Closing out Beijing
After Beijing Sport University, we visited a handful of CrossFit gyms in Beijing, all of which seemed to be owned by successful – even wealthy – people with a fitness kick. One of the gyms was owned by two women business partners who had a healthy restaurant upstairs at street level and the gym downstairs, adjacent to a large mall. Most of the clientele were women. One of the partners was a strikingly tall, attractive woman who we learned had a day job reading the news on Chinese State controlled television – CCTV.
For those who don’t know, all of the channels on CCTV are controlled by the government. What is striking about it, however, is that there are a variety of channels and the selection of programming includes a sports channel, talk shows, and game shows (which all seem to be of the same “Asian” variety, but what do I know?), among others. In other words, a reasonably full slate of options to watch, but they are all run out of the same building in Beijing. It is known by the average Chinese person as “the pants building.” Because a picture is worth… some amount of words, here ya go.
By the end of our whirlwind three day visit, smog had begun to descend and we left for the train station as the air began to reach unbreathable levels. I’ve seen bad smog before in a number of countries, but Beijing at its worst really is something to behold. I won’t bore the reader with examples, but there are some great Instagram feeds showing a time-lapse of the smog rolling in. In 15 minutes, the skies have darkened and it looks post-apocalyptic. I thought our friends who had traveled to Beijing before us were exaggerating when they described it, so my imagination had under-imagined how bad it could be. I was – yet again – completely wrong. I’ll talk about it in detail in a later post, but suffice it to say that the Chinese are quite conscious about it and Beijing’s location in the north of the country, closer to where the mining and processing happens, and in a bowl, along with prevailing winds, makes it like graffiti against the facade of total control that officials in Beijing like to portray to their people and the world.
When my boss first returned from China, Shanghai was what he talked about most. “I think it might be the center of the universe,” he said jokingly. He then pulled up some graphics on shipments into and out of Shanghai, airline flights, and a whole bunch of other metrics and graphics that certainly bolster Shanghai’s case. I won’t bother with links to numbers because I’ve found that no matter how I try to describe it to people, words are simply inadequate. Additionally, the Chinese government is so controlling over narrative that it’s hard to get honest numbers about any aspect of Shanghai that aren’t either exaggerated or underreported. For example, even something as seemingly straightforward as population is caught in a miasma of Chinese agitprop around (a) who will be counted for official purposes, (b) Neo-Malthusian proclamations (from years ago) about what number can be sustained by the city, (c) the one-child policy’s legacy, and (d) the sheer mass of humanity in Old and New Shanghai.
The 2020 population is currently listed as 27 million; in my opinion, there is no way Shanghai is less than 30 million inhabitants and it’s probably a good bit more than that, perhaps closer to 40 million, if one includes the ExPat community, which the Chinese government doesn’t. To put a finer point on it, if you don’t have a PRC identification card, the most mundane tasks become more difficult, from buying a train ticket to opening a bank account to getting a cell phone to getting a lease and a whole lot in between; you don’t really ‘exist’ from the government’s perspective. That’s not to say that you can’t do it or that there aren’t workarounds, just that it’s harder and it makes it easier for the Chinese government to pretend you don’t exist. None of that, however, diminishes the wonder of Shanghai.
This picture is taken from The Bund on the east side of the Huangpu River. The area was formerly the waterfront part of the Shanghai International Settlement, which resulted after the British found an excuse to start a war with China (the first Anglo-Chinese Opium War in 1843) and then every other colonial power, including the U.S., France, and anyone who could weasel their way in, jumped to get their noses into China for trade. Shanghai’s history is a fascinating trip through a lightly covered (in my opinion) aspect of both U.S. and European history. I won’t delve into it here except to note that you can find significant populations located in specific areas of Shanghai to this day that includes Germans, Turks, Brasilians, French, Americans, Jews (from WW2) and even Japanese(!). More on all of that later.
Looking from left to right, the ball with the pointy top is the Oriental Pearl Radio and TV Tower. Begun in 1991, it was completed in 1994. Its top is 1535 feet high and until 2007 it was the tallest building in China. As your eyes scan right, you see the “bottle opener” building, aka Shanghai World Financial Center, which took over as the tallest building in China, and among the top 5 tallest in the world at the time of its opening in 2008 – at a whopping 1614 feet. In this picture and from this angle, the Jin Mao Tower just to SWFC’s left is (literally) overshadowed by the Bottle Opener and another building in front of it, but Jin Mao is itself an architectural marvel and still among the world’s tallest buildings (currently 34th) at 1380 feet. To the right, dominating the skyline is Shanghai Tower, a behemoth of a structure at 2073 feet. It deserves its own post, but I’ll let you enact your own labor and encourage a read on Wikipedia. Even that won’t do it justice, however. You really do have to see it up close and then ride the elevators to the highest observation deck in the world and just look out in awe at Shanghai below you.
I don’t really know what to say about it all other than that it is a whole lot of concrete, steel, and glass. Truly, engineering and architectural wonders. I always joke to people that after seeing the Great Wall, which was built with hands and feet and a lot of slave labor, that Shanghai Pudong is the inevitable result of what happens when you give the Chinese people front end loaders, cranes, and modern construction equipment.
From this photo, Jin Mao Tower peaks its top up above the edge of the observation deck in the left foreground, while the Pearl stands right in the center. While Jin Mao has now slipped to 34th in the world, when it was finished it contained the tallest hotel in the world. The architecture inside is breathtaking and at night it still stands as a beacon because of how it is lit up.
