Four impressions from Beijing
The city's evolution, the trauma of the pandemic, enthusiasm to reconnect, isolation from geopolitical gloom
Last weekend I returned home after two and a half weeks visiting Asia for the first time since 2019. In Hong Kong, I participated in a conference on Chinese tech platform regulation; in Beijing, I spent several days catching up with legal experts in universities, law firms, and tech companies; in Tokyo, I presented on US-China tech relations to university and think tank audiences; and in Seoul, I served as a scholar in tow during a seminar on tech policy for alumni of the Schwarzman Scholars program. My teaching quarter at Stanford ended just before the trip, and I have a lot of writing in waiting, much of which will be coming here. Today, I want to share some general impressions from a return to China after the pandemic interlude.
Caveat: These are the impressions of one US visitor who spent six nights in June in his most familiar Chinese city, meeting mostly with a highly-educated and internationally-oriented subset of tech and policy folks. Policy reflections will follow separately, and I am aware that some of the below may smack of “I talked to three taxi drivers and now I know China.” As I hope is clear, I make no assertion about universal validity of my observations, and I welcome critiques. Still the number of US visitors, though increasing rapidly, is still small, and some have asked me to share thoughts. Indulge me if you wish.
1. What has and hasn’t changed
After hearing so much about the apparatus of monitoring and control the Chinese government set up to keep Covid infections from spreading, it was something of a relief to see that, in many respects, everyday life in Beijing was indistinguishable from 2019. Aside from a somewhat cumbersome process at the airport to report (without verification of any kind) that you’ve taken a rapid test and are negative, I encountered no practical implications of the pandemic. Life felt familiar. Rental bikes were still available, though the brands had changed. Restaurants I’ve frequented since 2007 were still there, and an afternoon off at the 798 Art District revealed some gallery churn but many stalwarts still putting up new shows. Contrary to some reports that anti-US sentiment was soaring, I encountered only positive reactions when I answered the typical question, “What country are you from?”
But time had passed, and some changes were obvious:
When I last visited, the transition to a daily economy dominated by WeChat Pay and Alipay was well under way, and on this visit it was nearly complete. I used cash only when I was having trouble with Alipay, which is now a crucial tool for visiting foreigners due to its ability to charge transactions to a foreign credit card.
City authorities seem to have installed uncountable cameras and other sensors at least in part to crack down on parking violations, which may have improved traffic. At least in my subjective experience, these and other surveillance tools heightened to near ubiquitous the sense of (at least potential) monitoring. When I told people about the ridiculous odyssey of losing and then recovering my wallet, more than one noted that theft was way down due to the likelihood of getting caught.
Campus security was much tighter, following an earlier trend. Pre-registration was required for my visit to our Stanford University Center at Peking University, so that personnel at the campus’ reduced number of gates could confirm I was allowed to enter. Inside, however, Beida was seemingly unchanged—except that outsiders weren’t touristing around without special permission.
Visible foreigners were much more rare than I’m used to. Places once packed with foreign residents and visitors were again packed, but with an almost entirely Chinese crowd.
Livestreamers were a visible phenomenon in the city. In one case, waiting for food past midnight at the end of a long nighttime walk, I watched a man in the same sweaty clothes as the rest of us hold up his phone for the extended period it took the backed-up grill to produce our lamb skewers, filling time with banalities and shots of the eatery’s address for an unseen audience. No one except me seemed to think anything of it.
2. Six months after opening, the pandemic still seemed very raw for many.
China’s experience of the pandemic has been different from most countries. After the initial outbreak, the government’s virus control measures largely worked, keeping life relatively normal, until early 2022. With the arrival of Omicron variants, everyone I spoke to (work contacts, drivers, strangers in restaurants) reflected that the era of lockdowns was particularly intense. Quite a few times I felt as if broaching the topic of the lockdowns and their end—universally called 放开 fàngkāi, roughly “opening,” “release,” or “relaxing (of control)”—triggered a dark mood.
