■ 18:10 (UTC+08:00), 18 SEP 2016 | CHN STARBUCKS, BEIJING CBD
Let me be honest with you all: I find an equal amount of grave, dismal, even abysmal faults in China, as I find it to be one of the best countries in the world. It’s natural: I was born here, and until I was 18, I used to be a Chinese citizen. I still live here — with all of my family.
Social media has seen me both rip China into smithereens — and also praise it as a nation even London should look up to. My wife Tracy should have referred me to Bei’an Hospital, supposedly one of China’s best hospitals to treat psychologically ill people, because I became some kind of viewpoint schizophrenic. She has seen me in days when I was so pleased looking into the Beijing sky, as well as days when just her touching me ever so softly as I got up was enough to provoke me into a fit of fury she wasn’t prepared for.
I am hardly alone in this, as I’ve learnt. Most people — expats included! — have this conflicting love and hate of China and of Beijing. But I am not willing to be sold out to either extremes — either as a “dissenter”, or as a “human microphone” to Zhongnanhai. I’m a poor Swiss citizen if we’re to be seen as “the best of” viewpoint neutrality. So what I do instead is to reinterpret neutrality as a “smorgasbord of views”.
Beijing’s Fatal Faults
Let’s start with why I find that Beijing is just abysmal.
First, the weather. Although I have to say, I have had few months as enjoyable as that bit between late August and early September 2016. For what must have been 2-3 weeks, I had almost blue skies every single day with equally brilliant sundowns. The arrival of autumn, however, reminds me to the absolute worst of Beijing I will see come early November. Early into that month is when we will see hellish skies. This happens every year: we just get used to it, but we don’t love it one bit. The winter is slightly better, though. I would love a Beijing with more blue skies, though — and it looks like we’re slowly getting it.
Second, poor policies. I try to keep out of Chinese politics, but it looks like I “sub-consciously” allow my lips to always hover within half an inch of the microphone here — only to yell in an ear-shattering shriek when the Chinese government comes out with policies that make your eyes roll 24/7. Before the railways became a company (and when it was still a government ministry), I was outspoken in being a clear opponent of new trunk lines being downgraded to run “only” at 250 km/h (157 mph) instead of 350 km/h (217 mph). Outside of the rails, I find serious fault with the awfully poor efficiency of the postal service — if you thought Royal Mail in the UK was crap, the Chinese equivalent is the pits. However, I find the new Chinese national security laws to be probably some the very best laws Beijing has passed, and I find the new “points system” for “social credit” to be government genius in action. Thankfully Beijing is churning out less crap laws by the moment, but it’s the indifference of the poorly-paid mandarins that is dragging the whole system to the sh*tter.
Third, awful city traffic. Although, hey, living in a city with the world’s second-largest rail transit system does not suck at all. And the moment the rush hour crunch strikes, out goes my London-ish gentleman-liness, replaced by rather crass Beijinger traits. Crap traffic is less in my sh*t list in Beijing, though, for one simple reason: the government in Beijing did what the guys in London failed to do — complete the ringway network. Guomao looks like SimCity gone wrong during rush hour, but at least it’s part of a full network — not the likes of the Westway. (Even soulless Milton Keynes has a better network.) But the one network in the world I would not walk away from is China’s Godlike HSR network. This is the stuff that has every non-Chinese, non-Swiss network sh*tting bricks.
Fourth, distrust-filled visa rules. As useless as Britain’s council tax system is, and as disastrous as the Home Office remains, the UK has at least a way for you to claim permanent residence if you were in the country legally for an aggregate of 10 years. In Switzerland, you can become a citizen after 12 years in the Alpine direct democracy. You can stay for probably a trillion years in China (if you could) and still be an equal trillion miles away from the Chinese Green Card. What also stinks is an excess obsession with status; you only get extras if you have PhDs or Associate Professorships. These things are (almost) useless today; we’re much more results-based, but Beijing is still living in the Ice Age. China is not going to be a Killer World Power unless it loosens up its ridiculously outdated visa rules.
