Friday, September 02, 2011

Beijing - a tale of two cities

Despite being under close scrutiny from authorities, artist Ai Weiwei, arrested earlier this year for alleged economic crimes, has begun to speak out once again. In his latest comments carried in Newsweek he describes Beijing as a city of violence.

It's not violent in the obvious sense. Street fights and pub brawls are extremely uncommon in Beijing. Although there are incidents of knife attacks and murders they are rare and certainly not on a scale seen in cities such as London or New York.

The violence Ai Weiwei talks about is of an uncaring brutal state which treats its poor as second class citizens. "Every year millions come to Beijing to build its bridges, roads, and houses. Each year they build a Beijing equal to the size of the city in 1949. They are Beijing's slaves. They squat in illegal structures, which Beijing destroys as it keeps expanding."

The migrant workers are everywhere, though few tourists may notice them. Even the poorest Beijingers and of course the beggars have been 'encouraged' to vacate areas frequented by tourists.

Tourists will arrive at a glitzy modern airport and be greeted by a fleet of shiny taxis which whisk them to their modern hotel down a fast and relatively efficient highway for the price of a couple of pints of beer in many London pubs. From the hotel room the casual visitor will see a shiny modern city, but beneath the neon lights and glittering modern architecture is a darker secret.

Ai Weiwei talks of officials who are happy to do business with foreigners while ignoring the rights of their own countrymen. Only the very rich can afford to buy in Beijing. The closer to the centre of town the more expensive it becomes and even on the outskirts the prospect of buying a home is a distant dream for many individuals, Ai says.

The strongest criticism is about human rights. "They deny us basic rights," Ai says. "You will see migrants' schools closed. You will see hospitals where they give patients stitches—and when they find the patients don't have any money, they pull the stitches out."

Such stories are indeed common, but in some respects Beijing is no different from any other city in the world. China has its army of so-called migrant workers which come to build the new modern skyscrapers. Few workers benefit other than to feed and clothe themselves, and it is unlikely any would ever afford to stay in the hotels they construct or go to drink at the bars they refurbish. But although the scale of money may be different, such disparities exist the world over. How many of those who built the 828 metre tall Burj Khalifa building in Dubai will ever visit its lavish restaurants or bars or stay in its first class hotels? How many workers at Rolls Royce ever get the chance to drive or own such a car? In all societies, economics drives a tiered hierarchy whereby workers are ultimately exploited. In the distant past workers might be unpaid and would literally be slaves. In more modern times such people are paid, but only to a level where the bosses can maintain a profit.

Ai's criticism of Beijing medical services are stark, and indeed shocking. But even in some modern democracies the poorer elements of society fair badly when it comes to health care. In the US those without health insurance often fail to receive to obtain much needed medical services. Even in Britain which has a well established free health service there are problems. Those who do not opt for private health care may often have to wait weeks or even months for vital operations. In Beijing's Puren Hospital one will be met with long queues as patients attempt to secure an appointment with a doctor. While a consultation might be free, any prescribed treatment or medicine is not. Those with money can see doctors set aside for foreigners, all of course at a fee. For foreigners such visits are relatively cheap. A consultation and ultrasound scan might cost as little as 300 RMB, about £30, and is easily obtained. But such fees are too expensive for many Chinese.

Like so many things, the criticisms that could be applied to Beijing and other places in China are relative. Beijing has been criticised over the way it has restricted car sales and even when one can drive on the road, dependent upon the licence plate number. However many cities around the world are applying greater restrictions on motorists. In London a new Low Emission Zone comes into force in January which will force owners of older diesel vehicles off the road. A so-called congestion charge, which many see as just a further tax on motorists, has been in place for many years.

Ai Weiwei says he has "no favourite place in Beijing" and "no intention of going anywhere in the city." He describes places as being simple. "You don't want to look at a person walking past because you know exactly what's on his mind. No curiosity. And no one will even argue with you."

Argue! Indeed most Chinese do seem to be passive, and it is difficult to initiate a conversation about politics or contentious issues. However, the very opposite is true in other countries, and a discussion may well lead to argument and even hostile confrontation.

There are a few things the artist does not raise, that of the air pollution and the risk of food products being adulterated with dangerous chemicals. Nor does he raise the issue over extreme censorship which invades all forms of life from TV, radio and newspapers to the Internet and even advertising.

In Beijing as in many cities, taxi drivers often provide a temperature gauge to the mood of a country. A few years back a taxi driver made the astute observation that even the rich officials and politicians could not buy themselves cleaner air.

Recently leaders were lauding the 90th anniversary of the forming of the Chinese Communist Party. Again taxi drivers appeared openly vocal in their criticism of the party. This week the Economist suggested Beijing was one of the most livable cities in the world. "The most livable city for millionaires," said Jin Hong, a Beijing taxi driver told a Financial Times reporter. [FT / CNN / Global Times]

Actually Beijing came in at being the 72nd most livable city in the world. At the top of the list were cities such as Melbourne, Sydney and Perth in Australia as well as several cities in Canada. Among other well-known cities, Hong Kong was ranked 31st. San Francisco and Singapore came in joint 51st, while London and New York were ranked 53rd and 56th respectively. Living in any city has its benefits and pitfalls. If you have money Beijing is a great place to be, though the stifling summer heat and pollution is a drawback. Hong Kong is also a vibrant place, though one's bank balance needs to be significant. London too offers much, although it's not as safe as one would like.

Ai Weiwei and the taxi driver are correct in one aspect. If you are poor then Beijing may well be uncomfortable. But the same would be true of any city.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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