Day By Day

Monday, June 08, 2009

China Diary -- Part 3 Tienanmen

One aspect of Beijing's transformation frequently remarked on by members of our group was a sudden rise in the number of automobiles. A few years ago bicycles and mopeds were everywhere. Today they are still to be seen, but not in the numbers that once appeared. Instead the streets are clogged with automobiles, an indicator of China's recent prosperity. What surprised me was that a substantial number of cars, perhaps a third, were driven by young women. This seems to indicate that the social consequences of prosperity are deep and broad. China is changing, and nowhere faster than in Beijing.

One other consequence of prosperity and widespread car ownership is chaos on the roadways where pedestrians, mopeds, motorcycles, cars, trucks and buses mingle with seeming abandon. There are millions and millions of new drivers on the roads and they seem to be making up the rules as they go. Trucks and buses, being the biggest things on the roads, pretty much go where they want and smaller vehicles get out of their way. The first time our driver did a u-turn across four lanes of traffic I was shocked, but soon got used to it. Police seem not to mind. Later in Nanjing another one of our drivers cut off a police car and forced it to the curb, then continued on without any consequences. Try doing something like that in the U.S.A.

Another consequence of China's rapid development is an astounding level of pollution. Everything beyond a few hundred feet is obscured by dense haze, not just in the big cities, but in the countryside too. Within a few days after our arrival everyone in the group seemed to be coughing and complaining about scratchy throat and nasal passages. And the cities are dirty. Airborne particulates coat everything. The people themselves, though, are obsessive about cleanliness. Everywhere you go you see laundry hanging in windows. This is true not only in the poor neighborhoods, but also in high rise modern apartments. Even there, every day seems to be laundry day.

Our second destination that morning was fabled Tiananmen Square, right in the heart of the city. I had not realized that we were fast approaching the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, but the Chinese authorities were very much aware of the possibility of protests. Our government guide lectured us, giving us the official line on the significance of Tiananmen Square, saying that it had long been a traditional site for protests, that the student protests of 1989 were nothing special, that a bad element had infiltrated the student movement and instigated trouble, etc. He also warned us that if there were any disturbances we were to move along and leave the vicinity immediately and under no circumstances were we to take any pictures. We were also warned not to take pictures of soldiers or police. Such is life in a totalitarian state.

Fortunately for us there were no protests, just tourists wandering around or standing in long lines, waiting to get into Mao's tomb. Actually, the place was pretty boring, but we hung around for a while baking in the hot sun. Then we crossed the street and entered the Forbidden City.