport expressway. In a few years, in a transformed Beijing, this would be the old airport expressway, coming from what’s now the old international terminal. But it was all new to me, and it seemed only reasonable to make some assumptions about what was passing outside the taxi window. Along the roadway were poplar trees—puny gray-green things, planted in mechanically straight rows, half vanishing as they receded in the ghastly air, a false and futile gesture. So here was the New China: a sprig of baby’s breath dropped into a smokestack.

China’s pollution problem was what an American would have expected to see. This pollution had deep, mythic resonance in our national consciousness. It was first of all a mark of China’s sudden emergence as a rival economic power—both a metaphor and an actual problem, the smoke and dust and chemical vapor of a growing industrial monster (a dragon, if you must) gobbling down ever more of the world’s raw materials at one end and squeezing out container ships full of finished goods at the other. The tainted air of China was blowing across the Pacific and into California, like a warning.

Beneath that was the moral panic: the Chinese weren’t afraid to poison their own country—even the capital—or the rest of the world, as long as they could keep expanding their factories. Still beneath that, if you cared to keep digging, was the awareness that, after all, these factories were making the iPods and DVDs and socket wrenches and flip-flops that Americans wanted to buy, so that we were maybe more directly implicated in this toxic manufacturing business than we would have liked to have been.

Then, below even that, rarely more than half expressed at home, were the ideas that made up the commonplace Chinese view: that in the West’s own pursuit of industrialization, London had buried itself in soot for decades, and the United States had poured waste into its waterways until the rivers caught on fire; and that the wealth we had secured by plundering nature was what allowed us to now breathe clear air and drink clear water and sit in judgment on the environmental and social irresponsibility of countries that hadn’t developed quite as early as ours had. And that what really might worry us was the notion that our Western standard of health and prosperity relied on the existence of places that were sickened and poor—that if we did cut the one (point three) billion Chinese in on an even share (or a less-than-even share, former president Jiang Zemin’s official goal for the People’s Republic having been “moderate prosperity”), the planet and the economy and our own lifestyle couldn’t take the shock.

Any and all theoretical discomfort, though, was insubstantial in the presence of the smog itself. The smell of it seeped into the airplane cabin before the plane even opened its doors. It occluded the view of the city. It burned at the back of my throat and left black marks on the tissue when I blew my nose.

Discombobulated, Illiterate, Deaf and Mute

Back in New York, I would find the air sweet by comparison. But it was Beijing, foul fumes and all, that would draw me back. Residing there seemed unimaginable—the way New York had seemed unimaginable the first time I climbed the steps out of Penn Station into the roaring whirl of Seventh Avenue. Except in Beijing, the discombobulation did not subside for hours or even days. Hardly anything anywhere even resembled English, written or spoken. I was cut off from text and information—illiterate, deaf, and mute; I felt as if someone had clapped blurry goggles over my eyes and muffling headphones over my ears.

The city was too low-slung and wide to have those tight urban canyons of commercial signage that make a Chinatown look like a Chinatown; still, there was no mistaking it for anything but the Far East. There were tile roofs and winding alleys and carved stone lions and ceremonial archways. There were red-canopied bicycle rickshaws with gold fringe. There were Pekingese dogs, lots of them, and Peking ducks hanging in restaurants. The equipment of modern life was different, too: spiral ramps to pedestrian overpasses, tiny unfamiliar hatchbacks, funny bulging orange domes over the pay phones. Barbershop poles were clear motorized cylinders, as tall and wide as a person, with lurid-colored stripes or radial designs; many of the hair salons were in fact brothels. Red-and-white banners bearing patriotic or inspirational slogans hung across roadways and on guardrails.

We wandered through blocks with bare earth and the open steel forms of unfinished buildings, their rolling and curving profiles all around us. Was this imminent Utopia, or dystopia?

It was too much to absorb. We wandered through blocks with bare earth and the open steel forms of unfinished buildings, their rolling and curving profiles all around us. Was this imminent Utopia, or dystopia? We dined in a Sichuanese restaurant down some puzzling sequence of turnings through backstreets, in the feeble monochromatic lighting I remembered from a trip to Havana. Waiters poured hot water from bronze teakettles with skinny spouts as long as rifle barrels, standing off at a distance, the water arriving on target in our little teacups in a ballistic—or, frankly, urinary—stream. There were smallish fish split and skewered and so fire-blasted that their bones were as brown and crunchy as the rest of them. There was a dish of fried bits of chicken gristle sifted in a mound of chopped dried red peppers. The dining room was spacious and shabby and nearly empty. In the middle of the meal, a lightbulb overhead exploded, and glass rained down nearby. This would turn out to be an ordinary experience, the explosion. It was how the ceiling fixture in my study would announce that a bulb had burned out: PWAM! Crunch, tinkle. I never did get used to that.

