Friday, 26 October 2012

Beijing Day 1 - Novotel

The Growing Pain of Industrialisation. Foul Air for Sale.

overcast 22 °C

I had been to Beijing twice before in the 1980s, and 1990s. In hindsight, it seems like I do this once-a-decade pilgrimage to Beijing without any prior intention. But this time I just tagged along, ok, more accurately I was dragged along, because Etta is working in Beijing. I'm only an extra luggage (not overweight, mind you). If not hand luggage, or handsome, but handy to have.

This trip is very different from the 2 previous Beijing trips. In the last 2, I joined packaged tours and was cattle driven - like they do in Texas by cowboys - around in luxury coaches (I'm a 5-star sheep), and hardly touching the ground with my own feet until the destinations. Of course, travelled this way had many advantages. If you don't speak the language, this is only few practical choice remains. Most Chinese don't speak English even today. In the 1980s and 90s, the number was much smaller.

I remembered when our coach arrived in the Tian'anmen Square, we were only 1 of the 3 coaches !!! (This may also due to the fact that it was December). And the enormity of the Square was enhanced by its desolation. It's hard to imagine today. Apart from a scattering of foreign tourists (there weren't any local tourists, hence the sparsity), the only local was what I imagine a PLA soldier, who guarded the Square. Unlike today where the Square (and every official building) are guarded by these ubiquitous security guards. Guards like this didn't even exist. He dressed more like the soldier in this statue. I asked him to pose a photo with me. Yes, that was 1 precious photo, and it was taken with a film camera before digital camera was made available (I'll try to dig out that photo 1 day, and scan it digitally to put it in my blog to share it with the world a glimpse of the world that flickered in and out of history).

Since China has changed at such a breakneck pace that visit it once a decade is literally like visiting another country. Everything changes, not the least people, drastically.

This time, I could get to the places that I missed in those itineraries, which meant I'll skip destinations like the Ming Tombs, Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, and Great Wall of China that I had ALL been twice. I want to see the more 'REAL' Beijing, not the package tour Beijing.

The airport is hazy, and all the way to Novotel in Wangfujing where our hotel Novotel locates. I couldn't help but thinking about the infamous London Fog. I thought this must be caused by the pollution in China that I heard so much about. The price to be paid for industrialisation. Seems like ALL major developed economies have to go through this dirty phase during their industrialisation. We had London Fog in the 19th century and the Great Smog of 1952; Tokyo in the 1980s where the polluted air was bottled - actually canned - to be sold to tourists as souvenir[1]; California's highway in the 1980s had its fair share of notoriety of traffic jams and pollution. Today, it's Beijing's turn. This industrial teething problem seems to be universal and unavoidable. On the other hand, Japan and California is at the forefront of green technology research. And follow this logic, China would be a big investor in the green technology today. And they do. It's both the biggest producer and user of green technology.

The visibility was quite low. I hope it isn't like this everyday. A local, the Singaporean who has been working in Beijing for the last 13 years, told us that this haziness isn't typical. In fact, it happened rarely. Well, I hope so. Although I didn't buy the 'rarely' part. But whom am I to argue with somebody who's living for more than a decades.

To find out how the weather condition is like tomorrow, you will need to read my next diary/post entry[3].

The traffic in Beijing is better than Jakarta or Bangkok, but much worse than HK, Singapore or Tokyo. The terrible traffic in these Asian cities are caused by bad traffic management. The economy moves such a fast pace that the traffic regulator couldn't keep up.  Nobody could accuse the Chinese government for not doing anything, or caring. The PRC government is more of an overly protected meaning overbearing - father who's a bit of control freak. In fact, they're an open, long time admirer of Singapore government[2].

One of the traffic control measure they put into place is limiting private cars with certain plate numbers to be allowed on the road each day. For example, today, private cars with license plates that end with 1 or 6 will not be allowed to drive in Beijing CBD (in other words, a 20% traffic reduction). This practise started in Beijing Olympic, only at the time, it was even more restrictive with only odd or even numbers are allowed to enter the traffic on a given day (50% traffic volume reduction).

Tokyo locals has much higher car ownership per capita relative to Beijingers, and yet there aren't too much traffic in Tokyo streets. This is because the traffic problem is being swept underground, literally. Underground Metro, that is. I had experienced being pushed into a very packed Tokyo metro train in Shinjuku Station by metro staff in white gloves, first hand (if you know what I mean). Much more people are using the subway than cars. Well it's much better to be packed into the train like sardines - ok, salmon is more popular in Japan - than being frustrated by the gridlock of traffic jam above ground for hour. The world record breaking traffic gridlock occurred in China. This is hardly surprising.

We arrived at the hotel about 55 mins from the airport. This isn't bad time because most of the airport to city centre trip spent outside the 3rd Ring Road. Once you gets into the 3rd Ring Road, congestion starts.
[1] Actually, Chen Guangbiao started this enterprise of canned air, no doubt got the idea from Japan in the 1970s.

[2] Why not? Singapore has solved the top 3 problems that plagued PRC today. Singapore is the cleanest AND greenest country in SE Asia while China has severe environmental degradation. And it isn't just the streets that are clean in Singapore, but government too. And quite easily the least corrupted government in Asia, while CPC leaders are unanimously recognising and admitting the rampant corruption that exists in the ranks of Chinese officials. And last but not least, Singapore has lower income disparity while China has wide income disparity a measured by the UN geni index.

Ok, Singapore isn't fair so well on a world scale, but still fare better than China, which is getting worse. Mind you that Singapore is a very small country, and had Lee Kuan Yew at the helm for about the same duration as Mao Zedong had in PRC. One is a University Cambridge graduate with a double First Class Honour, who run a small island nation; the other had a background of a country peasant - provincial in his worldview, suspicious of foreigners, never set foot outside China - who run the largest and most complex country on earth. No price is given for guessing who will succeed. Deng Xiaoping, on the other hand, was also of peasant background, who studied and worked in France in his youth, and thus had a much larger worldview. Because of these adulation, CCP has sent many of its officials to Singapore to learn about the administration of a country.

[3] Actually I had been complaining the strong bitterly cold wind that was blowing in Beijing for the next 5 or 6 days while I was there. It was this strong wind that kept Beijing sky clear of smog that tends to plague Beijing around this time of year. I suspect London, Los Angeles, and Beijing poor visibility problem aren't due to their smog alone, but also their geography and local weather condition. I find it hard to swallow that only these 3 cities in the world are that polluted. Both London and Beijing are foggy places before the industrialisation, and both Beijing and Los Angeles are basins that prevent good air ventilation. It's just only they have these 3 complex combination of smog, geography and local weather condition that lead to these extreme hazy condition.

UPDATE 15-02-2013 A few months later, Beijing had one of the worst smog induced visibility problem that the Beijingers ever experienced in their living memory. So the bitterly cold wind was the silver lining.

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