One of my first Beijing shopping trips was to Wangfujing Street, back in 2004. The pedestrian-only avenue offered a rare reprieve from the city traffic, and the wide lane was clean and orderly. As I was sidling up to one of the gleaming new retailers, I spied a young woman in front of me scoop up her toddler and walk him over to a trash can a few feet away from where I was standing. She balanced him over the top of it with his legs held forward to reveal pants split down the middle and a bare bottom. I then watched in equal parts shock and amusement as the pint-sized child began to pee steadily into the bin. An occasional splash arched out onto the street and dribbled onto the sidewalk. When all was said and done, the woman placed him back on his feet, and the kid resumed teetering down the modern shopping district, his bare bum peeking out now and again.
It would be the first of many jarring juxtapositions that often define Beijing, a city both modern and backward, money-loving and staunchly communist, sophisticated and yet rough around the edges. It is a place you can love and hate in equal measures. In recent years, I've seen fewer and fewer split-pants-babies around town. The city's crackdown on "embarrassing" social behavior in the run up to the Olympics was partially responsible for the shift, but the real reason is the rising demand for diapers among modern, well-paid Beijing parents. Indeed the growing middle class appears more and more Western with each step up the social ladder. Fewer and fewer cyclists are on Beijing streets. The traditional courtyard home and neighborhood is being abandoned in droves for modern apartments. There is even a growing trend of drinking wine with dinner, rather than steaming cups of green tea.
Meanwhile, the new generation of Beijing youth, raised by doting parents and mostly only-children thanks to China's one-child policy, have grown up in a world of monetary privilege. They are often spoiled and apathetic. Unlike their counterparts in the late '80s, who rallied for democracy and freedom of speech, today's university-age students spend their free hours stuffing themselves with fast food and shopping for new cellphones.
This overall content and disinterested generation, however, can be rallied for a worthy cause -- like restriction on its Internet access. In mid-2009, netizens across the country protested the government's mandatory installment of Web-filtering software on all computers sold in China. Labeled the Green Dam-Youth Escort, the software caused a torrent of protests and eventually sent the government in Beijing backtracking on its rule. At the time of writing, it was unclear whether the government would continue to pursue its cause or quietly drop it in the face of such public and commercial condemnation. But while pushing back the Green Dam-Youth Escort was a small victory for Chinese Internet users, Beijing and the rest of China are still subject to strict censorship. Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter and user-generated-content sites like YouTube are regularly blocked in Beijing and elsewhere in China. Occasionally, service to CNN or the BBC is blacked out when those stations air sensitive stories.
Meanwhile, there is the growing divide in urban Beijing among the social classes. The average annual salary in 2008 was ¥44,715, or roughly US$6,545, according to the Beijing Statistics Bureau; low-skilled workers' annual salaries were less than half that, roughly ¥20,000 (US$2,928). The growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots is a big concern for the Chinese government, which wants to keep the local populace content. The droves of migrant workers that contribute widely to the city's economic boom find themselves outcasts in this urban landscape, often looked down upon by locals who blame them for petty theft and crime.
Most unfortunately, Beijing remains locked in an ongoing battle with pollution and congestion. During the Olympics, the government ordered several factories moved to the outskirts of Beijing, but pollution levels in the city remain hazardous. The population stands at a staggering 16.95 million -- or about the same number of people as in the U.S. state of Nebraska, corralled into an area 11 times smaller. A sizeable chunk of the populace harbors materialistic aspirations, which includes trading up from a bicycle to a CO2-emitting car. A survey in early 2009 revealed that about 1,500 new cars are added to Beijing roads every day. The new vehicles add to the already headache-inducing traffic as well as the unhealthy pollution levels.
80 Bashi hou or the Post-1980 Generation -- Boutiques in hip shopping districts often sell T-shirts with Chinese characters that blast "80?" (Wo shi 80 hou, I'm post-80) or simply "80?." The reference is to youngsters born after 1980 -- individuals who, unlike the generation before them, have known little political upheaval in their lives. The 80 hou often find themselves at odds with trite social expectations -- a government survey conducted in Beijing last year found that "post-80" individuals in the workplace "lack the will to endure hardship and work hard," "change jobs frequently," and view their jobs as "beneath them." They may be lousy contributors to the workforce, but this generation is in fact asserting its independence and free spirit in ways that their parents could have only dreamed of doing. One of the most visible ways is through fashion: the 80 hou generation is the driving force behind a resurgent local style. The cheeky I'm post-80 T-shirts are just the tip of the iceberg. This generation has sparked a love for independent Chinese designs, notably the return of Huili, a Shanghai casual footwear and clothing brand older than adidas, and Feiyue, a simple canvas shoe that retails for 55€ in Europe but can be had for about ¥150 a pair in Beijing at places like NLGX on Nanluoguxiang.
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