The dragon is sleeping no longer. China, the once-underdeveloped giant of Asia, is coming on strong.
Twelve years ago, when I last visited, Beijing was a colorless, low-rise city whose citizens all wore blue Mao suits. Few women dared to wear makeup, jewelry or high-heeled shoes. Not many private automobiles were seen on the roads, which were mostly filled with bicyclists and trucks. Only two modern high-rise hotels existed, and I didn’t see a single neon sign.
Today, building cranes reach high into the sky in every quarter of Beijing, new high-rise apartments and office buildings are creating a concrete forest along the three ring-roads that now encircle the city, far fewer bicycles and far more cars run on Beijing’s streets, women wear stylish outfits, dozens of hotels offer Western-style service to tourists, and the Mao suit is practically a museum piece.
Beijing even has a Hard Rock Cafe.
Similarly striking changes were visible in the other Chinese cities I visited this spring. But for those who have visited China before, it is in Beijing, the once-conservative capital of the country, that the changes seem most astounding. It is as if Beijing society, wound as tightly as a spring, suddenly snapped when the country’s communist leaders opened the country to capitalistic enterprise.
Western businesses rushed in, teaming with the Chinese in joint ventures to build and manage hotels, factories, retail complexes and other developments. Beijing now has more than two dozen McDonald’s, plus Burger Kings, Kentucky Fried Chickens, etc.
And when visitors go shopping, they are no longer limited to Friendship Stores, the shops that accepted only special money issued to foreigners. Visitors can shop wherever they please using yuan, the normal Chinese currency; China did away with the special foreign monetary scrip two years ago.
For tourists, such changes make a visit much more pleasant. Many more Western-style hotels are in place, and the service and facilities in five-star properties are on a par with the best hotels anywhere in the world.
Improvements in infrastructure make the going easier for tourists as well.
A new six-lane expressway, for instance, cuts the time required to drive from Beijing to the Ming Tombs and the Great Wall. The highway, complete with Western-style directional signs and toll gates, opened in October.
Such improvements are important to Beijing, because it is only for such monuments as the Great Wall that visitors come to China’s capital city. Once the visitor has climbed atop the Wall, toured the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven and Tiananmen Square in town and the Summer Palace on its outskirts, there’s little of tourist interest here. Beijing is not a Paris with pleasant sidewalk cafes, ambient avenues, abundant cultural events and trendy nightlife.
Tour groups are inevitably taken to visit cloisonne-making and jade-carving factories, which just as inevitably have large sales outlets on the premises. The making of these typically Chinese works is fascinating, but many tourists come away feeling they’re being politely hustled.
That feeling is reinforced when you discover that the cloisonne musical balls that cost $5 in the factory shop are sold by sidewalk vendors for $2.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.