30 March 2009

a visit to the center of the world

About a thousand years ago, the Chinese built the worlds longest canal from Hangzhou in the south to Beijing in the north. They used pound locks on their canal a couple centuries before this type of lock was invented in the West. One of the canal's main uses was to transport grain from the south to their capital in the north -- grain was how the provinces paid tax to the emperor. When China flourished, its capital, Beijing, amassed immense riches and people at the emperor's court had time and money for studying and the arts.
Beijing for many centuries was one of the richest cities of the world.

On my visit to Beijing I had the feeling that this part of the city's role is still true today. The tax is no longer delivered as grain from China's many peasants. It is now delivered in US dollars from the many foreign-owned factories along the Chinese coast. Factories where workers with little education work over ten hours a day, often six and a half days per week. And a lot of the profit from those factories goes to the capital Beijing and other big cities in the country. Beijing has excellent public infrastructure -- beautiful avenues with grade separated crossings, excellent public transport including a vast subway network built from the late nineties and gradually opening, high-speed internet, cell phone networks (even the rickshaw riders have cell phones!), large bike lanes used by bicycles and electric scooters (both the motor-bike and the pedal-bike based sort) -- one of the greatest things about the city compared to Taiwan is that there are no noisy, stinky motor-scooters around. With it's modern street-scape, modern subway and electric vehicles Beijing feels like a place from the future! (Compare the subway's contact-less smartcard tickets to Toronto's paper tickets and coins... it's like Canada is still in the iron age.)

Tourism, the government, the headquarters of foreign companies, and most recently the Olympics provide Beijing with an influx of money that lets people have a very good life compared to the rest of China. And the city itself has a high quality of life... the beauty of the streets and the efficiency of transport are enjoyed even by the lower-income citizens. Also, there are more universities in Beijing than in other parts of China and all of them have quotas for local applicants in their tough entrance exams. Therefore, a good education is also a privilege that Beijingers enjoy, even if they are not from a high-income class.

Just like in the old imperial times... 北京中国的都市 -- Beijing, capital of China, "the Central Country".


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