🇬🇧 Back when Camels were Welcome in Beijing

April 1, 2016

A silent, dust-covered Beijing greeted us – four exchange students from Denmark – as the train softly came to a stop at Beijing’s Central Railway Station one mild Indian summer day in September 1981 after an eight-day train journey with the Trans-Siberian railway from Copenhagen Central Station.

Having tea at teashop in Dazhalan, 1981. Photo: © Carsten Gyrn

I don’t know what I expected; probably anything but a grey, ugly, dusty featureless city. Cyclists, mule carts, people all dressed the same, making it difficult to distinguish men from women, front from behind. Everyone wore Sun Yat-sen uniforms (which some call “Mao-suit”) and a cap – army green, blue or sometimes grey.

I did not know my Danish fellow students beforehand, but the mind boggling train journey gave us ample opportunity to get acquainted. We were picked up in the school minibus and driven some 20 kilometres to Beijing Yuyan Xueyuan, Beijing Foreign Languages Institute. My luggage consisted of seven items – including my badminton racquets and a small toolbox with the essentials: hammer, nails, folding rule, screwdrivers, a bit of everything, all of which came in handy – and was high in demand with my fellow students. I also brought moon boots, ski gloves and coveralls for the approaching winter – which likewise proved indispensable. Wearing my skiing outfit I was almost able to stay warm while doing homework in my dorm in Beijing’s icy, bone-dry winter.

Armband Bicycle Light

I bought a big sturdy men’s bicycle in the foreign exchange shop where foreigners could purchase without ration coupons, and mounted reflectors and a bright coloured sticker with a stork on it from a Danish rock band. We often cycled into town, 18 km each way; paved roads had lighting, dirt roads usually did not. Bicycle lights were unheard of; nevertheless, I carried one fastened round my arm. The Chinese had no lights on their bikes. And when we rode home in the evening on dirt roads, the odd oncoming car would blind us so we had to stop in order not to fall into a ditch or crash into something.

My brand new bicycle in Beijing. I brought the yellow reflector from home. Shanghai passenger car in the background, 1981.
Photo: © Carsten Gyrn

We cycled about in a city where the sun often shone from a clear blue sky, and the beautiful Fragrant Mountains in the far distance to the West were in plain sight. We rode past Beijing’s low, dusty buildings – e.g. to the village Wudaokou near the language institute. Wudaokou had a large selection of goods on offer, a model village to convince foreigners of the wide selection of goods available to the Chinese.

A Discreet Revolution

Close by was the village Sidaokou which we weren’t meant to visit. Here, the selection was highly authentic, i.e. extremely modest: Row upon row of Chinese cabbage, garlic sprouts, a few spotted and blistered tomatoes, and perhaps a small slice of fatty pork. There was a tea shop with a small selection of green and red (which we call black) teas, one jiuba, a bar where you could get boiled peanuts, a few almost identical dishes with cabbage, flat beer in tubs and the hefty local firewater, baijiu, which tasted like ether, and was followed for days by a foul aftertaste.

In the school canteen you could buy several servings of rice for the price of an airmail stamp to Denmark. As an exchange student, I received a monthly grant of app. 10 dollars from the Chinese government along with ration coupons for cotton, cooking oil and rice in the government shops, which were the vast majority by far.

Writing a letter home outside my dorm, Beijing, 1981. With tongxuemen (fellow students) Margareta and Holger
Photo: © Carsten Gyrn

The cardboard boxes and bicycle racks of private farmer-entrepreneurs, who sold small quantities of produce in the villages were China’s very first free market stalls; the very first expression of Deng Xiaoping’s revolutionary – and historically unprecedented – economic reforms, which since 1979 have made it possible for the Chinese to double their gross domestic product 20 times. At the time, peasants still had to sell a fixed quota of their crops and produce at a fixed price to the state, but they were allowed to cultivate and breed some for their own use, to eat themselves to get the much needed proper nutrition, or sell on the small, free markets. Back then a peasant gladly cycled dozens of kilometres to sell a tiny piece of pork, a chicken or four shrivelled tomatoes.

Little did I know that I was actually witnessing the greatest economic revolution in human history.

Greeted by an Omnipotent Mao

The school covered an area of ​​approximately five km2, and was, like everything else in China, enclosed by a wall. At the main entrance, one was welcomed by a huge statue of Mao Zedong, hand raised in omnipotent greeting.

