Times Colonist: December 2007 Archives

It's the time of year when we reflect on what the previous year brought us.

Here in China, one year goes so quickly that it seems like four.

In fact, that was the finding of an economist with Standard Chartered in Shanghai. China is developing so fast, he reported, that one year's worth of development in a Chinese city is equal to four years of development in a European or North American one.

This year, that finding couldn't have been more true in Beijing.

The new China Central Television tower, a state-of-the-art facility that resembles a twisted, square doughnut, went from being a hole in the ground to towering above the central business district.

American bawdy chain-restaurant Hooters opened in the city's entertainment area, another million or two migrants waded into the city core and the Olympic buzz reached deafening proportions.

But with the new going up, the old must come down.

Many of the top restaurants and bars from a few years ago no longer even exist. When I first arrived in Beijing in 2004, a bar called Cloud 9 was rated as the city's best, and the entertainment district was called Sanlitun South.

A few months later, the bar and the entire entertainment area were bulldozed.

When a friend from Canada visited in the summer of 2005, we walked around the historic hutongs, or traditional Chinese courtyard homes, south of Tiananmen Square.

A few months later, the entire area was rubble. These areas are being rebuilt with gleaming new malls, department stores, office towers and luxury apartments.

On one hand, the improvements are turning Beijing into a much cleaner, more livable city. On the other, much of the charm and history of the city's past are being bulldozed along with the buildings.

It can be difficult -- and at times, frustrating -- living here. One comes to feel comfortable going to certain places, only to find they no longer exist a short time later. Keeping track of changing neighbourhoods, malls, bars and restaurants requires a profound dedication to the city's many free-listings magazines.

One of the places we used to visit for an after-work drink was called the Goose and Duck. The Beijing sports bar institution was named because of its connection to Canada -- the Canada goose, the Beijing duck.

Owner John Harkness would walk around the tables, his ponytail poking through the back of his ball cap and with an ice cold bottle of Tsingdao in hand. Each night, the band (which had been at the establishment as long as I could remember) would play nearly the same tired set list -- a mix of ballads from the 1970s and 1980s. We expats would chat about life in China over a few games of darts.

We haven't made it to the Goose much recently. Everyone I know who moved to China has either returned home or settled into a rather normal existence of getting up, going to work, coming home, making dinner and heading to bed.

Which is why it was special when some longtime high school friends and my family visited China a few months ago.

On a lark for old times' sake, a group of us piled into taxis and headed for the Goose. We ordered a round of beers and divided everyone up into dart teams.

The crowd was a mix of several of us who had lived in China for a few years, my dad and some friends visiting from Kelowna, Vancouver and Victoria. We chatted, laughed, played darts, took some photos and then everyone headed home.

As it turns out, that was our last visit. When some colleagues tried to visit a few weeks ago, the Goose was closed. It has moved further out of town into a sterile strip mall.

The old one was in the way of Beijing's rapid development.

The story of the Goose is just a microcosm of the changes occurring across this sprawling metropolis.

Simply put, Beijing is unrecognizable from the city I first visited in 1999 and completely different from the city I moved to in 2004. Sometimes one wonders whether the changes haven't only begun.

American and European chain stores, restaurants and caf├ęs will continue opening here to cash in on China's growing wealthy class.

More students, small-business owners, managers, travellers and journalists will come to these shores seeking their piece of the "Chinese dream."

Nobody can stop the march of time, just as the old Goose and Duck couldn't stand in the way of Beijing's breakneck development. I'm thankful for the memories of old Beijing, even if that city no longer exists.

It's a good reminder, as we reflect back on 2007: Be thankful for what you have because you never know when it will be gone.

This article was published in the Victoria Times Colonist on Sunday December 30, 2007. The original article can be found here.

An editorial in the New York Times this week denounced Russian President Vladimir Putin for rolling back Russia's democratic reforms. "Putin has so emasculated the democratic institutions that evolved in the 1990s that it is apparent he has little confidence in his people. The Kremlin controls the political process, deciding who can run for office and who gets access to national television coverage," the editorial complained.

