17 December 2015
I spent a few days in Beijing last week, the first time since 2005. I expected to find changes, but I was nonetheless surprised. Instead of vendors hawking fake Prada bags on the street (they would follow me chanting “Gucci-Prada”), there are now lavish malls selling the real thing. Christmas trees and Santa Claus are everywhere, and “Jingle Bells” blares along Wangfujing Street, a pedestrian mall that could be in any American or European city.
To me, the biggest change had to do with cars. From being a city dominated by the bicycle, Beijing has become a city of cars. I saw very few bicycles, and those were mainly being ridden by older people who were also, judging by their dress and the loads they were carrying, quite poor.
Many have commented on the explosion in the number of cars in Beijing;
in 2012 it passed the 5 million mark, vs. 2.6 million in 2005. Massive traffic jams are a daily occurrence; it’s as if every freeway is the 405 at rush hour, all the time (Angelenos will get that reference). But what really struck me were the kinds of cars. I got off the plane last Wednesday night at the tail end of the latest killer smog, and the acrid air caught at my throat as I walked out of the terminal.
The parking lots were full of Volkswagens and other German cars. And these were not the Golfs and Polos I saw in Berlin last year, but Jettas and Passats, BMWs and Audis. We were picked up at the airport by a very nice Audi, and driven back on Sunday in an even nicer Mercedes. In between I got driven around in a late-model Passat.
This was not a fluke occasioned by our extremely generous hosts from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Most of the cars I saw during my four days in Beijing were German, and they were not small. China must be one of Volkswagen’s biggest markets (and indeed it sold over 3.5 million cars there last year). I saw few diesels, but I also saw no hybrids. Although China is said to be making major efforts in developing electric cars in order to deal with the smog problem, I did not see any. I did see several Buicks and an extremely large and elaborate Cadillac. I saw one Honda Fit. The ubiquitous yellow and green cabs are all Hyundai Elantras.
Admittedly this is a far from scientific survey, but my impression is that the new wealth in China is being spent on mid-size sedans and bottled water. At the conference I attended, everyone was provided with unlimited 500 ml bottles of Evian. Several of us sneaked some back to our hotel rooms, where, of course, the water coming out of the tap is not drinkable. Bemused, we pondered a world where bottles of French water were flown thousands of miles for visiting Europeans and Americans to drink. I don’t think the bottles were recycled.
The smog came back on Saturday afternoon. Unlike on Wednesday, it smelled strongly of coal, a smell that brought me back to my first trips to Britain in the 1970s. Christine Corton’s recent book on London’s fogs reminds us that its last “killer fog” took place in 1962 – several years after the enactment of a Clean Air Act. Owing to the number of cars, London’s air is again unhealthful, mainly owing to diesel combustion. Despite a certain optimism after the successful conclusion of the Paris Climate Summit, we still have a long way to go.