An online essay titled “Beijing Has 20 Million People Pretending to Live Here” (or: “There are 20 Million People in Beijing Pretending to Have a Life” “北京,有2000万人假装在生活”, full English translation here) by Chinese writer and blogger Zhang Wumao (张五毛) became a viral hit on WeChat and Weibo after it was published on the author’s WeChat account on July 23.
The essay is a witty yet powerful critique of Beijing and its residents. Over the last decade, and especially over the past few years, Beijing has undergone enormous changes. The city is expanding, high-rise buildings are mushrooming, while old hutong areas are bricked up and familiar neighborhoods demolished for the sake of the city’s metamorphosis in an ‘international metropolis.’
According to Mr. Zhang, the city’s rapid transformation has turned it into a place with no identity; a place that nobody can call home. The essay argues that Beijing has been overrun by migrant workers or waidiren (外地人, ‘people from outside the city’), and that these ‘outsiders’ have turned China’s capital into a place with staggering house prices and heavy traffic that lacks soul. The city no longer really belongs to native Beijingers, Zhang writes, as they cannot even recognize their old neighborhoods anymore.
The essay describes how Beijing has become so big, so full, and so expensive, that life has virtually become unsustainable. The result of Beijing’s transformation, according to the post, is that its residents, both locals and immigrants, just “pretend to live there”, leading “fake lives.”
“It was destined to go viral. It ridicules Beijing + it talks about migrant workers + real estate market + and state of life.”
Zhang Wumao, whose real name is Zhang Guochen (张国臣), is an author born in the early 1980s. He is from Luonan, Shaanxi, and came to Beijing at the age of 25 in 2006. A year later he started blogging. He previously published the novels Spring is Burning (春天在燃烧) and Princess’s Tomb (公主坟).
Zhang’s online essay about Beijing spread like wildfire on WeChat and Weibo on Sunday. It was viewed over 5 million times within an evening and soon became a trending article on WeChat. It triggered wide debate across Chinese social media on the lives of people in Beijing.
On Monday and Tuesday, the essay was also republished by various Chinese media such as Tencent News, iFeng, and Sohu.com.
But on July 25, the full text was removed from all social media accounts and Chinese online newspapers. Its hashtag on Weibo (#北京有2000万人假装在生活#) is now no longer accessible.
The article also disappeared from Zhang’s WeChat account.
On Quora-like discussion platform Zhihu.com, one person said the essay was destined to become a hype: “This is a typical Wechat viral article. It ridicules Beijing + it talks about migrant workers + real estate market + and state of life. As it contains all of these elements in 1 article, the author just intended for this to become a hit.”
A SENSITIVE ESSAY
“What Beijingers increasingly feel is the suffocation of the smog and the high cost of housing. They cannot move, they cannot breathe.”
Zhang’s essay is divided into five paragraphs. In the first part, he explains that Beijingers often seem inhospitable; the city is so huge and congested, that people simply cannot find the time to see their friends in other parts of the city.
“Beijing is really too big; so big that it is simply not like a city at all. It is equivalent to 2.5 times Shanghai, 8.4 times Shenzhen, 15 times Hong Kong, 21 times New York, or 27 times Seoul. When friends from outside come to Beijing, they think they’re close to me. But actually, we’re hardly in the same city at all.”
“For 10 years, Beijing has been controlling housing, controlling traffic, and controlling the population. But this pancake is only getting wider and bigger, so much that when a school friend from Xi’an calls me to say he’s in Beijing and I ask him where he is, he tells me: “I am at the 13th Ring.” Beijing is a tumor, and no one can control how fast it is growing; Beijing is a river, and no one can draw its borders. Beijing is a believer, and only Xiong’an can bring salvation.”
The second part, which is titled ‘Beijing actually belongs to outsiders’ (北京其实是外地人的北京), claims that Beijing is one of the most beloved cities in China because of its rich cultural heritage and long history, but that this is something that is only of value to people from outside the city.
“In the 11 years since I’ve come to Beijing, I have been to the Great Wall 11 times, 12 times the Imperial Palace, 9 times to the Summer Palace, and 20 times to the Bird’s Nest. I feel emotionless about this city’s great architecture and long history. (..) Going into the Forbidden City, I only see one empty house after the other – it’s less interesting than the lively pigsties we have in my native village.”
“Upon mentioning Beijing, many people first think of the Palace Museum, Houhai, 798; they think of history, culture, and high-rise buildings. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? It’s good! Does it make us proud? It does! But you can’t make food out of these things. What Beijingers increasingly feel is the suffocation of the smog and the high cost of housing. They cannot move, they cannot breathe.”