Concierges zealously guarded the only two entrances and dutifully noted in their book, who went in or out and when. Occasionally, we foreigners invited Chinese visitors, who then had to go through a nasty registration process with all sorts of questions – if indeed they were allowed to enter the campus with its 10,000 students, 10,000 teachers and 10,000 “others.” e.g. janitors, gardeners, canteen staff, craftsmen and workers.

We mostly used the rear entrance, which was closer to our dorms and the buses to the city and Zhongguancun in the Haidian area where Beida – Peking University – was and still is situated. Today, the Mao statues at the colleges have all been removed and Haidian is a hectic, densely populated district with many skyscrapers and colleges, nicknamed Beijing’s Silicon Valley.

Then, as now, Beijing was centred round the old Imperial Palace, The Forbidden City, from where the low buildings of the hutongs, the narrow alleys, spread out. An imperial decree forbade any building higher than the wall encircling the Forbidden City; no one was allowed to look into the Emperor’s Forbidden City. Thus it remained for centuries. During the first half of the 20th century, foreign legations and churches were constructed at appropriate distance. And after the revolution in 1949 the city expanded with public buildings as well as large, ugly apartment blocks, modelled on Soviet architecture. When I first arrived in Beijing in 1981, at 15 storeys, The Peking Hotel was the tallest building in central Beijing.

Dust to Colour

The beauty of Beijing was that, over time, the city imperceptibly changed from the dusty uniformity, which struck me at first, to slowly become a city full of nuances, in people as well as colours, smells, scents, sounds and architecture. Under the dusty layer, the wall surrounding the Forbidden City was a warm crimson. Along and The Boulevard of Eternal Peace, Chang An, were benches, where old gentlemen chatted and compared their song birds in bamboo cages. Bird-keeping had only just been legalised once more after 15 years of having been deemed counterrevolutionary and thus a crime.

All over, in Beijing’s many parks, the old men gathered with their caged birds, and they still do. In the evening, for lack of space at home, young students studied under street lamps, while others sought out street lamps that didn’t work, to try and share a quiet moment with a friend or girlfriend. These timid tête-à-têtes were zealously monitored by the “kissing police,” which we dubbed the elderly women from the neighbourhood committee, who proudly wore their red armband on their uniform as proof of their authority. These women made sure that nothing improper took place – and certainly no breach of the regulation that allowed city couples only one child each; that part of the kissing police’s assignment was carried out by keeping a watchful eye on whether women of childbearing age washed and hung their menstrual rags to dry.

On Tiananmen Sq, when one was free to roam the square, 1981.
Photo: © Carsten Gyrn

When Jianguo Hotel, China’s very first joint-venture hotel owned by the Liberation Army and a foreign hotel chain, opened just east of the Second Ring Road we cycled the 25 kilometres from the school to the hotel (and back) for brunch. With olives!

We cycled through the fields to the Summer Palace, or to Tiananmen Square in the city. Since the uprising in Beijing in 1989, the Square has been closed to bicycles and fun in general, but back then we often cycled about the square when heading home after a beer at the Peking Hotel.

Chang An, the Boulevard of Eternal Peace, which cuts East-West through Beijing had only one single lane for cars then. The rest were for bicycles. Today it is vice versa. There were no private cars, and the entire fleet of vehicles consisted of Jiefang, Liberation, trucks, the mint green passenger car Shanghai, and the distinguished limousine Hong Qi, Red Flag, all of them copies of robust Soviet models. In the absence of tinted windows the limousines had adorable white lace curtains, so you could look out, but not into the car.

Oh, the sound of camels’ feet on tarmac

Thousands of cyclists on the move make their own special sound, often accompanied by hefty swearing and the fiery clanging of bells.

But most exquisite is the soft sound of a caravan of camels on tarmac. In order to actually hear the camels’ soft approach there must be no other sounds. Back then in the early 1980s the camel caravans were relegated to night hours. They were no longer welcome in the streets by day, blocking the pulsating bicycle traffic. Silently watching and listening to a passing camel caravan under Chang An Boulevard’s dim streetlights was magic. The mere thought of where these majestically arrogant animals came from and where they were heading? The distinguished and very exotic restaurant inside Beihai Park served camel feet, supposedly a delicacy, which under no circumstances I would – or will – sink my teeth into.

