I visited Beijing (and China) for the first time over the Easter holidays, and have since been trying to write some stuff down about the trip. Unfortunately though—and perhaps predictably, given how much I loved the place—what started as a cursory travelogue-type-thing has very quickly turned into an essay-length word-splurge. Under advisement, then, and for my own sanity, I have decided to split what’s finished of this snaking beggar into more graspable chunks …
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The portrayal of China—or, perhaps more accurately, the Chinese government—as a shadowy, secretive and somehow malevolent force has been a mainstay of the British media for some years now. Even when a report may at first glance seem positive—‘China’s anti-piracy role off Somalia expands’ (BBC)—the body copy is often infused with distrustful language that hints at ever-present ulterior motives. The headline just mentioned, for example, which refers to China joining the allied naval forces in the fight against Somalian piracy, is expanded upon in the main body of the story with the following detractions:
- The agreement also allows China to take on the rotating chairmanship of the naval task force that coordinates patrols.
- China is believed to be interested in raising its participation in the anti-piracy drive partly because one of its ships was hijacked last October.
- Analysts say China is also eager to extend its naval reach beyond its shores.
Looked at in unison, these statements paint a fairly clear picture of intent: China has changed its stance out of economic self-interest, military expansionism and, as hinted at in the first bullet-point, a desire to control the allied forces in the area (with god-knows-what nefarious aims). Interestingly, the story then goes on to explain how Chinese state media are twisting events through their own news channels by claiming a ‘central’ and leadership’ role in an ‘important international operation’, which in a fairly neat way works to confirm our suspicions about the Chinese government (after all, they lie to their own citizens), whilst simultaneously presenting the BBC as unquestionably impartial.
I should add—although I hope this isn’t really necessary—that none of the above should be interpreted as me showing support for the Chinese government, or, for that matter, suggesting that the suspicion shown by much of the media in the UK and elsewhere is somehow unfounded. I’m pretty sure it’s not. Instead, it’s supposed to illustrate that through being relentlessly (and one-sidedly) reminded, whether explicitly or implicitly, of China’s threat to international relations and world prosperity, a certain preconception of China—the place, the people, the state—is bound to manifest itself.
My first trip to China, then—to conclude this lengthy and circuitous introduction that got away from me a bit—was in some sense a journey to an expectation. I had an idea of the country long before I’d arrived—an idea that, whether valid or not, was to be continually challenged and undermined by the history, people and atmosphere of Beijing.
In many ways, though, stepping from the plane into Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital Airport confirmed my preconceptions (and, in a strange way, reminded me of England). Banks of security cameras, utterly conspicuous in both positioning and number, scan your every move through the health check, immigration and baggage reclaim sections of the airport. It’s said that there are an estimated 4,200,000 CCTV cameras in the UK (discounting any operated privately in shops or offices), but I would argue that Beijing is up there with London in terms of cameras per capita. From the airport to the train station to the city itself, they hang from streetlights and buildings like bats in a cave. When we finally arrived at our hotel and switched on the television, all we could get was the state-run service called, coincidentally, CCTV (China Central Television). Never has a TV looked so much like an Orwellian telescreen.
But then this was just the first night; my impression of China was still being coloured by years of negative press (as well as a rather brusque immigration check by a seemingly catatonic border control officer). The city itself, doing little to allay my skittishness, was dark and cold, and slightly intimidating in its desertedness. As we rounded the corner and began walking down the road to our hotel, I caught sight of a figure sitting on a set of steps leading up to a doorway. Their head was down, huddled in against the cold, and they were wearing a greatcoat and an ushanka. These were my first impressions.