Welcome (back) to Beijing
- 17 April 2014
- From the section China
I'm back in Beijing as a resident reporter for the first time in 15 years.
I lived here for most of the 1990s so rather than give you another take on the latest GDP figures or the first National Security Commission meeting, I thought I'd start with my first impressions of a city that was once home and is going to be home again.
From the moment I arrived in Beijing's cavernous airport I was struck by the exhortations and warning signs plastered over what felt like every available surface. This has always been a tendency but it seems to have gone into overdrive. "Don't smoke." "Don't trap your fingers in the closing door." "Mind the gap." "Don't spit." "Don't trip." But then I got in a taxi and there were no seatbelts in the backseat. I asked why not and the driver said, "We're only legally obliged to have them in the front and no one bothers anyway."
烫手山芋 ('Too hot to handle')
One of the things I like most about the Chinese language is four character phrases. This one made me laugh on Saturday night. One of the friends I'd met for dinner had just come home from the US and was amazed to find that former security chief Zhou Yongkang has still not met his day in court. Until 2012 Mr Zhou was one of the most powerful men in China but since the middle of last year he's been under investigation for alleged abuses of power and corruption. My friend mimed juggling something hot into her mouth and exclaimed "烫手山芋" or "tangshoushanyu". Which roughly translates as "the potato that burns your hands". Sound familiar? "They just can't nail him," she said. "He's got too much ammunition against the rest of the top families." We shall see. But remember the phrase. It could come in handy.
Beijing blue skies
On Sunday I phoned a friend and announced exultantly, "The sun's shining and the peach blossom is gorgeous. Let's go for a walk!" "Let's not," she replied. "Have you looked at the PM index?" I'm still in denial about air quality. But I now have an app on my smartphone which informs me that the silver grey blanket is not spring haze. Chinese friends count grimly the years it's taking off their lives. The optimists say five.
A foreign policy joke
This from someone who wishes to remain anonymous. The US, Russian and Chinese presidents get the scripts for their speeches confused. So Barack Obama makes a speech about territorial integrity, Vladimir Putin about inalienable human rights and Xi Jinping ends up talking about the war on terror.
Beijing was once luxury foreign brands only, but high street names like Zara and H&M now seem omnipresent.
Self-service bike hire has appeared. Like London or Paris. I asked a friend about signing up and she said it's complicated and the bike parts often get stolen.
Drunkenness - I've now seen a young man staggering in a lift, another lying on the pavement, and someone drunk at the wheel of a car. This doesn't quite feel like the Beijing I used to know but perhaps it was just a party night.
What's not new?
Ballroom dancing in the park every evening. Hurrah! And plangent arias from Chinese opera. Whatever the air quality, spring is still gorgeous with blossom and willows. And last but not least, I am delighted to report that food remains one of Beijing's great pleasures.