I came to believe that at this moment—only half a year since the Chinese government let up on intensely draconian (and increasingly fruitless) control measures; with all the infections and deaths that followed; with people, media, and authorities generally acting as if nothing happened—there was a massive weight of unresolved collective and individual trauma not far under the surface. This is not hard to understand, in some sense. The mass trauma of deaths, social indifference, perceived government failure, etc., in the United States has had some time to recede into memory.
The trauma of lockdowns was especially acute for some people I spoke to at various points on this trip who either personally endured Shanghai’s two-month lock-in, but it appeared much broader. Strangers and friends shared varying amounts, some acutely critical of government policy and some not, but no one felt things had gone well. The loss of many elders in scholarly fields was noted more than once. Anxiety about future economic performance in China was tied into this several times.
More than once I shared that the Shanghai lockdown had surprised me—not that it happened at all, but that it went on so long and without mass noncompliance. More than one person responded that they didn’t think it would be possible again.
3. Chinese tech policy experts seemed absolutely hyped to reengage with the world.
The people who work on tech law in Beijing’s universities, in major Chinese tech companies, or in local or international law firms are highly educated, often including prolonged study in Europe or the United States, and were accustomed before the pandemic to periodic trips abroad. Conferences, work travel, vacations: These folks, my counterparts in the study of tech law and policy, are as worldly as anyone. But most of them got stuck in China for 3.5 years.
My very subjective impression from conversations with a few dozen such people in Hong Kong and Beijing was that this community was extremely fired up to resume scholarly exchange, work travel, friend and family visits, fancy vacations—anything international. It wasn’t just excitement to travel, something I absolutely had going into this trip. There was also a sense of possibility and of new beginnings.
Also very subjectively, the story I came to tell myself was that an excitement to reengage abroad and to find new understandings, connections, solutions, and ideas was connected to the sense of unresolved trauma I observed. My own impressions over a dozen years of living in or traveling to China had been that Chinese friends and work counterparts, after the international bacchanalia of the 2008 Olympics period, had gradually settled into a more China-focused sense of progress. By 2019, it felt as if the US-China divide was acute and few Chinese had any real desire or hope to try to bridge it. Zoom meetings during the pandemic did little to change this impression, even as many of us went through the motions of looking for useful ideas.
In 2023, speaking with my haphazard set of contacts in person, I had the sense that people were ready to build and advocate for something new, that the darkness in international relations at the top leadership level was annoying but really shouldn’t be taken too literally, and that the era of opening, or 放开, had implications far beyond Covid.
4. Few contacts seemed to understand just how dark US views on China have become.
I landed a few hours after Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Beijing. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen followed him there this week. Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, will reportedly follow. And there is cautious optimism that Chinese leader Xi Jinping will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in San Francisco this November. No one is expecting breakthroughs, but US-China diplomacy may be on its way to a less dire state.
Yet few Chinese contacts appeared to grasp that, right now, the extent of China-as-main-rival mentality in Washington is basically total—and that this is a huge change from five years ago. As more US experts and officials visit Beijing, perhaps more will bring home actual information about actual China and change this low-information, high-suspicion environment. As more Chinese visit the United States (if they can get visas), perhaps more will understand just how dark things look in bilateral ties from the US side.
I wish I could remember who put in my head the idea that one might not be optimistic in the face of evidence to the contrary, but one can still operate with hope for unexpected positive outcomes. Well, that’s where I’m at with it, and the last stage of my trip—accompanying 20 or so Schwarzman Scholar alumni from several countries—certainly planted seeds for how hope might turn out to be fulfilled. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to visit at this stage and to speak with so many friends, colleagues, and others. Thanks to all who took the time to chat, exchange views, argue about policy, and reinitiate in-person US-China contact.
About Here It Comes
Here it Comes is written by me, Graham Webster, a research scholar and editor-in-chief of the DigiChina Project at the Stanford Cyber Policy Center. It is the successor to my earlier newsletter efforts U.S.–China Week and Transpacifica. Here It Comes is an exploration of the onslaught of interactions between US-China relations, technology in China, and climate change. The opinions expressed here are my own, and I reserve the right to change my mind.