The Beijing Blog
Max Roger Taylor is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Bath, funded through the ESRC’s 1+3 studentship on a politics and international studies pathway. His doctoral research focuses on the extent to which the EU is practically coordinating and integrating its values into EU-China diplomatic dialogues.
All opinions expressed by the author are solely their own and do not reflect those of the Economic and Social Research Council or the University of Bath.
Part 1: Introducing Beijing
- A city of contrasts
From my six weeks in Beijing, China’s capital city strikes me as a city of contrasts. Visually, China’s past and present co-exist in fascinating ways. Buildings dating from the initial decades since the 1949 revolution (often in the form of highly atmospheric tenement blocks, complete with cracking paint) can be seen next to ultra-modern skyscrapers, futuristic shopping malls (many at London prices far beyond your average Beijinger) and restaurants (which vary from £1.50 per dish [in more local establishments] to prices rivalling, if not surpassing Western capital cities). Further adding to this, imperial Chinese buildings (Mostly Qing Dynasty, 1636–1912) are dotted around the city, hinting at China’s majestic, ancient past, which it now aims to surpass, at the global level. The Renmin University of China campus, where I was based, reflects a microcosm of this contrasting visual feast, with communist-era apartment blocks, impressive new teaching buildings and tranquil green areas complete with ancient Chinese aesthetics.
This theme of contrasts persists when it comes to Beijing’s residents (The Beijingers). The city now has a sizeable middle class with disposable income and high aspirations, the presence of which is plain to see around the city and any trip on the subway or walk around one of the city’s many university campuses. Conversely, like any city in the West, there are those less affluent in Beijing and who have gained less from China’s dramatic economic growth and modernisation. In this context, due to the varying levels of development across the vast country, Beijing also has millions of rural migrants who seek better opportunity in the capital.
In this sense, you see glimpses of more impoverished lifestyles in the city intermingled with the cutting-edge modernity such as people driving trailers stacked with recyclable materials/garbage, or migrant workers living in shared accommodation on the construction sites in which they work. While these elements or those that are comparable, are unquestionably found in the West, the degree of contrast between affluent and poor seems more pronounced.
However, this is unsurprising given the magnitude and complexity of China’s ongoing country-wide development, which has been approached, amongst other methods, through carefully managing rural-urban migration and gradually opening China’s economy to the world. As a product of this, there have been incredible and historically unprecedented achievements. In a matter of decades China has become the world’s second biggest economy and over 500 million people have been brought out of poverty (this equates to a greater population than the entire EU).
This scale (and its associated challenges) reflected by China’s geographic and demographic status is in part captured in a commonly used term by the Chinese government. The phrase “Chinese characteristics” is attached to everything from China’s legal system (i.e. Socialist rule of law with China characteristics) to its ongoing military reforms. Contrary to the perception by many Westerners that I have encountered during my time in Brussels and Beijing, the phrase is not merely a buzzword, devoid of substance. Instead, it not only captures the context of China’s unique culture/history in every aspect of its system, but how any challenge China faces in its long-term reform programme must be multiplied by over 1.3 billion people (almost four times the entire EU population) in a country more comparable in size to the entirety of the EU than any of its individual member states.
Lastly, another fascinating contrast worthy of note in China is the attitudes towards the West. On the one hand, there is continuing distrust and historical resentment of the West, particularly towards former European imperial powers, whose conduct before, during and after the two Opium Wars during the 1800s contributed to what China describes as the century of humiliation. This historical injustice by the West still colours the national consciousness, as modern China reclaims its preeminent place in the world. On the other hand, aspects of Western culture and lifestyle (particularly American), such as designer clothing, phones, fast food chains and coffee houses are framed as highly desirable luxuries and associated with status, particularly for the growing middle class. Similarly, studying and travelling in the West (the UK reflects a particularly popular European destination) appears to reflect a relatively common aspiration.
