Somewhere in Tom Scocca’s new book, "Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future", the author finds himself touring the city’s glittering jewel: the Bird’s Nest stadium, built for the Olympics in 2008. As he walks the grounds he sees an exposed portion of pillar; he runs his finger across it and discovers some concrete dust. But weren’t stadium’s tresses made of steel? During his time in Beijing—the years leading up to the Games—Scocca is never quite sure if he is seeing the curtain or peering behind it.
Scocca is a journalist—known to most as a Slate blogger and former New York Observer columnist—who travelled between America and China for the better part of a decade. He observed the capital city ratchet up huge changes—cosmetic and social—to become an international civic showcase. His book on the subject is funny, strange and sharply reported. More Intelligent Life spoke to Scocca about the book and what he thought the Olympics accomplished for Beijing.
How did you come to write "Beijing Welcomes You"?
My wife was living in Beijing and I was in New York, and one of us was going to end up in the same city as the other. The more I was going back and forth to Beijing the more it seemed to me that it was a great place to be a reporter. There was this amazing story unfolding in the way that the city was transforming. As someone who wasn’t a China specialist, it made me a better audience. It was sort of aimed at me, especially as a member of the foreign press.
Was censorship an issue?
It’s always mysterious. I never knew if anybody was reading anything I wrote. Full-time correspondents would be invited [by Chinese officials] for a cup of tea to talk about something they had written. But in my case, it was never clear to me if anyone was reading my work. I just never knew.
The book builds up to the Olympics, which seem to be pretty anticlimactic. Did you ever consider another way to record the book, besides chronologically?
That’s sort of the secret of the Olympics. They are like New Years’ Eve. There’s a big build up but then the actual thing is over so fast. There was value in seeing the arc of this transformation. I did it chronologically because it seemed like the most logical way and it was how I got to know the city. As well as the sensitive narrative timeline of moving towards the games, there was the timeline of me moving from abject ignorance to a better understanding. There are nested revelations about the way the city works that you have to learn before you understand what you’re seeing later.
Part of the experience of being in China was never having full permission to be there. You were never more than 90 days away from having to resubmit your paperwork. Often enough they would change the rules and I would need some new documentation. You come to depend on this constantly shifting set of rules. It was always good looking at things in China that were oppressively difficult and asking yourself how different it would be in America.
You had planned to have your son in America, but complications arose and his birth took place in Beijing. How did that change your life in China?
The less fully-developed safety standards in China become more salient. You’ve got a little kid riding around in the back of a taxi that may or may not have been serviced. You buy groceries and you’re hoping that fortified Melamine or steroids or other surprises won’t show up in the Chinese food chain. You lose all ability to pretend that the air is something you can’t be harmed by. I think my son has grown out of his asthma now but it’s hard to tell. It did a number on his lungs.
What was the most jarring thing you noticed about the transformation of Beijing?
The government made communal, substantive changes to the infrastructure—new subway lines appeared, giant developments went up—but there was also the hilariously superficial stuff. In 2008 smooth, greyish-silver, aluminium panels would go up over all the storefronts to just square off the building alignment. These weird scrims were put over air conditioning units to unify building facades. It was the little details, impossible to worry about and difficult to make any real headway against, that they set out to fix.
One thing that really did happen was with the escalators. The convention of stand-right walk-left had not existed at all so they painted a line right down the middle of the escalator and put up signs. For some reason, with that, people just picked it up. Maybe New York should take note?
Tell me a little about the cloud-seeding [shooting pellets into the sky to change the chemical balance of clouds]. That seemed like something out of Jules Verne.
The government were trying to make the clouds rain before they reached the Bird’s Nest. And they claimed success; they said they shot down the clouds. You can’t say they didn’t!
What makes Beijing the capital city of the future? What works about it?
It’s a combination of things, some good and some not so good. China lacks a certain stability unlike America, which has just settled into this almost Panglossian outlook: we have the best rail system that we could therefore it’s stupid to try and make high-speed rail work; we can’t change our health-care system because it might be worse. But this is not the history of the United States. Most of America’s history consisted of stitching stars on the flag as fast as we could—but what would happen now if someone proposed that we should add a state? At the moment we have a perfect round number of states. It is like we’ve achieved the end of history. In China I don’t think they’ve ever had the notion that they’ve reached the end of history.
"Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future" is published by Riverhead Hardcover and is out now.
~ CORBAN GOBLE