BEIJING DIARY - A divided city, perfect for the pandemic Olympics

Two signs are competing for attention at a Beijing hotel's Olympic Park. They are hung across a fence against deep blue background.

BEIJING DIARY - A divided city, perfect for the pandemic Olympics

One sign proclaims, "Together for the shared future," while another trumpets the official slogan of 2022 Winter Games. A second warning sign is located directly to its left in large white letters: "Closed loop zone." Do not cross the line.

A black-clad guard stands outside the China National Convention Center Hotel. "You can't do that." "Everything's separate."

This may seem ironic to some visitors. It's not. It has been a part of the DNA of Beijing, the capital city of a nation in which the characters "city" and for "wall" can overlap.

This is the latest version of something that has been a hallmark of Beijing for centuries: Since the days when emperors occupied this Forbidden city, Beijing has been a fragmented metropolis with tiny, fenced, and subdivided ecologies. However, it made Beijing strangely suitable as the location of the COVID Olympics, which are tightly regulated and controlled.

Beijing can feel small in some places but has been living in a modular structure for many years. "The entire interior of Beijing is laid out in squares, like a chessboard, with such masterly precise that no description can do justice it," wrote an Italian visitor in 13th century, who was a man called Marco Polo.

Today, the city is still a chessboard of odd-sized squares, despite its outsized architecture of commerce and ideology.

Exhibit A was spotted by the in-the bubble bus: Many hotels that host visitors to the Games are small, fortified compounds. They are enclosed within fences adorned with Olympic signage. Staff and a formidable police presence guard the hotel's closed-loop "bubble."

They are designed to be like many Chinese hotels in cities, and function as islands after the gates are closed. You can forget about the rest of the city in such an ecosystem. This is the perfect environment for promoting and enforcing the Winter Games COVID protocols.

Everywhere you look in Beijing, you can spy evidence of such compartmentalization. This is a patchwork of economic and political complexities that tells the story about decades of overplanning and little planning, chaos and control, and of tightly fenced-in spaces pushing in around the city’s famous open avenues.

Start with the Hutong, a narrow and winding network of courtyard residences known as siheyuan . These lanes are lined with siheyuan . Their roots date back to the 1200s, when informal encampments were set up east of the Emperor's Forbidden city during the Mongol-ruled Yuan Dynasty. They developed into a complex, sometimes hierarchical system that surrounded the city.

Although hutongs are still present in Beijing, with some of them well preserved today, many were destroyed in the 21st Century's first decade, during a construction boom which preceded and was partly caused by the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

However, the overall sensibility -- self-contained Lego pieces that snap into a larger total, some carefully controlled, others a bit wild -- runs deep in the city.

Beijing's security was an issue for centuries. There were fears of prying eyes, traditional Confucian ideas about hierarchy, and concerns over safety. To protect the city from the surrounding countryside, walls and fortified gates were built. Within the city, everything was divided into inner and outer cities.

The Imperial City was located in the city's inner city. It was essentially its own community and served the dynastic court. The Forbidden city, which was even more isolated, was located in the center of the city. It was here that the elite interacted with both the palace and the Emperor. Closed-loop bubble for those who are ill. Access is determined by influence and not credentials or negative PCR tests.

"Every wall, gate and temple, palace, street, or courtyard had its own designated place," Mingzheng Shi, historian, writes in "Rebuilding China's Capital: Beijing in Early 20th Century," 1998 essay.

Long ago, old Beijing gave way to the new Beijing. It's now a completely different city after more than 100 years of two governments trying to put order on the creeping incoherence of planning. However, there are some characteristics that still reflect the old, such as those accumulated over seven decades under Communist Party rule or assertive capitalism.

Modern Beijing's layout, which has been built around a series "ring roads" to control ingress and exit, was created in the 1980s. It serves as an unspoken reminder of the city's walls. This is a continuing approach; Seventh Ring Road was opened in Beijing's far outskirts, connecting it to other cities.

Beijing was a modern metropolis but compartmentalization and control were always at the forefront of chaos. Main roads are jammed with numerous apparatus to stop people from crossing places they are not allowed to. Jaywalking is illegal and operationally impossible thanks to fences that appear innocuous, but are very effective.

Even large spaces in Beijing that appear to be open -- such as parts of Olympic Park or the politically sensitive Tiananmen square -- are controlled by features that control entry and exit. Beijingers are used to unexpected rerouting due to strange fences, walls, or buildings. Sometimes the government is behind these things, but sometimes it's not.

Some of the organizational sensibilities of the "work unit", which were ubiquitous in Chinese society between the 1950s and the 1980s, are still present. This includes the idea of the workplace being a small, isolated community with its own ecosystem.

Let's not forget the official Chinese position on Hong Kong. It was an "special administrative area" that it received from the colonizer Britain in 1997. The Chinese government is legally bound to treat Hong Kong differently from the rest of China until 2047.

This governing principle in China is called "one nation, two system". It's a segmented approach that was echoed at the Beijing Olympics. The juxtaposition of citizens from outside and inside the bubble feels distinctly like one city, two cities.

The city walls of Beijing belong to yesterday. Only fragments remain. The Olympics are a great opportunity to relive the chessboard-squares approach to the capital of a country which built a Great Wall to protect it from outsiders.

Osvald Siren (a Swedish art historian and author of The Walls and Gates of Peking) stated this about the capital in 1924. "The whole city is concentrated at these gates. Everything that comes out of or into it must pass these narrow openings."

This is a great description of Beijing in centuries past. This also perfectly describes a large swathe of the city at the moment -- pandemic Olympic Beijing circa February 2022. It is a place with narrow openings that promises to bring people together for shared futures but ensures that no one crosses the line.


 

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