It's Census Time in China

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I haven't posted in a bit as I'm on the road in China (currently schlepping around Inner Mongolia). A few things I noticed in Beijing in the past few days seemed worth commenting. 


It's Census Time in China:
The Chinese capital is littered with propaganda advertisements (like the one below) to convince the public to comply and cooperate with the census volunteers/workers who come knocking on your door (there remains a general unwillingness to disclose personal information, for fear that the government may use it for nefarious purposes).

Of course! A superb effort on the census will obviously beget a harmonious society--a politically meaningless term that has now been subversively co-opted by Chinese bloggers (river crab--because it's a homonym for "harmonious" in Chinese--is the code term when bloggers refer to harmonious society and Chinese censorship efforts).
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The silliness of the slogan aside, it will be interesting to see, when all's said and done, the new Chinese population figure. The population figure is a microcosm into the difficulties of deciphering and determining Chinese numbers. Many Chinese have told me that they think the population is as high as 1.5 billion already. Some say maybe it's only 1.2 billion. Take the city of Beijing itself. I have yet to hear a decisive population number--it hovers between 17 to 22 million. A five million swing! Well, that's just, you know, bigger than all but two US cities. I'm going with 1.37 billion, but feel free to throw your own guesstimate into the ring. 

(Addendum: some of my foreign friends told me they were asked about their daily transportation habits when the census folks came. Perhaps Beijing wants a twofer: population size and how to improve public transportation in the city. The capital desperately needs it!) 

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Hipster Hutongs and Food:

The census posters sit at the entrance of a hutong that is perhaps emblematic of recent waves of gentrification in Beijing (see below). Yes, many hutongs were razed to the ground to make way for a dizzying number of high-rise apartments and skyscrapers. But those that were salvaged have managed to turn themselves into hipster havens, at least for the foreign population first. Then the Chinese yuppies will discover it too. And everyone will be having eggs Benedict for brunch in no time (thoroughly relishing brunch is a defining element of yuppie-dom across cultures, I think). Incidentally, this cafe in the hutong had phenomenal eggs Benedict.

This newly repackaged hutong was barely on anyone's radar when I lived in Beijing in 2005. Even now, it is only beginning to emerge--migrant workers are still working hard to renovate what will soon be new cafes and boutiques. Think 2004 Logan Circle or the H street corridor, minus the migrant workers. Already, Hosteling International has moved in. And most exciting of all, a soon-to-open Mexican joint!

I will avoid droning on incessantly about food, but Mexican food in Beijing will be exciting indeed. It always struck me as odd that Mexican food (real, not Tex-Mex) isn't as prevalent as it ought to be in China, at least in the major cities. Both cultures are major pork eaters, down with cilantro, and generous rice consumers. What's more, China is no stranger to packing things into a floury/corn wrap. Perhaps this will be the inflection point when Mexican/Latin food explodes in Beijing. Let's make it happen so I can get my 5 yuan tacos next time I'm in Beijing. Indeed, Mexican will be a welcome and much-needed addition to the increasingly diverse culinary options that have arrived in this city of some 17-22 million inhabitants. 

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[Finally, apropos of nothing in this post other than that it is taking place in Beijing. So if you're in Beijing this weekend, it might be worth going to a talk by Evan Osnos, Gady Epstein, and Ian Johnson on the increasingly cacophonous debate on Chinese values. I had brought up the notion of a China bereft of a compelling, digestible, influential "Chinese idea" in my last dispatch. Is the search for certain definable Chinese values simply the consequence of "middle class ennui"? Or is it more than that? I suspect the talk will take this complex issue further, so go and find out.]
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Damien Ma is a fellow at the Paulson Institute, where he focuses on investment and policy programs, and on the Institute's research and think-tank activities. Previously, he was a lead China analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk research and advisory firm.

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