Beijing then and now

We all know about China’s meteoric growth and super-duper-dramatic change and yada yada. Still, this article by a former China Daily reporter who worked here in the 80s and returned for the first time in a quarter of a century makes for splendid reading. Here, for example, is his description of the Workers’ Stadium, now surrounded by haute cuisine eateries:

Back then, the stadium had a much more sinister role: as a giant courtroom for show trials for criminals and subversives. The men – almost all were men – were rounded up during regular nationwide ‘crackdowns’ on crime. I saw them, shackled, handcuffed, heads shaven and hung in shame, being paraded through the streets in open lorries. Each had a placard hanging from his neck announcing his crime: murderer, rapist, thief. They were driven to the stadium where they were jeered at by thousands of workers bused in to witness the trials.

There were, in fact, no trials at all. The men’s alleged crimes were read out, they were declared guilty and the crowd bellowed, ‘Kill the criminals!’ The offenders were driven to a field outside Beijing where they were ordered to kneel, before being shot in the back of the head. As a final punishment, their families were sent a bill for the bullet. The next day, on posters around the city, a grisly red tick was placed next to each of the men’s names and photographs, signifying that they had been executed. I asked a Chinese friend how the authorities could be sure that these men were guilty. ‘They would not have been arrested if they were not guilty,’ he replied, surprised by the naivety of my question.

(In a few days I’ll be moving to a new place three blocks away from the stadium. I hope the ghosts don’t wake me up.) Lots of other good images in the article. Sobering to think that Beijing has changed that much, and even more so to remember that there are still plenty of places in China here where the exact same stuff is still going on.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 15 Comments

Wow – with all due respect to someone who was in Beijing while I was (literally) in diapers, what a shite article. Breaking news: THINGS NO LONGER AS THEY WERE! TOMORROW PAST! TODAY PRESENT! There are some good little anecdotes in there, but the whole tone of “gee, who’d have thought that a country with 10% annual GDP growth could have changed over the last 25 years?” reminds me powerfully of Tom Friedman.

June 21, 2008 @ 3:15 pm | Comment

There are some good photos [not mine] of Beijing in 1983 here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/gregorymjunge/sets/72157600445452342/

June 21, 2008 @ 5:23 pm | Comment

Yeah Brendan, maybe I shouldn’t have said “splendid reading.” I did think some of the anecdotes were interesting (at least the stadium one), and it’s unusual to read the impressions of someone who was away for soooo long.

June 21, 2008 @ 7:32 pm | Comment

If North Korean regime wanted to give the impression that things had changed, do you think they have the apparatus in place to create a false reality? Well, they dont really have the technology, but they are not like China in that they dont have the plans to branch into the globalized world, they stay to themselves so the false reality is easier to conjure. But China wants to be part of the world, so does it have the apparatus and tools necessary to maintain a false reality about itself and that it ‘has changed’? Yeah it has. It has the necessary tools all working mechanically toward the mandate of looking good while being bad. If they had changed so much then why all the media censorship? Why so much manipulation, fear and secrecy? Why the complexes and warped mentalities? It’s not different from North Korea, its just a more sophisticated system.

June 21, 2008 @ 10:19 pm | Comment

It has the necessary tools all working mechanically toward the mandate of looking good while being bad.

Which is a fundamental part of the West’s rise. They have been learning from bad teachers.

June 22, 2008 @ 2:00 am | Comment

So, Brendan, you admit that you are still too young to have very much perspective when it comes to China’s development, yet you propose no suggestions to improve the article. You use a trite and insincere cliche, “with all due respect…” and you follow it with profanity. Not a very useful contribution from you.

June 22, 2008 @ 7:27 am | Comment

@Brendan

I don’t care what others said about you. You got my respect. Anyone who thinks Tom Friedman is an idiot is sharper than other tools in the shed.

June 23, 2008 @ 12:04 am | Comment

Did Brendan say that Tom Friedman is an idiot? Just asking.

June 23, 2008 @ 4:25 am | Comment

@mor – If I didn’t say it explicitly here, I certainly have elsewhere.

@Russell – It has nothing to do with age or time logged, and everything to do with whether or not one has a grasp of the state of China reporting. If I had a dime for every China article I’ve read that began with some comment on how 30 years ago, [PLACE] was a humble poop farm and how today young people in [PLACE] are wearing blue jeans and even kissing in public, I’d have a lot of dimes. There are some nice anecdotes in here, and I suppose the author is writing for a general readership, but the article is simply more of the same.