There was one semi-familiar note: the summer of 2004 was an Olympic summer, and Chinese Central Television (CCTV), the state-run broadcasting giant, was showing the Athens Games on multiple channels at once, day after day: weightlifting, judo, trapshooting, ping-pong. The Chinese athletes were winning.

Only twenty years before, in Los Angeles, the People’s Republic had taken a single gold medal, its first ever. In Athens, China captured thirty-two, behind only the United States’ thirty-six. In men’s track-and-field, where China had previously won nothing and expected less, a twenty-one- year-old hurdler from Shanghai named Liu Xiang stunned the nation with a victory in the 110 meters, in world-record-tying time.

The next games were going to be in Beijing, and over the next four years, Liu would become a national cult figure, like an old Party hero reborn in the era of Coca-Cola sponsorships—the incarnation of possibility. The national sports administration would aim for China to finish atop the Beijing gold-medal count, to demonstrate on its home soil that it was a true athletic superpower. A program called “Project 119” was under way, targeting specific medal-rich sports, 119 medals’ worth, in which China had previously underperformed.

Yet there was much more to be won than games. In 1971, a few ping-pong matches had marked the reopening of Chinese relations with the United States and China’s reengagement with the West. The Games of 2008 were being designed as a showcase for all the power and development and wealth that had followed. The 1904 Olympics and World’s Fair in St. Louis had served to inaugurate the American Century; the spectacle of Berlin in 1936 had been meant to introduce the glories of a Thousand Year Reich.

Now, for the new Chinese Century, Beijing was planning a defining moment of its own—the display of a city and a nation transformed. Throughout China, cities were booming, throwing up new skylines, moving millions of people into urban centers that had been farmland five years before. In the capital, the rush of progress was being funneled toward a single point in time: the opening of the Olympics, on August 8, 2008.

The date, 8/8/08, was a cascade of lucky numbers in China. And over time, the phrase “by 2008” began to seem like a mirror image of “since 9/11” in America—or a photo negative of it, light for dark, an inescapable refrain of hope rather than resignation and dread. While New York argued about what to do with the still-empty hole at Ground Zero, Beijing was spending $40 billion to develop and prepare for the Games. By 2008, everything in Beijing was going to have changed.

By 2008, there would be 2,000 extra police on duty and 1,500 new monitors keeping order on the buses. By 2008, there would be a new $1 billion airport terminal, three new subway lines, an express train to the airport, one high-speed railway crossing the Taihang Mountains to Taiyuan and another connecting Beijing to the port of Tianjin. By 2008, rats, mosquitoes, black beetles, and lice would be exterminated in the area around the Olympic sites. Beijing residents would quit their ingrained habit of spitting in the streets. Thirty-five percent of Beijingers would speak basic English. All rivers inside the city’s Sixth Ring Road would be free of pollution, and 50 percent of municipal water usage would employ recycled water. More than a hundred historic sites would be renovated; more than three hundred zones classed as slums would be redeveloped.

Other changes were not in the official goals. The Olympic budget would grow from $1.6 billion to $2 billion. The city’s population, listed as just under 14 million in 2004, would swell to nearly 17 million by the end of the Olympic year. Three or four million of those people, by government count, were migrants from the rest of China, without permanent residence rights. They were the ones—living in tents and barracks, burnt brown and red by the elements, clothed in odds and ends—whose hands and backs would build the city of tomorrow.

When the work was done—if the work got done—a once backward and closed-off capital would open up into a national and international showpiece, a city of ample green space and avant-garde architecture, with smooth-flowing transit and traffic, a place that would be civilized and tidy and multilingual. The soot and dust I was breathing were the entropy from which a new creation would arise.

New York? New York would be there in 2009 or 2010, mostly the same. I would have only one chance to see Beijing before it became something else. My two-week visits grew to three and four weeks, the spaces between them shorter. I got a Chinese cell phone and bank card, and I enrolled in a Chinese-language school between the Third and Fourth Ring Roads. If a new Beijing was on its way, I was going to be living there when it arrived.

Photo (partial) by Philip P Pan

Tom Scocca is the managing editor of Deadspin and writes the “Scocca” column for Slate. Before decamping to Beijing, he was the “Off the Record” columnist and media editor for the New York Observer; before that, he was an editor and writer for Washington City Paper and Baltimore’s City Paper. A Baltimore native, he lives in New York with his wife and son (a Beijing native).

© Tom Scocca