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Beijing in Transit
Special> Beijing in Transit
UPDATED: October 22, 2007 NO.43 OCT.25, 2007
Beijing Bound
Capital to one fifth of mankind and the fastest developing nation in history, Beijing is attracting a growing number of foreign residents drawn by interest and opportunity. The city is in thrall to incredibly rapid development that is altering its appearance and character. So what can the new arrivals expect?
By John Butcher

China's increasingly open attitude and economic drive have attracted a growing number of foreigners to the country, both as tourists and residents. Estimates put the number of foreigners registered as working in China at the end of 2006 at around 180,000, double the number three years before, with the majority being in Beijing and Shanghai.

Interest in China abroad, from America to Africa, and the nation's seemingly unstoppable economic engine are likely to draw even more foreigners in the coming years.

For so long, a closed book to the rest of the world, for many people, China remains to a large extent a great unknown. So what should new arrivals expect?

Like any country, there is good and bad. In China, the economic upsurge is often the cause of both.

The main complaint of foreigners and Chinese living in Beijing is pollution. The city is often covered by a thin gray mist that blocks the sun and stifles views. At the worst times people complain of stinging eyes and breathing difficulties. The municipal government even issues health warnings some days, telling people to stay indoors if possible, because going outside could be bad for their health.

Satellite images show much of eastern China as a swirling mass of gray. The country's heavy pollution is so bad that estimates place up to 25 percent of the air pollution in Los Angeles as coming from China. In some parts of California as much as 40 percent of air pollution is said to come from Asia. It's not uncommon to hear a foreigner in Beijing question what breathing in the gray mist is doing to their health.

Much of the Beijing smog is a result of construction. The city is changing at an incredible pace, and dusty building sites abound. China constructs between 1.6 billion and 2 billion square meters of buildings every year, surpassing that of all industrialized nations put together. This building euphoria is not only a major cause of pollution, but also the reason for negative number two about Beijing-architecture.

The city has an amazing history and culture, but so much of it is being bulldozed in the name of progress, or is ruined by the surrounding view of ugly skyscrapers.

Many born and bred Beijingers may hold a different view. Given the choice of living in a hutong or a tower block, they might choose the latter. But one look at the high-rise experiment of Britain of the 1960s and 1970s should be enough evidence to say, not only are they often ugly, they are also a mistake in many other ways.

While many of China's problems stem from its rapid development, it is also the source of one of the country's great advantages-opportunity. Opportunities abound in China and foreigners are no longer excluded from participating. Foreigners have entered the Chinese marketplace at every level-from small business to multinational. I have met foreigners engaged in everything from farming to finance.

China now has 106 billionaires, up from 15 last year, and second only to the United States, according to the Shanghai-based Hurun Report, produced by Rupert Hoogewerf.

Beijing is also a nice place to live. It's safe and there is little anti-social behavior. People are generally friendly too. Security guards smile, shop assistants and taxi drivers put up with the almost universal lack of Chinese spoken by foreigners in the city, and the streets feel secure day and night.

According to a report released last year by the National Bureau of Statistics and Beijing Bureau of Statistics, 47 percent of Beijing's residents believe the city has created a harmonious environment. Rural residents gave their lives an average happiness rating of 80.5, while the average rating for urban residents was 76. Given the city's incredible expansion and the problems associated with it, plus the fact that China is still classed as a developing nation, those figures seem pretty good.

Positive number three is, perhaps surprisingly given the city's pollution problem, being green. Beijing is filled with tree-lined cycle lanes that make it one of the easiest big cities in the world to use a bicycle. The modernity of much of the city's infrastructure has made it possible to build a road system for cars, pedestrians and bicycles.

The city's green credentials don't stop there. While many of Beijing's modern high-rises are ugly, the government is making an effort to ensure they are environmentally friendly. Earlier this year a series of regulations on energy-saving architecture were introduced. According to the regulations, developers who ignore energy consumption standards will face fines or a ban on selling their properties.

Beijing's train network is also an excellent reason not to pollute the air with car-exhaust fumes. It is clean, efficient, cheap and expanding.

While Beijing is heavily polluted, and in parts filled with ugly tower blocks, it remains a good place to live. It faces the challenges of development on a massive scale, bringing with it a balancing act between progress and beauty as well as freedom and order. As capital to one fifth of the world's population Beijing faces an enormous responsibility to succeed.

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