Few cities on earth are changing as fast as Beijing, capital city of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Construction cranes rule the horizon, new hotels, shopping malls and commercial plazas (not to mention 37 sports stadiums and 59 training facilities) are springing up at giddying speed and old sectors of the city are being razed and modernized. In short, Beijing is focused on one thing only: the 2008 Olympics. Hosting the Games represents the ultimate statement of China’s emergence as a global superpower, and it is determined to make the ‘People’s Olympics’ the most successful and dazzling ever staged.
Beijing’s high-speed physical evolution moves hand-in-hand with a firmly retained grip on its rich cultural heritage and strict Communist social order. A monolithic showcase city, Beijing can give a distorted view of China to foreign visitors. Its soaring modern architecture and vast international hotels are connected by an intricate system of broad boulevards and ring roads around the city. Rush hour traffic jams can rival those of any major international city, and the pollution can be overwhelming. Beyond the modernity, Beijing offers a bountiful hotpot of traditional lane houses (hutong), parks, architectural and cultural treasures, and exquisite temples.
The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square serve as the geographic center of the city and other important government structures are aligned directly to the north and south. The city center is circled by a series of seven concentric ring roads, and wide north-south boulevards connect with similar east-west roads, creating a grid street pattern. Northwest of the city center you’ll find the Haidian District, which is home to the Summer Palace, numerous universities, and the Beijing Zoo. Directly to the east of downtown is the Chaoyang District. Here you’ll find Sanlitun and Jiangguomen, two neighborhoods with many embassies and a large expat population. The Central Business District is located to the east of Tiananmen Square between the third and fourth ring roads. This area has recently undergone major redevelopment to make it an attractive place for office buildings. Plenty of high-end housing is also being developed here to serve the businesspeople who work nearby.
Beijing became China’s capital in 1421 and was to remain so until the collapse of the imperial regime in 1911. It was not until the late 19th century that Westerners were allowed to reside there; all trading links had previously been restricted to Canton. From 1911 to 1949 Beijing suffered, as did the rest of China, from the wars fought between various factions trying to take control of the whole country. The Japanese invasion in 1931 was followed by a bitter civil war, which finally led to Communist supremacy under Mao Tse Tung and the founding of the People’s Republic of China with Beijing as the capital.
The first ten years of Mao’s rule were successful in many ways. Stability returned to the whole country and great advances were made in industry, agriculture, education and health care. However, in 1966, the Cultural Revolution was launched as an attack on his more liberal political colleagues, which resulted in several years of anarchy throughout the country. Following Mao’s death in 1976, China gradually began to open up, welcoming foreigners as investors and as tourists and local Chinese were granted permission to set up businesses.
Unfortunately, Beijing is often weighed down by thick gray smog. Harsh winters and occasional dust storms blowing in from Mongolian deserts add to the challenges of Beijing residents. But the city is in the midst of massive change. As Beijing prepares for the 2008 Olympics, every corner and facet of this great capital is under scrutiny for how it will look and function when the world descends on its doorsteps. Vast improvements to infrastructure and industries supporting the tourist market are quickly turning this city into a world-class destination.