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Third Impressions

Returning to a Beijing transformed

Kennedy By Bruce Kennedy
CNN Interactive

BEIJING (CNN) -- "Why are Americans arrogant?" my taxi driver asked as we rolled into downtown from the airport. Given the constant stream of overseas tourists and others pouring into this city, she presumably would have a pretty strong impression of my countrymen by now.

An aerial view of the Forbidden City, the former Imperial Palace which lies in the heart of Beijing. To the northwest is the North Sea and a former imperial garden. To the south is the Gate of Heaven and Tiananmen Square.  

I repressed my initial response to agree with her and gave a more diplomatic answer. Americans aren't necessarily arrogant, I said, just different. Most don't know or understand China.

And you can count me among the ignorant. This is my third trip to China since 1979, and each time I enter the People's Republic I find that most of my state-side preconceptions have disintegrated by the time I have settled into a hotel room.

The airport was reassuring. Aside from a few cosmetic changes, the terminal looked the same as I remembered it -- the utilitarian architecture, the green walls and the uniformed officials milling around -- more like a busy police precinct than the world's gateway to the capital. That is changing, however. A new terminal, four years in the making, four times the size of the old one and costing more than U.S.$ 1 billion, will begin trial operations this week.

All dressed up

September 20, 1999

  • China's new spirituality
  • Returning to a Beijing transformed
  • September 21, 1999

  • A visit to the Ming Tombs
  • September 22, 1999

  • Tiananmen Square preps up for the big day
  • September 23, 1999

  • Is China's health care system heading for a crisis?
  • September 24, 1999

  • A virtual tour of China's Aviation Museum
  • A contemplation of the so-called Americanization of China
  • September 27, 1999

  • Surfing in Beijing
  • September 28, 1999

  • Railway journeys: On the Red-Eye to Shanghai
  • September 29, 1999

  • Sunday in the Park with Lu Xun
  • September 30, 1999

  • A visit to the Jade Buddha Temple
  • October 1, 1999

  • Watching China's celebrations...from the sidelines
  • October 4, 1999

  • Window-Shopping on Nanjing Donglu
  • October 5, 1999

  • Royal Real Estate
  • My driver had approached me as soon as I passed through customs, asking if I needed a ride. I jumped at the chance to bypass the mass of people at the taxi stand and followed her into the parking lot and a steady late afternoon rain.

    Beijing has been dressed up for the upcoming festivities to celebrate the People's Republic's 50th anniversary. New trees, multi-colored flags and light displays highlight the main route into the city. Officials have reportedly rounded up hundreds of beggars and sent them out of town.

    My driver, who alternated between complimenting my fractured Mandarin and telling me about her teen-aged son, pointed out many of the city's latest landmarks. She also smiled at my astonishment.

    A new financial district has risen in recent years. I noticed several new world class 50-story skyscrapers, some topped with characteristic Chinese-style roofs. The changes made me feel as if I were a Rip Van Winkle returning to a city transformed.

    More of the Beijing I remembered emerged as we drove on, notably the throngs of people on bicycles. The bicyclists, however, must now compete with automobile traffic as heavy as that of a typical American city. Imports abound -- including the dreaded SUVs -- all jockeying for positions.

    China Daily headline
    High-tech stresses: The English-language China Daily's top story this weekend was on the government's campaign to update its military  

    China has a lot to be proud of as it prepares for the 50th birthday of the Communist revolution. The economic reforms initiated two decades ago by Deng Xiaoping have reportedly lifted 200 million people out of poverty. After centuries of exploitation and suffering the nation is feisty, measuring itself against the rest of the world and preparing to take on all comers.

    Alternative perspectives

    I was also reminded, even before I landed, that I come from a different world. The lead article in Saturday's English-language China Daily was on the importance of upgrading the country's military technology. It quoted a People's Liberation Army general, Xiong Guangkai, about the need to make China's military more competitive in next century.

    "Promoted by the advantages of high technology, a certain country in the West has sought hegemony, neo-interventionism and neo-economic colonialism," he said.

    While Xiong may have not identified the country in question, the China Daily article was not nearly as coy.

    "The US-led NATO's air-strikes on Kosovo and the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade demonstrated the rise of hegemonism," said the next paragraph.

    An editorial in the same paper also gave a refreshingly alternative perspective for those of us weary of the hoopla surrounding the new millennium.

    "Millennial festivities would not even exist were it not for the Gregorian calendar structured around the birth of Jesus Christ," said the writer, who pointed out that China had its own well-established dating system centuries before the Western one went into effect.

    The editorial also considered the fact modern China was founded on a concept borrowed from the West -- Marxist idealism.

    "We are not celebrating the birth of China as a new nation," the editorial said, "but celebrating the renaissance of this ancient civilization."

    Bruce Kennedy was a Chinese history major at Bowdoin College in Maine. He worked for Visnews, the international television news agency, for five years before joining CNN in 1988. After a stint at CNN International, he began work at CNN Interactive. Kennedy has extensive experience in East Asian affairs, having studied and worked in the region.

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