Ostensibly, the observations above merely scratch the surface of China’s complexity, from a Western researcher who is eager to learn more and challenge (often incorrect) Western preconceptions. Truly understanding China will require many more years of study, linguistic fluency and ultimately, prolonged residency.
Part 2: The Journey
- Travelling to Beijing
My journey to Beijing began with a taxi to Bath Spa railway station at 7.30am, in early May. I was tired but excited. The Train at 7.55am was thankfully quiet because I was travelling on a Sunday, but as the 1.5-hour journey played out the tiredness began to catch up, along with my hunger – I had forgotten to bring the carefully packed bag of food I intended to take for my journey. Once I arrived at London Paddington I immediately headed for some sustenance – a bacon and egg brioche and a smoothie were extra satisfying.
I then got the Heathrow Express train to the airport, which also leaves from Paddington. It was fantastic and quick. Literally 15-20mins. After getting off at the Terminal 2 and 3 stop I headed up to a relatively quiet Heathrow airport. After going for the automated check-in (now increasingly commonplace in airports), where you scan your visa/passport and print out a boarding pass, I went to a manned desk to send away my luggage. Only 17kg – I was very relieved, as I thought I was going to surpass the 23kg limit.
The Heathrow security was long and arduous. They really took their time, which I suppose is a positive thing, but very boring as a passenger. It was a good 25mins or so. At the other end, I got myself a UK SIM card for my (China-ready) phone, as I realised it would be very nice to have some communication with home while travelling. The first flight to Frankfurt was delayed by almost an hour by the time I boarded the plane. I was flying with Lufthansa and I was thinking “so much for German efficiency”, when it turned out that the delay derived from a British fuel tanker not fuelling the plane when scheduled (so not their fault). The flight, like the subsequent connecting flight from Frankfurt to Beijing was managed meticulously. With a “loading completed” announcement by the pilot, we headed off.
The connection to the Beijing flight was very tight (as in 15mins until take-off when I arrived in Frankfurt) due to the lateness of my arrival from London. Me and some other passengers requiring connections were carted off separately in a shuttle bus across the tarmac. The Beijing flight was superb. Around half of the passengers were Chinese and it was my first experience of many during my trip, which really highlighted just how polite, courteous and good natured Chinese people are. Everyone was very quiet during the flight and when it came to bathroom trips, European and Chinese passengers would neatly join a queue and offer each other the opportunity to go first. It was lovely to see Europeans and Chinese getting on so well at a people-to-people level. Another (very interesting) highlight from the journey was a sudden clapping as the Chinese passengers celebrated Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the French presidential elections. If you’re curious, the menu on the plane was arranged so passengers could choose Chinese or Western dishes. Unsurprisingly I noticed that all Westerners nearby opted for the latter (including, I’m sad to say myself) and vice-versa.
- Arrival at Peking International Airport
Upon arriving in Beijing and after only a couple hours sleep on the plane – I closed my eyes for three or four hours and time seemed to pass – I arrived to go through immigration. Much like Heathrow’s security it was quite a long process. It reminded me a lot of US immigration, with an imposing atmosphere as cameras dotted every wall and the ceiling. After this phase, I boarded a train-type transport system to the baggage collection terminal. After watching the conveyor belt go around for 30mins or so and watching the adverts for Mercedes cars on the screen spanning the width of it (I imagine aimed at the Chinese middle-class), the other passengers dissipated, and I had the horrible realisation that my case must not have reached the Beijing plane with me. Going to the baggage reclaim, the women I spoke to was very pleasant and quick to smile, but spoke little English – this was my first taste of the reality on the ground, that few people spoke English, typically, unless they were students or involved in international work. After ensuring that I handed over a phone number for the department I was visiting at Renmin University of China, along with my email address, I passed through customs and joined the (official) taxi queue.
