Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Post- vs. Neo-Industrial Cities: Beijing

The facial recognition software makes going through immigration and passport control a breeze, and the “nothing to declare” door opens smoothly without a single ripple in the flow of people.

I’m on the road in a taxi at 1 am, and I’m heading to a place at least an hour away in the foothills, so pollution should be at a minimum. But, the cottony “fog” is smog, and it has a vaguely plastic smell. It makes me wish I could time-travel and visit Pittsburgh around 1950, when it was an industrial hub, and nowhere near the “Best Place to Live!” award winner it is today.  Industrialization, job growth, and job obsolescence have high price tags. De-industrialization has its own high price tag, but that’s a meditation for another day.

Smooth sailing through the airport was not exactly what I was expecting in Beijing, although I was prepared for neo-Industrial newness, and a reshaping of identity, self-reconstituting in response to the push and pull of purchasing publics on other sides of the globe.

I have been conditioned to think of Chinese manufactured items as being nicely packaged and high-tech. Now I see the best is dedicated to export; much of the cheaper, poorer quality material stays in the country for domestic consumption. Makes sense. After all, everyone will earn more in exporting things.

Walk, wait, watch.

I don’t have much to say at this point. It’s my first encounter with Beijing.  I love the energy and then sense of potential and promise. Yet, the question is, how far will the balloon actually stretch? Are there limits to market growth? China seems to test all the assumptions of sustainability.

I remember when Happy Faces first came out. They were on everything, ranging from t-shirts to stickers to notebooks. I loved them, and bought Happy Face stationery around Christmas at Shepherd Mall in Oklahoma City. My dad would take us to a mall where we would go shopping, and I remember the way the shining merchandise, the music, the sense of the eternal “new” (and the sense that “out of fashion” was constantly nipping and biting at one’s heels), all had an impact on my sense of identity, and compelled me to think that I should always be in a state of transition, of emerging, and in the best of all possible worlds, of self-shaping, self-fashioning.

At times I’ve liked to think of China’s economy as vampiric. That's a western view. Question: Can China actually live without the lifeblood of external markets?

At other times, I’ve liked to think of China’s economy as the ideal (ironically) of the Hamiltonian, Federalist model of economic governance; they protect themselves with a wall of adroit protectionism, while counting on Most Favored Nation status, etc. from trading partners. At the same time, I notice how well the government invests in infrastructure, and also creates conditions for growth. In addition, the government acts as a partner in corporate growth, and encourages innovation and entrepreneurship. The government also encourages outside investment, but limits the rights of the investors.  It’s smart and it has worked.  The only question is how long?

To give Jefferson his due, I do think that local control and “states’ rights” can work, and they can encourage innovation (along with a lot of quackery). Extreme individualism is appealing, at least to those who rate high enough on the social order to be considered a fully franchised individual (in America’s South, that meant land-owning, male, citizen, “white,” etc.).

The view from the Sinopec Center was impressive – it was on the edge of a mountain overlooking Beijing. The view from the “Climbing Mountain” just behind it, through brass gates, was even better. You could climb the 400 steps up to a little weather-battered pagoda, and then follow a trail along the hogback, to another set of small steps down the steep side of the mountain.

I found going down harder than going up, but I think that’s something in my brain that tends to see all inclinations as level after I’ve focused on them enough. Clearly, the vision issue also applies to my overall take on life, and on perception itself.

Do all brains work that way? Well, I digress.