When we think of the future of Beijing, we must remember what it was in the past. When Marco Polo visited the capital in the thirteenth century, he described it as “so vast, so rich and so beautiful, that no man on earth could design anything superior to it.” By the time the Ming emperors had finished building the imperial city, Beijing was the grandest capital in the world.

But today few people, apart from the occasional Chinese official worried over press releases, would pronounce Beijing a beautiful city. Vast, yes. It’s a behemoth in almost every respect, which includes the scale of the pollutants it pumps into the air. Aesthetic beauty is no longer a concept with any relevance to the 22 million residents who routinely wade their way, gasping, through its leaden atmospheres. Beijing is technically unlivable, but that deters few of the citizens who make it their home. Nor are they dismayed by its many contradictions: the ugly high-rises circling around the dead, low-roofed Forbidden City, and the seven enormous ring roads winding around a traffic-choked city center.

The future of Beijing? That depends on the many currents running through the political seas of the country, and the world around it. Will it be the capital of the last communist country on earth? Will it be the capital of the wealthiest capitalist economy? Will some semblance of its former beauty return? Hard to prognosticate! What’s for sure is that for the next decade it must, if it is to keep its population, deal with its pollution—otherwise it will have to go underground or face becoming a vast ghost town as its people desert it for cleaner locals. The battlefield for Beijing’s health as a city is going to intensify.

A five-year plan is urgently needed to improve the quality of life in Beijing: its water, soil, air, food, health and safety, as well citizens’ cultural life. The promotion of President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” will only have validity when residents of Beijing can walk in the fresh air without masking their faces. A city without faces. No, we don’t want to see that day. Unless it’s as a fashion statement.


Return to “Cities of the Future” for more.

Xiaolu Guo

Novelist and film-maker Xiaolu Guo’s artistic career spans both China and the West. Her novels have been translated into more than twenty-six languages, and include A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction) and I Am China (longlisted for Bailey’s Women’s Fiction Prize ). In 2013 she was named one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. She has also directed several award-winning films, including She, a Chinese (Golden Leopard Award at the Locarno Film Festival), UFO in Her Eyes (TIFF) and Once Upon a Time Proletarian (Venice Film Festival). Guo currently lives in London and Berlin and was a guest of the DAAD Artists in Residence in Berlin in 2012. Her novelistic memoir Once Upon a Time in the East (Grove Atlantic) will be out in 2017.

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