Friday, July 10, 2009

12 Days in China: A Reporter’s Perspective

By Devin Beliveau
Staff Columnist

(Editor’s note: Weekly Sentinel Columnist Devin Beliveau recently traveled to China. This article is the first in a series that detail his thoughts and impressions about the world’s most populous country.)
On the complete opposite side of the globe lies the most populous nation in the world, the 1.3 billion strong People’s Republic of China. Often dubbed as the world’s next superpower, China in 2009 is a country that clings to its cultural traditions while also cautiously reaching out to the global economy. For 12 days I was lucky enough to travel around China, the largest country in Asia. This article is the first of 3 articles that will document a snapshot of my observations and experiences in this huge, complicated and rapidly changing communist country, beginning in the capital of Beijing.
Before passengers can even take off their seatbelts following the 13-hour flight from Newark, New Jersey to Beijing, several government officials in white hazardous-material suits board the plane to take the temperature of everyone on board. An airport quarantine area awaits any passenger with symptoms of the H1N1 flu (Swine Flu).
The first thing one notices once off the plane is the heat. In July in Beijing the temperature rarely drops below 90 degrees. The Chinese women make a concerted effort to stay out of the sun. Since the traditional Chinese ideal of beauty is a porcelain-white skin color, most women carry an umbrella while walking down the street to shade themselves from the intense summer sun. The preferred method for men to beat the heat is to pull up one’s shirt to the belly button area and walk around bare-bellied.
There are far fewer bicycles lining the streets of Beijing than one might expect. This is due to the recent expansions of the Beijing subway system in the ramp-up to the 2008 Summer Olympic games. The capital’s subway is now a clean, modern and efficient system that covers the whole city. It even has direct rides to the airport, and the average price equates to only 30 American cents.
Another big difference was the widespread conversion from the public “squat” toilets to the western sitting toilets. Spitting in public, once a national Chinese pastime, had all but disappeared from the Beijing streets thanks to the government’s pre-Olympics anti-public-spitting campaign. Another big change is simply the overall cleanliness of the city, a development designed to better impress the thousands of international visitors that poured in for the 2008 summer games. It is a much cleaner city than one would expect for a city of over 15 million people.
Air pollution remains a problem in Beijing. Because of the polluted air, the current H1N1 flu pandemic, and the recent history of airborne sicknesses such as SARS, it is very common to see people wearing facemasks to protect themselves as they go about their day. The water situation is not any better. It is common knowledge that people should not drink straight from the tap.
English is everywhere in Beijing. Business signs, road signs, subway signs and consumer products all usually include English along with Chinese, thereby making Beijing an American-friendly city. English-speaking travelers will be pleasantly surprised at the ease with which one can navigate through Beijing’s numerous streets, subways and historic tourist attractions.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has run China’s government since 1949. The CCP has implemented policies that would certainly surprise most American visitors. On international television channels such as CNN, it is commonplace for TVs to suddenly go black. This is the government simply censoring a story it does not deem appropriate for Chinese viewers. Indeed, the CCP employs 30,000 censors to monitor television and the internet.
Last week on the news a man was arrested for signing a pro-democracy petition. As there is no right to free speech, especially when challenging the government, this also is not an uncommon occurrence. The only English newspaper usually available is the China Daily, and since the government prints it, it is difficult to believe that it is always unbiased accurate reporting.
Beijing appears to be in flux. On one hand visitors see the age-old Chinese traditions, culture and history throughout the city. And on the other hand visitors see the arrival of global businesses en masse, the impressive Olympic upgrades, and almost all signs in English. And while the government has certainly loosened its grip on controlling the economy in recent years, it remains omnipresent in the daily lives of Chinese citizens. Whatever direction it’s heading in, Beijing is certainly an intriguing place to visit.
(Next week will feature a story on China’s turbulent history, and then a personal narrative of the reporter’s 12-day family trip throughout northeast China.)
Photo caption: Staff Columnist Devin Beliveau on the Great Wall of China at Mutianyu. (Courtesy photo)