Letter from Beijing
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Issue Date:  February 3, 2006

The building boom

Extraordinary economic growth changes China's skyline


On a recent trip to Beijing, I had the good fortune to arrive on the Mooncake Festival and to celebrate it with two photographers and their musician daughter. The family’s comfortable home is in a German-designed suburb of Beijing, with three- to five-storied townhouses on bending lanes with lots of trees, a scene much like many I’d seen in Germany during graduate studies. The festival, only second in importance to the Chinese New Year, is traced to Li Shimin, greatest of the Tang Dynasty emperors, who, on being offered decorated round cakes after a major military victory, is reported to have said, “Let’s send the cake to the moon and ask her to join our celebration.” Now families gather to enjoy one another’s company and share small cakes of almost infinite variety that evoke the “lovely princess” in the great full moon of fall. It is a day much like an American Thanksgiving.

“No one can be a hero,” said Chairman Mao, “who hasn’t climbed the Great Wall.” And every visitor to Beijing takes the trip an hour or so north of the capital to do so. But the other place to start a visit is Tiananmen Square, “the heart of China,” centered now on the mausoleum of Mao, with the Great Hall of the People on the western side, the Museum of Chinese Revolutionary History on the east, and on the north, the Forbidden City, the palace of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. The square is vast, easily able to hold a million people. I found it strangely endearing as I greeted a class of 6-year-old kindergarteners and chatted with them for a while. At one point they crowded so close to the stranger that one after another began to topple down until like fallen dominos they all lay giggling on the ground.

Around us preparations were furiously underway for the celebration of the National Day, Oct. 1, which begins one of the three “long weekends” of the year. (The others, also lasting seven days in fact, start at Chinese New Year and May 1, Labor Day.) Over by the History Museum a special exhibit heralding the 2008 Olympics -- Beijing’s pride and joy -- reminded everyone of the theme of the games: “One World, One Dream.” It was surreal: The Great Hall (it can feed 10,000 people at a time), built in less than nine months; the museum, faithful to a faded communism; the mausoleum with its endless lines. But it was real as well: The little children in whose hearts a view of their country and the world and its hopes were already, I supposed, taking firm hold.

Statistics about China are scarcely comprehensible to most visitors. Its annual economic growth rate has recently averaged 9.5 percent, defying predictions that it must inevitably slacken. To accommodate the greatest urban migration in history, it is said that China will have to build urban infrastructure as extensive as the city of Houston’s every month for the next 15 years. The country produces and consumes more steel, cement and coal than any other in the world. At rush hour, bicycles still crowd the streets of its cities, but now cars clog even five-lane boulevards in both directions. (In Beijing, for the last three years, 1,000 cars have been added each day to the city’s total. There are 6 million bicycles and 2.4 million cars -- with 3 million drivers.) The current population is over 1.3 billion, and the National Population and Family Planning Commission is working to keep it below 1.37 billion in 2010. (When the People’s Republic was founded in 1949, the population was 450 million.) Of the total, almost 340 million of the Chinese are children under 14.

Like Shanghai today, Beijing is a great construction site. The style is entirely different, with a more consistent feel to the street grid and with rooflines held to greater coherence. Even without driving through the diplomatic areas, one is aware of being in a capital, and an ancient one at that, dating to Kublai Khan in the 13th century. The center of the city has something of the stodgy feel of Washington -- though on a much larger scale. There are now three subway lines and one light rail line, with four more to come. Over 2,000 buildings of 15 or more stories are under construction. Wide ring roads circle the center, giving it a certain gargantuan order, and more are to be added. Extensive, imaginative landscaping is also helpful in this very dry and dusty town. And there are seemingly endless residential blocks going up to accommodate the population of 12 million residents and, it is estimated, 3 million migrant workers.

This is not to say, however, that the architecture lacks boldness. Rem Koolhaas has designed an extraordinary, 80-story building for China Central Television. Paul Andrew’s National Opera House, a huge submerged egg that will be entered underground with water on either side, baffles everyone. As one travels further out into the geographically immense metropolitan area, new towers such as Xihuan Plaza become more adventurous. But central planning prevails: All major urban projects are to be completed by the end of 2006, and the Olympic venues, as well as the expansion of the airport under the omnipresent Norman Foster’s direction, are to be done by the middle of 2007, well before the Olympic games open on Aug. 8, 2008. (Eight is a lucky number in China.) The pride of China is at stake.

