Time-lapse Beijing

Software_park_1 I am now in Beijing.  And yesterday, I had a chance to participate in the local version of a traffic jam.  I can now say that I have experienced the international traffic jam at several of its locales: Mumbai, Moscow, and now Beijing.  How miserable, a waste of time, money and the ozone layer.  How shall we fix this?

I was driving back to the hotel around 7:00.  Just the right time to see exhausted moms and dads making their way home in one direction passing, in some cases, their own children, beautifully dressed,  going out for a night on the town.

It was dusk, always evocative, and the city had an anguished beauty.  Glimpses of life on this outdoor patio and that factory compound coming at me with force, like a recollection from my  deep past but of course it manifests itself in circumstances that tell me that the sensation MUST be illusional (if not delusional).  Strange, someone else’s nostalgia.  Jet lag, it’s a very odd thing.

I have been coming to China for 20 years.  When I first arrived, the hotel experience was strange.  I would place an order for breakfast with room service, and eventually some guy would show up with a toaster, a piece of bread and a look of confusion.  He knew something was required of him but he wasn’t sure what.  Within 15 years this exercise in amateur theatre had been replaced by note-perfect hospitality.  I mean really perfect.  And this trip, evidence of the transformation continues.  This hotel (the Shangri-La) is actually better than perfect.  Everything from service to design is superlative, much better than anything I have ever seen in the West (with one or two exceptions).

So it 20 years, this Westerner has had the opportunity to watch China move from a country struggling to catch up to a country that may now be poised to pull ahead.  Yes, the Shangri-la is a hotel with Western connections.  Yes, hotels are not the best place to judge larger patterns of change.  (And surely an anthropologist of all people should know this.) 

But in an imperfect world, we take any measure that presents itself, and by this measure, China is now finished with catch-up and will someday begin to pull away.  This is a country moving at time-lapse speed.  It won’t be long, perhaps, before it passes us and disappears into the future.


The building pictured is from the software park in Beijing.  It was taken through a taxi window.  Hence the patina on the window. 

11 thoughts on “Time-lapse Beijing

  1. Reynold

    Hi Grant,

    As someone who participates in one of those traffic jams, I think about your question almost every day.

    We certainly won’t fix it by building bigger roads, elevated roads, fly-overs and expressways.

    And so long as our public transport looks like this, people will want to travel by car any chance they get.

    Maybe Singapore has something to teach the rest of us.



    PS – What price have the Chinese paid to develop so rapidly? Is it worth it?

  2. TJIC

    China has hardly caught up to the West – some small pockets have first world standard of livings, but away from a few hotels and business districts, the average income, wealth, and education is abysmal. This is not to say that China hasn’t made huge strides – it has…amazing strides.

    Further, with regard to “pulling ahead”: this happens very very rarely. The closer an emergent economy gets to the world leading economies, the slower it grows. It’s akin to Zeno’s paradox: they halve the distance, halve the distance again, halve it yet again…and never close it to zero. The reason is partially that growth is fuelled by importing technologies and methodologies from more advanced areas. The closer you get to world-class, the fewer places there are that are more advanced than you – you switch from importing technologies to laboriously *creating* the new technologies.

    China also has major demographic problems – because of the one-child policy, they’ve got a retirement overhang that makes the US’s babyboomers seem like three small women with tiny appetites.

  3. Grant

    Reynold, interesting URLs, thanks, it seems an intractable problem, more wealth means more cars, but, yes, I think it’s worth it, only the traffic in this system locks up. talent and capital stream. Thanks, Grant

    TJIC, thanks for your note, I didn’t mean that the China has taken the lead quite yet, only that the strides you speak are so, as you say, amazing, that that day can’t be very far off. As to the Zeno’s paradox here, I think China does not suffer that disadvantage of having taking the lead. once all talent is online I think the “pull away” can happen very quickly. Speaking of metaphors, your “three small women with tiny appetites” wins the summer “metaphor award” on this blog. Thanks, Grant

  4. Peter

    On the traffic congestion problem, I suspect that most countries will eventually adopt some form of charging-for-driving, as London, UK, has done successfully. The British Government recently floated proposals for using satnav to track all movements of all cars, and charging every vehicle a small fee per mile travelled. “User pays” is probably the only systematic way to ensure that the externalities of road-use are internalized.

  5. Tom Asacker

    Safe travels Grant. Try some shirataki noodles and let me know your thoughts.

    Peter, is there a difference between what the UK is doing and our fuel taxes in the US?

  6. Peter

    Tom — London has a “congestion charge” in which vehicles entering the centre of London during business hours pay a fee. A network of closed-circuit TV cameras track vehicles entering the city and the system sends a penalty fine to vehicle-owners who have entered the zone without having paid the fee. The system has been very successful in reducing traffic in peak periods, and (perhaps as a result) less successful than predicted in raising revenue. The Mayor of London has ploughed some of the moneys raised into better bus services. The zone for which the charge is payable is about to be extended.

    I think the key difference with a fuel tax is that the congestion charge aims at reducing congestion during the worst periods. You can still drive for free through the centre of London at night and at weekends. A fuel tax would be payable whatever time and place you drove, and so would provide no time-specific or location-specific disincentives to reduce driving during peak hours.

  7. Reynold

    I think Singapore has similar restrictions. Heard that cars have coloured stickers – you can drive on any one day of the week only. Also something similar to the congestion charge applies to the downtown area.

  8. Tom Asacker

    Thanks Peter. I like the idea. And if corporations had to pay the additional travel fee (instead of workers), they’d probably be more likely to provide flexible working hours.

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  11. May in Beijing China

    The problem re cars is not so much that people need cars but that, owning one being a quite new opportunity, many people can’t resist to get one. When the subway train system doubles then trebles in size, the traffic situation will ease.

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