The taxis from the airport are well manged, like everything else in Beijing, with officials flagging down taxis and keen to ensure that all is well before you head off. On the plane I had rehearsed asking for the price I was willing to pay for the cab ride (in Mandarin) and the driver was happy with that (130 RMB if I recall, about £13 for an approx. 45mins journey). The driver told me almost immediately after leaving (in Mandarin but I got the gist) that the meter was broken, which did not inspire confidence, as the signs at the airport emphasised that passengers take a note of taxi number plates and get receipts etc. Despite feeling a bit uneasy, the journey was smooth and the driver was actually really nice, making a big effort when I reached the campus to find the correct building, by asking for directions to passing students (though to no avail). Before I go on, an interesting observation – the cab had seat belts built onto the sides of the car as you’d expect, but nowhere to plug them in. I looked into the windows of other cars and no one else appeared to be wearing them. Bizarre. I can only assume that cars must have seatbelts by law, but they are not required to function.
- Arrival at Renmin University China
So, I was dropped off in the middle of the baking-hot Renmin University of China (RUC) campus (the temperature for most of the trip was above 30c and often 35c +, which was a bit on the hot side for a Scotsman). I then asked for directions from a nearby security guard, who ushered over a student who could speak English (neither of them had heard of the International Cultural Exchange Building where I was set to stay). After pestering some more staff/students who were keen to help but hadn’t heard of the building either, I ran into some Westerners, one of which was heading to the very building. It is worth noting that the campus is HUGE by Western standards (a good 20-30mins to walk from one side to another), so it’s unsurprising that the building, exclusively populated by international students (and also known as The Korean Building) is unbeknownst to the majority of Chinese students on campus.
Finally, I reached the reception of the building and the staff were incredibly friendly and welcoming. I had to pay a deposit for the room and then pay what I could towards my end bill on top of that. I realised at this moment that my Western bank cards couldn’t be used directly to pay for things here, only capable of withdrawing money via ATMs. As the International office (in the same building) was closed until 14.00, I headed up to the room (I arrived on campus around 12.15pm I think). The room was very nice, with laminate flooring, a marble sink, desk, chair. The bed, was like concrete admittedly, but I think this how Chinese beds are meant to be and it’s very good for the posture. After this, I headed down stairs to enquire about eateries. Under the building is a small shop and a Western style café that also does food. Here I opted for a chicken curry with rice type dish (£3) and some fruit juice (£2.60). I later learned that this place is on the expensive end on campus, as I was paying £1.60-£2 for superb dishes elsewhere.
Arriving at the international office upon its opening, I was met with an another very friendly welcome. I had many questions about life on campus, supermarkets, washing clothes, internet and even transport to the EU delegation to China, where the majority of my research interviews were going to take place. I was advised to pay a visit to the Department hosting me at RUC ASAP and after asking for directions at multiple stages en route, I found the appropriate building. The names of the departments for each floor next to and within the lift were in Mandarin, so this proved to be a difficult process. When I reached the right place, my principal contact was unfortunately away, so I had to accept defeat and give up until the following day.
Later on, I went out to seek food again, this time bringing me to one of the (busy) central canteens which was populated by partitioned counters selling different dishes, all of which were solely described in mandarin. I went to one of the counters and tried to order something in English, but the lady didn’t speak English. Nonetheless, she must have given me 10 mins or so of her attention, with the help of a French student, who interpreted for me. The lady at the counter went to the lengths of translating Mandarin-English on her phone, including asking things like “spicy or not?”. It was very humbling and incredibly kind. I can’t imagine people in the West being that patient and friendly with foreigners.
In the end I ended up with the (quirky but popular) Coca-Cola fried pork ribs with rice and fried potatoes for about £1.60. This was not before the French student explained that I needed to go to another part of the canteen to pay cash to get a receipt of that value to buy the food. Other students tend to use their student cards to pay for things or the payment function of their WeChat app on their smart phones to buy things, or failing that, their Chinese bank cards, all things I didn’t have (yet).