He then goes on to mock the old residents of Beijing, who still have the upper hand in the real estate market despite the flood of new immigrants, all owning “five-room houses.” The old Beijingers lead very different lives from the migrant workers, who are caught in a negative spiral of hard work, no social life, and finding a place to settle down.
“In Beijing, the migrant workers, who have no real estate from previous generations, are destined to be trapped in their house for life. They strive for over a decade to buy an apartment the size of a bird cage; then spend another decade struggling to get a house that has two rooms rather than one. If that goes well, congratulations, you can now consider an apartment in the school district.”
“With a house in the school district, children can attend Tsinghua or Peking University. But Tsinghua graduates will still not be able to afford a room in that district. They will then either need to stay crammed together in the old shabby family apartment, or start from scratch, struggling for another apartment.”
“For Beijing’s new immigrants, the city is a distant place where they can’t stay; for Beijing’s old residents, the city is an old home they can’t return to.”
In the final part of the essay, however, Zhang shows his sympathy for the old residents of Beijing:
“I once took a taxi to Lin Cui Road. Because I was afraid the driver wouldn’t know the way, I opened the navigation on my phone to help him find the way. He said he did not need the navigation because he knew that place. There was a flour mill there 30 years ago, he said, it was demolished 10 years ago, and they built low-income housing there. I asked him how he knew this so well. “That used to be my home,” he said, the sorrow showing in his face.”
“I could hear nostalgia and resentment from the driver’s words. For Beijing’s new immigrants, the city is a distant place where they can’t stay; for Beijing’s old residents, the city is an old home they can’t return to.”
“We, as outsiders, ridicule Beijing on the one hand, while on the other hand, we cherish our hometowns. But in fact, we can still go back to our hometown. It is still there. (..) But for the old Beijingers, there really is no way to go back to their hometown. It has changed with unprecedented speed. We can still find our grandfather’s old house. The majority of Beijingers can only find the location of their old homes through the coordinates on a map.”
He concludes his article by highlighting the recent demolishment of old Beijing shops and restaurants, saying that the city is being renovated but is becoming less livable.
“Those who chase their dreams of success are now escaping [Beijing]. They’re off to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, or the West Coast of the United States. Those who’ve lost hope of chasing their dreams are also escaping. They return to Hebei, the Northeast, their hometowns.”
He ends by writing: “There are over 20 million people left in this city, pretending to live. In reality, there simply is no life in this city. Here, there are only some people’s dreams and everybody’s jobs.”
CHINESE MEDIA RESPONSES
“The contrast between old Beijingers and new immigrants is exaggerated, and it polarizes the relationship between locals and outsiders.”
Despite censorship of the actual text, Zhang’s essay is widely discussed by Chinese official media.
State media outlet People’s Daily (@人民日报) writes on Weibo:
“The essay ‘Beijing Has 20 Million People Pretending to Live There’ is a viral hit but is not approved of. There really is such a thing as the “Big City Disease”, and we do not need to pretend as if people in first-tier cities are not struggling and facing hardships. But in Beijing, both locals and outsiders are alive and kicking; they are all the more real because of their dreams. Making a living is hard, but it is the days of watching flowers blossom and wilt that are full of life. The city and its people don’t have it easy, but they have to show some tolerance for each other and then they can both succeed.”
Xinhua News Agency also published a response to the article titled: “Lives in the City Cannot Be Fake” (“一个城市的生活无法“假装“).
Lashing out against Mr. Zhang, they write that: “Beijing has no human warmth, Beijing is a city of outsiders, old Beijingers can’t go back to their city – behind every one of these sentences is not the ‘fakeness’ of Beijing, but the clamor of the author’s emotions about ‘coming to Beijing.'”
State broadcaster CCTV (@央视新闻) also responds to the essay on Weibo, saying:
“Over the past few days, the essay ‘Beijing Has 20 Million People Pretending to Live There’ has exploded on the Internet, but how the text portrays the contrast between old Beijingers and new immigrants is exaggerated, and it polarizes the relationship between native Beijingers and outsiders. In reality, Beijing is not as cold as it is described in the essay. Everyone already knows that it’s not easy living in a big city. The future of Beijing is in the hands of competent, daring and hardworking people who pursue their dreams.”
A STORM OF DEBATE
“I am one of these 20 million people, and my life is not fake – I am living it.”
On social media, many netizens commented on the state media’s responses to Zhang, saying they were tired of the repeated emphasis on “people’s dreams.” One person said: “My belly is empty, what are you talking about dreams for?! Dreams cannot guarantee our most basic needs for survival.”
