The Beijing Subway is Making Me an Asshole

Crowd on the Beijing Subway

It’s May, but the temperature at noon is already 38C. The air is damp with rush hour sweat.

We pull into a major interchange. Soon a deluge like an average day at Disneyland is going to spill onto escalators and into hallways. Standing at the centre of the car doors, a young lady watches a big Qing dynasty drama on a small screen.

Behind her in the corral the bulls are restless. The gate is going to be pulled open. And this clown is about to be trampled.

She’s decided, instead of stepping outside for 30 seconds to let the herd pass, she’s going to rodeo with one hand on a bar as she bucks and bounces off people left and right. First her shoulder is dislocated. Then her arm is torn off. As her body is carried away, boarding passengers file around the hanging limb. Fingers ending in pink nail polish still grip tightly.

And the entire time I am screaming, “Jesus Christ, step off. STEP OFF! ‘


Somewhere, maybe in my dreams, maybe in Tokyo, there exists a perfect transit ride. Riders form peaceful platform lines. Smiling attendants massage pliant bodies into cars, allotting each a snug but sufficient two square feet. Gentlemen tip their hats to ladies, children sleep like lambs, and everyone parts, as for royalty, as an elderly couple is led to their seats.

I’ve never been to Tokyo, so I can only stereotype Japanese stoicism as riders are stuffed into glistening aluminum maglev sardine cans by dainty white gloves.

No, I live in Beijing. And during the hour on Line 1 between Pingguoyuan and Guomao I transform into the biggest asshole in the city.

On an average weekday over 10 million riders battle for seats, for space, and for fresh air. In a city of 21 million, half that number are herded underground every day.

The initial assumption is that any such mass of organisms in a confined space is going to be trouble. Credit due to the Chinese, I’ve never seen a fight. But there are more than a few assholes, and I count myself among them. Only the luxury of speaking a language largely forgotten or outright unlearned lets me get away with this level of swearing. But, to promote cross-cultural dialogue I have adopted the local style of teeth sucking from the front when annoyed, opposed to a more Canadian at-the-molar style.

Stupefying Moments on the Beijing Subway

Entry and Exit Procedures

First noticed by any visitor to the capital is the courtesy of those boarding and alighting from the train. Or, better, the lack of. At the doors of each car, painted in cautionary yellow, lines show where riders should exit and where riders should queue. Announcements give clear instructions:

  1. Doors to open
  2. Passengers to get off.
  3. Passengers to get on.

I have not once witnessed this procedure. Neither on an empty Sunday morning nor a packed Wednesday afternoon. In actuality:

  1. Doors open.
  2. Chaos.

Inside the quarterback is going to attempt running play, squeezing between a pair of defensive linemen. At the same time, the lines on the outside field a pincer movement, circling the opposing team to capture empty space behind them. During rush hour teams have 90 seconds to push across the line before yellow-jacketed referees come and mumble into shoulder slung loudspeakers to break up the play.

Which do I hate myself more for? Choosing to be an asshole when I broaden my shoulders and bowl people over for space on my way out? Or being forced to be an asshole by the wave pushing in, out of fear of missing my chance to board the train at all?

Use of Space

Once inside, where it is every man and woman for themselves, I can detach from the herd and make my way to the centre. Unless the head rider has decided that he is going to grab the first empty space he can. He’s figured out that when he gets off it will be convenient to be right beside the doors. No matter if his stop comes 15 stations and 70 minutes later. Two steps over the gap and he latches onto a handle, turning to blink stupidly at you behind headphones, as if he is shocked to see seven dozen other people who might want to get on.

If that’s not enough, the second rider has the same genius idea, and takes the second available space beside her Mensa colleague. And so on until the doorway is stopped up like hair in a drain, and the rest have to plunge on the wad of soap scum and keratin to restart the flow.

And in the back is this grumpy Canadian giving grumbling orders in a vain attempt to keep the shit flowing.


Getting on at the beginning of the line is no help. You’d think, as you bound down the stairs, that having two trains pointing downtown would save you from having to stand for the length of a double LP. But the seats come pre-stocked from the factory with farmers carrying potato sacks from poles, Chinese businessmen in their uniform of polo shirt, black slacks, cheap shoes, and everywhere people watching dramas. Korean love dramas, ancient history dramas, revolutionary war dramas.