My lack of Chinese payment systems was at its most extreme when I had to pick up my student card later in the week which cost 25RMB (about £2.50). As I only had cash and the IT office couldn’t accept it, I had to go to the finance office, talk to one person to fill out a bit of paper, who then took the paper to another booth, where I paid the cash and got the paper stamped, before bringing it back to the IT office to get the student card. Ultimately, my first dinner in Beijing reflected an early taste of China’s bureaucracy, a tradition dating back literally thousands of years as well as the end of a tiring, but exciting first day in Beijing.
Part 3: Settling into Beijing as a foreigner and preparing for research fieldwork
3.1 Establishing the essentials in Beijing
The next day I made efforts to get my internet access sorted out. With assistance, I secured a temporary option until I got my own account set up, allowing to me to contact home for the first time. As I was logging into my University email account to message the Department which had invited me to notify them about the missing case, it turned out that they already had it, which was brilliant and a prime example of Chinese efficiency in action. Before I went to collect it, I found that my Western bank cards weren’t working in the Bank of China ATMs, which was a bit of a problem, as I was running out of cash. After phoning the bank, who reassured me that I was just trying to take out too much cash from the machine (you can take out quite a bit more than the typical UK limit of £200 from a Chinese ATM), I felt relieved (as you’ll see, mistakenly).
After meeting my contact at the School of International Studies, who was also very friendly (I can’t emphasise enough how friendly and hospitable people are in Beijing), I was recommended to get in touch with the Professor who had invited me to China and when I asked about the possibility of talking to other PhDs to exchange ideas, I was given the details for a visiting European student. We met for dinner that night at the Korean restaurant on campus, which would become a favourite haunt of mine and I had a good chat about life on campus and Beijing more broadly. I opted for the point at the pictures approach to ordering with the menu (which was all in Mandarin, though I later discovered that this restaurant offered English menus too) and I ended up eating a mystery meat. It turned out to be beef or pig intestines after a retrospective enquiry online. Not terrible, but not really my thing. It didn’t look grim or anything and had a rich meaty taste like Haggis (also guts for those unfamiliar), but it was a bit floppy on the chop sticks and it had an interesting texture.
The following day, further attempts to take out cash also proved fruitless, even trying to take out smaller amounts of cash from the ATM. I phoned the bank again and this time it appeared that my two cards had been locked because I was trying to take money out from China (which I had told them I was doing during my call the previous day!). Admittedly, I made the BIG mistake of not telling my bank I was going to China in advance of my travels. Nonetheless, after this phone call my finances were finally unlocked.
However, it became apparent that to avoid regular transaction costs from ATMs and have the capacity to pay my rent at more than £200 or so at a time, I’d have to open a Chinese bank account. I would recommend anyone going abroad for 6 weeks plus to open a local bank account. At the bank, they notified me that I’d require a Chinese phone number as well as my visa/passport/residence form to open a bank account. When I returned the following day to do this, it emerged that I’d require specifically a Beijing mobile number and that my room phone number was not sufficient…
Consequently, I enquired at the international office about getting a Chinese SIM card. They kindly got one of their staff, who spoke fantastic English to come with me to purchase these things. The upbeat cognitive linguistics student was very friendly and we had a good chat about the UK, Beijing’s fight against pollution and his ambitions. Getting a SIM card in China requires official registration, including a photograph (taken there and then) and your passport, or if you are Chinese, identity card details. It was quite a long process, made longer in fact, by my demands for a phone to go with the smart card. The SIM card cost £15 for 6 weeks of a decent tariff (which would certainly do the trick for 6 weeks), while the handset, a Chinese model (Xiaomi 4gLTE), was relatively cheap, excellent and (perhaps unsurprisingly) better than the ageing Samsung J1 I used back home.