Back then shepherds too, herded their flocks through the city to the abattoir, south along the Forbidden City’s Western wall enclosing the government headquarters, Zhongnanhai. Some of the sheep wore bells, so one could always hear the approach of sheep from afar. The sheep were relegated to nights as well. Later, horse and mule carts were also relegated to nocturnal traffic, and then further afield to outside the ring road and later even further out. At the time there were still fields within the Third Ring Road, and, apart from the Soviet style Agriculture Exhibition Centre, almost everything beyond the ring road was fields.

Back then, “our” villages Sidaokou, Wudaukou and Zhongguancun, were indeed villages, not like today, swallowed up by the city.

In winter, when the lakes in the Summer Palace and Beihai Park and the moat around the Forbidden City froze over, we went ice-skating. And workers came and sawed huge solid ice blocks from the thick ice on the moat, which were placed in cold storage and used in old-fashioned refrigerator cabinets during summer.

Ice skating on the moat of The Forbidden City, Beijing, 1981. Photo: © Carsten Gyrn

We suffered fierce dust storms, with dust and sand from the Gobi Desert in the north forcing its way into eyes and skin and settling between the teeth. We only had the luxury of hot water in the shared showers twice a week, for two hours, causing long queues. And if a dust storm did not fall on a hot-water-day, you had to wash in a tub of hot water, nicked from the big kettle with boiled water, kaishui, for tea, or in the ice-cold shower.

China’s then paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, spearheaded a tree-planting campaign in Beijing. I clearly remember the vast posters of the little man and his shovel leading the way …  and over time the tree-planting campaign has greatly curbed Beijing’s dust storms.

Exuberant times

I was an exchange student in the academic year 1981-82. Since then, I have returned to Beijing more times than I can count, and I have spent a total of more than 10 years in China.

Beijing spread tremendously during the 1980s and soared skyward with office towers, which still had to keep a respectful distance from the Forbidden City.

The new economic freedom rubbed off on everything; women and men began to perm their hair into unwavering curls. And women and men alike mounted little rubber heels on their shoes, which didn’t exactly become stilettos, rather like pumps. Daring women began wearing colourful lace and ruffles that cheekily showed at the edge of the sleeves of their uniforms. Some even tried a little red lipstick or nail polish. For the Chinese, these were exuberant times.

Back then it never occurred to me how fond the young Chinese were of our blue jeans, which were standard outfit for Westerners. Denims were wildly fashionable and an expression of great freedom. Our Chinese friends were delighted with almost anything we would come up with, be it pantyhose or quality shoes; or my ice skates, which I gave to a friend, when I returned to Denmark.

City dwellers and peasants benefiting in turn

Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, gaige kaifang, were conceived to benefit first the peasants (85 per cent of China’s population at the time) for five years, and then the city people, then the peasants and then the city people, shifting focus between countryside and cities every five years.

In the late 1980s, China’s city dwellers and Beijingers in particular, were elated over being able to express themselves more freely than ever, while at the same time confounded and deeply frustrated that the peasants became richer than they did; supplies in shops were better than ever before, but accompanied by unprecedented inflation. In New China’s first 35 years, rice, flour and cooking oil cost exactly the same, so it was a shock when in the mid-eighties prices began to rise. And while until the early 1980s there was in fact equal pay, with everyone being equally poor, and basically no crime because there was nothing to steal, increased prosperity in parts of the population meant corruption, which, like inflation, was unknown in New China’s first 30-40 dogmatic years from 1949 and on.

Daring Students

This was the colourful backdrop when in the spring of 1989, students from Beijing’s elite universities decided to form a student organisation and a university newspaper independently of the Communist Party, which was (and remains) in overpowering charge of any such activities in China. Youngsters marched from the university campuses out in Haidian to the government headquarters at Tiananmen Square, demanding their rights.

Under normal circumstances they would have been stopped, roughed up and forced back to the university, but a variety of circumstances would that the demonstrations were allowed to gain momentum and swell into fierce criticism of the government, of inflation, increasing inequality and corruption as well as calls for democracy. Within a few weeks, the students’ demonstrations gained tremendous public support in Beijing as well as other major cities.

In the late 1980s, I worked at the foreign desk at Danish Broadcasting’s TV News in Copenhagen and was  to cover the historic summit between China’s aging leader, Deng Xiaoping, and the then Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, in Beijing in May 1989. The two mighty Communist neighbours had been at odds since the late 1950s, and expectations for them to bury the hatchet were high.

