Beijing, May 20th— From above, Beijing’s streets take the shape of a spider web. Highways and broad avenues loop around the city. These loops get progressively tighter until the city loses its geometric conformity: its heart is a square. A literal one in Tiananmen, and a literal and metaphoric one in the Forbidden City. The latter is a collection of squares, from the walls to the plazas to the stones that make the greater structure. Beijing is atomized in this way, the components miniaturized versions of the whole.
The ticketing agents at the Forbidden City let me in. I have to buy a ticket for this, showing my passport at the front of a line made entirely of foreigners: one need only look at the line’s inflexible shape and natural formation to know foreigners made it. The ticket is electronic and stored in my passport, which means my passport is compromised now. I’ve seen enough James Bond to know this.
This kind of dystopian paranoia feels appropriate in Beijing. China as well, but especially Beijing. This country is a worrisome first act in a type of surveillance whose purpose is to protect its maker. The moves China’s central authority makes to maintain its power comes at the expense of civil liberty. The life of the central authority is divisible and separate from the life of its people. This has been true for much of China’s modern history: the Cultural Revolution, the suffocation of Tibetan independence, the forced internment of Muslims. Yet China’s cultural war with itself has historically been to its detriment, stalling its influence across borders. This century will be different. Since China learned from the Soviet Union’s economic blunders, it has both the capital and the West’s acquiescence to expand a Sino-centric vision abroad and engineer social practices at home. Demerit systems, re-education internments, the expanded use of land requisition—I imagine these will spread as countries in Africa and central and southeast Asia become debtor states under China’s Belt and Road Initiative. This is a new Cold War. The threat is not eradication but cultural hegemony.
At a bookstore, I spy an English version of Orwell’s 1984 published by a Chinese publisher. I can’t pass on the novelty of this purchase. Nearby, sitting cross-legged is a young man with a denim jacket pulled over his head. I can’t quite see what he’s looking at until I’m behind him. His nose is close to his phone, his finger scrolling the screen. I recognize the Facebook logo and chuckle at the irony: avoiding the government surveillance of the East in favor of the commercial surveillance of the West.
Tiananmen is filled with the security incursions that would drive a boy to this. Off the metro train, we go up an escalator. There’s an inclined ceiling and on it is a series of cameras arrayed in such a way that they resemble shingles. Where one camera ends another begins. Every moment of life has its own frame.
Tiananmen and the Forbidden City are across from one another. Together, they are Beijing’s center, the northern star to which the Communist world maps. A framed Mao, airbrushed into orange, his chin mole included in good faith, hangs above the Forbidden City’s main gate, across from which is Tiananmen, a light stoned square. There are no trees, no grass, neither benches nor flowers. Massive museums flank its sides. People going up the museum stairs look to be very little, less important than inconsequential, entomological. There are signs on crowd control fences and on poles that Tiananmen will be closed for maintenance at the end of May and beginning of June. That is very, very soon. This timing is fortuitous, I know. I bet the Central Committee is wringing its hands with relief that the Tiananmen bricks needed grouting or sweeping or whatever on the exact anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
But is there a contingency this government hasn’t planned for? I notice this, which is strange: booths with a single armed guard standing next to a fire extinguisher. There is no foliage in Tiananmen, as I’ve said. It is all stone, there is nothing flammable except for the people. This sparks the realization.