The real drama comes as people watch for a newly emptied seat. Focused, they twitch like gunmen on the draw. And an open seat is like contested territory  between posses. A rider’s ass comes up a half of an inch and the fighters make their move. Time slows down to a crawl. The departing passenger moves upwards a click, and the first contestant bends first at the waist, then at the knees, to mimic the shape of the rising passenger. He’s going to pull the old Tetris slide, locking pieces right underneath the guy getting up.

Too slow! Turning to the right, I catch a granny flying through the air across the bank of seats. She’s sliding home, one arm outstretched to claim the seat before Tetris man. All of us on the bench, we put our arms out and the granny crowd surfs her way to sneak a hand under the rising ass.

Catching the flying granny on my lap, an inner battle rages between wanting to curse her out and wanting to make sure she gets to her seat with her dentures intact. I don’t know enough language to simply be an asshole, just enough to be a vulgar prick, so the only other choice is, “Be careful, grandmother.”


The asshole thing to do at this point would be to make generalizations based on a half a year of travel. The Chinese have such-and-such historical experiences, resulting in such-and-such cultural practices.

What concerns me more are the little compromises I choose to make which are transforming me into an asshole. Pushing for space. Judging whether this old lady is 47 and fuck her and her bent back, or 52 and deserving of my hard won seat. Counting change in front of kabob sellers and fighting over uncooked chicken wings worth 30 cents. Staring at a gin and tonic and wondering if it is cheap and fake or cheap and poisonous. Demanding a recount on $35 for a year of cable because I can’t watch any more Chinese karaoke shows. Snorting up a great horks of Beijing pollution and spitting the miasma into the street like Deng Xiaoping into his spittoon.

There are really only two choices. Try to show people the right way, thereby being a condescending asshole. Or just be a regular local-style asshole.

I am an asshole because I am turning into the other assholes here. And, I am an asshole because I kinda like it.

Photo Credit: pamhule via Compfight cc

President Xi’s Hot Buns: Chinese politics in one story

Chinese President Xi Jingping at a steamed bun resturant

The Chinese saying “Heaven is high and the emperor is far away” (天高皇帝远, tian gao, huangdi yuan) is often called upon to explain the transgressions, both petty and glaring, that permeate everyday life in China. But the leadership themselves work hard to cultivate this distance, with leaders after Mao working to maintain the facade of a faceless bureaucracy.

So when President Xi Jinping walked into a local Beijing lunch spot and ordered two dishes and a some buns with the regulars, it made quite a stir.

Now unofficially dubbed the Xi Combo, the Paramount Leader stood in line to order six pork and green onion baozi, a pork liver soup, some mustard greens, paid 21 yuan (equivalent to $4), carried his own tray, and sat down to finish his lunch. The restaurant quickly filled up with spectators. The next day over 400 customers lined up to get the Xi special. Some were even visiting ethnic Chinese tourists. According to an interview with Zhu Yuling, owner of the Qingfeng chain, sales are up 35 percent across Beijing, and it has also been reported that franchise applications have also increased.

Despite his rapid centralization of power to become the strongest ruler since Deng Xiaoping, Xi has cultivated a populist streak, hoping to cash in on some of the same energy which brought the now disposed potential rival Bo Xilai to prominence. Xi has instituted a crackdown on corruption, and his call for restraint in government travel, cars, gifts, and banquets have reportedly hurt sales of luxury goods. High-end bijiu companies have cried foul at empty tables and full bottles. And 5-star hotels have fought to lower their ratings to skirt restrictions.

Even Xi’s choice of lunch resembles the President’s order to stick to “four dishes and a soup” (四菜一汤, si cai yi tang)—an admonishment against extravagance with a history going back to the Ming dynasty—in order to cultivate good will and cement the CPC’s leadership. But Chinese netizens had mixed reactions. Supporters praised Xi, calling his unassuming move a “sign of hope.” Detractors were more cautious. After finding that a previously hyped story of Xi hailing his own taxi was false, commenters have also become suspect of a possible PR stunt, using an anonymous blogger as a astroturfing platform.

The government didn’t do well to calm their suspicions. On January 1st the propaganda department (aka the State Council Information Office) demanded that all websites delete a post (original text in Chinese) questioning the identity of the poster who broke the restaurant story and who seems to only to repost reports from official media.

