Many foreigners tend to think of cosmopolitan Shanghai and its energetic people as the future of China. But anyone who has spent even a little bit of time in the Chinese capital will realise that dustily and at times dowdy Beijing is the place to make it or break it.
People from all over the country flock here, lured by its opportunities, the feel of cultural ferment, and the chance to reinvent themselves. Students, entrepreneurs, artists, chefs, designers and more all move around the city in a constant buzz.
While others may also think that Beijing, as the centre of the government, would be a somewhat suffocating place, Beijing, as the centre of the government, would be a somewhat suffocating place, Beijing’s native sons and daughters have a chutzpah that makes the city famous. There is an unusual freedom here that has made the city the creative centre of China, and which attracts artists from all over. Art galleries have blossomed in hotels, courtyard houses, old factories and an ancient watchtower. This is where the recording industry is located, and where serious musicians eventually end up. There are at least twice as many bands as any other city in China, and a slew of underground clubs and booming nightspots offering live music.
Meanwhile, even entrepreneurs find Beijing a mecca because they say the risks – and rewards – and greater here.
Beijing boats the best-educated citizenry anywhere in China, producing some 80% of the country’s PhDs; in fact, the city’s Haidian district is also known as China’s Silicon Valley. Finally, Beijing is also home to several million migrant workers, who are often referred to disparagingly as waidiren, or outsiders. This hardworking group is sometimes blamed for the problems confronting the city. However, economists say that Beijing would not be what it is today without this army of tireless labourers, construction workers, waiters and maids, who have kept the city buzzing along, taking on the kinds of jobs most others would prefer to avoid.