Friday, February 25, 2011

On Architecture And Protesting In Beijing

You may have heard that, this past weekend, calls went out online for protesters to start a "jasmine revolution" in China. In the end, though, the demonstrations didn't amount to much. I have posted before on some of the reasons why I just don't see this movement (so to speak) catching on in the Middle Kingdom.

There is one additional feature of Beijing, the physical layout its parks, neighborhoods, and public areas, that I want to highlight. This feature greatly increases the difficulty of large masses of people assembling in short order. Big gatherings are, of course, not impossible. But they are, from a logistical point of view, really hard to pull off.

The aforementioned non-protest was planned for out in front of the McDonald's on Wangfujing. This is a main pedestrian thoroughfare that is popular with domestic and international tourists. (Beijing shoppers tend to stay far away, as better deals can be found pretty much anywhere else in the city.)

So why was this particular McDonald's identified as the launching point for a potential revolution? Well, Tiananmen Square is off limits. Just to set foot on the square, you have to go through security check points that squeeze access into a few well policed entrances. Public parks in the center of Beijing, such as Beihai, all cost money to get into and also have gates that make it essentially impossible for masses of people to gather quickly. In short, all of the kinds of places we might take for granted in the West as being ideal for political action are physically set up in such a way that large scale protests are a virtual impossibility.

When viewed in this way, Wangfujing is one of the only places left in the capital city that can handle quick surges of pedestrians. Cars are prohibited on the main shopping blocks. It is located not that far from Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

Based on what almost happened this past weekend, I wonder how long it will be before Wangfujing becomes a gated enclave like the rest of Beijing. Although such a move would be bad for business, it might be viewed as good for social harmony.

~Steve

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