In Beijing, it’s 1984

Patrick Miner

Since arriving in Beijing in late August for a term of language study, I have been trying to get a feel for the city’s character.
It took me a few weeks to get used to the red banners on street corners that repeat slogans written by deceased and idolized government officials, but now they seem part of the buildings behind them, blending in with the red signs over restaurant doors and blurring among the lights, smog, and clutter of the capital.
Inflatable, semi-circular banners are erected in front of department stores and bold-font slogans are strung across gaps between buildings by an unnecessary number of government employees. These employees, wearing trench coats that resemble government uniforms of the sixties, are complemented by the seemingly endless government workers that undertake random construction projects throughout Beijing.
The look of a street can change completely in a matter of hours if it is deemed the target of a construction project. I have left the walled campus of the university so many times to see the road running along its south gate ripped apart, reassembled and reconfigured. Cement slabs first set in place for sidewalks on Monday are ripped up on Tuesday to change the plumbing under the street, then are replaced Wednesday only to be removed again the following week for another modification.
Changes made to the cityscape are so numerous and repetitive that they form a haze of development too think to be discernible to outsiders and too usual to be anything but disregarded by the locals.
The lumbering efforts of The Chinese Communist Party to reform the world’s most populous country are similarly repetitive, confusing and exhausting. At times, it seems like this construction procedure embodies the government’s method of operation as a whole.
Talks on the economy, which is growing quickly despite the problems in the west, on climate and on international relations all seem to center around the idea that China is the newest world power rather than focusing on solving problems.
Though China is very influential economically, politically and socially, there are still many large problems facing the country: A large portion of the population does not have access to clean drinking water or safe food. The enormous population is quickly using up what resources the country does have, while pollution problems grow by the day. Social pressures in many areas are leading to violence – from the people and from the government.
What I find particularly interesting is The Party’s way of conveying their position on the matters at hand. The banners and posters around the city ask people to put safety first and to mind their manners. When the PRC celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of its founding, tanks patrolled Tiananmen and posters telling the people to celebrate the founding of “New China” adorned every building.
It seems like The Party has decided to treat the populace like children; They use old slogans and new banners to tell the public how to act. They seem afraid to find out what the public would do to solve the country’s problems if given the opportunity to decide for themselves.
The U.S. federal government, in many ways, is similar. It’s rare for ordinary citizens to have much of an impact on legislature or influence the policy and plans of the president – “change”? A crucial difference, however, is the degree to which the freedoms of speech, press, and assembly are limited in each country. In China, it is difficult for citizen groups to organize without being heavily monitored by The Party. For example, every “Non-governmental Organization” has to register with the federal government and submit scheduled reports on its actions, therefore effectively ruining the “non-governmental” idea behind an NGO.
Another important difference is that the U.S. government at least pretends to care about its citizens’ opinions. American propaganda is much more passive. Instead of raising banners and censoring the internet and the media, the U.S. government usually leaves it up to media conglomerates to create most of the propaganda that citizens consume daily – the book “Manufacturing Consent” by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky deals with this subject and is a very interesting read.
The actions of the Propaganda Department and other government offices, such as the Weather Modification Office, which cleared skies for the Olympics and the national holiday in October, then made it snow Nov. 1, create an overwhelming Orwellian atmosphere in Beijing. This is representative of a much larger, very serious problem, but for now, the feeling simply serves as an indicator. Change is unlikely to come soon – even if Obama is visiting next week.