Beijing was our first major global city since Istanbul, or possibly Almaty depending on definition. As the capital of China since the 15th century, Beijing is the nexus between the State and its people, where money and power coagulate. It is also the first stop for almost every (non-cycle) tourist, and so it's also the shop window for China's global expression and self re-invention. The position and nature of this mega-city was continuously reaffirmed in a host of different ways during our visit.
We started in Qianmen and Dashilan Streets, the equivalent of London's Picadilly and Oxford Street. Certain shops displayed fawning official plaques with an english title translation reading 'Time honoured brand'. Walking down the streets, these plaques have been neatly distributed to one specialised merchant in each major consumer good or foodstuff: shoes, silk, jewelry, paintings, calligraphy, cinema, Peking duck, dumplings, tea etc. After a bit of research, I found out this is a government sponsored scheme to revitalise and glorify heritage Chinese brands. Brands which were quashed or during the absurdities of the Cultural revolution, a time where 'heritage', 'independence' and 'superior' were all very dirty words.
The attempt seems to be (re)create a class of domestic Chinese brands with cultural kudos equivalent to Fortnums, Harrods, Hamelys and Lilly Whites. What was once lost, MUST now be found (for the honour of the Chinese state). Although for now Western high-end and street brands dominate the consumer luxury landscape: Luis Vuitton carried in hand, Gucci stamped on the chest, and Balenciagas are on the feet. The buying power of Chinese consumers is such that the big Italian brands now even have China-specific product lines. There is even a competitive air to luxury purchases in some quarters here, a far-cry from the noble intentions and then malignant values of Chinese 20th century communism. Mao would be turning in his grave: western luxury fashion in a state where young girls used to be punished as filthy capitalists for tying their hair up with ribbons (see Wild Swans), and where cars were temporarily made to drive on the left, to reflect the political leaning.
From the high-street to the 'Hutong', Hutongs are districts of cramped, single-story, narrow street buildings and form the cultural and tourist hub of Beijing. Many of these districts have been demolished, but in the shadow of the Forbidden City this compact court-serving life continues still. Fabulous artistry could still be found in the hutong's south of Tianemen, there was a door-sized jade carving with a $5 million price tag, the workmanship was finer than anything seen on the trip so far. Rob had some calligraphy lessons surrounded by elegant paintbrushes, some going for tens of thousands of dollars, and there were bags of tea for pocket change - a couple of thousand dollars. These prices are riding on the back of an astonishing tsunami of Chinese wealth washing around the city.
The city's other hutong districts that have been spared demolition are now exceedingly hip craft beer bars, exquisitely tasteful cafes or ceramic boutiques. The swell of money could also be felt bubbling up in these brewpubs, where the fridges looked like the beer shelves of Amsterdam's finest 'night-shops'. Whilst it could be difficult to drink anything brewed in China, I did find a 330ml bottle of imported stout for $50. I can't work out whether the globalisation inherent and in-process in our consumerism makes travel more or less important: to find and enjoy the fast declining cultural variation, or whether if it is all becoming the same - why look elsewhere? A rather depressing sentiment to arise from a world cycle trip, if there ever was one.
It was in the finest of these hutong brew-pubs, Great Leap Brewery, that we had a fascinating conversation with three young Chinese architects, one was half-american and acted as somewhat of a cultural and linguistic go-between. Conversation brushed over niceties before diving into the meatier topics: after all, Rob had introduced me as a journalist.
We discussed the reclamation of Chinese art which was originally looted or 'purchased' by Europeans in the 19th century, but recently has been slowly returning to China through two routes: firstly in the auction purchases of antiques by patriotic Chinese billionaires (notably $36 million dollars for a single Ming-era teacup); or in a spate of Hollywood super-heists around the finest British and French museums. I impersonally outlined the 'British museum's' view that if the items had remained in China, they would have probably been destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. Having vandalised their own antiques, China is now looking to reclaim these pieces from safe foreign havens. The line taken in half-jesting reply was 'this is my phone, it is my right to destroy it or not, you have no right to it in any case'. The only safe response here was pure humanism: how we are humans first and foremost, and are Chinese or British second. This art of incalculable human value should simply be kept in the safest place and in the best condition for the appreciation of future generations of all colours and creeds. To most young idealists the 'global citizen' perspective is the trump.
