Beijing: A Global City?
Is Beijing a Global City? This is a question that I will ponder at the beginning of this proposal, as a way to tease out some unique aspects and contradictions of Beijing’s globalness (or non-globalness).
On one level it is of course global, and becoming more global. After all the 21st Century is defined as the Pacific Century, and the leading power in the pacific is rising, or risen, China. Beijing is the political center of China and Chinese power is emanating through the world in increasingly strong ways. It is this Beijing that Daniel A. Bell and Avner de-Shalit theorize it in their book The Spirit of Cities (2012) as being the representative “City of Political Power”. The political decisions made in Beijing now have global reach. Global capital moves through Beijing, and the city is filled with commodities both luxurious and not. Beijing is increasingly producing more cultural capital, and it is also a center of art, fashion, and film. Chinese citizens are spreading through the world more than ever, migrating for education, business, and opportunity, but in ways very different than even a decade before. Now this migration comes with wealth behind it, as well as cultural-ideological logics, which are penetrating the world. On the reverse migratory side, Beijing itself is home to hundreds of thousands of foreigners, who bring with them every type of unique home cultures and integrating them into the Chinese city. In the Hutongs of Beijing you can find Oregon style Microbreweries, Jamaican Jerk Chicken restaurants, Punk Rock clubs, and everything in between. All of these things make up the “global” in Beijing.
Yet, on another level, Beijing is not global. This is because it is so historically tied to “China”, as a nation, culture and concept. It is landlocked and not a port, with traditional international access. Unlike other Chinese cities, such as outward looking economic power-house Shanghai, world-factory Guangzhou, or neo-liberal fantasy Shenzhen, Beijing is uniquely Chinese. It has at least 1000 years of continuous inhabitation, with layers of dynasty and history built on top of it. It is hard to separate from this history, from the culture itself, and thus Beijing is uniquely Chinese, and not the “worlds”. There are still things that are cut off and closed off, behind imaginary versions of Beijing’s destroyed city walls, behind insular Party politics that only emerge in scandals such as that of Bo Xilai. This nationalistic element and the immensity of state centralized power and control running through the city keeps part of it inaccessible. On a migration level the vast majority of those who come to Beijing are Chinese citizens from other provinces, who either come for school or work, or are internal migrants from the rural classes, who are drawn to the city, but in a different way than those factory places in the south.
The following pages on Beijing will try to represent some of these contrasting and contradictory views of the city, painting a picture of both of these “Beijings”, and the webs of meaning that are created in the dialectic between them. Beijing is a city that is caught between Chinese history and the globe. Between Communism and Capitalism. Between the Hutong and the Skyscraper. Between China’s past, its present ambitions, and where it will go in the future. Between the global and internal flows of people and money. And between its own particular version of utopian dreams (the 2008 Olympic slogans, endless construction) and dystopian realities (pollution, political repression).
All of which will play out in the coming years.
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