I have a very special relationship with China’s capital city. I have lived there only twice for 6- month stints, once in 1996-7 and again in 2007. Yet I have a deep fondness for the city, and some of my oldest and dearest friends in China have lived or still live there. These days I manage to pay a visit to the city at least two or three times a year, for different purposes. Lately I’ve been going there to recruit university students for our DKU GLS program, which is what I was doing this past week. I visited the campus of Peking Foreign Languages University or Beiwai 北外 on Wednesday. On Thursday I gave a talk at Peking Normal University or Beishida 北师大. Today I headed out to Tianjin to talk to students at Nankai 南开 University (as I write this I’m on a high-speed train or gaotie back to Shanghai). In between these visits, I also managed to pay a visit to the Schwarzman Scholars campus at Tsinghua University, and also caught up with a few old friends.
When in Beijing I usually stay in or near the area known as Gongti 工体 or Sanlitun 三里屯 on the eastern side of the city. Lately I’ve been choosing the Swissotel. It’s a nice older hotel in the city with great service and comfy rooms, and best of all it’s located on the number 2 subway line at Dong Si Shi Tiao 东四十条 station, which connects you easily to just about any subway line in town. I’ve found that these days given the traffic situation it’s a lot easier to take the subway to most places, and given the size of the city that’s what you spend much of your time doing when you’re in Beijing. I enjoy navigating the labyrinths of stairs and tunnels that connect the lines to each other—not the most efficient system, but it works nonetheless and provides me with the physical exercise I desperately need these days. Which is also an apt analogy for much of what one experiences in China.
This visit was different to previous ones though. There was a stronger whiff of politics in the air than usual, even in such a highly politicized city as Beijing. Speaking of which, the air was remarkably clean and the skies were blue—clear indications that a big event is coming, which of course is the 19th Party Congress or Shi Jiu Da 十九大 as it’s known. It’s no secret that the government prepares for these big events by doing what it can to lower the air pollution levels and bring out those blue skies, and one suspects that was what was going on this past week.
Upon arriving on Tuesday evening, I walked over to the Sanlitun area and popped my head in at the Bookworm, a favorite old haunt of mine (I’ve given at least three book talks and one film presentation there over the years and have organized others). I then walked across the road to North Sanlitun to confirm whether the rumors were true. Word had it that they’d decided to knock down the rows of street-level bars and restaurants lining the smaller road west of the main drag and just north of the mall where the Apple Store is located—just a tiny alleyway really, but one that for the past ten years or so has been the lodestone for nightlife in that area. Sure enough, what I saw were piles of rubble from shut-down or knocked down establishments and a troop of workers replacing and rebricking the walkway down that strip. I’m sure I speak for many people who have fond memories of alcohol and dance-filled evenings in this neighborhood and will be sad to see it disappear. It was also disappointing to learn that they shut down the Tree, one of my favorite restaurants in that hood, which served great brick-oven pizzas and had a nice selection of Belgian ales. Again, many memories of that place, including hosting a farewell dinner for the Dartmouth FSP program that I directed in fall 2017. I heard from others that this was part of a much larger campaign to get rid of illegal buildings and enterprises in the alleyways and hutong neighborhoods of the city. I also heard that they are clamping down on other activities including the music scene, which I would say has been happening for a while now.
Speaking of music, I was pleased to learn that Matt Roberts, one of my oldest friends from Beijing (he was a classmate of mine at Dartmouth and a fellow Chinese language student), was playing later that night at one of my favorite bars in town: Jianghu located in an alleyway off of Nanluoguxiang, a major tourist attraction near Houhai. I met Matt for a late dinner at a little restaurant in the neighboring alley called Mao Mao Chong, and we headed over to Jianghu where he jammed with a talented group of Chinese jazz musicians and drummer Scott Sylvester, who has been playing with Matt for around 20 years. I reckon Matt is one of the best jazz trombonists in this part of the world, and he’s had a profound influence on the jazz scene in China, though I’m not sure he’d admit this himself.
On Wednesday morning I awoke to a mild hangover and opened the curtains to blue skies. I could see all the way to the mountains west of the city from my hotel window, a rarity these days. While the Party might be the one to thank for this, my first impulse was to thank Heaven, and so I made a pilgrimage over to the Temple of Heaven 天坛 which is just a few subway stops away. Although for some reason I had a splitting headache, maybe from the craft beers I consumed at Jianghu the previous night, it didn’t stop me from taking hundreds of photos of the temple buildings backed by a blue sky day. Thousands of Beijingers old and young and hundreds of international tourists were also enjoying the weather at the temple grounds, which is one of many reasons why this is such an amazing and unique world heritage city.