It's a pertinent observation, one that often comes from western media outlets that criticize countries that don't give their citizens the same individual freedoms we enjoy in Canada. There's no doubt Putin and his United Russia party have a stranglehold on power. They exert a strong influence on Russian media and even disperse or ban opposition rallies.

But, chances are, if you ask a Russian which they prefer -- the chaotic, destabilizing and humiliating years after the Iron Curtain fell, or Putin's rising economic and political giant -- I think we can all guess the answer.

The New York Times admitted as much, "Buoyed by high oil revenues and a rising economy, he is credited with restoring national pride and stability," the editorial noted. People in Russia are better off, proud of their country again and mostly content.

The same is true in China, where discontented foreign voices grow louder as China's coming-out party, next year's Olympic Games, approaches. The Falun Gong, its Epoch Times newspaper and other pro-democracy groups have been rallying for democracy, improved human rights and a halt to the harvesting of organs.

But it's telling when those calling for such things are outside the country.

The Chinese are not a weak people. When they are unhappy, the government will hear about it. Revolutions have overthrown dynasties throughout China's history.

More recent demonstrations, such as the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989, show they aren't afraid to stand-up to a government abusing its power. Even shady land-grabs have resulted in full-blown protests -- some violent -- as Chinese citizens stand up for their rights, which are enshrined in the country's constitution.

But outside of ideological or political disputes, most people, especially in the urban centres, seem relatively happy with the Communist party and its government for one simple reason: The economy is growing, and has been, at an unprecedented pace, for almost 30 years.

China is not a democracy but that doesn't mean its government is any less attentive to the population. In fact, it knows it must continue with economic growth, rein in high pollution levels, keep a lid on inflation and ensure people are content, just like any government elected in a democratic environment. Failure to do so could result in a full-scale revolt and threaten the party's hold on power.

It's also not like the government here imposes its will on a weak and feeble populace: The new property law introduced this spring spent several years in various levels of consultations around the country. Steve Dickinson, a lawyer with the U.S. law firm Harris-Moure in Shanghai, told me, that "If the Chinese don't like a law, they'll just ignore it."

That makes China tough to govern. Its sphere for public discussion is also far larger than many people realize: More and more Chinese are publicly calling for stricter environmental standards, halts on rising property prices and improved public transport, among other things.

Democracy is still the preferred form of government. It safeguards human rights, ensures minority voices are heard and provides checks and balances on parties in power. But it can only work when the environment is ripe for it to thrive.

Democracy has been a failure when imposed on Iraq and Afghanistan, has struggled in Palestine, the Philippines and Thailand and might not even be suitable for India, which boasts a population and potential similar, if not equal, to China's.

India has been growing at a slower pace, its infrastructure is old and crippling and it is often mired in political infighting.

Conversely, China's infrastructure is new and expanding quickly (the gross domestic product expands by double-digits each year) and the government has a free hand to modernize the country.

But all politics are local and that's where the Chinese seem most content. More and more people here are buying apartments, new cars and luxury handbags. They are starting businesses, travelling overseas and putting their kids into good universities. They are becoming stakeholders in the system. Very few want to see their golden goose killed.

Despite its stewardship of the economy, however, China's Communist regime remains troubling. Taiwan is continually threatened, dissidents remain in prison, the Internet is censored, intellectual property rights infringement and corruption are rampant. China's military budget is growing by billions each year.

Many Russians and Chinese, I'm sure, would like to see democracy reach their shores someday -- but only if it works. Western organizations calling for the immediate implementation of democracy in these countries, without any proper evaluation of their history, development, economy, culture or political conditions, are naive.

This article originally appeared in the Victoria Times Colonist. It was published on Sunday December 2, 2007.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Times Colonist category from December 2007.

Times Colonist: November 2007 is the previous archive.

Times Colonist: February 2008 is the next archive.

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