Many people on Weibo and QQ also applauded Zhang’s essay for being “well-written”, “honest”, and “real.”
But there are also those who do not agree with the essay and take offense at how it describes Beijingers leading “fake” or “pretense” lives. A Beijing resident nicknamed ‘Little Fish’ (@小小的爱鱼) commented: “What on earth gave him the courage to speak on behalf of 20 million Beijing people? I am one of these 20 million people, and sorry, but my life is not fake – I am living it.”
“I work overtime until 9 pm, then take the bus and subway and won’t arrive home before 23:38, then quickly rinse my face and brush my teeth and roll into bed. But it’s still life. What life and being alive is all about ultimately is a personal issue,” one other netizen from Beijing says.
“Mr. Zhang,” one angry commenter writes: “You can leave this cold and big city of Beijing, and go back to your ‘real’ live in that pigsty of yours that’s supposedly more imposing than the Forbidden City.”
The recent hype surrounding Zhang’s essay somewhat resembles the overnight buzz over the autobiographical essay of Beijing migrant worker Fan Yusu. This essay also described various hardships in the lives of Beijing migrant workers.
Fan Yusu’s essay and posts related to it were also taken offline after several days when discussions on the account spread across Chinese social media.
Zhang’s hit essay shows that the combination of writing about “migrant workers + Beijing + real estate + state of life” = indeed one that is bound to attract wide attention and debate on social media. Although it is also a recurring topic in China’s official media, those channels prefer to focus on the idea of hardworking people who pursue their (Chinese) dreams, rather than to spread a narrative about people living “fake lives” in a cold city.
One commenter says: “Whether you fake it or you try hard, it’s all okay: this is Beijing. It’s not livable, but you sure can make a living.”
Special thanks to Diandian Guo.
©2017 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The End of an Era”? – Beijing Bookworm Closes Its Doors
The Bookworm Beijing, at Nansanlitun Road, is a bookshop, library, bar, restaurant and events space that has become a center of cultural exchange for Beijing’s foreign community since 2005.
The location is a beating heart of Beijing’s literary world; a place where writers, journalists, students, diplomats, academics, and all kinds of people – both foreign and Chinese – come together to exchange knowledge, read, and sit down for a glass of wine.
Today, the Bookworm announced its sudden closure via WeChat, writing:
“It is with heavy hearts that we are forced to announce the impending closure of The Bookworm Beijing after 14 wonderful years in Courtyard No. 4 off SouthSanlitun Road. Despite our best efforts, we appear to have fallen prey to the ongoing cleanup of “illegal structures”, and we have not been able to secure an extension of our lease.”
The announcement further says that the location will be forced to suspend operations “most probably” as of Monday, November 11, and that the Bookworm will attempt to reorganize and find a new location.
News of the Bookworm’s closing has been becoming a topic of conversation on various social media sites from WeChat to Twitter and Weibo.
Famous Chinese journalist and author Luo Changping (罗昌平) writes on Weibo: “The Bookworm is forced to close! It used to be next door to my former office, and it was once like my living room. Sigh.”
Shanghai comedian Storm Xu called the closure of the Beijing Bookworm “the end of an era,” saying he looks back on many good memories there.
“They had many events, good food, special books; I used to go there a few times per year,” one person writes. “This really is so sad,” other Weibo users respond.
There are also various Weibo commenters who also mention that news of Bookworm’s closing comes just a day after the news that publisher of magazine-books and online bookseller Duku Books (读库) is forced to close its Beijing warehouse for the sixth time.
Over the past decade, many popular venues in Beijing have been forced to close their doors or relocate. Beijing hangouts such as Bed Bar, Salud, Vineyard Cafe, 2 Kolegas, Jiangjinjiuba, Mao Livehouse, Hercules, Aperativo, The Bridge Cafe, Great Leap Brewery Sanlitun, Jing-A Taproom 1949, and many others have all been closed over the past years.
Nightlife hotspot Sanlitun bar street was demolished and bricked up in 2017 as part of the mission of the city management to gentrify the area.
The demolishment of “illegal structures” in the city has been an ongoing effort of the local government for years. These efforts became especially visible in late 2017 when people in Beijing’s Daxing area faced a large-scale evacuation campaign after a big fire broke out there on November 18, killing 19 people.
The large-scale evacuation campaign was also expanded to other areas of Beijing in a campaign by the municipal authorities aimed at unlicensed developments to target “illegal structures” and “buildings with potential fire hazards.”
But many people on Weibo and WeChat questioned if the campaign was actually more about politics than about safety concerns – something that was strongly refuted by state media outlets at the time.