On Wednesday evening after my visit to Beiwai, I joined a few friends for dinner at a Korean restaurant in the university student hangout known as Wudaokou 五道口. Afterwards, my old 酒肉朋友 Moy and I checked out our old haunt Propaganda, which used to be the only dance club in that part of town. Suffice it to say that it was a much quieter place than I remember from ten years ago, though the street it’s on is still rollicking and filled with young night owls from the student community.
We then headed over to my part of town to visit another club called Mix, which is one of the legendary clubs in the Gongti area. But I had to get up early the next day so we didn’t stay long, just long enough to take in the wide variety of youngish folk from all over the world who populate this pumping nightlife haven.
On Thursday morning, I hoofed it over to the Tsinghua campus, forgetting just how ginormous this campus is, to meet up with one of our former students from the DKU GLS program, a recent Duke grad named Justin Bryant, at the entrance to the Schwarzman Scholars campus, where he is studying this year.
Justin took me on a tour of the establishment. I’d been there once before a few years earlier when it was under construction, but hadn’t seen it in its completed form. Sure enough, it was a very impressive mini-campus filled with creature comforts for the hundred or more Schwarzman Scholars and the dozens of profs and administrators who make up the community. Justin mentioned that they were still figuring out how to relate to the wider community of Tsinghua, which I imagine isn’t easy given the disparities between the mini-campus and its surrounds.
We attended a talk that morning in the auditorium by a famous scholar named Hu Angang, 胡鞍钢，hosted by another famous Tsinghua prof, Li Daokui 李稻葵. Professor Hu is head of the Institute for Contemporary China Studies 国情研究院. In line with current ideology and policy, the talk he gave focused on how indicators they’ve been researching suggest that China is in its “strengthening” phase whereas the USA is in decline. The thrust of this argument seemed to be that China is taking over the role of grand hegemonitor of the world, a role that America has vacated lately with its reckless and costly military adventures among other things. He was also very critical of American politics (hard not to be these days), and contrasted China’s “peaceful rise” to US militarism, and China’s long-range planning skills to the vacillations of a political system that lurches back and forth in an untrustworthy way.
I watched with interest during the talk as the Schwarzman Scholars communicated with each other over their laptops and smartphones, sharing thoughts and links as the speaker gave his presentation and handled the Q&A afterwards. The talk was conducted in Chinese and the whole event was simultaneously translated over headphones supplied to the audience members, though some of the scholars (who weren’t Chinese to begin with) showed off their own Chinese language skills during Q&A. Students asked a lot of questions about China including its relations with other world regions such as Africa and Asia, and of course they brought up the One Belt One Road initiative. I left the campus with a very good impression of these bright and ambitious young scholars, who are definitely getting a deep exposure to Chinese world views at Tsinghua. Kudos to Steve Schwarzman and the Tsinghua folks for providing this opportunity, and let’s hope the scholars do indeed play a role in mitigating the Thucydides Trap that Harvard prof Graham Allison and others have written about. But first, in my own humble opinion, they need to escape the Schwarzman bubble and hobnob more with those 40,000 other Tsinghua students who surround their campus.
That evening, I headed over to Beishida to give an info session for DKU GLS. Every time I visit the campus of Beishida (twice this year), it brings back memories of my stint as the director of the Dartmouth FSP, which has been located on that campus for well over 30 years now. I served in the fall of 2007, and this time prior to my talk I strolled around the part of campus where I and the students had lived and studied. Not much has changed there in the past ten years, though some of the buildings nearby seem much taller than I remember, and now that I think of it, maybe there was some construction going on when I was living there.
Later that night I met Matt again at the Bookworm, and we moved on to the craft beer pub known as 京A and caught up over some fine ales and a healthy dose of fried chicken balls. After living in Beijing for nearly 30 years, Matt has a lot of keen insights about the city and country, which I’m sure he’ll share with the world someday (he’d make a great mentor for a Schwarzman Scholar). We also talked about other old Dartmouth pals like Great Wall historian David Spindler, who like Matt and many others I know has a huge repository of local knowledge not just about the Great Wall but about the city that we all know and love. It seems that most of the old American pals I knew back in the days like David have moved on or else moved back to the USA—especially those with families, who couldn’t stand the pollution or couldn’t afford the international school fees. But a few old diehards like Matt soldier on, even as the city gets its balls busted by the latest cleanup campaign.