beijing -- i walk quickly through the dusty corridor of a drab, communist-style apartment complex. I am a bit bleary-eyed, having been awakened at 3 am by the stifling heat and the construction next door. The elevator door opens. Other residents watch me warily. I make no eye contact with the elevator lady. She is one of my xiaobaogao (informants). It is still so rare to see a foreigner visit this building, let alone living here, that some of my neighbours suspect I'm a spy.
I am indeed a spy, as all tourists and travellers are spies. Going abroad, looking, listening and reporting home. The law says I must stay in an upscale hotel or live in a designated building where apartments routinely cost five times the $300 Canadian a month I pay here. Then I'm supposed to concentrate on Beijing sites like the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square (without the "evil" Falun Gong) and the monolithic office towers that line downtown avenues so broad you fear a military parade will break out.
But I prefer to live simply, rely on one of Beijing's 15 million potential informants and keep my shoes beside my bed in case of a midnight knock from the police. It's easier than hiring a reconnaissance plane and more informative than a tour group.
Beijing is not China -- it's far more sophisticated and wealthy -- but it can tell you a lot about China. The elevator woman, for instance, is one of 3 million people who have come to Beijing from rural areas or less prosperous cities to work for meagre wages at manual jobs like cleaning, construction, security or as hotel and restaurant staff. She is 27, earns $100 a month, works seven days a week in the 3-by-6-foot elevator, manages to send money home and still describes her job as "OK." It tells you something about the growing divisions in this country.
Today is the day the International Olympic Committee will announce its decision on the 2008 Games site, but otherwise it's a typical working day. I'm in a rush to escape the building before 7:30 am. That's when another day of drilling and hammering will start. It seems like everyone is renovating.
I emerge from the underground parking garage on my solid, $14 used bicycle. The bike would allow me to blend in with the crowd of cycling comrades (oops, "comrade" is now a derogatory term for gays) if I weren't the only white guy for miles. When I see a foreigner, I remind myself not to stare.
It's already nearing a sweltering 35-degree-Celsius high. The Beijing Olympic Committee says 45 per cent of days here are of "good to excellent" air quality. I conclude that all of those days must be in the next six months of this year. On forecast "clear" days, I can't actually see the sky.
I don't use buildings for landmarks any more; whole neighbourhoods disappear overnight to make room for the new. Within shouting distance of my own building there are five major new office and apartment towers. The work often goes on 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is the concrete evidence of the average 10-per-cent annual growth rate of the economy over the last decade. My intermediate English students all know the phrase "rapid economic progress."
Nonetheless, down the road a line-up has already formed at the employment office. The government calls people who are out of work dai ye, or waiting for work. It's a nice euphemism, but it's probably lost on the 9.5 per cent of the urban population who the Asia Development Bank reports are out of work. If they're lucky they have families to support them. There is little or no financial help from the state if you're unemployed.
A small dust cloud swirls up just ahead on the roadway. A worker, wearing a straw hat and cloth slip-on shoes, guides a massive circular saw cutting through the pavement. His co-workers, of similar stature and dressed as insubstantially, are using pickaxes to break the pavement. They slacken their pace to watch me. "Hello," one courageous worker calls out in English after I have passed. The others giggle. I turn and ask, "How are you?" There is more giggling. They haven't gotten used to the new status of "foreign devils" as welcome investors.
They had best watch their toes. It used to be that one's danwei or work unit took care of you, providing a place to live, medical insurance and a pension in old age. But with market reforms, many inefficient state enterprises -- and their worker benefits -- are gradually disappearing. Beyond high-paid jobs in foreign multinationals and the remaining state enterprises and institutions, there is a steep precipice.
It comes as a surprise to foreigners that here in socialist China individuals have to pay for things like higher education and medical care. People from the countryside who work here without a hukou (residence permit) don't even have a right to free education for their children.
I lock my bike and get on one of the city's comfortable, air-conditioned buses. The 8-kilometre trip will cost about 60 cents -- too expensive for most people, who "choose" to ride with their faces squeezed up against the windows of hot but cheaper overcrowded buses.
We haven't gone far before a traffic jam slows us down. The impatient driver of a Jeep Cherokee jostles for space with a man straining to pedal his sanlunche (a three-wheeled vehicle with a flat bed) loaded with vegetables. It's part of the daily communal game of chicken.
Farther north, work on a $2-billion Fifth Ring Road has begun. The inspired effort to make transport more convenient for the car-using population is curious, given that only a small fraction of the population can afford to buy a car or hire one of the city's 67,000 taxis. The spending priorities seem vaguely familiar. A subway extension is also planned. It doesn't matter that the existing subway system is too expensive for most people.
As part of its economic reforms in 1978, the government said it would allow some to get rich first. No timeframe has been set for everyone else to get rich.