But even astroturfed PR masquerading as feel-good stories can get out of hand and threaten the country’s well-balanced media harmony. By January 14 news outlets were officially ordered to “moderate the heat” of the story, and keywords linking the President’s name to “putting on an act” were blocked from Internet searches. Also to the government remains fearful of any public movement turning combative. Already there are reports of protestors in Beijing and Hangzhou also used steamed buns as a protest against “Boss Xi” and to draw attention to grivences such as home demolitions

All the aspects of a great Chinese political story are here. The almost saint-like status of the leadership, the holy relic of the President’s now removed dining chair, and the ongoing blessings of the Xi Combo. A rich princeling slumming it with the commoners, slurping pork guts in an effort to set a good example for cadres. A hot news story that may or may not be a stunt, but we can’t let that speculation ruin our good press. And finally the realization that it’s too hot for our carefully controlled harmony and invokes too much leader worship, time to denounce it.

Lushan, We’ve Come

Driving to the base of Lushan (Mount Lu) from Wuhan takes about two and a half hours. Buying your ticket gives you a happy opportunity to stretch your legs, but then it is back into the car for another hour of twisting roads to the top of the mountain.

As you rise it begins to rain. Rain isn’t quite accurate. You are entering into a cloud, and the cold dampness will follow you for your entire stay. On top is a cute village with shops, restaurants, and hotels, as well as the villas of China’s rich and famous.

The mountain has a storied past. It is the place where Pure Land Buddhism was founded in 402 CE. Kung Fu lovers will recognize their invoking of “Amituofo.” Christian missionaries used to take their summer retreats here in the Qing dynasty period, and were the first to actually settle and develop the mountain. Before it was home to mainly Buddhist monks.

Lushan is also famous for being the desired vacation spot of the communist leadership, and for hosting the Lushan Conference, or the 8th Plenum of the Eighth Central Committee in 1959, where one of my favourite actors in Chinese History, Peng Dehui, denounced the failures of the Great Leap Forward. Perceived as a personal attack on the Great Helmsman, Mao denounced Peng and threatened to return to the countryside and raise a new revolution if the Party betrayed his leadership. Members quickly sided with Mao, and he rode this new-found confidence to eventually launch the Cultural Revolution in 1966.

As we walked around in the mist our family encouraged us, for health reasons, to yell at the top of our lungs, “Lushan women lai le!” — Mount Lu, we’ve come!

China’s Third Plenum: Summary, roundup, and questions

Last week’s Third Plenum of the Chinese communist party in Beijing had something for everyone. A reform of migration restrictions for rural citizens, a relaxing of the one-child policy and banking reform for the urban middle class, and an enlarged profile for the market in economic affairs. At the top of it all, President Xi Jinping solidified his role as the strongest leader since Deng Xiaoping. Yet one question wasn’t addressed: how is the party going to prepare for a country where the middle class  has become a majority and demands the political power that comes with their enlarged status?

With its initial communiqué making a poor impression on the media and the markets, the Central Committee decided to release its program ahead of schedule, with the full text of Xi’s speech to the committee as an additional exposition on the reform measures. China’s Third Plenum was widely expected to introduce a number of sweeping reforms to the county’s policy, particularly in the economic sphere. Echoing the Deng-led 1978 meeting, this meeting was expected to deepen the “reform and opening up” (gǎigé kāifàng, 改革开放) which has led to China’s rapid rise.

Even the modest blip from their double-digit growth rate following the 2008 financial crisis has China worried. While its export-driven model has brought them to becoming the world’s second largest economy, only by developing a middle class—that is, a consumer class—can the country ensure further long-term growth. Commentators had called for loosening restrictions on rural migration, strengthening consumer banking, and liberalizing markets to promote domestic spending and investment.

