Beijing:“May you live in interesting times,” the Chinese curse goes. Times are certainly interesting right now in this land of superlatives. The speed of change is phenomenal. The rate of construction, economic growth, infrastructure, urbanisation, manufacture, production and resource use has rocketed. It’s an exciting time to be here, perhaps like being in Britain 150 years ago during the industrial revolution, only the pace is so much greater.
The capital city, unremittingly ugly, shoots up in blasts of loud, dirty construction under a tobacco-stained fug of sky. Flat, with grey upon grey of concrete and those peculiarly ugly shades of glass that architects choose for hi-rises, interrupted only by the brightness of advertising billboards and the colourful luxury items they display, it’s perhaps not surprising that China is becoming a nation of aspirational shoppers. Materialism has replaced idealism as in so many other places, but here in a supposedly communist state, the resulting blatant social inequality makes for a particularly uncomfortable political setting.
Not that it seems to be impacting the popularity of China’s one-party state, according to the Chinese I ask. So long as economic development continues apace, most of the people I speak to say they are happy with the status quo.
Woven into the city’s fabric, among the vast anonymous skyscrapers, are the remnants of community: small alleyways and courtyards with human-scale houses, low-slung roofs with decorative details, leaning bicycles, outside cooking stalls and flavours of Asia. These rare examples of a far more inefficient, economically poor way of life are nevertheless for me the only real evidence of a city with soul that has, after all, existed for at least 3000 years.
As in so many places, it’s the people that save this city. Beijingers are diverse, curious and friendly – and they serve up great food. Few speak English, which is awkward, especially as when I do manage Mandarin, my tonal pronunciation is wrong. Conversation is mainly via gesture and translators.
The streets are a bobbing sea of black heads, thick straight hair, busy bodies, and between the hoards, the lanes and lanes of cars – I counted 16 lanes for the street a block from my hostel. Most of the cars have a single occupant, they drive erratically and fast with no heed for pedestrians or the cyclists that not so long ago filled every thoroughfare.
This is something James Hu is trying to change. James is one of a growing number of new social entrepreneurs, often educated overseas, who are trying to build a better China. After graduating from the University of Washington and stints working for Microsoft and Groupon, he banded together with a couple of other like-minded American graduate Chinese and moved to Beijing to found Wodache, the country’s first car-pooling scheme.
“We wanted to use technology to help improve society,” he explains. The team has created an iPhone app that allows people to get real-time information on where car journeys are taking place and request passage, and for drivers to alert potential passengers to journeys they are making. “We wanted to cut down on pollution, congestion and also help bring people together and build trust between people,” James says.
Trust is a problem in China, he says – it’s certainly something I’ve experienced during my short stay here – and their entire business model relies on trust. It’s free to use at the moment, while they build up from their 500-odd users, but eventually they hope to generate advertising to support an expansion.
Like other internet-based initiatives out here, though, Wodache faces Chinese censorship hurdles: Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites are blocked, and perhaps most frustratingly, the Google Maps application they use also often “disappears”.
James is not alone in being concerned about the city’s pollution problems. Environmental awareness generally is growing here and climate change is discussed more frequently in the media than in Britain. China aims to generate one-third of its electricity from low-carbon sources (renewables and nuclear) by 2050 – the same proportion as from coal, which currently provides some 80% of electricity.
The government is taking typically giant steps to improve conditions. The worst polluting factories have been moved out of the city, emissions standards have been tightened and enforced, Beijing, along with some other cities and provinces, begins carbon trading next year, and new technologies such as carbon capture are already underway. The filthy air that I’ve been breathing, which almost completely obscures the sun, is I’m told far cleaner than it was just a few years ago.
Many of these changes have been brought about through civil activism, points out Changhua Wu, director of The Climate Group organisation. “People demanded better air quality, and the government responded,” she says. ”Kids are learning about environmental issues in school and are coming home and confronting their parents about lifestyle habits and choices. The next generation of adults will be very interesting to watch.”
Environmental issues that have a direct impact on health receive the most public focus. No one wants to eat contaminated food or drink unsafe water, and trust, as James pointed out, is low. Pesticide use is several times higher than is safe for consumers or farmers – it’s relatively new to China, so farmers spray liberally hoping for improved yields. Toxic waste from factories often spills into irrigation water or over crops and arable land. It is often covered up and villagers seldom report it for fear of reprisals and because they seldom receive any compensation.
Scandals, such as one involving milk contamination in 2008, which had 300,000 victims and killed 6 babies, have pushed consumers here to seek alternatives. I visit one success story: an organic farmers’ market, curiously hidden away at the top of a Beijing department store, because they can’t get a permit.
I arrive to a bustling scene of exciting looking mushroom varieties, certified (properly) milk and yoghurts, the first cheese I’ve seen since I got here (French), and a variety of eggs, veggies and fruit. Organic farming isn’t the solution to feeding China’s vast population, but there is definitely a market for safer, less polluted food. A survey last year for Deloitte found that more than half of 2000 Beijingers would buy organic if it was available and even if it cost more.
The trouble is, it isn’t easily available, and it costs a lot more. The pressures to keep food prices at base levels rewards farmers who cut corners. And with memories of mass starvation seared into the minds of the older generation, price may well take priority for some time yet.