in the center of it all

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Finally got these pictures to upload; my internet connection isn’t any better than it was last year and it’s always hard to throw data over the Great Firewall…

I arrived in Beijing last Friday in the early morning, so the airport was almost empty (well, not the visa-check lines) and I got to Wudaoying just as its (countless) coffee shops were opening for the day. My Airbnb reservation had a check-in time of noon, so I sat in one of them for a few hours eating a microwaved burrito, listening to the Christmas music they were inexplicably playing, and finishing a semantics paper (on a topic I called, I think coincidentally, the “Christmas-light theory of binding.”) For no reason at all, here’s a diagram from the paper (the gendered pronoun, incidentally, is from the original example in Pauline Jacobson’s textbook):


Wudaoying (五道营) is usually referred to as Beijing’s “next gentrified hutong,” after Nanluoguxiang (南锣鼓巷), a mile to the southwest, which was invaded by expats and hipsters a decade ago. But of course the websites and guidebooks are themselves outdated, and Wudaoying has undoubtedly arrived already. The restaurants, cafes, and bars on Wudaoying often seem geared towards expats, but even the ones that are expat-owned and Western-themed usually have no English-speaking staff or translated menus–the new Chinese middle class, suddenly willing to pay Western prices for Western food and drink–is the real target market here.

The house I’m living in is the result of the Chinese equivalent of a tear-down; indeed the hutong itself (前肖家 – not on Google Maps!), which not long ago teemed with “cages of chickens and geese” (mine is the one mentioned in the third-to-last paragraph here), is now full of parked scooters, electric concrete mixers, and stacks of bricks and roof tiles. It’s also only half a hutong–the traditional, one-or-two-story houses (that once surrounded courtyards and housed entire extended families, often of Qing-era officials) fill only one side of the alley while a towering apartment block–a “New Urban Community”–takes up the other.

I live just inside Andingmen (安定门, the Gate of Secured Peace), one of the two main entrance points along the northern side of the old walled city (and now a subway stop on Line 2, the inner beltway line that traces the path along which the wall once stood). I take Bus 113 from Andingmennei (Andingmen Inner Street Station) straight to Sanlitun where I work; the subway would actually take longer (and would be a lot more crowded). Commuting by bus takes about 25 minutes and costs an absurdly small (and yet apparently only barely subsidized) 0.40元, or six and a half cents, each way.

Because Caixin English piggybacks on the Chinese publication, we don’t really have any material to work with until 10 or 11 in the morning; our 10-7 hours often end up as 10:30 to 7:30 or later. We also piggyback on them in other ways; the Caixin newsroom takes up an entire floor of Sanlitun SOHO building 6, but the English desk is just four cubicles in the far corner. Unlike last year, when my friend Benjamin was one of half a dozen interns who overwhelmed the English desk (and thus didn’t have much to do), I’m the only intern among the eight of us–a Chinese editor, an English-language copyeditor (from the Louisville Courier-Journal), one other foreigner (a writer who also manages social media and the email newsletter), a graphics editor, three young Chinese reporters, and me.

I had a research and/or translation role in parts of these two pages, though most of what I’ve done has actually gone to the WeChat feed and not the main website. My favorite of those is a set of quotes I translated from Democratic Life meetings (民主生活会), the linchpins of the Communist Party’s latest campaign for Party discipline at which officials criticize themselves for violations like “bureaucratic thinking” and “excessive formality,” as well as for more prosaic missteps:

Li Guoqing, mayor of Enshi in Hubei Province: “When I’m away on official business, I usually travel by plane and only rarely take a train or car. When I see a doctor, I never stand in line; if I’m hospitalized I get a VIP ward with a personal nurse. If a light is broken in my house or a pipe is blocked I immediately call the office’s bureau of general affairs, and they send someone to fix it.”

Zhou Chenliang, head of Lankao County in Hebei Province: “When I’m on official trips I don’t like to stay in ordinary hotels or take the public subway. If clothing isn’t from a famous brand I won’t wear it. If I go to the countryside in the winter I’m afraid of the cold, while in the summer I’m afraid of the heat—and on windy days I’m afraid of sand.”

Sun Ruibin, municipal party secretary in Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei Province: “Sometimes, when I attend an event and the arrangements made by the unit receiving me are too ordinary, I feel uncomfortable. If the arrangements are more extravagant, then I feel that I’m saving face and gaining respect, and my mind can be at ease.”

Shi Luze, commander of Hebei Province military region: “That, in my mind, the occasional banquet that isn’t top-grade means ‘losing face,’ occasions that aren’t magnificent are ‘unimportant,’ driving without a police escort is ‘insufficiently grand,’ and so on—all these I recognize as errors.”

A member of the standing committee in Hebei Province: “When problems arise, my own grassroots investigation is just like a TV drama: there’s a script in advance, a director in the middle, and I show up and bask in honors afterwards. But I am merely an actor.”

We had a welcome dinner with all the Stanford interns on Saturday (along with a few alums of the program and other local Stanfordians–including a young woman with a mobile app startup and a Stanford grad who’s lived in China off and on since 1971, correctly predicted for his PhD in the mid-70s that China would become an oil importer in the early 90s, and currently runs a shale gas investment outfit); I was referred to a few times by the program manager as “the intern who’s most settled by now”–lots of other people have housing and transportation issues; I’m also the person people seem to turn to for general Beijing advice, merely from having spent a month there last summer.

Mostly though, it’s just that I like it here so much. I like how it feels more central, a feeling the capital of the Middle Kingdom came close to losing during the Century of National Humiliation but has clearly managed to retain. I like how it forces you to question your assumptions constantly, to think actively about urban, social, economic, and environmental policy and confront the modernity that’s being built around you–tower by tower, hutong by hutong. And I couldn’t be happier about what I’m doing here, or the people I’m doing it with:

Caixin Media…pushes forward reforms in China and protects the public’s right to know while chronicling, objectively and thoughtfully, our nation in transition.

More to come.