So when one sunny April day in 1989 I landed in Beijing, I was speechless when I stopped my taxi on a bridge over the Second Ring Road and looked down at 300,000 self-assured youngsters peacefully demonstrating their demands and proving their patriotism by singing the International at the top of their lungs. All along the procession older Beijingers offered the demonstrators water, cigarettes, tea, ice cream and whatever else they had to offer.

It was both poignant and ominous. China’s leaders would never accept such a tremendous challenge. But since the leaders could not agree on how to handle the situation, the massive manifestations – most unusually – were allowed to continue and grow. First, the students set up camp in Tiananmen Square. Just as the summit between Gorbachev and Deng to put an end to 30 years of distrust and skirmishes was to open, some students went on hunger strike to force the resignation of the government. Gorbachev’s laying of a wreath at the Square to honour China’s martyrs had to be cancelled, and he and Mme Raisa entered the parliament building, The Great Hall of the People, through a side entrance.

People’s Liberation Army open Fire at the People

For nearly two months, Beijing was paralysed by peaceful strikes and demonstrations; not a window was smashed nor a flower trampled under foot. Central Beijing was a glimmering human sea. Peace, love and understanding. Protesters and ordinary citizens were intoxicated by their apparent success. Human chains, sing-along, unity – it was too good to be true and ended in carnage in the streets of Beijing and other big cities in China. This was the first time in the history of New China that People’s Liberation Army fired at the people. It is not known how many people were killed. We only know that the official figure of 300 dead is a completely unrealistic understatement.

The successful Sino-Soviet summit was overshadowed by the unprecedented challenge to China’s Communist Party. Even if events touched me deeply, these were people and places I knew and loved, I did my utmost to cover them soberly. For me personally witnessing the demonstrations was highly emotional, the students’ energy and increasing arrogance, their matchless self-assurance, their experiments with democracy, which was unchartered land to them. Not for one moment did I doubt that the leaders would strike back. The only question was when; and the longer the wait, the harder the counter attack. The waiting game was painful.

China’s leaders hit back with the undignified impotence of their massive power. They were taken aback by the world’s critical reactions. And as I had witnessed and reported on the uprising I became persona non grata in China, a common practise in authoritarian regimes with censored media.

A different city

After repeated rejections, in 1991 I received my entry and work permit. One of the Communist Party newspapers wanted a correspondent in Denmark. And as China’s state authorities don’t – or can’t – distinguish between state and private, they felt they probably had to let me into China for their correspondent to live and work in Denmark. Obviously, this wasn’t the case. The Danish government had absolutely nothing to do with my work, but there really was no need at the time to point out this obvious fact to the Chinese authorities.

The Beijing I revisited two years after the uprising was a mere shadow of its former self. The energy was extinguished. Traces of Liberation Army attacks on unarmed demonstrators were visible everywhere. Buildings along the Boulevard of Eternal Peace were still scarred with bullet holes. Broken and scorched tiles were all over Tiananmen Square where tanks had razed the demonstrators’ camp and burned the remains. Immediately after the massacres in June 1989, I managed to speak with a few emergency rooms in Beijing, as did friends. And to the best of my knowledge, it is true, when China’s rulers maintain that no demonstrators were killed on the Square. They were killed and wounded in the side streets and further East and West on the Boulevard of Eternal Peace.

The mood in Beijing in 1991 was infinitely gloomy and far from the energetic optimism that prevailed two years previously, until a few weeks prior to the massacre in Beijing and other major cities on June 4th. People walked with bowed heads, no twinkle in their eyes or colourful clothes, they hardly talked to each other; there were short tempered quarrels in the streets. Friends, colleagues and acquaintances of mine had been sent to the countryside to learn from the peasants, others had been or were still in prison.

One Chinese friend and colleague who had spent a year in the countryside to learn from some – fortunately very nice and friendly – pig farmers, declared that he would not work as a journalist again until he could report freely; he still doesn’t work as a journalist; and sadly, he never will.

Although China’s leaders will never ever admit that they totally flew off the handle, in the intervening 25 years they have, in various ways, tried to accommodate some of the protesters’ demands. Whether this might have happened in any case, we’ll never know.

Not a Camel left in sight

Beijing is a totally different city today. The delicate nuances of the 1980s have evaporated. The economic reforms have taken root. The city has exploded in both width and height, in traffic, commercialisation and population. There is not a camel, a sheep or a mule for miles around. And not a lot of bikes either.

Due to tight security, cycling freely across Tiananmen Square is no longer an option; days and weeks pass without sunshine, because smog and heavy pollution completely block out the sun. It is no longer possible to see the Fragrant Mountains in the far West.

