January 16, 2011
It’s next time again.
Which of your freedoms have you thought about lately? Your right to create almost anything you want, and then own the rights? Your right to disagree with your government? Surf the internet? Sue somebody if you feel yourself to have been wronged? All this stuff I never gave a second thought. And then I went to China.
Don’t get me wrong. China has changed and it has changed a lot. In a mad rush to modernize, the government has allowed certain things while censoring others. If an international paper has a certain story the government feels is guilty of “China bashing” – the paper does not come out that day. Certain websites are disabled or disappeared. (For a recent NYT article on this click here.) There is a pervasive feeling of Big Brother but there is also a sense of hold your breath excitement; that China has arrived as the newest superstar on the world stage and is about to deliver a once in a lifetime performance. The rickshaws and coolie hats are long gone. Conspicuous consumption abounds.
I was sent there for work by a wonderful client who is working hard to define and implement the Rule of Law around the world. The client is Jones Day and they are one of the largest law firms in the world. Their mission has an obvious self interest but having worked with them for many years now, it also seems to me, at their core, there is a healthy dose of genuine passion and higher purpose. These are incredibly smart people filled with the infectious enthusiasm of doing what they love.
My mission was to do some videos to explain what Jones Day is doing in Greater China? We interviewed very smart people with lots of experience and I marveled at their ability to keep pace with such a rapidly changing society. Let me give you some examples.
China has tossed off the Mao-styled twill uniform (except as an inspiration for fashion) and put on the Brooks Brothers suit. It is embracing all the most crass and disturbing elements of Capitalism. Being there around Christmas time was extremely disorienting. Bad hillbilly Christmas carols is not what I expected in glistening shopping malls filled with every luxe brand you can imagine. Dior, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Gucci, Chanel, you name it, they were there with bells on. Santa Claus was everywhere, sometimes next to a giant panda. There was nothing even remotely religious about any of this. It was all just vulgar American-style, make-a-quick-buck commercialism; just the sort of thing I hope to escape by traveling outside the U.S. at Christmas time.
Many contemporary architects have projects in China. Some of these buildings became instantly world famous during the recent Olympics. When you land in Beijing, if you come from Hong Kong, you leave from a spectacular Norman Foster airport and arrive at an even more spectacular Norman Foster airport.
His Beijing airport is the largest roofed structure in the world, the size of over 140 football fields! The roof seems as vast as Wyoming and you cannot help but wonder, where in the world did he hide the HVAC? In talking with people who travel in and out of there all throughout the brutally hot summer, they wanted to know the same thing. Climate control aside, the structure is gorgeous and the point is made. Upon arrival you know you are someplace affluent, modern and very special.
A massive and highly creative Beijing project is the new CCTV building designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren. This building is deceptive. It appears to be just remarkably innovative with its distinctive shape and grid design but it is also incredibly gigantic. It is uncanny; but something about the design allows the building to scale itself perfectly into the urban landscape. People in “the Jing” as my cameraman referred to the city, call this building, “The Pants” or “Big Boxer Shorts.” Although you would never guess, this building encloses more than a million and half square feet. It is bigger than the Pentagon for Christ sakes and if you stacked its wings on top of one another it would be one of the tallest structures in the world. Bravo! But there was a problem.
A companion building adjacent to the complex was destroyed in a catastrophic fire during the final phase of its construction. This has delayed occupancy of the main building for years to come and has spawned worries about its stability. The burned-out building was supposed to provide vital counter balance to the main structure’s foundation. It seems that a celebration for the eminent completion of the project also included fireworks. The fireworks caught the insulation for the building on fire. Why is this unusual? Think about it. Insulation in the United States is not flammable, no OSHA inspector would ever allow such a thing. Enter the Rule of Law. The architects became clients of the Firm after the fire put the project into legal and liability turmoil. When was the last time you thanked OSHA for anything? I take them totally for granted, if not a source of bureaucratic irritation. As I thought more about this, all I can do is count my blessings. It seems horribly cliched but the freedoms and protections all assured to me by the Rule of Law in which I blithely live, effect almost every aspect of my life and I pay them no respect at all. They are as under-appreciated as the air I breathe.
Which brings me to the air quality in Beijing. When was the last time you gave a second grateful thought to the EPA? During the winter months the dry air sweeping into “the Jing” from Gobi Desert picks up all the pollution from the city’s centralized coal-fired heating plants. This, coupled with the exhaust from 4 million cars (and I have read estimates that this number grows by 2,000 vehicles a day) produces over 51 million tons of pollutants every year. The dry smoggy air gives you a persistent hacking cough, watering itchy eyes, a vague sore throat, and an irritable disposition. Almost every person we interviewed had a humidifier in their office.
You think our roads and automobile industry is over regulated? I was astounded by the traffic. Bumper to bumper does not begin to describe their rush hour. How do I know this? We got special permission, as our last shot of the last day, to go up on to the 37th floor and access the roof of the building. We shot a sequence worthy of the time-lapse-filled masterpiece Koyanasquatsi. Imagine my surprise and delight when this exact same view was featured on page 2 of the Financial Times last week in an article about the massive automobile glut in China.
My visit was not completely filled with Western-style urbanism. One of the few truly Chinese cultural mind blowers were early morning visits to the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. What sticks about both of these landmarks is the scale and the empty space. The stone courtyards are immense and their stunning impact is not blunted by landscape.
There are plantings but green spaces are primarily restricted to vast gardens. Cypresses from literally 500 years ago. They are planted endlessly. You wander through the gardens and get lost in the forest. But the two experiences are kept separate, like proper courses in an elegant meal. They are different, and because they are so completely separated, they each retain their impact. You walk out of the cold empty stone spaces into a forest. Your body reacts to this with a relaxing sigh as you leave the city down a sloping incline of grooved stone and enter a flat gravel garden pathway outside the containment wall. These inclines are much easier to navigate than steps. Your feet feel solidly held by the grooves and the slope is not too steep. Even so, your strides become restricted to accommodate the slope. You sense legions of warriors on horseback have proceeded your shortened footfalls by 500 years.
I should emphasize all of these superficial thoughts are just first impressions from a very brief trip. For those of you who really know China this must sound like someone who makes generalizations about Europe after changing planes in the Paris airport. Spending two hours in the Forbidden City is like spending ten minutes in the Louvre. It was just a taste. But it is the sort of knock your head off experience which burns itself into your memory. I could not forget that if you were a peasant in feudal China this was impossible to see. Those that breached the walls had their heads cut off. The historical inequities between the elite status of the rulers and the rest of the country is mirrored in today’s experience of Beijing. The designer boutiques are for the rarified few in China (and of course for the foreign tourist).
China in the 19th and 20th centuries has gone through incomprehensible social change. Is there a more disgustingly arrogant example of the evils of Capitalism than the Opium Wars? No wonder this society was fearful of the West and its corrupting influences. The unimaginably brutal repressions of the Cultural Revolution and the enforced police state of the Communist regime, turned the Western World into a forbidden civilization. Now, as China opens up once again to all the West has to offer, one can’t help but wonder what is the ultimate plan? Is there one? Is seemingly unbridled Capitalism the best hope for China and it’s 1.4 billion people? Greed-is-good Capitalism at least glorifies the individual who then wants rights and freedoms. One thing is for sure. The Rule of Law can only help a society as it transitions from authoritarian control to an inevitably more Democratic system. I had never so palpably realized how the legal system protects and defends Freedom. The legal profession gets beat up pretty badly in the popular psyche. It was a pleasure to consider its more noble purpose by such vivid examples of where we would be without it.