Beijing

The cutting edge of capitalist nihilism.

Wang Ningde/Galerie Paris-Beijing

Audio version read by George Atherton – Right-click to download

An impenetrable gray haze so thick that the sun is but a dull red glow, a candle in the mist. Gas and electric motorcycles jerry-rigged with steel tubes and plastic film to shield would-be passengers from the wind and cold. Garbage strewn about the streets by daytime, gathered into piles and then lit for warmth at night. Street urchins with blank faces, shredded clothes and tattered shoes, eyes empty from drugs, despair and malnutrition. Women available for rock-bottom prices, bored faces on couches, watching television and smoking Zhongnanhai cigarettes under pink lights. They file their nails and prattle on in a scene that verges on the domestic, a far cry from the titillating theatrics of an Amsterdam alleyway and somehow more perverse for it. Signs and billboards promising breast implants, liposuction and abortions vastly outnumber those pushing soda pop and shaving cream. A radically altered vision of the mundane. Constant construction and deconstruction, rubble and rebar and empty plastic paint cans. Construction and reconstruction and deconstruction and renovation and antiquation occurring again and again at an ever-faster pace with no discernible beginning or end. The various “uctions” and “ations” creating such a conceptual blur that their distinctions collapse into mere “work.” The resulting disorder constantly reshaping the landscape of one’s experience, day in day out new fences are erected and penetrated, walls of corrugated steel painted blue prevent access to favorite shops, sidewalks are torn up and brick walls are built, destroyed and rebuilt in a matter of days with no apparent functional motive. A complete loss of any context or meaning, nothing but a frantic motion to create the illusion of movement, to hide the glaring truth that nothing is happening.

This is Beijing, 2010. Where have I seen this before? The sights are like some dream that I’ve had since childhood, an experience of the uncanny, a recollection at once comforting and terrifying. Where have I seen these street vendors, the umbrellas, the steam rising, the wrappers tossed in the rain-slick streets, the fluorescent lights reflected on them? Where have I felt the fear of official power, where even the university gate-guard dressed up and playing policeman, king of his anthill, is an enemy I am always trying to placate? When have I felt that anxiety that the fire inspector might be looking to turn a profit from his “safety inspection” of my concrete-block apartment? Why is this all so familiar?

And then it hit me. This is the end of the world. Beijing is ground zero. Philosopher Slavoj Žižek, in his Welcome to the Desert of the Real wrote that Americans were gripped by the sight of the twin towers collapsing because it was the real manifestation of something they’d experienced in their virtual lives countless times before. The action movie sequence of the plane and the explosion, the smoke and screams, the heroism and the mourning, they’d been experienced much the same in hundreds of variations. And now it dawns on me that what draws me to Beijing is the way the real crashes through, connecting with a virtual experience I’ve had time and time again. Beijing is the apocalypse I’ve seen in films like Children of Men, Blade Runner, Mad Max and others. Not an apocalypse of asteroids, lava and melting ice caps, no explosions and tremors but a psychic apocalypse, a collapse of order and reason driven by the very social logic meant to bring it about. An apocalypse that leaves a skeleton of social order intact and hives off individuals into their own private hell. This is the edge of the Capitalist Apocalypse, the final realization of the nightmares of modernity. Beijing is run by the logic of Reflective Reason warned against by Kierkegaard, an Orwellian nightmare populated by Nietzschean Last Men who can no longer even dare to dream of a Marxist, Leninist or, in the ultimate irony, even a Maoist social utopia. This fact is captured tragically in the story of a young boy who 30 years ago asked his mother, “Mom, when is Communism coming?” only to be slapped and scolded for asking such stupid (and politically dangerous) questions. Recently, the man, now over forty years of old, was comforting his dying mother, who on her deathbed in an overcrowded and poorly staffed public hospital, broke down in tears of despair at the scene she was witnessing as she left the world and asked, “Son, when is Communism coming?” China is often portrayed as a backward country that seeks to “catch up” to the West. The sad truth is, China is already far ahead of the curve in one major way – the Chinese have internalized the horrifying truth of basing social organization on a linear economic model of capitalist growth – there is no Messiah in global capitalism. There is no end, no hope, no dream, no purpose, just ever-greater motion without movement in any discernible direction. Development without progress, change without context, work without purpose. This is the end of our psychic world, the death of our stories, and Beijing is ground zero.

