On Aiweiwei’s Beijing

I just read Ai Weiwei’s column in Newsweek in which he describes Beijing as a “nightmare” and a “constant nightmare”. I am delighted that his detention ordeal hasn’t dampened his spirits but I have to say that I don’t agree with him at all, though I understand his frustration and bitterness. I have immense respect for Ai who is an extremely talented artist as well as an extremely courageous man who dares to criticize the authorities. I wish our government were confident enough to tolerate a few eccentrics like Ai, whom I had the pleasure to meet on several occasions. I am sure that Ai, as someone who appreciates the democratic value, wouldn’t mind that others present different views.

I love Beijing. I fell in love with the capital back in 1993 when I first came to live. I found the city far more exciting and vibrant than my hometown Nanjing. There’s so much to offer, so many things going on and you always meet interesting people doing interesting things. Ai Weiwei himself is just a fine example.

I am surprised that Ai claims that there’s no favorite place for him in the city. Not even his cool spacey house in the art district of Chaochangdi? Usually people carve out their favorite corners even in the bleakest place on earth: you have to make the most out of where you live.

My favorite place is my neighborhood Jiuxianqiaocun – Wine God Bridge Village. Despite its name, it is not a particularly poetic place: it’s rather messy; the narrow streets are littered with rubbish; the low-rises red-brick houses are mostly simply constructed and the public toilets on street corners are smelly. A typical migrant workers’ area. Yet, for me, it is authentic, real and lively. I am renting a house here. There are a lot of activities on the street: people cook, wash their babies and socialize outside (well, their homes are too small). They share food when they cook something good and keep an eye on the neighbour’s children. You have to help each other out when life is harsh. Every day I chat and crack jokes with my neighbours, who always lend me a hand when I drag my heavy electric scooter in and out of my house. Joaquin, a friend stayed with me recently, grew up in Latin America. He described the neighborhood like ‘a slum in Venezuela without the violence or danger’.

For most of them, their lives are much better than previous generations. And despite of the fact that the migrant workers are not treated equally as urban dwellers, they can make more money in the city than tilling the land at home. And more importantly, they feel hopeful about the future.

Sure, life is no dinner parties for the migrants as they encounter a host of challenges in the city, including their children’s education. The school of my helper’s daughter was closed a few months ago which caused such stress to her. (I blamed it for the few crushed plates) but the girl has been arranged to attend to a local school. Others may not be so lucky.

Beijing as a city has its own problem, its extreme climate, its increasingly congested traffic and of course the polluted air. For Ai, a city is about its mental structure while for me it’s about the people. If you like the people, and can relate to the people, then you naturally feel part of the city as I do. I came from a poor family and slaved for ten years at a factory, I understand the desire of the migrant workers in bettering their lives.

I am no darling of the government. I had my share of brushes with the authorities: years ago, my ex-husband – a fellow journalist – and I were detained when we went to a small town in Hebei to investigate a case of an innocent man being shot dead by a policeman on a road rage. Before and after that, I was warned that as a Chinese, I shouldn’t write for western media. I have no chance to see my memoir “Socialism is Great!” to be published in China in Chinese because I described the demonstration I organized in support the democratic movement in 1989. When New York Times reviewed my book in 2008, the page of the review was torn out. Same story for Ai – the page of Newsweek where Ai’s article was – was also being taken out, according to one report I read.

Speaking of the Olympics, I’d disagree with Ai again: it did bring lots of joy and pride to millions of ordinary Chinese. I was here to witness and report on it.

People find different paths and different roles to play in life. My mission is, in my small way, to help the world to understand where China was coming from and what’s happening now. That’s why I am writing this post.

22 thoughts on “On Aiweiwei’s Beijing

  1. Lijia,

    You have done an excellent job in depicting to the world where China was coming from. But are you sure you know enough of what’s happening now?

  2. In some ways I also agree with Ai’s vision. 6 years in Beijing and still do not enjoy it. Find it unpersonal and lacking personality, grey and spirit-dry. Don’t know, may be I came from an “ugly” city like Taipei that is able to conquer you through very subtle means.

  3. I’m an American who has lived in Beijing for more than 10 years. My degrees are in Chinese and Chinese history, and I attended both Peking University and Tsinghua for a combined 3 years. I am now working and earning a living here in China doing P.R. and new media related stuff. On a personal level, China is fine. I have friends and have carved out a life. My Chinese is quite good, and there are few linguistic or cultural barriers separating me from my friends and neighbors. Having said that, I am afraid that I like Beijing and China less and less each year. Indeed, I’ve begun seriously considering a move – either back to the U.S. or to Hong Kong (where I grew up). I find much of what I see and experience here in China increasingly intolerable: the government’s obsession with security; the widespread (and ignorant) patriotism of so many of the people; the worsening pollution and dirty food; the utterly hellish traffic and idiotic/maniacal drivers (Chinese pedestrians are hardly better); the manifest ugliness of the place; the lack of real freedom…. (I honestly could go on for some time like this.)

