By John Kirk
A fat business man parked his Range Rover right across the pedestrian crossing as we approached. I pointed out the selfishness of this as we detoured around his two tons of expensive male jewellery, but he just smiled the smile of a man with no concern for others. We were in Beijing not Birmingham or Knightsbridge and the arrogant business man was Chinese not English. Welcome to China in 2014.
A mile away stood the statue of Mao Zedong pointing the way to the future, but was this the future that he expected for China?
A few days earlier, and on my way to Shanghai via Beijing, my plane had been unable to land because of the pollution there. Apparently it was so bad that people could not see their hands at the end of their outstretched arms. After circling the capital for 45 minutes we headed off to land in Taiyuan, which is normally even more polluted than Beijing. A combination of no wind, farmers burning stubble, coal burning power stations and car exhausts had produced the perfect “pea-souper” fog and the Capital was cut off from the air.
In many ways the West has exported its atmospheric pollution along with much of its manufacturing capability. The demand for energy now has the Chinese leading the way in energy technology for the future, but the demand is now and the pollution is like it was in London, Manchester and Birmingham in the 1930s when they were the centre of the manufacturing world. There is no short-term fix, and the demand for cars is undiminished. Many Beijingers still ride bicycles to work, the shops and a few to school; but the majority of citizens have embraced the internal combustion engine, commuting and consumerism with an undiminished passion.
When we came back to Beijing a few days later the skies had cleared and a blue sky dazzled above but the air was still acrid with unseen pollution. My eyes stung and my nose ran. It was still deeply unpleasant, but Beijing residents were grateful to see at least a blue sky after three months of smog.
Range Rover is made in Birmingham at a factory now owned by Tata the Indian industrial. It is as British a car as you will find, but this week Tata announced a partnership to build its baby Range Rover Evoque in Changshu near Shanghai. Very soon 120,000 of these luxury vehicles will be pouring off the line every year. The Chinese love the marque and its European branding. It makes them stand out, but the problem is that a point will be reached when demand will drop because the luxury brand is no longer sufficiently exclusive. Meanwhile all of these extra cars are clogging up the streets and polluting the air.
At weekends some Beijingers like to escape to the mountains to sample the fresh air and visit beautifully constructed “ancient” villages. We visited one such village 60 miles away and took a cable car up to the Great Wall. It was wonderful to get out of the city and clean out the lungs and eyes. The Chinese middle and upper classes looked happy too, able to breathe fresh air and take in the amazing building capabilities of their ancestors.
The Wall was built to keep out invaders from the West, but now they come in by air, unless the smog stops them from landing that is.
Junying: You may be interested in seeing more pictures of Great Wall Here.