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Beijing, Oct. 16

Publisher’s note: Here’s the full post. Enjoy!


Tacked to a wall, my map of greater Beijing looks like an archery target, with numbered “ring roads” marching in roughly concentric order away from the city center. The first ring is the perimeter of the ancient imperial compound, the Forbidden City. Inside this high wall, the dynasties unfolded and China’s history was made. And here, on Oct. 1, 1949, standing atop the front gate of the Forbidden City facing Tiananmen Square, Mao Zedong proclaimed the Peoples Republic of China (PRC). In the square in June 1988, the Red Army put a bloody stop to the China’s burgeoning democracy movement.

Each of the five stars on the Chinese flag represent 100 million people. The country’s population was a half billion in 1949.

The second ring follows the rectangular contour of the old inner-city wall, which was removed in the 1950s to make room for Beijing’s first subway line and a military-ready road above it. And so on out about 30 km to the latest complete ring, the sixth—a modern expressway that, like an irrigation canal, sprouts not crops but apartments and office buildings.

Our guide, Jack, joked with some pride that the crane is the new national bird—the construction crane. A seventh ring road is being built even farther from the city center and, as Beijing grows (the current population is about 22 million), there will likely be more circles on the map.


One way that China finances the building of new roads is to hand the job over to entrepreneurs who build highways with private capital and then get the right to collect the tolls for 20 to 30 years before handing control back to the government. (This reminded one Swarthmore traveler that Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell has proposed handing the Pa. Turnpike over to private operators.) Currently, there are five such toll expressways forming the spokes of the ring roads, each heading in a different direction away from central Beijing.

Tiananmen Square is so big that it has two subway stops—T. East and T. West. Here, in June 1989, the Red Army put a bloody stop to the China’s burgeoning democracy movement—an event that Jack avoided talking about, except to say that it was a “necessary step” in achieving the current level of economic freedom enjoyed in China. But, as I reported from Vietnam two years ago, the Chinese seem to have struck a bargain that trades political democracy for their newfound prosperity.

Tiananmen is truly enormous—the largest urban public square in the world, able to accommodate more than a million people. It wasn’t always this big, but the PRC gradually expanded the square as it built a new seat of government around it. In 1949, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that the “Red Chinese,” as we used to call them, would adopt the old imperial city as its capital, but Mao’s men were drawn to Beijing not only by its symbolism but by its ready supply of government buildings and experienced bureaucrats. Their revolutionary movement had begun in the South, but China had been ruled from the North for since the Yuan Dynasty.

The Manchus began construction of the city in 1271 in precise NSEW manner, according to their habit on the steppes. Their traditional quadrangle houses—which later found expression in the hutong—were entered from the south and fortified on the north. Thus, the southern gate to the heavily guarded imperial city was known as Tian’an or “front gate” because it served as the compound’s front door.

Chinese tourists outnumber Westerners in Tiananmen Square. All of us lined up for pictures with the Tian’an gate in the background.

Imperial China called itself the Middle Kingdom. Their ancient civilization and culture were thought to be the center of the known (and probably the unknown) world, and, for practical purposes, this seemed to be true for a long time. A few years ago, I visited Greenwich, England. Like every tourist who visits the Royal Observatory there, I straddled the prime meridian, with one foot in each hemisphere. It is easy to imaging the Kangxi emperor (1662-1722) on his throne, seated astride his own prime meridian. This is how China thought of itself then—and how it may soon think of itself again.

Directly of Tian’an on the Chinese zero meridian are two other gates, the Daqing and the Zhengyang, the latter of which was one of nine gates that controlled access to the walled Inner City, where the Manchu rulers’ privileged “banners” or family groups lived. The Outer City, to the South of Zhenyang, was also walled and gated, though not as well fortified as the Inner City or, especially, the Forbidden City at the very center, which had a moat in addition to a high wall. The Outer City was where commoners lives and conducted the city’s commerce. It was also the location of the Temple of Heaven, where the emperor went each year to kowtow to Heaven on behalf of the nation.

The entrance to the Forbidden City through the Tian’an Gate has tight security. There are police and army everywhere in Beijing, but especially around government buildings.

We arrived at Tiananmen by bus at around 9 a.m. The October sun was slanting from the southeast, casting sharp shadows away from the massive Monument of the People’s Heroes in the middle of the square. To the north, a giant portrait of a rosy-cheeked Chairman Mao hangs over the arched entrance to the Forbidden City—now known as the Palace Museum. To the South, the chairman’s huge mausoleum looms, with hundreds of curious and faithful visitors in a line that disappears around the corner. To the east is the National Museum. Opposite it, festooned with red flags and guarded by Red Army sentries stands the Great Hall of the People.

The Monument to the Peoples Heroes stands at the center of the square.

While we were in Beijing, the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party was taking place at the Great Hall, which has an auditorium that seats 10,000 people. More than 2,000 delegates from all over China were in town for the congress, which takes place every five years. To read the China Daily, an English language paper that was outside our hotel room each morning, one would think that this congress was actually running the country. Its primary job, however, was to discuss and approve various five-year plans that had already been worked out by the Party leadership. Jack told us that there are about a dozen political parties in China, and that may be true, but there is only one Party with a capital “p.”

A Peoples Liberation Army sentry stands guard across the street from the Great Hall of the People. The street in front of the building was closed because of the 17th Party Congress, in session during our visit.

On the perimeter of Tiananmen were some delightful topiary sculptures that had been erected for the anniversary of Mao’s announcement, which is China’s National Day. In fact, every day here seems like a national day, so pervasive is the advertising for the upcoming Olympics. The games are an enormous point of pride for the Chinese, and they are touted on posters and billboards everywhere, and on many consumer products.

All of China is preparing for the Olympics, but Beijing is particularly excited. This topiary Great Wall was near a topiary Parthenon at the edge of Tiananmen.

Reminders of the 2008 Beijing Olympics are everywhere. This poster was in the No. 5 subway, the city’s newest line, which opened just a week before our arrival. More later on our adventures in the subway system.

We walked around the square for a while, had a group picture taken (and were sold commemorative books in which the picture would be inserted), then headed for the Forbidden City, which will be the subject of my next post.


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