I then went about installing WeChat onto the phone, which is an absolute must here. It is like WhatsApp except it is much more advanced. You can link your bank cards to pay for things with it (which many Chinese people do – they don’t use contactless bank cards), order food, book doctors’ appointments, upload photos onto your Facebook-style home page and even pinpoint GPS locations for people to meet at. It appears to be essential in Beijing and I have found that everyone I have subsequently come into contact with (even EU diplomats) seek to use it for convenient communication. It appears to be quite the phenomenon and at a recent EU-China dialogue I attended during my second (and final) trip to Brussels in 2017, the Chinese side cast Financial technology or Fintech, as one of China’s four great modern inventions along with high-speed trains, bike sharing [you can borrow them using an app wherever they are parked across the city] and e-commerce (e.g. Chinese giants JD.com or Alibaba.com).
Returning to the narrative, I was on a winning streak with my new phone and WeChat. I then went back to the on-campus Bank of China branch and opened an account. This involved signing lots of documents solely in Mandarin, which was admittedly a bit of a disconcerting experience. The bank was actually quite an interesting place for a foreigner to observe. I loved the automated Xièxiè (or shay shay phoneticized – thank you in Chinese) in a high pitched electronic voice that emerged from the kiosks when you rated your customer experience on a desktop plaque type-thing with a picture of the staff member and buttons for satisfied or dissatisfied – there was even an illuminated star rating for the individual. I also liked the guard outside the front door of the bank with the hard hat, security vest and a baton, which he brandished, ready to bop any would-be criminals on the head.
3.2 The Beijing subway experience and scouting out the Embassy district for my research interviews
At the end of the week, I tried out the Beijing subway and sought to find the delegation of the European Union to China, where I would be carrying out many interviews over the duration of my stay. In short, the Beijing subway is superb. The European PhD student I met on the second day described it as the best subway in the world and it’s difficult to disagree. The subway was modernised and expanded in advance of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and everything is of the highest quality, while all signs/announcements are in English as well as Mandarin. It is also very well managed like everything else in Beijing. There are security scanners for people and bags at EVERY station and officials on the platforms keep order and announce trains, speaking through megaphones.
There are barriers or glass screens that span the platforms, with doors that line up with the train doors. You are expected to queue orderly (and told off by watching officials if you don’t) according to the painted lines at either side of the train doors, leaving room in the middle for people to get off the train before you board. Such regimented measures are a necessity in a transport network servicing a city of over 21 million residents.
The trains themselves are very well air conditioned, staying cool even when packed, and a map of the train line is detailed above the doors with a light indicating the next stop and the side of the train that the platform will be at. These very handy features made life a lot easier on the (ostensibly busy) subway trains during my journeys to and fro conducting research interviews. More futuristically, the trains not only have screens inside many carriages advertising Chinese movie TV channels, events at the Centre for Performing Arts or adverts, but outside the train. On the tunnel walls between some stations the trains amazingly project advertisements, scaled to the windows which can be watched outside the train. Weird, but impressive.
If you are curious, much like the London tube, almost every Chinese commuter is engrossed in their smart phones. Moreover, the subway, like the city more broadly, is VERY Safe. Pickpocketing is very rare and everyone is very relaxed. In comparison to the West, China’s legal system generally provides more severe punishments (including the death penalty for many crimes), a tradition dating back to the principles of legalism from China’s first imperial dynasty, the Qin. The impact is clear in terms of law and order in a city of more than 21 million people.
Returning to the subway – Beijing is vast. To get to the Northeast district of the city where the Embassies are located from RUC (the University has its own subway stop) I had to pursue a 25min train ride involving about 11 or 12 stops and one change (Xidan – pronounced she-dan), plus a 20min-plus walk at the other end. The length between train stops was also larger than any other subway system I had been on, indicating the considerable distances between stops above ground. Emerging at the other end (Dongzhimen station – pronounced dong-ji-men), I followed my map, kindly bestowed upon me by the EU delegation.