‘With all due respect’ here is intended quite sincerely: China was, obviously, a different place 20 years ago, and it took a different kind of person to come here than it does now. Anyone who came and spent time in Beijing when it was still off the beaten track is deserving of respect. That doesn’t make this article any less by-the-numbers. As for the profanity: I have not yet begun to be profane.

@Richard – I am probably just being pissy.

June 23, 2008 @ 11:16 am | Comment

Thomas Friedman was a child prodigy, who has credited most of his success to following the life style of the genius from Omaha, who decided early to get as far away from wall street as possible so that he could stay in touch with the important things in life such as his children.

June 24, 2008 @ 12:24 am | Comment

to Snow
Your hostility and condescension REALLY bothers me.You seem to believe you are so superior. I’d like to share with you something about The Berlin Conference。
The Berlin Conference of 1884–85 regulated European colonization and trade in Africa during the New Imperialism period attended by 15 western powers(that pretty much covers all of you,doesn’t it?). The General Act of the Berlin Conference, is the formalization of the Scramble for Africa. The conference ushered in a period of heightened colonial activity on the part of the European powers, while simultaneously eliminating most existing forms of African autonomy and self-governance.At the moment of the conference, 15 western powers occupied 25% of African, by the end of 19 century, 96% of African continent was colonized or became protectorates. Even another century later, some most atrocious
dictators enjoyed generous support from USA and European powers.
Yes, that is, to a large extent,how your countries got rich in the first place. That is why when you point fingers at those impoverished backward people,you are often hated. You as a people are not trustworthy until it can be proven otherwise,sadly it is lost on most of you.
Now suddenly guys like you want to present yourselves as noble angels and defenders of human rights? We do not buy it.

June 29, 2008 @ 10:34 am | Comment

We do not buy it

We, meaning you and the huge crowd who thinks that Europe’s colonization of Africa 100 years ago has something to do with Snow’s opinion on human rights?

June 29, 2008 @ 2:20 pm | Comment

@Sam_S
Everything is connected.Try to think yourself as a citizen whose country has been colonized and scrambled by a western power,say Britain. Then someday a Britain guy begins to screech in front of you how backward and incorrigible your country is,I think you should feel be offended considering the havoc wreaked on your country that had crippled your country in the first place. If you look into the relationship between white and black people in USA, you can easily find a huge gap, emotionally and financially.Shouldn’t the black people have forgotten and forgiven the sins commited by the white generations ago?

You may cry foul: It’s long gone, don’t play the card of victimization complex.Maybe it’s much easy to forget and forgive for the perpetrators than the victims. Once beaten, twice shy.

History decides, at least partially, a nation’s mindset and characteristic. Thirty years after Deng’s reform and opening-up, many Chinese people are still suspicious of aliens, you can call it paranoid but xenophobia is an overkill.
When LaoWais start to prat how bad China’s regime is, we tend to suspect their motive. Until it is clear those guy are sincere and friendly, we’d rather assume
otherwise.

As the adage goes: You reap what you sow. Sadly it is still very true today, and the history still takes its toll on both sides.

June 29, 2008 @ 5:57 pm | Comment

Everything is connected.

I am overwhelmed with profundity.

Try to think yourself as a citizen whose country has been colonized and scrambled by a western power,say Britain. Then someday a Britain guy begins to screech in front of you how backward and incorrigible your country is,

Why, yes, I encountered this only yesterday!

I think you should feel be offended considering the havoc wreaked on your country that had crippled your country in the first place.

Sorry, this is where your logic fails. Their prattling has only to do with their being prats today, and nothing to do with their historical idiocy and abuse. If you have a logical counter to Snow’s argument, you should put it forward, not fall back on unrelated logical fallacies.

If you look into the relationship between white and black people in USA, (etc.)Shouldn’t the black people have forgotten and forgiven

Weaker and weaker. You’ve reached the bottom of the logic hole, and in my ahistorical opinion, you should stop digging. Here’s an analogy, on the other hand, which actually DOES apply: If I tell a black man that fathering children by multiple mothers only to abandon them is not a good thing, I am in fact correct, regardless of color, history, 100-year-old European bog-sniffers, etc. Now do you have a logical (or sensible) counter-argument for Snow, is your ancient resentment all you have to offer?

June 30, 2008 @ 11:01 pm | Comment

“You reap what you sow.”

That’s why the world loves China sooooooooooooooooooo much.

July 4, 2008 @ 7:38 am | Comment

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