A Ride in the Beijing Countryside: America Squabbles, China Builds

I spend a lot of my time urging outsiders not to believe everything they hear about China's "unstoppable" rise, its perfect coordination, its flawless concentration on the challenges that matter, and so on. It's a big, shaggy operation with a lot of strengths and a lot of weaknesses. I take this tone mainly in response to Americans who, in my opinion, have been too credulous about the "everything works just right in China" view propounded by, say, Cartman in his  "Olympic Nightmare" episode.

But if I came across more Americans who were taking the opposite line -- China's a flash in the pan, it's all a mirage, soon its people will rise up against the government, etc -- I'm sure I'd spend my time saying: Wait, no, you really have to take this seriously! And a bit of material I would use is the note I received yesterday from an American friend who has lived and worked for quite a while in Beijing. He sent a note about this past weekend's bike ride south of the city.

If you know the Beijing landmarks he is referring to, the account is particularly vivid. But even if you don't, it's worth reading to get an idea of the My God!! reaction that the speed of Chinese urban demolition and construction so often evokes. His account continues after the jump, with a few pictures from his bike ride. It was the predictable surprise of experiences like this that makes being in China so engrossing. My friend writes:

I awoke this morning determined to ride my bike somewhere, somewhere new.

Even as I got ready to ride, I got a message that someone wanted me to go to a meeting that was of importance to me, but I was determined and ignored it. I'm glad I did.

I rode south from my apartment near the Temple of Heaven fully expecting to be in the countryside in an hour or so.

Didn't happen.

I was headed to Daxing District, but having been there, I specifically intended to ignore and bypass the Beijing Economic Development Area (BDA) where there are a lot of auto manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies.

I failed. Oh, I missed what I knew of as the BDA; I was well west of it, but I had not missed the BDA. I could not have missed it heading south. It has now expanded westward by at least five kilometres and will likely head westward even more.

As I encountered it, there was park construction on my right, to the west. I stopped and asked some workers if it was a park or golf course. They told me it was a park. I continued on, and so did the park, at least another hour by fast bike on a smooth, untrafficked road along the Yongding River south of Beijing.  [Insta-park, below.]


I rode for another hour and never got to the southern end of the new area. This means it's about ten times bigger than the Galleria in Houston or 20 times the size of Las Colinas in Dallas. [My friend is from Texas.] I spotted a station for a light-rail line I didn't known was even planned. Red and black colored trains were waiting at the station.
Tiring, I turned west expecting and hoping to find a "mom-and-pop" place to have lunch and maybe a beer. The BDA on Sunday looked like something out of Twilight Zone hit by a neutron bomb or something. It was bereft of humanity. But it just went on and on, with not a single store or restaurant in sight, not one.

What I encountered for more than 10 kilometres was the absolute and complete decimation of farm life in South Beijing. Even karaoke bars, restaurants, gas stations, houses (not old temples) had been razed, especially along Tianhe Lu. People were, instead, building yet another park. There was no corn, vineyards, or watermelons; just people tearing down things and hacking at the land, watering newly spread turf and trees. [Clearance for new development, which "goes on for miles and miles."]


One sign said 16 kilometres to Beijing. I encountered not one place to stop and relax along the way. The demolished countryside gave way to the stores and shops near Muxiyuan on Beijing's Third Ring Road South. The commercial activity there was feverish; no one was relaxing or taking a break. It was still an hour or two before darkness would set in and the "kuli" (coolies) were hard at work moving shoes and clothes from one place to another.

Even when I got into the city, near the West Gate of the Temple of Heaven and took a photo of an old hutong there, I soon realized that most of the remaining residents were just using the shacks to store their commercial goods, not to live there, except maybe a cot or a bamboo mat spread on a cluttered floor.

I am not naïve about China or Beijing, but what I saw today blew my mind. Places where I used to go pick grapes, watermelons and pears are gone, along with the people who grew them, their houses and even their government buildings. All gone for a linear 15 kilometres or more, but not to waste. New buildings were arising in the ruins on on the cleared land, and the names on the buildings were Kimberly Clarke, Siemens, Saturn, Schnieder Electric and so on and so on.

Most Americans are tracking the US Navy's problems or challenges in the Pacific; this may be obscuring the truth about what's about to happen to them.

We've long pondered the possibility of selling a toothpick a day to the Chinese; we could be wealthy with such trade. But imagine a ship a day, a spaceship a day, a trip to the moon a day and imagine how far we're lagging. It's scary, but not because the Chinese are bad; they're simply embracing life as Marx advised.

They're acting while Americans are still fighting trying to decide what Jesus would do.

The Chinese like the idea of Jesus, but if they can sell beads at the temple, they'll do that too.

What a day.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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