Oriental arrival

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.

Old meets new in Beijing

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.

Mahjong players

Mahjong in action

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.

Tiananmen Square
Mao and one of his guards
Giant screens in Tiananmen Sq show tourists far more attractive parts of China

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.

Goldfish courier
Chinatown in China

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.

Tru dat
Scorpions before…
…and after

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.

Insects, incl silkworm larvae
Oh no, not seahorses!

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.

Marble and wood from the 14th century
Grand and detailed
Royal dragon motif on a roof

“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.

James Hu, social entrepreneur
In the Forbidden City
Ceramic wall frieze in the Forbidden City

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.

Sightseeing is tiring
When the maze was filled with water, the emperor and his mates used to float their wine glasses along it
One of the many fantastic clocks in the Forbidden City collection, which include one with a character that can write in Chinese on the hour!

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”.

Roof detail
A rare Christian church is used for a photoshoot
Vegetarian street food

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.

A “green shop” stall in a bling new mall
The 700-yr old great wall
It’s also known as the longest cemetery because 1 million workers are thought to be buried inside
There’s a slide down from the wall

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.

The only ‘nature’ I’ve seen

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.”

Organic mushrooms

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.

Tasting different organic rice wines. The colours are according to the rices used

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.

A woman from Greenpeace demonstrates the pesticides in a shop-bought tea
The one on the left is of water, the one on the right is tea and reveals pesticide contamination

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.