Sunday, July 01, 2007
Hope and anxiety in Beijing
Few things you read and hear from the international media about Beijing and the rest of China these days strike positive notes.
Crackdowns on Internet viewing, arrests over forced-labor operations, food-safety concerns, mind-numbing traffic congestion and mind-altering air pollution are the major themes repeatedly sounded about China's capital city. I confess that I've chosen stories on some of these aforementioned issues for CNN International Web site users.
But a trip to Beijing this week also offered exhileration that took me to another place in the world at a different time. Beijing is changing, and doing so at a breathtaking pace. Stop on a street corner and blink for a moment in this massive city of 15 million and the landscape is sure to change. Such a scene reminded me of when I reported in Central and Eastern Europe in the early 1990s. Hope and anxiety seemed constant companions when reporting in those post-communist European countries.
It's the same in Beijing in 2007, a year before China capital unveils itself to the world at the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Sun Weide, deputy director for Beijing's Olympic Organizing Committee, brags to me about the moving of 200 factories away from Beijing to reduce the city's infamous air pollution, but won't speak about the daily geometric rise in the number of new cars hitting the roadways. A travel agent named Jane complains to me about the lack of hotel space for next year's Olympics, but hints that her company is doing well by escorting Olympic delegations around the city.
Meanwhile, 74-year-old Li Bingran tells how developers have their eyes set on her modest little home, but she insists on "squatting" until the government offers her a fair price for her Beijing home. She's nervous about moving, she says, into a high-rise apartment -- away from a nearby hospital and far above the ground.
A young woman who calls herself Nancy relates to me she's working two jobs: by day learning to be a travel agent, and by night waitressing at a bar, all in hopes of forging a life more rewarding than what was on offer from the small village northeast of Beijing, where she grew up.
These human snapshots and others I took in Beijing offered up an energy that's hard to conjure in Hong Kong, where I live and work. As exciting as neon-lit Hong Kong can be, and despite the good stories that city can offer, it can't compare to living in and covering the capital of a country people wait to rise as the dominant power of the 21st century.
For sure, Beijing isn't without its frustrations. Moving around the city isn't easy, thanks to its sheer size and to the rise in the number of vehicles. The city occupies 16,410 square kilometers (6,336 square miles) -- an area bigger than three U.S. states.
Further, in the space of a generation the number of registered vehicles in Beijing has jumped from less than 10,000 to an estimated 3 million today. But the city's road system wasn't designed for all of the vehicles. As a result, rush hour begins early in the morning and doesn't stop until 11 at night or later.
Additionally, air quality in Beijing is worsening, by most outside watchdog measures. While summertime admittedly is the time of year when winds blow dust into the city, the smog this week often has reduced visibility to less than a mile.
Yet despite the traffic mess, the air pollution, the heat and the humidity, the spin by government officials and tales of woe by some residents, Beijing is a unique place to be. Or perhaps it's because of all of these factors. Hope and anxiety make irresistable companions.
From Kevin Drew, Supervising Editor, CNNI Interactive
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