Linking with my past observations about contrasts in Beijing, this walk took me from a very busy (bus and train) station flanked by newish looking tower blocks to poorer looking apartment blocks and older people selling caged rabbits, across three huge roads (imagine crossing five or six lanes and cars/bikes that don’t necessarily stop at red, as they can legally still turn right), to a Pizza Hut/restaurant complex, to fortress-like embassies guarded by (magnificent looking) Chinese military police and security. The Pizza Hut appeared to reflect a transition point, as the area became a lot “higher end” with an expensive looking cocktail bar with what (I Imagine) were the wives of Western embassy officials drinking outside. After a repeated trip to the EU delegation I realised that this route was the long way. The smart way involves staying on the subway until the next stop – Agricultural Exhibition Centre – which involved only a 10-15min walk which takes you straight into the embassy district.
3.3 A note on road transport in Beijing
Beyond the subway experience, many Beijingers (apparently, particularly at this time of year) ride around on electronic bikes both on very busy roads and around the Renmin University of China campus (along with those groovy sharing bicycles I mentioned earlier). As a result, you see bike racks everywhere, and the people riding them (the vast majority helmetless), add to a distinctly exotic flavour for the untraveled Westerner. It is also worth noting, as I learned from my initial taxi ride, that Beijingers don’t use indicators on the roads, which when coupled with the lack of functioning seatbelts, can make travelling via road a heart-stopping experience to the unseasoned passenger.
Part 4: Tourism in Beijing
Before moving onto my fieldwork experience, visiting one of the World’s greatest and most ancient civilisations meant naturally doing a lot of sightseeing during my weekends. I found that time and time again, I’d assume that I’d seen the best the city had to offer before another sight would blow my mind in its scale and beauty. While Beijing is a vast metropolis of over 21 million people, there are plenty of stunning sites to see, often in the form of preserved imperial Chinese buildings (typically dating from the last Chinese dynasty, the Qing Dynasty [1636–1912], parks and gardens.
Beijing is actually a very calming place to travel around because of how well ordered it is. It also feels very safe because of the ubiquity of officials (there are security/police everywhere, not to mention plenty of CCTV). While this extensive presence would be perceived to be undesirable in many Western countries (bar the militarised streets of Paris and Brussels in recent years), I felt far safer in Beijing, than I do in Brussels or London and as a tourist you can just relax as you travel from A-B on the subway. This extended to tourist sites, where it is abundantly clear where you need to go, what you need to pay etc. You feel very well looked after. Relatedly, tourist sites in and around Beijing are also cheap and incredibly good value, with high profile sites, taking 3-4 hours to fully enjoy costing as little as £1.40-£2 for entry as a student/concession and not much more for a regular entry ticket.
Below is a list of some of the key sites I visited and a brief summary for each one.
- The Great Wall of China (at Badaling):
- The Great Wall stretches across a huge swathe of Northern China. Being based in Beijing you have the opportunity to visit a couple of key sections of it. The Badaling section, which I visited, is closest, being a 1.5hour train journey away. More broadly, it is important to point out that much of the wall has fallen into disrepair, so there are only specific chunks of it that are maintained to reflect their former glory. Nonetheless, these restored chunks are still vast and even sections of the wall that are relatively rubbly snake across the mountains to mind-blowing effect. It will be one of the most incredible things you have ever seen.
- Upon reaching the wall you have two options. A) You can go along the Northern stretch, in line with the frontier of the hills/mountains, which provides stunning views and avoids any back-tracking as you can take a luge(!) back down again, but it is very busy. B) You can hike the Southern section which is also stunning, but quieter and involves a bit of backtracking as you descend behind the Northern section of the wall. I opted for option B.
- Walking along the wall, a couple of things came to mind. Firstly, it is incredible that the wall so ruthlessly follows the peaks and troughs of the land. Secondly and related to this, it must have been astonishingly difficult to haul stone up here and build it, particularly as the builders appear to have chosen not to alter the land to make the building any easier. Thirdly, the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), which built the wall with granite to look like it does today, garrisoned soldiers up here. Being based here all year round must have provided stunning views, but it must have been a rough life, particularly in the winter, when temperatures often plunge below zero this far North.