I didn’t really intend this post to focus so much on Shanghai’s architecture, though it is certainly a worthy subject, but in the basement of the Shanghai World Financial Center was a pictographic that gave me some pause. I thought I had a JPG of it, but I can’t find one, so I’ll have to paint a word picture for you.
Along the X-axis was the Gregorian calendar year, with the zero point of the timeline being ~1900. The Y-axis of the timeline was essentially height in feet, although it wasn’t marked as such. Instead, specific dates would be marked – such as 1931 – and then a silhouette of a building was placed there, the Empire State Building filling in that slot. Below is an example from the wikipedia article on the World’s Tallest Buildings, although as you can see, this is organized by height rather than date.
As I looked right along the timeline, what I saw was the Empire State Building at 1931 – built in just over 15 months and rising to 1380 feet (1454 with antennae/masts). Then on the timeline came the Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) in 1973 at 1450 feet; it was built in two years. The next two buildings on the timeline were both in Hong Kong, Bank of China in 1990 at 1205 feet (with masts) and then Central Plaza in 1992 at 1240′ (w/ masts); they took 5 years and then less than 3 to build, respectively. From that point on, the timeline is increasingly crowded, but what stuck out to me, starkly, was how many of the buildings are in China. The message is not subtle visually.
A quick look at the wiki entry on the tallest buildings in the world reveals that of the top 20, the U.S. has built 4; China has built 9. If one extends the list to the top 42 tallest buildings in the world, the US has 9, only one of which cracks the top 10 (One World Trade Center at #7) and three of which were built before 1975. China has built (go ahead, take a guess in your head) – 20. Almost half of them and the oldest is the aforementioned Jin Mao Tower in 1998. I should also note that the two buildings in Hong Kong that I mentioned above are NOT included in that list of 20 because they’re not tall enough to crack the top 42 in height.
Given the name of my avatar and the poem from which it is taken, I’m not one to give great credence to monuments to Man’s ego. All of those are coming down eventually, it just depends upon the timescale of one’s consideration. On the other hand, if you want to have some sense of the scope and scale of what is going on with a modern culture – and perhaps any culture, modern or ancient – the skyscraper or large-scale monuments and buildings are just one indication of the state of that society. We still revere the Parthenon – devoted to Athena, the patron saint of Athens – which began construction in 447 BC and was completed a mere 9 years later. Not bad for no earth movers, graders, or other modern machinery. The Pyramids at Giza remain the subject of significant speculation and numerous theories about the why and the wherefore, but no one questions that they represent significant achievements of those people.
Notice I did not say “governments” because government is an abstraction. Governments don’t build things; people do. Xi Jinping didn’t swing a hammer and neither did Donald Trump; while both may nudge their people in those directions, and incentivize building, nothing gets constructed without some cultural lodestone that desires to build. And that brings me back to China.
Shanghai for me was one giant monument to the Chinese will to build – and to do it on a scale that can be seen from space. Of course, I’m referring to the Great Wall of China, which I will save for another time and its own post, but modern Shanghai rivals the Great Wall for the sheer scope and scale of what is possible in the current tradition of architecture and cultural displays. Some (have) and will use this as proof of the superiority of the “Chinese” method of socialism, or of some other pet idea that they want to prove, but I see only proof of the Chinese people’s willingness to build on a scale that simply doesn’t exist elsewhere. Lest this seem to be a product of my own imagination, consider this about the Great Wall, from its Wikipedia entry:
The frontier walls built by different dynasties have multiple courses. Collectively, they stretch from Liaodong in the east to Lop Lake in the west, from the present-day Sino–Russian border in the north to Taohe River in the south; along an arc that roughly delineates the edge of Mongolian steppe. A comprehensive archaeological survey, using advanced technologies, has concluded that the walls built by the Ming dynasty measure 8,850 km (5,500 mi). This is made up of 6,259 km (3,889 mi) sections of actual wall, 359 km (223 mi) of trenches and 2,232 km (1,387 mi) of natural defensive barriers such as hills and rivers. Another archaeological survey found that the entire wall with all of its branches measures out to be 21,196 km (13,171 mi). Today, the defensive system of the Great Wall is generally recognized as one of the most impressive architectural feats in history.
Let me add to it that during this same period of time, which spans roughly 1800 years, the Chinese also built the world’s longest canal. The Grand Canal
is the longest as well as the oldest canal or artificial river in the world. Starting at Beijing, it passes through Tianjin and the provinces of Hebei, Shandong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang to the city of Hangzhou, linking the Yellow River and Yangtze River. The oldest parts of the canal date back to the 5th century BC, but the various sections were first connected during the Sui dynasty (581–618 AD). Dynasties in 1271–1633 significantly rebuilt the canal and altered its route to supply their capital Beijing.
The total length of the Grand Canal is 1,776 km (1,104 mi). Its greatest height is reached in the mountains of Shandong, at a summit of 42 m (138 ft). Ships in Chinese canals did not have trouble reaching higher elevations after the pound lock was invented in the 10th century, during the Song dynasty (960–1279), by the government official and engineer Qiao Weiyue.
In one of the giant buildings I’ve discussed above, there is a picture of Shanghai from the 1970s, when the tallest building was a hotel that sits along a bridge across the Huangpu River. I can’t remember its name, but a Chinese friend told me that when he was a student in nearby Hangzhou (about 2 hours by car west of Shanghai), his elementary school class took a trip to that hotel and that it was perhaps 6 to 8 stories tall. He said the rest of Old Shanghai and what is now Pudong were flat. He pointed it out to me while we were in the bar of the Park Hyatt Shanghai, inside the “Bottle Opener,” looking at the Bund and marveling at it all over a glass of spirits.