Never before have the Chinese been wealthier or had greater opportunity in life. Up until 1992 they – and we – needed internal travel permits to go from one city to another, now they can travel freely almost anywhere in their own country, sometimes even abroad. Although the judicial system is unacceptable compared to Western standards, and can be both arbitrary and politically motivated, never before have the majority of the Chinese people experienced equality before the law to such extent as at present. Never have they been able to express themselves as freely as today, which of course by no means is the same as actually being able to express themselves freely.

Today, just over half of the Chinese live in cities – compared to 15 per cent in the 1980’s. Beijing is bursting at the seams in order to adapt. The pressure on the city is huge, the air often deadly to breathe.

The Human Cost of Development

I consider it my good fortune that for so many years I have had the opportunity to follow China’s development closely. I’ve have travelled further afield inside China than most of the Chinese. I have witnessed how close to half a billion people have been lifted out of absolute poverty. I have witnessed a historic development of enormous proportions, and as I have watched, the gap between urban and rural areas, and between rich and poor has grown ever wider.

China’s strict one-party rule has dictated development top-down, often without regard for the human cost. But conversely, development was initiated to improve life for the majority of the Chinese, the Chinese masses. And only over the last 5-10 years have China’s leaders made a serious effort to settle the very high environmental bill, the flip-side of development. Finally, China is making concerted efforts to rein in the devastating impact of climate change and clean up after 30-35 years uncontrolled environmental pollution and ecological destruction; at the very last moment, or perhaps even to late.

The small open village markets where I bought tea and vegetables 35 years ago have been replaced in Beijing by huge air-conditioned supermarkets. Even so, in some places in China, people still live in caves, which, however, may well have electricity and running water, which in turn other Chinese in different regions can only dream of.

Millions of Chinese still have no access to proper toilets or clean drinking water. The original plan with alternate progress of five years for peasants and city people respectively was overtaken by reality. The cities with their demanding and better-educated population ended up the winners. In return, the peasants, who, as migrant workers helped build the Chinese “miracle” with their elbow grease and hard work, increasingly floated to the cities. So nowadays many rural areas have been abandoned, with able-bodied people working in big cities, while grandparents look after the children in near-empty villages; a sad and in most instances also painfully high price of development.

One may deplore the extensive redevelopment in Beijing’s alleys with their beautiful low settlements around the Forbidden City and the ugly new high-rises in the city’s outskirts. But one can only welcome that residents have moved to much healthier apartments with central heating, private flush toilets, running water, gas or electric stove and all sorts of other healthy, hygienic and environmentally friendly modern amenities.

In the poetic hutongs people lived too densely, 100-150 families would share one set of open, stinking latrines, an outdoor faucet here and there, poor garbage collection, and small stoves cum heaters fuelled by briquettes of coal dust and oil, which develop toxic smoke. Everyone coughed all through the harsh winter, partly because they never really got warm, partly because the stoves were indoors in winter.

I return to Beijing every so often, but it is a different city now, and I don’t perceive it as the place I lived in as an exchange student 35 years ago. I have followed developments in China intensely ever since. Beijing and other major Chinese cities have developed as most other Asian cities – with the major exception that because of strict state control, China has very little slum, when compared to metropolises in Thailand, the Philippines, India or Indonesia.

Guinea Pigs no more

China has made tremendous achievements over the past 35 years, much more than anyone had imagined. China is extremely complex. There has been great progress, but also many setbacks. Often, development has both a good and a bad side. Beyond the hugely successful fight against poverty, the greatest advance in “my” time in China is that despite all their dictatorial tendencies and lack of confidence in the Chinese, the leaders have not regarded the Masses as guinea pigs in their personal human laboratory. This was how, increasingly, the founder of New China, Mao Zedong, perceived the Chinese masses, as his personal property and guinea pigs for his oftentimes insane social and ideological experiments. On other accounts he did very well for China. But besides his glorifying official Chinese profile, he will be remembered mostly for his repeated violations against the Chinese people.

In China’s thousands of years of history as well as in her own perception, Deng Xiaoping’s gaige kaifang, reform and opening up, will be remembered as the mighty realm’s biggest revolution and the first great leap towards regaining the imperial greatness, China feels entitled to after a century and a half of temporary set-back.

This essay is a translation of my contribution (in Danish) to a recent photo publication by Niels Bjørn on China’s Mega Cities, Livet i Kinas kæmpebyer.