- The Forbidden City:
- The Forbidden City, officially called the Imperial Palace Museum is a Ming/Qing Dynasty Imperial palace in the centre of Beijing, from where China was ruled for centuries.
- The site consists of immense courtyards (surrounded by porticos) which are separated by the various buildings for state business, the royal apartments and the (really lovely) imperial garden at the rear.
- Tourists can peer into the buildings, which come complete with the preserved Qing Dynasty furniture, including the thrones, in an atmospheric low light. These spaces would have once had a further air of divinity with their clouds of burning incense (creating the right air for a leader with the mandate of heaven [a ruler’s crucial cosmic legitimacy in imperial China]).
- In the middle of the stairways going into and out of each building, are ramps elaborately carved with dragons, which then join onto white marble paths throughout the vast courtyards, a pattern continuing throughout the palace. This was the pathway that only the Emperor could cross.
- The architecture is stunning, loaded with beautiful details, with colourfully painted lintels, bronze statues and giant bronze cauldrons (which would have been filled with water as means to combat potential fires in the wooden buildings)
- Behei Park:
- Beihei Park reflects the Imperial gardens/hunting grounds behind the Forbidden City. The area basically consists of a large lake surrounded by dreamy weeping willows, Imperial Chinese buildings (Mostly Qing Dynasty with the odd older Ming site) and a stunning island in the middle called the
Jade Island, with a prominent (and rather impressive) white tower on top of it called the White Dagoba.
- Tiananmen Square:
- The famous square is flanked by Tiananmen Gate at the Northern end, which reflects the Southern gate of the Forbidden City (and where Mao Zedong declared the founding of the Peoples’ Republic of China after victory over the nationalists), Qianmen gate to the South, and the National Museum of China and Great Hall of People at either side.
- While the real pleasure here is just to soak up the immensity of the space, I particularly liked the impressive socialist realist statues near Mao’s mausoleum.
- National Museum of China:
- During my 4+ hour visit I only visited a portion of this huge museum. The basement contains an incredible collection of ancient Chinese pieces, stretching from China’s prehistoric period to its final imperial dynasty (the Qing). I also enjoyed the very patriotic permanent exhibition celebrating the Chinese revolution.
- The Great Hall of People:
- The Great of Hall People is where the National Peoples’ Congress meets for three weeks every year, which is akin to the Chinese parliament, approving the legislation and directives of the Politburo Standing Committee, which is the executive body in the Chinese political System – President/General Secretary Xi Jinping is also head of the (currently) 7-person standing committee. The Great Hall of People also hosts, among other things, the inauguration of China’s five-year economic plans (the 13th was inaugurated in 2015), as well as visiting heads of state in its stunning state rooms (on these days it is unsurprisingly closed to the public). More recently, the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China took place here in October, wherein Xi Jinping’s mandate as President/General Secretary of the People’s Republic of China was renewed for a further five years.
- The Summer Palaces:
- Absolutely stunning Imperial retreat on the North-West fringes of Beijing, which became the central palace (as opposed to the Forbidden City) in the late Qing Dynasty.
- Unlike any of the other Imperial Chinese sites I visited in Beijing, it is not surrounded by the vast metropolis, so you get a greater sense of its original tranquillity.
- The Temple of Heaven Park:
- Home to some stunning Ming and Qing Dynasty buildings connected to sacred Imperial Chinese sites. One group of buildings representing Heaven, in a semi-circular layout at the northern end of the park and the Southern section which has a square layout, representing Earth.
- The Heaven section has the very famous and utterly stunning Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests with its expansive dome-like interior.
