It’s quiet now.
Of course, the sound of fireworks is incessant as Beijing-ren celebrate the New Year, tossing fireworks like grenades above the roof of my six story apartment complex. But between each explosion echoes into hollowness. As China goes on vacation this week, the silence is overwhelming.
I took a bus on New Year’s Eve day across Chang’An Jie, the main drag in Beijing, and a street usually jammed with traffic. But this week, when the 15+ million people of Beijing stop building, driving, and working to go home to their families, this “Long Peace Street” finally earns its name. My empty bus flew past the brand new egg-shaped Opera House and the army of red flags fluttering over Tiananmen Square. The sky is so blue, with factories closed and cars eerily absent from the street, that from across town you can see clearly the two steel frames of the CCTV towers, slowly winding together like Pyramus and Thisbe into a permanent embrace.
Being here in Beijing, you can’t help but feel that we are on the cusp of history this year. Someday soon this still-sprouting skyline will be as familiar to the world as the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building. If 2001 was the start of the end of the Pax Americana, I wonder if elementary school students will one day have to memorize that 2008 was when, as the band “S.H.E.” sang on China’s nationally-watched New Year’s Eve TV show this week, foreigners started to learn Chinese.
But even if this isn’t a turning point in the great wheel of history, 2008 will at least define the next half decade (gulp!). In a month, the black box of Chinese politics will shake out new leaders at the National People’s Congress. We China-watchers will carefully read the tea leaves to figure out what the implications are for the next 5 years. But don’t expect surprises. China’s national leadership behaves just like the US Federal Reserve: they deliberate secretly and act decisively when intervention is needed, but in most cases, try to telecast their intentions well ahead of time through informal (but well-recognized) channels.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Lake, it’s fun watching the US trying on all kinds of clothes getting ready for political prom. I had to come here to realize what’s probably been obvious to you for a long time: that it’s not just on Election Day that America decides what it wants to be for the next four years, but it’s right now, in op-eds and grassroots blogs, in Gallup polls and call-in radio shows. While votes matter, it’s the voices in these months leading up to elections that matter more — and those who shout loudest are heard best. So while you can see the candidates hammering out their platforms on the pulpit, they all are carefully and constantly adjusting their angle to try to best hit America square on the head. Sure, there’s probably a more cost- and time-effective way to choose a government. But I think it’s fantastic that Americans can spend other people’s money getting to know themselves.
This Aabservation doesn’t have answers for any of these questions, about what America should be, or what China is becoming. But as someone who loves watching things at the moment of change, I’m happy to hang out here for a while at the top of this arc.
The view is pretty good from here.
Happy (Chinese) New Year,