As we finished breakfast, host Mark approached our table. We had booked to have a car and driver take us to The Great Wall at Mu Tian Yu, which was supposed to be far less crowded and more spectacular than the nearer sight Badaling because, well, it takes a car and driver to get to Mu Tian Yu.
“You like to share car today?” he asked, sheepishly.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Two American ladies want to go but don’t want to pay so much. You share with them, you pay half.”
“Yeah, sure, happy to…” we agreed, nodding enthusiastically. Certainly I was happy to save the dough, but also I get a bit uncomfortable with private tours, so was delighted to have some company. I promise to talk that through with my counsellor next month and report back as appropriate, but there it is.
Thus we shared the 90 minute drive north comfortably seated with Wendy and her mom from Raleigh, North Carolina. The driver had a name, too. Wendy was a fortyish reasonably together mother of three (insofar as such a thing is possible) whose husband was building a tyre factory for Michelin some hours north of Beijing. Mom was a Korean who had married an American and lived most of her seventy-plus years in North Carolina.
The drive passed by the Olympic Village and various stadiums of the 2008 Olympics. It also confirmed, if there was any lingering doubt, that Beijing is a gigantic modern city of Los Angelic traffic jams and smog.
Wendy kept hinting that they wouldn’t be doing a lot hiking on the wall, because, you know, nudge, nudge, motioning at Mom. Once we got there, though, Mom shot off like a rocket, with Wendy struggling to keep up with her.
We headed indifferent directions, taking the cable car up to the wall itself, and marching off in a south-westerly direction. I’ve long made fun of Richard Nixon’s statement on his 1972 visit to the Great Wall “It is truly a Great Wall.” Well, I am embarrassed to admit I owe the guy an apology; it really is. It’s like they had FDR’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the Great Depression working on it for three hundred years, building over mountainous terrain any army would be nuts to assault, wall or no.
I also had to wonder how Nixon, who famously suffered from recurrent phlebitis of the left leg, even got to the Wall, much less walked anywhere on it. Even with the cable car ride there are still hundreds of irregular steps to traverse to get there. On the wall itself every step was a sprained ankle waiting to happen, like a cobblestone street in an ice storm. I give Tricky Dick some credit.
American Congressman might benefit from a visit the Wall, or at least read a little history about it before insisting on building a wall the length of the Mexican border. The Chinese built this thing as protection from the Mongolians and the Manchus, who never attacked it. Instead, when they needed to get through, they bribed the local gatekeeper, an army passing unhindered, easily sacking an isolated and unprepared nation.
Back at the hutong, we finished the day chatting with other guests, most notably an Australian couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. Long retired, he was a concreter and she a school teacher from Western Sydney, the heartland of the Australian Labor Party. “All Muslims now!” he reported with a good-natured chuckle.
As a gift, their children had sent them for two months of China-on-a-shoestring. From our discussion it became apparent they had never left Australia before. They were lovably wide-eyed and pliable, like newborns, absorbing every peculiarity with a gaping grin and a bit of drool, occasionally laughing so hard they shit their diapers. He hadn’t seen an English newspaper in three weeks, so devoured Frank’s day-old Australian Financial Review with delight. We shared the last of our duty-free wine with them – a lovely bottle of Moët – and took turns saying terrible things about Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey.
That evening was our splurge of the trip, dinner at the restaurant Capital M. Some years ago we had been impressed by its Shanghai sister, M on the Bund. When we saw its Beijing location was one of the very few that actually overlooked Tiananmen Square, well, the deal was done.
Capital M did not disappoint. Frankly, there wasn’t anything spectacular about the food, the wine or the service, although all were quite nice. No, this was the place for wealthy and powerful Beijingers to watch each other celebrate the spoils of capitalism’s triumph. Today, a wealthy Beijinger is wealthy indeed – and here they sat in opulence, toasting the view of Mao’s tomb and the sight where students and others protesting for freedom and democracy were slaughtered in untold numbers.
I wondered if any of these middle-aged patrons had been out there twenty-five years ago. Since, freedom has emerged in China only if one defines freedom with brand names, hair styles and economic inequality. Democracy has succeeded to the degree that the ruling class – the Party – responds to its fear of its teeming and unruly constituents. But it was crystal clear, as Deng Xiaoping is quoted, “To get rich is glorious.”
What, I asked myself, does America fear here? The Chinese claim that in their five thousand years of recorded history, they’ve never invaded anybody — despite having been invaded by others countless times. There’s some truth to that, although I recall a few Chinese troops streamed over the Yalu River during the Korean war. They cite provocation in that instance, amongst others. Very American of them.
Successive American Presidents have played the Human Rights card. This rings a bit hollow coming from the country with the largest prison population in human history, not to mention rampant unfettered influence peddling. Both nations have mass media purveying saturation propaganda controlled by a tiny and unrepresentative aristocracy that cannot be considered “elite” in any regard but wealth. The Chinese government even shares the American fondness for capital punishment.
Without doubt, the current regime has accomplished miracles of modernisation and broadly uplifted standard of living by cheating and stealing well within the boundaries of capitalism. It isn’t sporting to begrudge a victor for outplaying you. What, exactly, is the problem?
Perhaps the problem is that the subway stops running at 11 pm, which is intolerably oppressive in my book.
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