One can see the signs of the disintegration of categories of meaning on the streets and in daily life. The loss of distinction between development and regression, between growth and decay that is so clearly revealed in the unceasing construction and demolition and the rubble it produces, is replicated in every sphere of social life. The result is that as all conceptual categories collapse in on themselves, all meaning is lost and navigation through the waters of life becomes nigh impossible. What is crime when it is indistinguishable from the daily activities of businessmen, governmental officials and law enforcement? How can one maintain the criminal/law-abiding dichotomy when it is generally accepted that the logic of growth and profit dictate that everyone from the smallest shop-owner to the highest government official has an interest in stepping outside the rules in order to “develop the economy”? How can one maintain the distinction between sound parenting and child abuse when in the interest of pushing a child to greater academic success one enforces control over their every movement and decision through acts of physical and emotional violence? What is health and sickness when doctors gleefully respond to the slightest illness by carpet-bombing the system with every drug they can possibly sell to their patient?

The physical and social evidence of the collapse of meaning in Beijing are written on the psyches of anyone who has been working long enough to shed their childish illusions. Young minds are inseminated with state-crafted illusions from the Communist past, designed to temporarily insulate children from this reality, a psychic scaffolding to protect their integrity until the necessary programming is complete. Words like “harmony” and “the people” are sprinkled on every public statement to hide the decay at the heart of society. Despair is the default mode for most young professionals and university students today. A despair that is frequently expressed by my students who mentally check out of their classes, and by young, well-educated professional friends who must struggle fiercely to survive, while frequently breaking down and asking whoever will listen, often at a price, “What am I living for?” Students are forced into majors based on their parents’ whims and the offerings of their universities, submitted to rote learning 30 or more hours a week. Young professionals work to the point of exhaustion for less than a thousand dollars a month, living in tiny apartments run by quasi-criminal cartels of real-estate agencies with an oligopoly in the completely unregulated rental market. They pay five hundred dollars a month for rent, which is paid at least four months ahead, with no option to sublet, with one-month finders fees as well as a host of random fees the rental agency will try to trick and brow beat them into accepting. Most struggle to make ends meet while supporting aging parents. Their only hope is to learn the tricks of the trade, to cheat, swindle, extort and bribe their way to the top in order to attain some quality of life. It is the modern information economy version of the scene in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis where young Freder watches the masses of workers being fed into the jaws of the mechanical Moloch. A generation of young people that, if given a chance to breathe, might have provided positive influences in their communities, developed new ideas, been good parents or contributed to a better society, are being consumed ruthlessly and left as burned out, disease-wracked shells by their forties, more often than not reenacting their own psychic traumas upon the single child they are permitted. It is only going to get worse.

We in the West like to criticize China for these facts, to liken cities like Beijing to ant farms and Chinese people to inhuman robots. We like to accuse the Chinese government of withholding the rule of law, to blame them for the impoverishment of the Chinese spirit and eradication of five thousand years of Chinese culture. The reality is that the Chinese are merely very fast learners. Western societies have developed and imposed a model of social organization on the world that is devoid of the conceptual distinctions that are central to creating meaningful social and psychic content. A simple binary equation, a series of numerical pluses or minuses has been adopted as our central determinant of value, stability and meaning. We in the West have been fortunate enough to have amassed sufficient power and wealth in the past century to allow us until recently to largely insulate ourselves from the psychic impoverishment we have imposed on others. The Chinese, without this luxury, understood the true nature of our New World Order faster and better than any other nation. This is how China has become the site of the End of the World. This is not an “end” in the sense of termination or finishing point, but in the sense of realization, revelation, purpose. It is the manifestation of the unconscious dream of a capitalist system of social organization based entirely on the binary logic of financial growth. This is the World we have created, and this is its End, at once the termination of the old world of meaning and community and the anti-end, the beginning of a new world devoid of the stories and distinctions that provide the individual and collective life with meaning. Beijing is the End of the World, it is our vacuous purpose, it is the nightmare we have collectively embraced. Throughout the 20th century we dreamed of a future composed of ones and zeros, where man and machine could be one. Beijing is the End of the World not because China is the future, but because in the future we have chosen to pursue, we will all be Chinese.

Charles Humphrey is a 25-year-old Canadian living in Beijing, where he lectures, writes, studies Chinese and feeds an incurable addiction to Chinese martial arts.