As I wait to get off the bus, a woman is encouraging her young son to say something to me. I know she wants him to practise his English, the road to opportunity in a high-paid job in one of Beijing's large contingent of foreign or joint-venture companies, in studies abroad or through emigration.
I teach English part-time to adults -- or at least I try to teach them between calls they take on their mobile phones. There are over 100 million mobile phones in China. They are expensive to buy (at $100, mine is the cheapest on the market) and the monthly fees significant.
Today is payday at the school. For my 24 hours of teaching this month, I get a stack of 24 100-yuan notes ($480) in a simple brown envelope marked only with my name, incorrectly spelled. No pay stub, no deductions. Officially, everyone over a certain income pays tax, but it's easy to avoid. If the growing income gap in China is to be reduced through the tax system, the government collection effort is not an inspired one.
Increasingly, the irony is that the people who have most to gain by protecting China's status quo -- a market economy for some within a totalitarian communist political regime -- are the newly rich capitalists. The new bourgeoisie has an interest in keeping the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist political leaders in power. The sobering example of Russia's chaotic embrace of capitalism has given the government time to figure out its own course (and relevance) within the reformed economy.
The leaders are under pressure from both the new rich, who have high expectations, and the peasantry, many of whom are beginning to wonder if the new system is as great as government-censored newscasts suggest. It's hard to ignore 900 million peasants, even if listening to people isn't your greatest attribute. Mao Zedong understood their strength, and they carried him to power in 1949.
At the newsstand of an upscale hotel on the way home, I leaf through a copy of The Economist. A cover article in the July 7 issue entitled China Waits For The Olympics has been crudely torn out. I check other copies in other places with the same result. The clerk tells me this is how the magazines arrived. I read the article on the Internet instead. It talks about such things as allegations by the Falun Gong that its members are being tortured to death in labour camps.
Internet access at cafés or on home computers is increasingly common, especially for the upper middle class. Government censorship in the age of global communication seems a bit arbitrary. One of the features of upscale apartment buildings and expensive hotels is access to CNN. Only the wealthy can be trusted in the People's Republic.
On the way home, I pass a beauty salon. Looking western is a priority for many Chinese women. Investing in a set of Caucasian-style eyelids is common -- a local hospital offers the procedure for about $60.
But the place I am passing isn't that kind of beauty salon. A hairdresser, dressed more provocatively than a good haircut requires, smiles seductively at me from the doorway. Many salons and karaoke bars are commonly recognized fronts for prostitution.
In the elevator back home, an elderly man watches me suspiciously. "Where are you from?" he asks. "Canada," I reply. "What floor do you live on?" "Fifth," I tell him. "What apartment do you live in?"
I regret having answered his first questions. I feel anxious when he starts talking excitedly about Bai qiu en and Yisheng Bai qiu en. Later, I realize he was pointing out that Norman Bethune, the doctor of the Communist Revolution, was also Canadian.
I am happy to be back in my apartment. It isn't luxurious, but it is functional. It has a small two-burner gas stove, a bathroom with a leaking sink and a toilet that needs jiggling, adequate heat in the winter and, like the rest of the communist and formerly communist world, it's in need of a paint job. My neighbours have other standard features like a fridge and window air-conditioner unit. I also have cable TV, thanks to my upstairs neighbour, who insisted on sharing his good fortune with me and enthusiastically drilled a hole through my ceiling.
People seem to know which are the important laws. Most of the time China doesn't feel like the police state westerners come here expecting. The police aren't particularly visible, and soldiers guarding official places are usually unarmed. But it's best not to feel too secure. Amnesty International recently reported (Internet access to the report is blocked here) that in China's Strike Hard Campaign, 1,781 people were executed in April, May and June of this year -- more than in all other countries combined for the last three years. (AI says the number is actually higher, but the number of executions is a state secret, and it reports only what it can verify.)
Officially, the campaign was against violent crime, but in the exuberance of its implementation, offenders convicted of things like stealing gasoline also met the firing squad.
I decide to stay indoors tonight to wait for the IOC decision. Beijingers are generally friendly and the city is quite safe, but if Beijing loses I'd rather watch the reaction from a distance.
When the decision is announced, I don't need any of my 42 cable channels to tell me. Shouts of joy erupt from all around the neighbourhood. Crowds gather quickly on the streets to celebrate. Despite the loss by my hometown, it is difficult not to genuinely share in the excitement and hope for a better future that the announcement brings.
Across the street, a bare light bulb illuminates a construction project's makeshift dormitory. One worker is carefully arranging a mosquito net around his upper bunk. About 15 others are already asleep. He can't know whether the billions of dollars that will be spent in Beijing for the Olympics will change his life or just benefit Beijingers, so he won't let it interfere with his sleep.
He is wise to be ready for tomorrow.
Indeed, my informants cannot tell me much about what the future holds for China. They know what devils they are escaping, but they don't know very much about the devils they are embracing.