These questions will remain unanswered, also for the Bookworm. Is its closure really about closing down an “illegal structure,” or are there more politically-motivated considerations playing a role here? On Weibo, some commenters say the location is closed down for being a home of free discussions and “free thinking,” while others say that no matter what the place is, the building’s safety and legal status is what matters here.
Perhaps the future will tell. We surely hope the Bookworm will soon pop up and open its doors in another location very soon.
Those who are interested can support the Bookworm by coming by and buying books, which will be heavily discounted, until November 11.
By Manya Koetse
Images: Bookworm images by The Bookworm, edited by What’s on Weibo.
Sanlitun Image: Might have been taken by Manya in Beijing 2017, but we’re not 100% sure so let us know if we’re mistaken.
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Nineteen Eighty-Four Turns 70: Orwellian China and Orwell in China
“We still need independent, courageous thinkers like George Orwell. We still need 1984.”
“Big Brother is Watching You” is the sentence that people around the world have come to know through the novel 1984 or Nineteen Eighty-Four, that turned 70 this week.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is a novel about a nightmare future in the year 1984. It takes place in a totalitarian state where the Party is central to people’s everyday lives and where propaganda, surveillance, misinformation, and manipulation of the past are ubiquitous.
The book revolves around Winston Smith, a citizen of London, Oceania, who works at Minitrue (Ministry of Truth) and who secretly hates the society he lives in with its all-controlling Party, the ‘Big Brother’ leader, and the Thought Police.
Smith is critical of the workings of the Party and the lies it imposes, which then pass into history and become ‘truth’; as the Party slogan goes: “Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”
There is probably no other country in the world that has been described as “Orwellian” in English-language media as often as China has over the past few years. According to Google Trends, ‘China’ currently is one of the most related topics people in the US are searching for when they type in the word ‘Orwellian’ on the search engine.
The topic recently most associated with Orwell’s novel is that of China’s Social Credit System. In October of 2018, US Vice President Mike Pence addressed China’s nascent Social Credit System in a speech on China, calling it “an Orwellian system premised on controlling virtually every facet of human life” (Whitehouse.gov).
Since then, George Orwell and Nineteen Eighty-Four have been used more often to describe developments in China.
‘Orwellian’ and ‘China’ come up with more than 28,000 results in Google News alone, the term often being used with any PRC news that relates to technology, government control, and propaganda.
Ironically, many of the news reports addressing ‘Orwellian China’ and its Social Credit System (SCS) are, in the Orwellian tradition, spreading misinformation themselves, conflating different issues or presenting speculation as fact – see some examples of speculative reporting on the SCS in this list.
But also when reporting on China’s growing mass camera surveillance, the Xinjiang internment camps, the launch of the ‘Study Xi, Strengthen China’ [Xuexi Qiangguo] app, or the increasing use of facial recognition, the comparison to George Orwell’s 1949 classic is everywhere in the English language media world today.
一九八四: Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in China
For a country that is labeled ‘Orwellian’ so often, it is perhaps surprising that Nineteen Eighty-Four is actually not censored or banned in the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Since the first PRC edition of the novel was published in 1979, it has become a famous and well-read work that is available for purchase in Chinese or English in all big bookstores in Chinese cities or online via e-commerce sites as Taobao.com.
The famous sentence “Big Brother is Watching You” translates to “Lǎo dàgē zài zhùshìzhe nǐ” (“老大哥在注视着你”) in Mandarin, and often pops up on social media, together with terms such as “doublethink” (shuāngchóng sīxiǎng, 双重思想) or “Thought Police” (sīxiǎng jǐngchá 思想警察).
On Douban, an influential web portal that allows users to rate and review books, films, etc, various editions of Nineteen Eighty-Four (most of them translated by Dong Leshan 董乐山) have been rated with a 9.3 or higher by thousands of web users.
“I like this book, it’s just a bit too dark for me,” some reviewers write, with others just saying the book is “very scary,” or seeing some resemblance with the classic works of Chinese authors such as Wang Xiaobo or Lu Xun.
WeChat blog Vopoenix recently stressed the importance of Nineteen Eighty-Four, writing that the novel is not anti-socialism per se: “What Orwell really opposes is fascism, totalitarianism, and nationalism (..), what he really supports is political democracy and social justice.”
70 years later, totalitarianism still has not disappeared, the blog writes: “(..) instead, it has evolved with the times in a more secret way (..). We still need independent, keen and courageous thinkers like George Orwell. We still need 1984.”
