On Ai Weiwei’s Beijing

By Lijia Zhang

I just read Ai Weiwei’s column in Newsweek in which he describes Beijing as a “nightmare” and a “constant nightmare”. I am delighted that his detention ordeal hasn’t dampened his spirits but I have to say that I don’t agree with him at all, though I understand his frustration and bitterness. I have immense respect for Ai, who is an extremely talented artist as well as an extremely courageous man who dares to criticize the authorities. I wish our government were confident enough to tolerate a few eccentrics like Ai, whom I had the pleasure to meet on several occasions. I am sure that Ai, as someone who appreciates the democratic value, wouldn’t mind that others present different views.

I love Beijing. I fell in love with the capital back in 1993 when I first came to live here. I found the city far more exciting and vibrant than my hometown of Nanjing. There’s so much to offer, so many things going on and you always meet interesting people doing interesting things. Ai Weiwei himself is just a fine example.

I am surprised that Ai claims that there’s no favorite place for him in the city. Not even his cool spacey house in the art district of Caochangdi? Usually people carve out their favorite corners even in the bleakest place on earth: you have to make the most out of where you live.

My favorite place is my neighborhood Jiuxianqiaocun – Wine God Bridge Village. Despite its name, it is not a particularly poetic place: it’s rather messy; the narrow streets are littered with rubbish; the low-rise red-brick houses are mostly simply constructed and the public toilets on street corners are smelly. A typical migrant workers’ area. Yet, for me, it is authentic, real and lively. I am renting a house here. There are a lot of activities on the street: people cook, wash their babies and socialize outside (well, their homes are too small). They share food when they cook something good and keep an eye on the neighbour’s children. You have to help each other out when life is harsh. Every day I chat and crack jokes with my neighbours, who always lend me a hand when I drag my heavy electric scooter in and out of my house. Joaquin, a friend stayed with me recently, grew up in Latin America. He described the neighborhood like ‘a slum in Venezuela without the violence or danger’.

For most of the residents, their lives are much better than previous generations. And despite of the fact that the migrant workers are not treated equally as urban dwellers, they can make more money in the city than tilling the land at home. And more importantly, they feel hopeful about the future.

Sure, life is no dinner party for the migrants as they encounter a host of challenges in the city, including their children’s education. The school of my helper’s daughter was closed a few months ago, which caused such stress to her (I blamed it for the few crushed plates), but the girl has been arranged to attend to a local school. Others may not be so lucky.

Beijing as a city has its own problems: its extreme climate, its increasingly congested traffic and of course the polluted air. For Ai, a city is about its mental structure while for me it’s about the people. If you like the people, and can relate to the people, then you naturally feel part of the city as I do. I came from a poor family and slaved for ten years at a factory, I understand the desire of the migrant workers to better their lives.

I am no darling of the government. I had my share of brushes with the authorities: years ago, my ex-husband – a fellow journalist – and I were detained when we went to a small town in Hebei to investigate a case of an innocent man being shot dead by a policeman due to road rage. Before and after that, I was warned that as a Chinese, I shouldn’t write for western media. I have no chance to see my memoir “Socialism is Great!” to be published in China in Chinese because I described the demonstration I organized in support the democratic movement in 1989. When the New York Times reviewed my book in 2008, the page of the review was torn out [of copies of the paper distributed in China]. Same story for Ai – the page of Newsweek where Ai’s article was was also being taken out, according to one report I read.

Speaking of the Olympics, I’d disagree with Ai again: it did bring lots of joy and pride to millions of ordinary Chinese. I was here to witness and report on it.

People find different paths and different roles to play in life. My mission is, in my small way, to help the world to understand where China was coming from and what’s happening now. That’s why I am writing this post.

Lijia Zhang is author of “Socialism Is Great!”: A Worker’s Memoir of the New China. This post originally appeared at her personal blog.

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