Saturday, March 03, 2007

"Great Firewall, Oh How I Loathe You!"

I'm here in Beijing, in a net bar off Qianmen Dajie. Qianmen is the street that runs from the end of Tiananmen Square, on a straight southern line leading out of the old Imperial City. I hadn't been to this part of Beijing in a few years, and like everywhere in this construction-crazed mega-city, things have changed.

The entire length of Qianmen itself is covered by giant, two story high temporary walls with murals on them that say, more or less, "The world loves Beijing. The world will love Qianmen! Welcome Great Olympics!" or words to that effect. Qianmen, it appears, is getting its Olympic facelift, leaving the avenue for now no sidewalks, no storefronts, just walls blank save for the ubiquitous slogan.

I walked a ways down Qianmen until I saw a path between the scaffolds, leading into a narrow lane where hawkers set up adhoc stalls selling shoes, clothes, phonecards and toys. Following that a ways I found myself on Dazhalan Street, a traditional shopping area of teashops, restaurants and small department stores - the kind of place that looks more like the China in your imagination than the one that actually exists, for the most part.

This is one of the last remaining areas of hutongs, the old alleyways and courtyard homes traditional to Beijing, left in the city, and it's impossible to tell from the decaying condition of many of the medieval buildings whether the intention is to repair them or knock them down. Everywhere you look, some monolith skyscraper goes up, some of them taking up entire city blocks. Beijing is not a pedestrian friendly city; in spite of its monuments and historic sites, it has few public spaces for its residents to gather. Most everything of that sort is behind walls, through gates, and in a way Beijing's new development is a new iteration of that tradition. Inside these massive new buildings are shopping malls, offices, restaurants, net-bars, gyms, luxury apartments - huge interior spaces, mazes where people do their business and live their lives.

I'm staying in Chaoyang, in a small hotel off Tuanjiehu, a place that looks more like Beijing's past than its rushing present. The area is hard to navigate, with its narrow lanes, low-slung - no skyscrapers here; the tallest buildings theold-style brick apartment blocks, six stories at most. Across the alley from my hotel are a little laundry, a small convenience shop, a place that sells purified water systems. There's an elementary school up the street. I don't need an alarm; the kids wake me up every AM promptly at 8. It's a pleasant place, quiet most of the time, except for around 3:30, when the kids get out from school and their parents come to pick them up, and that kind of noise is the sort that's mostly joyful.

I like it here, in Beijing. I find it oddly comfortable, in spite of the fact that it's a far from omfortable place. Oh, there are definite downsides. The Great Firewall, for one - the internet censorship system that restricts the flow of information. It's oddly arbitrary - I can read Salon, the New York Times, the Washington Post - until suddenly I can't, because some article or another was deemed threatening or unsuitable.

The night I got here, I was delighted to find that blogspot was no longer blocked, at least not in Beijing. I could access the blog, log in and write a post. However, I couldn't publish the post. Damn you, Great Firewall! You tease me with this pretense of openness!

But I figure it's just a question of time. The Great Wall didn't keep the barbarians out; the Great Firewall can't stop the blog-hoards forever.

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