The new Beijing beckons


New Beijing
Customers with bags containing first day purchases from a H&M fashion collection designed by French fashion designer Isabel Marant at a window display at a H&M store branch in Beijing, China. — EPA

Here, you are surrounded by optimistic and enthusiastic young people with the zeal to do well not only in China, but in the globalised world.

I JUST took a short trip to Beijing to attend a conference on women. It has been seven years since my last trip and 28 years since my first. In 1985, China was gingerly opening up to the world. People still wore blue Mao jackets and rode around mostly on bicycles. There were few hotels of the standard we were used to in Malaysia.

Today, so little of that Beijing remains. Tall glittery skyscrapers abound. Shopping malls carry every type of international luxury brand and people dressed as if they had just walked out of the pages of Vogue China that just celebrated its 100th edition by commissioning the photographer Mario Testino to shoot the entire issue.

Sitting at the French bakery chain Comptoirs du France, I saw a fashionable young couple walk by with their miniature dog. The dog wore a Chanel sweater….

When I arrived at the vast modern Beijing Capital airport, a young volunteer from the conference received me. She was a graduate student at Beijing University, spoke perfect English and was extremely efficient in getting me to my hotel and comfortably settled.

In fact, throughout the conference, a whole bevy of eager young volunteers shepherded us through the programme with remarkable efficiency, politeness and charm. Whenever a special request was made, they followed through until it was fulfilled.

I also met some impressive young female entrepreneurs and corporate leaders. There is now a generation of young Chinese who had been educated abroad and who are returning to start their own businesses or head companies.

The head of McKinsey in China is a Beijing-born woman as is the head of SK China, South Korea’s third largest company. Additionally, young women are using their cosmopolitan education to start businesses. The organiser of the conference was a 27-year-old former chess champion born in Chengdu.

Another 27-year-old has combined the experience of her education at both a Swiss finishing school and Harvard Business School to start a business giving etiquette lessons to Chinese wanting to venture out into the world beyond their own country. They have an acute sense that to succeed in this globalised world, they need to discard provincial habits and tastes.

The most impressive person I met, however, was Zhang, a taxi driver. I hopped into his taxi at my hotel and asked him to take me to Panjiayuan, the flea market. Taxis in Beijing are very clean and neat except that they tend to smell of cigarettes. But they are safe and as long as you get someone to explain to the taxi driver where you want to go in Mandarin, you will get there in one piece.

So I was not expecting Zhang to turn round and wish me a good afternoon. It turned out Zhang spoke pretty decent English. When I asked him why, he said he decided to learn it because he wanted to communicate with his international passengers and he loved to practise with them.

Indeed, Zhang proved to be a gem, not only did he take me to the flea market and wait until I was done but he also took me to find some other items I was looking for, drove me around Tiananmen Square so I could take photos and then took me back to my hotel, all the while chatting merrily in English.

(Some were however a bit cynical about Zhang, that he should by coincidence have picked me up that day. Apparently, there are no such coincidences in China.)

China does still have many problems, Beijing’s terrible pollution being just one. And no doubt there are huge gaps between the cities and the countryside. But there are enough eager young educated and entrepreneurial Chinese today ready to take the lead in almost everything, both domestically and perhaps even internationally. The socialist slogans are now found only on posters you can buy at the flea market.

For a few days, I had a break from home news because there is no Facebook or Twitter in China. It was nice to be with optimistic and enthusiastic young people wanting to do so much, instead of the angst-filled navel-gazing we indulge in back home and the thousands of ways we find to bring people down.

We seem to think that our country is special when we should be worrying about how this giant country only a few hours away is poised to leave us in the dust, despite our headstart.

I did meet one young Malaysian currently working in Shanghai who wants to come home to start a new IT enterprise. It was so refreshing to meet someone who is still eager to invest in his own country. I just hope that our daily nonsense does not crush his eagerness.

Contributed by Marina Mahathir

> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

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