One Douban reviewer writes about their thoughts after reading Nineteen Eighty-Four, saying: “What scares me is that sometimes people will ridicule North Korea for being so shut off from the world, but what about us? We’re like frogs at the bottom of a well, but the scary thing is, we don’t even know we’re in the well.”
“Just a work of fiction to Chinese”?
Public sentiments about the 70-year-old Nineteen Eighty-Four novel bearing a resemblance to (present-day) China are seemingly growing stronger on Chinese social media recently. The book appears in online comments and discussions on a daily basis.
“I finished reading the book today,” one Weibo commenter writes: “The biggest thought I had is: this book is very suitable for Chinese people to read.”
“I can now imagine what those ten years were like,” one Douban user posts, referring to the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
“Nineteen Eighty-Four is the first satirical book I’ve read that comes close to the situation in China. If you read it, you’ll know what I mean,” another reader writes.
Different from English-language (social) media, Chinese commenters are not mentioning the book in relation to the country’s Social Credit System at all, but in relation to the heightened censorship that China has recently been seeing in light of the China-US trade war, the Tiananmen anniversary, and the Hong Kong protests.
One Weibo blogger writing a critique about the growing “bizarreness” of the “elephant in the room” (referring to all those big China-related issues that cannot be discussed on social media due to censorship) attracted the attention of Chinese netizens earlier this week (see the full translation of post here).
Many commenters spoke about the Weibo post in relation to Nineteen Eighty-Four, especially when the post addressing the censorship was censored itself.
Others also wrote that it seemed “like a miracle” that the book was not banned in China, and some suggested it might still happen in the future.
“It will be forbidden very soon,” one Weibo commenter speculates.
“The future is becoming more difficult, really,” one netizen recently wrote: “It’s nearing 1984 (一九八四), and [we] might not be able to see it later.”
But, in Chinese online media, Nineteen Eighty-Four is by no means only mentioned in relation to China. There are also those blogs or news articles that mention the Orwellian aspects of the story of Edward Snowden, or connect Orwell to Trump’s America.
In late 2018, state tabloid Global Times denounced the ubiquitous Western media reports on “Orwellian China.” Author Yu Jincui wrote:
“Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a classic to Westerners, but it is just a work of fiction to Chinese and they are fed up with Orwellian style preaching from Western elites. This kind of conversation will lead nowhere.”
But many netizens do not agree with the fictional part. “Nineteen Eighty-Four is not a work of fiction, it is a record of our future,” one Weibo user writes.
“Is Big Brother watching me?” others wonder.
“The first time I read it, I just read it,” another Douban user says: “The second time I read it, I really started to understand. Here’s to George Orwell!”
Despite all speculation on social media, there are no indications that Nineteen Eighty-Four will be banned from China any time soon.
For now, even 70 years after its first publication and 40 years after its first Chinese translation, readers in the People’s Republic can continue to devour and discuss Orwell’s classic work and the mirror it holds up to present-day China, America, Europe, and the world today.
PS: Some recommended reading on Social Credit in English:
* Creemers, Rogier. 2018. “China’s Social Credit System: An Evolving Practice of Control.”May 9. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3175792.
* Daum, Jeremy. 2017. “China through a glass, darkly.” China Law Translate, Dec 24 https://www.chinalawtranslate.com/seeing-chinese-social-credit-through-a-glass-darkly/?lang=en [24.5.18].
* Daum, Jeremy. 2017. “Giving Credit 2: Carrots and Sticks.” China Law Translate, Dec 15 https://www.chinalawtranslate.com/giving-credit-2-carrots-and-sticks/?lang=en [27.5.18].
* Horsley, Jamie. 2018. “China’s Orwellian Social Credit Score Isn’t Real.” Foreign Policy, Nov 16 https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/11/16/chinas-orwellian-social-credit-score-isnt-real/ [10.6.19].
* Koetse, Manya. 2018. “Insights into the Social Credit System on Chinese Online Media vs Its Portrayal in Western Media.” What’s on Weibo, Oct 30 https://www.whatsonweibo.com/insights-into-the-social-credit-system-on-chinese-online-media-and-stark-contrasts-to-western-media-approaches/
* Koetse, Manya. 2018. “Open Sesame: Social Credit in China as Gate to Punitive Measures and Personal Perks.” What’s on Weibo, May 27 https://www.whatsonweibo.com/open-sesame-social-credit-in-china-as-gate-to-punitive-measures-and-personal-perks/.
* Kostka, Genia. 2018. “China’s Social Credit Systems and Public Opinion: Explaining High Levels of Approval” SSRN, July 23. Available at https://ssrn.com/abstract=3215138 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3215138 [29.10.18].
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