- The Earth section most notably has the Altar of Heaven, which involves three large tiered square platforms symbolising the world of earth, the world of humans and the heavens at the top (with marble balustrades all round and flanking the steps). At the top is a round slab, which was considered to be one of the most sacred places in Imperial China.
Part 5: Conducting research fieldwork in Beijing
Note: For a detailed account of how I implemented the elite interview method see the Brussels blog.
In terms of my research interviews, my raison d’etre for being in Beijing, it was a very productive period (much like my prior and subsequent trips to Brussels) with 19 interviews, usually 1-2 hours in length conducted across 5 of the 6 weeks. I consciously kept the first week free of any interview commitments, so I could acclimatise to a very different environment than what I was used to (i.e. account for culture shock!). I recommend that anyone else conducting fieldwork overseas does the same, particularly if doing so outside Europe. The challenges I have documented in previous sections of my blog during the initial period of my visit, such as learning how to use transport systems, accessing money and knowing where/how to get food, I feel really reinforces the importance of pursuing an acclimatisation week (or at least a few days).
It was an intense five weeks of interviews, as all my fieldwork trips have proven to be, but perhaps particularly so due to the added logistical dimensions of navigating a vast city of over 21 million people. My base in Renmin University of China, in the Haidian Quarter, was a 35-40min subway ride and 15min walk away from the EU Delegation to China in the Sanlitun district (assuming all went to plan). As a result, I typically left an hour and a half in advance of my interviews in order to arrive in good time. Reflecting these logistics, interviews generally had to be restricted to one a day. However, it is worth noting that during my periods in Brussels I generally tried to maintain this restriction also, to ensure that I had adequate time to transcribe written notes immediately after each interview, with the maximum levels of recall, if an audio recording hadn’t taken place (which was typical during my fieldwork in Beijing and not uncommon more broadly). With experience you can put together some very high-quality transcripts from written interview notes.
In terms of organising the interviews for the Beijing portion of my fieldwork, I made a systematic effort to build up contacts from my Brussels-based interviewees, fostering links between each desk in Brussels and their equivalent at the EU delegation to China (the snowball sampling technique in action). While the majority of my interviews were with EU diplomats in Beijing, I also had the great privilege of speaking to a Chinese official and a number of Chinese academics (the majority of which were from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, ostensibly a think-tank for the Chinese government’s powerful State Council). Unlike in the UK, academics in China have far stronger ties to government policy and decision making. This arguably derives in part from greater cultural value being ascribed to scholarship than in many Western countries. China holds scholars in high esteem and has done so for thousands of years, as Imperial Chinese officials gained their positions and promotions through sitting exams testing academic ability and study (largely of the Confucian classics).
Every Chinese individual I spoke to was very warm and passionate about cooperation between the EU and China. It really hit home to me that with enhanced mutual respect, understanding and cultural sensitivity, EU-China relations could be far stronger. I also must say that I very much like the way Chinese academic’s use compelling metaphors and cite ancient Chinese philosophy in their speech and writings. You really get the sense of collective wisdom, passed down from ancient China amongst contemporary Chinese scholars.
Beyond this, it is worth noting that I was generously invited to attend a conference/summit organised by the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection. The event was principally designed to showcase the best global environmental technologies for China as well as foster collaboration/networking between Chinese and Western businesses in the sector. The morning session consisted of very interesting presentations by senior officials from the Ministry of Environmental Protection and academics outlining China’s key environmental policies and their objectives (complete with orchestral intro music for each speaker), while the afternoon panels specialised on the challenges and technologies for addressing different types of pollution (e.g. water, air, soil).
It was particularly interesting to hear the challenges faced by Beijing-based officials in rolling out their ambitious policies across China’s many provinces. I feel that many spectators in the West lack an understanding of the scale of China, which makes any challenges or policies incomparable in scope to those in the West. To this day, my experience suggests that Western actors often continue to (wrongly) feel that they offer a one-size-fits-all model in every policy area which should be adopted in China’s long running reform process.