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Sunday 20 Aug 2017 | 06:53 | SYDNEY
Sunday 20 Aug 2017 | 06:53 | SYDNEY

Beijing diary (part 2)

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18 June 2010 15:32

The hutongs described in my previous post exist on a human scale; much of Beijing does not.

Like the Forbidden City, some of the new Olympic-era architecture (on which Sam has blogged) is monumental and deeply impressive. I was amazed by the Bird's Nest Olympic stadium, the Water Cube swimming arena and the CCTV headquarters.

Yet although those buildings are spectacular, they are also entirely unmoored from their surroundings and somewhat alien in appearance – in fact the National Centre for the Performing Arts (pictured) looks less like 'The Egg' (as it is known) and more like one of the huge spaceships from Independence Day, crash-landed into the middle of the Chinese capital.

That The Egg is only a stone's throw from Tiananmen Square tells you something else about these buildings – they are reflective of the political system that built them. I can't imagine these structures being erected by a democratic government that was more mindful of planning regulations and local feelings.

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The nexus between architecture and politics is perfectly expressed in the form of Zhongnanhai, the Chinese Communist Party's leadership compound.

Visitors to Washington, DC can get surprisingly close to the north portico of the White House, which faces directly on to Pennsylvania Avenue. Zhongnanhai, by contrast, presents a blank grey wall to the public, which is entirely excluded from the important discussions within. The very notion of a leadership compound is a difficult one for a Westerner to absorb – imagine if Barack Obama, John McCain and Sarah Palin all lived on top of each other in a gated community in Washington.

At one level, it speaks to the idea of collective leadership as expressed in the CCP; at another level, it merely camouflages the intense competition for advancement between individuals and factions, which is every bit as hard-fought and dangerous as it is in any capital. For the skinny on the CCP, I'm looking forward to reading Richard McGregor's new book, The Party. Richard has a keen eye for the telling detail, for example his anecdote about the ‘red machines’ found on the desks of senior Chinese office-holders and executives.

Photo by Flickr user badbrother, used under a Creative Commons license.

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