Summary of the Third Plenum’s Reform Agenda

After an initially baffling statement, the meeting’s policy agenda largely met expectations:

  1. The one-child policy would be relaxed, with couples allowed to have two children if either were themselves an only child.
  2. Rural migrants would be able to obtain an urban houkou more easily. Previously migrants were unable to register as residents of cities, leaving them unable to obtain social benefits or purchase property. For the first time China has become 50 percent urban, but 16 percent live as second-class citizens without an urban hukou. 
  3. Rural land reform, would allow farmers to “more easily” sell, lease, and borrow against their land. Stemming from earlier collectivization, all rural land is owned by the local Party, whose agreement is required for any sale. Not only is this a problem for a farmers looking to expand or change their business, but sales of land have become a way for local officials to generate revenue and line their pockets.
  4. The end of “reeducation through labour” and a limit to the number of crimes to which the death penalty applies. The extra-judicial system has for decades sent criminals and dissidents to labour camps without trial or appeal.
  5. The creation of a National Security Council streamlining foreign affairs, the military, and domestic security, modeled on the similar US council, but with a stronger view towards internal security. China here joins governments worldwide in using their favourite catch-all group of monsters: terrorists, extremists, and separatists. This is to be headed by President Xi, who already sits at the head of the Military Affairs Group of the CPC.
  6. Creation of a reform leadership group, also under Xi’s control, to further “comprehensively deepening reform.” Staffed by high-ranking members of the Politburo, this group’s mandate is broad in scope, overseeing the entire reform process from policy development to program implementation.
  7. The liberalization of the financial market, allowing small- and medium-sized private banks, as well as calls for the development of deposit insurance, the acceleration of market-set interest rates, and the convertibility of the Renminbi.
  8. In broad strokes, the Central Committee has called for an upgrade of the place of the market in society, from a “basic” to a “decisive” role in allocating resources. Private firms can now enter some protected markets, such as railways.
  9. Paradoxically, however, they’ve also called for an increase in the vitality and influence of state owned enterprises (SOEs), although this might be a matter of political expediency. SOEs must now remit 30 percent of their profits, up from 0-15 percent, and their is a move towards more professionalized management, with a separation of their business functions from government.
  10. Sweeping PLA structural reform, with a shift to joint command system and establishment of operational theater commands to replace the current seven military regions.
  11. Calls for a crack downs on pollution, greater control over the Internet, for the creation of an anti-corruption watchdog free from local interference, and for more collaborative decision making with an increased role for the rubber-stamp National Assembly.

President Xi comes out on top, but can he pull it off?

The meeting solidifies President Xi’s position as a new paramount leader. Many of these reforms, such as the creation of the National Security Council, had been proposed by Xi’s predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, without success. Unable to outdo opposing factions, mainlanders have taken to to calling Hu’s ten-year leadership a “lost decade.” It was widely believed that the era of the strong leader had ended, as consensus decision making gained prominence and an equal role developed for the Premier, particularly in economic matters. Yet, Xi was said to have himself led the team which drafted the resolution, a team which didn’t include Premier Li. By heading both the new security and reform groups, Xi has emerged as the strongest leader since Deng Xiaoping.

However, as the case of Bo Xilai demonstrates, significant power still remains at the local level, although Xi has used a struggle against anti-corruption to remove any obstacles to his reform agenda. Party bosses will be particularly obtuse to any reform of SOEs, which remain an important source of employment and tax revenue for cash-strapped local governments. Even if the reforms promote growth throughout the countryside, it might make governing the country that much more difficult, as power is decentralized following economic growth. It remains to be seen whether Xi can marshal the political muscle to both pull off these changes and weather their effects.

Is the closed society more efficient than the open one?

Along with economic reform, China’s Third Plenum has solidified state security and continued Xi’s crack-down on Internet freedom. As Orville Schell notes, Xi continues the long line of Chinese rulers, from Sun Yat-sen to Deng Xiaoping, with a goal of “not a more enlightened, democratic country, but a nation unified by nationalism and ruled by a single disciplined party that could galvanize China into meeting the historic challenge of becoming a wealthy and powerful, and thus respected, nation in the modern world.”

Thus, while the reforms of the one-child policy and the judiciary seem to be a move towards greater human rights, we have to balance this against the tightening of media controls, the detention of activists, and a rejection of “universal values” of human rights as a bourgeois strategy to weaken the Party’s theoretical underpinnings.

The current leadership, following in Deng’s footsteps, continues to believe that “a closed society with relatively open markets is a more efficient way of generating wealth, power, and respect than an open society paralleled by an open market.” The question is, will the people share that belief along with them? As people move from the country to the city, from poverty to affluence, and from a state of ignorance to a state of education, how long can the Communist Party rely on their continued support?