Back in Beijing after an absence of two years. I know enough to expect big changes every time I return to Beijing, a city that is undergoing the most “meta” of metamorphoses. The most noticeable one this time, in the midst of a short and busy stay, is the completion of at least four new subway lines, and a high-speed train to the airport.
While crowded, the subway is a far better way to get around than above-ground, where the traffic situation in Beijing continues to worsen. This in spite of the fact that 20% of the city’s cars are kept off the street each weekday. Weekends are a free-for-all. With car sales in China running now at over one million per month, traffic is only going to worsen, especially in Beijing.
Beijing is the most car-crazy city in China. The simple trope is: in Shanghai, people would rather spend money to live in a nicer place and then ride the bus. In Beijing, the opposite is true. Having four wheels under you matter more than the four walls around you.
October is, famously, the nicest month of the year in Beijing. Daytimes are still warm, the air fresh and the sky often a shimmering blue. The streets are filled with vendors selling the wonderful assortment of autumn foods that have been an inseparable part of October in Beijing for hundreds of years: candied crabapples, persimmons, chestnuts.
I’m here to participate in a private equity conference organized by and held at Tsinghua University. I readily accepted the invitation to appear, both because it’s an honor to be invited to speak at Tsinghua, and also because I wanted very much to return to the northwestern part of Beijing where the university is based. I was last here (gulp) 28 years ago, when I first arrived in China. I haven’t been back since.
The changes are so comprehensive that, but for a few old candy-striped smokestacks, nothing seems to remain from the early 1980s. The area around Tsinghua is now filled with shops and modernist glass towers. I remember the university district of Beijing (which houses both Tsinghua and Beijing University) as being very gray, remote and very somber, with nothing either to comfort or disrupt the life of a student at China’s two most elite universities. Now, it’s got a hip, Harvard Square kind of vibe.
Tsinghua has a special history, one that has always symbolized for me the unique nature of the relationship between US and China. The university was founded by the American government, using some of the indemnity paid by the Qing emperor following the Boxer Uprising in 1900. While the circumstances that led to the payment of the Boxer reparations are mainly ignoble, I’m nonetheless proud that my country used its relatively small share of the money to establish first a scholarship program for Chinese to study in the US, and then, later, to establish Tsinghua University. The Russians, Germans, British, French and Japanese, who collectively got 93% of the indemnity, took their share of the money and did nothing of any kind to benefit China.
Not always adequately or consistently, but America has mainly viewed its role in China as mentor and friend, the least barbarous of the foreign barbarians.
The conference just ended. I’m going to huddle up against the nighttime cold, and go out to smell the roasted chestnuts, and dodge the fierce Mongolian winds that are juddering the trees.