Alternating Currents

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I arrived back in New York last month for the holidays to find the diner on my corner gone. The vinyl upholstery and rotating cake stands that had been accumulating grease since long before my family moved to the block 30 years ago had vanished. So had the line of taxicabs that used the place as a pit stop, and the neon sign that attested to a somewhat loftier self-image. All that was left of “The Mansion” were its walls, now clad in unsettlingly pristine pale blue sheet rock.

I stood on the corner of 86h and York (yes, this blog is about China and I promise to get to the point) feeling totally traumatized. This was my block. This was the Mansion. The Mansion where nothing had changed since turkey burgers appeared on the menu in the late 1980s. It was supposed to be permanent. This couldn’t be happening.

As it turned out, it wasn’t. At least not quite. The Mansion turned to out to be merely under renovation. What struck me though, after I regained composure, was what a wreck I’d be if I indulged in the same intolerance toward change in Beijing. Nothing stays put here. The first time I left Beijing for winter vacation after moving here in 2002, I returned after two weeks to find a chunk of my neighborhood about the size of a New York City block reduced to dust. This summer I arrived back in town after a weeklong reporting trip to find cranes lowering full grown trees into massive pits in an empty stretch of dirt that only a month earlier had been filled with houses and shops. A block down the street from our bureau disappeared while I was gone last week. A lone hair salon was left standing in a massive swath of rubble.

Individual lives too change faster and more radically here than they do at home. My friend Xiao Zhang called on Friday to say that in the month since we’d last seen one another, she’d gotten married, quit her job and started her own business. “I’ve had some changes,” was how she calmly prefaced the news. Zhang is a migrant who came to Beijing when she was 18 from a farm in Anhui province and found work waiting tables at a tea house in my neighborhood. In the six years since, she’s become a formidable connoisseur and taught herself some English and enough Japanese to give lessons on tea to tourists from Japan and chat them up for hours afterwards. Over the summer she took her first plane ride, visited Tokyo and learned to eat Mexican food. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to find her calmly adjusting to her new life as a married shop-owner when I visited her this afternoon. She already knows something about reinventing herself.

So apparently does China’s former top environmental official. Xie Zhenhua, was head of the State Environmental Protection Administration until December 2005 when he was fired (technically he resigned) in the aftermath of a massive chemical spill that contaminated the drinking supply for the entire city of Harbin, pop. 10 million. He’d done what’s known in New Orleans as a “heckuva job” responding to the spill, and the residents of Harbin who had been forced to line up on frozen streets to get their drinking water off the back of trucks didn’t shed many tears when he got the boot. But in Chinese time, that’s ancient history.

Yesterday, it was announced that Xie would become a Vice Minister of China’s powerful National Development and Reform Commission, which oversees economic and energy policy among its other duties. Xie’s new position (which is higher ranking than his former post) will make him responsible for the commission’s programs on environmental protection and energy saving. It was never abundantly clear whether Xie was responsible for the government’s sluggish response to the chemical spill or whether–as many suspected–he took the fall for someone higher up. It’ll be interesting to see what he does now that he’s off the bench.

Anyway, the point of this all is that if you take your eyes off China for even a few days, a lot can change. With that in mind, we’ll be updating this new blog several times every day. Stay tuned.

–Susan Jakes