Ever been to Beijing? It’s a fascinating place with the fastest growth rate in the world. Its population virtually tripled in the last 30 years and is now home to 21 million people. It built and rebuilt its airport twice. It has seven beltways around the city that continue to grow, and it already has 18 subway lines with 334 stations that cover 527 km of the city. This is a huge achievement, if you consider that New York has been building its 375 km of subway for more than 100 years. Even in 2003, when I was working in Beijing, there were very few stops and basically only three subway lines. I never needed to take the subway. Never. Back then, the Beijing subway was not yet considered proper public transportation. But today, if you want to move around the city and avoid endless traffic gridlocks and escape the bad pollution, the Beijing subway is your horse to ride. In the last 10 years, the traffic in Beijing grew to the extent that one is forced to use underground transportation. What’s amazing is that in little more than ten years, Beijing managed to build a huge subway system, while only 30 years ago, the predominant means of transport was a bicycle.
Besides its sophisticated public transportation system, Beijing is flooded with super modern constructions in aluminium, steel and glass. In this new megalopolis, towers, hotels, corporate buildings and futuristic landmarks created by an echelon of extravagant western architects make for a stunning new skyline. A person who has not visited Beijing for 10 or more years will definitely get lost, and might even have problems identifying the country that he landed in.
Beijing is a futuristic place. And this is exactly why the Chinese built it the way they did: to show off. Ever since Deng Xiaoping visited the U.S. in 1979, it was imperative for Beijing to become more modern, more vibrant and richer than New York. Beijing wants to be a new America.
But at the heart of all the glitter and buzz of the modern city, there’s an enclave of low palaces surrounded by a high wall. It’s called the Forbidden City, a palace of the Chinese Emperors from the 14th century. When Mao Zedong took over in 1949, he proclaimed China’s new era. Soon after, he knocked down the outer walls of the Forbidden City and opened the gate of the imperial palace. It was a very modern, populist move, but it was never completed. Mao and his followers moved next door, into the walled imperial gardens where they built new headquarters for the communist nomenclature. Ten years later, they cleaned Tiananmen of its residential buildings and shops, and in their place, built the neoclassic mastodon that has become the one and only center for political life in China. It is called Great Hall of the People (GHP), where all the Party’s summits and all the central government meetings take place. The Great Hall of the People is like a fortress or a temple – it looks like a huge bank, where the healthy sperm and ovules of the regime are kept. It is an incredible building of huge halls and corridors, of beautiful, sometimes tacky furniture and rugs. But to me, the most astonishing is the collection of the chandeliers that decorates and illuminates what would otherwise feel like a series of dark bunkers.
Visiting this place is a privilege. Walking the silent corridors of this gigantic building is almost as exciting as walking around the Vatican. Every bit of the Great Hall – which, by the way, is 10 times bigger than St. Peter’s Basilica – smells of deep religion. It takes you into some sort of outer space where your mind and spirit can be purified of the distractions of the temporary world.
All the buzz of the city of 20 million people; all the rush to build the new empire with a strong army, fast railways and satellites; the overwhelming social media – all that has to stop at the huge gate of the biggest palace on the world.
It is in this palace that the most important decisions for the country (and the world) are announced; that the names of the new leaders of the country are proclaimed; where world leaders are received; and where, once a year, the people’s representatives gather.
In March of each year, the Great Hall of the People hosts the Chinese parliament, with 3,000 delegates nominated from all corners of the country. It is a ritual that has not changed for decades. It takes place in pre-modern decor, with Maoist iconography and everlasting liturgy. Those 3,000 finely dressed delegates sit in the Great Hall of the People like pupils, backs stiff and straight as they listen in deadly silence to the dry figures that are trying to illustrate economic strategies, the modernization of defense, and China’s social situation. From the speaker’s podium on a stage decorated with flowers and flags, you never hear any discourse that openly talks about the problems facing the Chinese society as it undergoes dramatic changes. There is no dialogue between the delegates and the country’s leadership. The only sound that comes from the crowd is the rustling of turning pages as delegates follow along with the written speech that is being read on the podium. And the applause, of course.
Just before this year’s session of the People’s Congress started, China’s new strongman, Xi Jinping, rounded up the national media and delivered new instructions to them, first announcing that no foreign entity can independently publish anything online in China; and second, that all the work of the Party’s media must protect and act on behalf of the Party. President Xi’s move adds to the growing opinion that the new leader – who managed to gain control of the whole party and state apparatus in a very short time – is moving towards a more authoritarian regime, perhaps a revival of a cult similar to the one of Mao Zedong. A little glimpse of this debate that is spreading in Western media can be found in a discussion that the China File published.
If you ask me, it is impossible to revive the cult of personality in China. Especially the one Mao Zedong created around himself while fighting for independence from Russian influence. The 1960s were a period of intense and overwhelming ideologies in a world of limited communication. The basic difference between Stalinism and Maoism was that the latter did not aim for worldwide revolution or dominance, but tended to obtain the independence of Chinese economy from what was then called the center of the world’s capitalism – that is, from countries with a developed market economy. Mao wanted to keep locally produced surplus value at home, in China. At most, he would share it with other countries on the periphery of capitalism, with developing nations. The problem was that Mao brought China back to a natural economy, and that starved China did not have any surplus value.
Xi Jinping’s China is totally different.Its economy is deeply globalized and China competing is for the dominance on the world market, trying to secure the raw materials and resources for its interrupted growth, while the better-off of Chinese society evolves enormously.
It’s for this reason that Xi’s strong offensive grip over Chinese society is a desperate gesture.
Here are two examples why do I think so. Continuing with this pattern of strict control, two orders came out on the eve of the People’s Congress. One was a set of 21 instructions to the media and delegates how to report and behave during the period of the People’s Congress. The China Digital Times published these instructions, while the New York Times commented on them. While these measures have been ridiculed by the local social media, the following ban, as reported by The Guardian on the eve of the parliament session, might have more serious consequences:
The Chinese government has banned all depictions of gay people on television, as part of a cultural crackdown on “vulgar, immoral and unhealthy content”. Chinese censors have released new regulations for content that “exaggerates the dark side of society” and now deem homosexuality, extramarital affairs, one night stands and underage relationships as illegal on screen. Last week the Chinese government pulled a popular drama, Addicted, from being streamed on Chinese websites as it follows two men in gay relationships, causing uproar among the show’s millions of viewers. The government said the show contravened the new guidelines, which state that “No television drama shall show abnormal sexual relationships and behaviours, such as incest, same-sex relationships, sexual perversion, sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual violence, and so on.”
The ban also extends to smoking, drinking, adultery, sexually suggestive clothing, even reincarnation. China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television told television producers it would constantly monitor TV channels to ensure the new rules were strictly adhered to.
There are somewhere around 60 million gay people in China. That number is not much smaller than the members of the Communist Party, who have sworn obedience to the rules of Central command. Same-sex relationships have long been tolerated in China and there are already quite a few gay couples who filed for marriage and have their cases waiting in court. Unless the Party wants to bring on a new political challenge, there is no way that rights concerning individuals’ lifestyles could be taken away from Chinese citizens. They obtained them in exchange for political obedience by promising not to discuss the government’s politics.
Taking rights away from the people and calling for the Maoist purity that had put even sex life on the blacklist, could provoke a cry for the attack on the Bastille – or, rather, the Great Hall of the People that represents the temple and fortress of power that sucks freedom from its people.
I, personally, am against the demolishing of that huge palace, but perhaps the new leader will open it for real and turn it into museum of modern art.