Beijing’s Unbeatable Strengths
First, a President who knows exactly what he’s doing. Donald Drumpf (as I’d like to call him) would be an international incident if he managed to dupe voters into his (p)residency at 1600 Penn Ave, but Xi Jinping is the exact opposite. He started by improving infrastructure for the farmlands — even during Mao’s disastrous Cultural Revolution. He’s been in office everywhere from counties to metropolises. You don’t have to agree with every last policy he’s promulgated, but at least he’s far more apt to rule than Drumpf. His late-2013 policies and the new 13th Five-Year Plan are probably the best policies I’ve seen in 15-20 years: we finally dumped the One-Kid Policy, Chinese citizens get more overseas destinations visa-free, and nobody in office dares to be corrupt any more. In Switzerland, we haven’t had a solid leader since the era of maybe Adolf Ogi (sorry, Herr Blocher). Sommarauga had a hellish job talking to Berlaymont over “freedom of movement”. The SVP’s Mad Shout Outs in Bern threatens the stability and consensus politics that make Switzerland what it is: a stable direct democracy. No leader is perfect (not even those that north Korean propaganda might tend to think are “immortal”), but for any and all of his shortcomings, Xi’s keeping the lid on China in this increasingly unstable world, and I’m always one to give credit where due.
Second, incredible vibrancy across China. I took a photo of the London skyline outside of Aldgate tube station in late 2014, and repeated the same in late 2015. Almost no change. Just try this in Beijing or Shanghai. And I mean — not just in central Beijing, but also in the suburbs, such as Wangjing (which is where you pass on your way from the airport near Shunyi). I’ve been on a great many trips across the Chinese capital: if you put a microphone to me as I drove by, your taped would be wiped clean, since it’d be full of gasps and expletives that would scare even the likes of George Carlin. The country is growing like mad. And I mean that in the sense that we’re not building Potemkin villages: I’ve seen new skyscrapers with people living in them — loads of them.
Third, business hours that make sense. The closest the UK got to this was the Tesco by Goodmayes, which declared itself open 24/7 — except for 18 hours on Sunday. In China, I live probably 200 steps on foot away from a 7/11 that’s open throughout the night — and the day as well. Banks stay open on Sundays, and some have 24 hour cash deposit and withdrawal machines. If you headed for London after a few years in Beijing, you’d find it unbearable in this aspect. Only Switzerland comes close: shopping facilities in airports and major rail stations close at 22:00 (or for some, at 23:00). I was born to be as highly efficient as possible, so I want to live in cities where we keep the midnight oil burning to serve those who just might need those services. The only whinge I have here would be the city metro train services, which close way before midnight — but other than that, China’s a place which is open nearly all the time.
Finally, the world’s very best rail system… and smart e-payments by mobile phone. When I dump my car at home, I travel around by subway and by China’s absolutely gorgeous HSR network, which would probably have Sir Richard Branson weeping like mad. The best thing is that you can pre-book yourself a confirmed seat 60 days before departure (bye, planes!). We’ve the world’s largest and one of the most efficient — and ontime — HSR systems, full stop. And once I’m at my destination — usually another one of China’s amazingly massive cities, I can pay via WeChat Pay or Contactless (Apple Pay). But the icing on the cake is in China’s highly-wired ETC and WeChat car park payment systems. With no buttons to push, your number place is registered, and before you depart, you can pre-pay — and at some places, get 50% off your car park charges. Now go cry, Q-Park over in the UK… Few things are as amazing as China’s HSR system and the new-generation e-payments system. For all of the negativity surrounding the Wenzhou crash, or for all the controversy surrounding WeChat, censorship, and handling fees, these systems make your life just that bit more smooth — that you’d want to call this place home.
I have a Swiss passport and can easily choose a much better life in Zürich. Tracy has a right to be with me in Zürich or Beijing. We’ve decided to park our soles in Beijing because it’s a city headed for the future with one amazing adventurous experience — for all of its shortcomings, faults, and that smog. We will both continue to have irregular fits of rage when a stupid policy comes out, then gaze in amazement as China’s newest train line opens. I’ll continue to have a love-hate relationship with the city — and the Middle Kingdom as a whole — as it’s a real, living, breathing experience — and because we all care about this place. Dearly. ■ ■ ■