    During the lead-up to the Beijing Olympic Games, I remember reading a sign that said something like, “Beijing: As ancient as Rome; As sophisticated as Paris; As dynamic as New York…” I remember thinking at the time that Beijing was/is none of these things. It comes up well short of all of those cities. In fact, it comes up well short of most third-tier U.S. cities. And it’s getting worse. My wife (Chinese) wants to leave. My wife’s family wants to leave. Their neighbors wish they could leave. China’s wealthy and connected are leaving (or have left).

    My neighbors watch each other’s children too. But they also get in regular fist fights over parking spaces, and petty theft is astonishingly common (they even steal the hot peppers that some of the older people grow in pots throughout the compound in which I live). Everyone watches each other – for better or for worse – much of it worse, I think.

    When Ai Weiwei writes of Beijing, I get what he means. It’s not the whole story, to be sure, but it’s a big and important part of life here. I marvel at the people who love it here, and I wish I could be more like them. In recent years, each time I leave China for business or travel, I have a harder time returning. I used to like China and Beijing – now I endure it.

  4. Hi Zhang Lijia, Nice to see your blog, I remember you and your husband Callum from ten years ago, in 2001, you both gave a talk at our VSO China conference in the Cuiyuan Guesthouse, Xibei Daxue, Xi’an. The late Liang Congjie (may he rest in peace) also gave a talk there at the same conference. I remember it fondly.
    I taught English at Nanyang Teachers College for two years beofre returning to the UK. I often visited Beijing and spent hours walking round the city and exploring it in the hot summers and cold winters. I do feel sad though that much of old Beijing has been knocked down but despite this I have fond memories of the city. I hope it has not changed too much in ten years but I fear that it probably has.

      1. Yes I am teaching in London now, but still keep up my Chinese skills and of course keep in touch with some of my former students in China. I enjoy reading all the literature on China – bookshops in the UK are full of books on China now. Of course, I’ll enjoy reading your latest book “Socialism is Great”. I know VSO are still in China, but with a different focus now, more of an advocacy role and good to know their programme has matured, now encouraging Chinese from the wealthy Eastern seaboard cities to volunteer in central and western provinces.

        Like you, I do sympathise with Ai Wei Wei’s views, he’s had a very difficult time of late to say the least. Of course Beijing means different things to different people, and very different things to “insiders” and “outsiders” but I do know what he means. A city does need a soul, and too much demolition and lack of respect for history can damage a city’s soul and its citizens’ sense of belonging. I agree with him about the parks and nice to know that the Temple of the Moon park (yuetan gongyuan) has been restored (so I hear – is it true?), this at least restores Beijing’s geometric layout of Tiantan, Ritan, Ditan and Yuetan.

  5. I first read your post on China Beat and wholeheartedly endorse what you wrote – also I felt strongly that someone had to challenge AiWeiWei’s views, particularly as they were published in Newsweek and could give NW readers a very slanted view of BJ – so thank you for saying what I am sure many people thought!

  6. Ai Weiwei obviously has a rather “special” relationship to Beijing. His reality is quite different from the average person’s. I think we all have a sort of love-hate relation with Beijing. For me the love outweighs the hate. But I have to admit, the increasingly snarled traffic is tipping the scales toward frustration, at least. But I could never leave Beijing. For all its flaws, it is still one of the most addictively dynamic cities on earth.

  7. I am coming to this discussion a bit late, but I would like to chip in. I am Italian/British and have been living in Beijing for over three years. I absolutely don’t recognize this city in the way Ai Weiwei has described it either. However I symphatize with him, and like you say, the authorities should feel confident enough to tolerate a few eccentrics like him.

    Still, it is clearly untrue that the Olympic Games brought no joy to the ordinary people. It is also untrue that the immigrants from other parts of China have no hope in their eyes; I think that is the one thing they have lots of. By the way, most villages in China do have electricity in my experience (and I have been to some pretty remote places). I wouldn’t know about toilet paper.

    Beijing and China certainly have their drawbacks, which are becoming more and more irritating the longer I stay here. However, I think Beijing has lots of pockets of real beauty (think of the parks), and lots of other places which are at least tollerable, as well as some genuinely dirty and ugly suburbs. There is also a feeling of enthusiasm and hope of a better future which you can no longer find in most Western metropolises.

    If you click on my name you will be redirected to my blog on my life here in Beijing.

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