As in Shanghai, where the cathedral was rebuilt after the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the last century and then seriously damaged again during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Beijing’s major churches in their present state date from 1905 or so and, under Deng Xiaoping, were quietly restored and returned to use after 1976. St. Joseph’s, known as the East Church, is a good example, with a nicely balanced, semi-Baroque façade and, oddly, Romanesque-arched aisles. (Its information bulletin on the plaza outside declares that “Chinese Christians always keep in mind their mission: ‘Glory to God,’ ‘salvation of souls’ and ‘serving the public.’ ”) The North Church has a memorable painting of “Our Lady Empress of China,” showing Mary in court robes on a great Qing throne with the Child Jesus as a little Emperor. The “South Cathedral,” formally the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, stands on the site of a chapel built in 1605 by the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci. (Its present sherbet-colored windows would not, I suspect, have been to his taste.) Repeatedly, on visits to the churches, one hears discreet assurances that the Patriotic Church and the underground church are gradually approaching reconciliation, chiefly through the appointment of bishops acceptable to both groups and, of course, to the Vatican. An American Jesuit, Fr. Ron Anton, has established two fine programs in Beijing. One, cosponsored by the Chinese Center for Economic Research, is known as the Beijing International MBA (or BiMBA) at Peking University and has recently been ranked by both Forbes and Fortune as the best in China. The other is an exchange program for international students, the Beijing Center for Chinese Studies, at the University of International Business and Economics. One night we had dinner together with Alex, a young Chinese student who serves as host for one of the American exchange students.

In his final year at the university, Alex is one of the five “mayors” for his school and wonders what to do after college. Like another young man whom I had met in the Garden of the Humble Administrator, he is grateful for the education he has received but dreams of further graduate work in the United States. Perhaps diplomacy would be more constructive than business, contributing more to the world. But the United States is expensive, he knows. And it is also exceedingly difficult to gain admission to any of the great Chinese universities such as Fudan in Shanghai or Peking University and its neighbor Tsinghua in Beijing. (The Chinese University in Hong Kong is if anything still more competitive.)

We also spoke of China, his China, for which he showed a lovely, fierce patriotism. With some of his classmates, he had demonstrated at Tiananmen Square against Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to a shrine in Tokyo that honors Japan’s war dead. He and his young friends harbor quite angrily the memory of Japan’s invasion of China -- and say they refuse to buy Japanese products. (These products nevertheless still sell well in the overall economy.) On the other hand, they like Americans, though not American foreign policy today -- a distinction I heard again and again during my visit.

After dinner Alex took me to visit his dormitory, where he shares a room with five other students. (Seven to a room is the rule for younger students.) Most had computers propped up on their beds. There were also several television sets, a poster of two young Chinese girls and, across from that, a poster of the Houston Rockets (including of course Yao Ming, perhaps the best-known person in China) and one of Alan Iverson all by himself. No one seemed aware of the address given the night before at Beijing University by the Taiwanese author and politician Li Ao.

An outspoken advocate of unification with China, Mr. Li had been invited to tour the mainland for the first time since his family fled to Taiwan. From the start of the visit, he was critical of mainland authoritarianism. At the university he made an impassioned plea for free speech and academic independence. The speech was carried live on cable television, but immediately afterward a blackout was imposed on further reporting about his visit. And a few days later new restrictions were announced for the news media and Internet usage. (There are 100 million Internet users in China, but filters are used systematically to block access to information on certain subjects.)

There will probably never be an end to the questions China raises for an American, or any other Western visitor. If not only business but politics or culture or religion, or all three together, prompt your visit to China, then your sense of our world and its common, imperiled future cannot help but be disturbingly enlarged. On returning from this trip, I took comfort and counsel from the example of the remarkable Ricci, who conceived his mission as a search for shared understanding. Entering wholly into the language and culture of the land to which he journeyed, achieving status not only as learned but as a wise man of the court, Ricci came to be universally revered in China as Li Madou, the “Doctor from the Great West Ocean.” If you want to bow before his grave and the graves of his great Jesuit successors Adam Schall and Ferdinand Verbiest, you have only to walk to a well-tended site at the center of the campus of the Communist Party School in Beijing.

Leo O’Donovan is president emeritus of Georgetown University.

National Catholic Reporter, February 3, 2006

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