A modern view of Mao was the next sacred cow to confront, wincing slightly, I asked the architects their contemporary views on Mao, 40 years after his death and active personality cult. With nuance, they replied Mao ought to be judged among the emperors of China, not against conventional political leaders. A general consensus on Mao was found on conversational tip-toes: good in the beginning for leading China to stand on its own two feet independent of meddling foreign powers, but as ever thus, problematic in relinquishing power. Where a good leader can become a great one is in how they give up power. They then asked for my 'foreigner's perspective' on Xi Jinping and Chinese political system. I was ready to admit the farsightedness of the Belt and Roads policy, and also to applaud the meritocratic system for promoting Chinese administrators - a descendant system of the millennia old imperial civil service exams. The question mark over Xi lies in the same issue as Mao, will he give over power.
It was an intriguing and unique conversation, after an initial reticence the architects didn't seem too guarded or concerned with their comments or slight criticisms. This is inline with what our host Jacob said, an english teacher at a Bejing University, he explained how there is an official class monitor in every class to observe the views aired by pupils and teacher alike and report them to the Party. There is a second hidden monitor, with unknown identity, who acts as the safeguard to corruption of the original monitor. There is are a group of class rebels, one in particular who labels himself a fundamentalist christian, ultra-right wing, trump supporter, but his dissent is dismissed as juvenile delinquency. The moderation of today's government from the Maoist one is that it only seeks to close down the dissent seen as threatening. The propaganda and nationalism is such that 'young Trumpy's' mini-rebellion is laughed off, whereas in previous times there would have been trouble. Rather than a weakening grip, this demonstrates the current strength of the Party's position and points to it enduring long into the future.
Visiting the National museum delved further into the subtlety of the propaganda apparatus. On a perfectly normal Tuesday, I spent more than an hour queuing up outside surrounded almost exclusively by Chinese tourists. You wouldn't expect the same hordes queuing up outside the British Museum. The structure itself is an colossal edifice on the Eastern side of Tianemen Square, fronted by great square-cut columns, it is the Chinese state in bricks and mortar. The cavernous interior has the scale of a major airport, it contains two permanent exhibitions: Ancient Chinese History 3500 BC - 1910 AD, and 'The Road of Rejuvenation' covering Modern history. The first exhibition had endless halls of impressive artifacts and explanations waxing lyrical on the sophistication of Chinese civilisation. The last 600 years of Chinese history was covered in a single corner of a side room, this period of relative decline, isolation, and then foreign interference was so extraordinarily limited in emphasis. This fly-by treatment seemed more than just glossing over but an active forgetting of years by State and People, although where's the blame the Europeans aced pretty despicably in that time.
The first exhibit had perfect english translations available for every detail, the second had only 8 panels of high-level gist in english, leaving the rest impenetrable for the casual foreigner. My host said how a couple of years ago there had been more translations available, they had actively lessened the accessibility for a foreign audience. Through what I could tell, there seemed to be no mention of foreign liberators at the end of WW1, nor any reference to the massive famine and starvation during the 'Great Leap Forward', and other convenient omissions. All nations rewrite their own histories, but some rewrite earlier and more powerfully than others. In the UK, we have only started to seriously examine the darker parts of Empire in the last 25 years or so, but we have not attempted to so powerfully alter the stories of living memory.
Not everything in China or Beijing happens within a political framework, but more than anywhere else I've been the fingerprints of the State are that much more visible. This is no inherently a negative thing, it is a different system of operation. As one commentator said so succinctly: The Chinese people have struck a deal with their State, the people have traded in freedoms for continuously rising living standards. The government is guaranteed stability as long as things keep getting better. Both sides have so far kept their side of the bargain.