Impressions of Beijing

My first exposure to China was upon arrival at the Beijing Capital International Airport. It is the second busiest airport in the world in terms of passenger throughput (2011 ranking), just behind the Atlanta Airport. It was expanded in 2008 to accommodate traffic for the Olympics. The airport is about 20 miles outside of the city and is architecturally stunning. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting to find a world-class transportation infrastructure based on everything I had read beforehand describing China as a developing country. It wasn’t until I stopped in the men’s room at baggage claim and encountered my first “squatty potty” that the dichotomy of China struck me.

A Country of Contrast

My overarching impression of China is of a country of stark contrast. It is an interesting juxtaposition of old and new. And nowhere was it more evident than in Beijing, the capital of China.

Here are a few historical facts that impressed me.

  • The earliest inhabitant within the Beijing municipality area was Peking man, dating back 230,000 – 250,000 years ago.
  • The first walled city in Beijing was Ji, dating back to 473 BC.
  • Kublai Khan renamed the city Dadu (“great capital”) in 1264.
  • In 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang (the first Emperor of the Ming dynasty) conquered the city and renamed it Beijing (“north capital”).

The feeling of history in Beijing is palpable, and a source of great pride for the people who live in the city. It is a constant backdrop to the raid modernization the city has been undergoing. For example, the Forbidden City (nearly 500 years old) is fronted by a modern Tiananmen Square (enlarged by Mao Zedong in 1958) complete with Jumbotron video displays. And when you tour the city you see unbelievably tall government housing skyscrapers standing in stark visual contrast to the historical hutong district where people live in neighborhoods of courtyard residences (siheyuan) that share communal bathrooms.

Based on my experience in Beijing, it is clear China is a country that has been rapidly modernizing its infrastructure and is working to ensure its people are not left behind in the process. The government is systematically relocating Hutong neighborhood residents into public housing to improve their standard of living and provide greater opportunity for economic advancement. This is a major urban development project I believe would be fascinating for every economic development professional to explore. It is a great example of how China is actively reinventing its cities, and struggling to walk a fine line between modernization and cultural preservation.

Beijing Economy

Beijing is the second largest industrial center in China. Some of the main industries include – steel, motor vehicles, machinery, petrochemicals, processed food, and electronics (not a comprehensive list). Beijing is a major center of transportation and trade. International products and brands are commonplace. Bicycles have quickly given way to automobiles (although you can still see some amazing sights as individual’s still transport some unbelievable things by bicycle on busy city streets) and scooters.

Beijing’s GDP reached 1.6 trillion yuan in 2011 according to the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Statistics. That translates to a per capita GDP of roughly $12,500 U.S. dollars. The average annual income in Beijing’s was 56,061 yuan in 2011 (roughly $8,700 U.S. dollars). I did an online comparison between the cost of living in Beijing and my city of Cincinnati. It was estimated to be 13% less expensive to live in Beijing. But, the annual income for people living in Cincinnati is roughly $45,100 (5X Beijing). That difference has meaningful implications on disposable income available. Yet, everywhere I looked YPs in Beijing were dressed fashionably and were sporting MP3 headphone buds in their ears while talking on cellular phones. Consumerism appeared to be alive and well.

Clean Energy

I was in Beijing for 4-days. At the end of my stay, I found myself missing seeing the sun and blue sky. Air quality is a growing issue in Beijing, and China in general. It is an issue that the government is attempting to address. According to a report issued by the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau in 2011, sulfur dioxide concentration was down by -36% in 2010 versus 2005. China has initiated a program to significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 2015. This is an initiative that can deliver worldwide benefit if achieved. One of the cornerstone programs in Beijing is the conversion of public transportation to liquefied natural gas. Beijing has adopted a “Green Beijing” action plan to improve air quality. It may be the kind of plan elected officials and economic development professionals in the U.S. would find as an interesting benchmark for their local efforts.

China is estimated to have the world’s largest shale reserves. Perhaps shale energy will play a key role in China’s success. Time will certainly tell. One thing is for certain; China’s shale energy will be an emerging industry of interest for global investors.

Beijing Images

Here are a few pictures taken ay Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City to provide you a visual perspective.  


My next stop is Shanghai.  If you have been to China or have an understanding of the culture, people and/or economy, please comment on this post.  The more we share the better we will understand Brand China.  You might also want to read my first blog post in this series – Impressions of China.

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4 Comments so far

  1. Bill Kiefaber

    June 10, 2012

    I was in Qingdao in 1996 and found it be an amazing experience. We were there on behalf of a major Japanese retailer to establish the first modern shopping center in that region of China. What struck me was the incredible work ethic of everyone we met and the use of mobile technology. Less than 1,000 people in a city of 7 million owned a car, but everyone had a mobile phone. The Chinese people also were very curious and wanted to absorb all the knowledge we could share. Overall, it was an amazing experience and one trip I will always treasure.

    Ed, thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

  2. Dwight Wages

    June 18, 2012

    I was in Beijing around 98-99 on a business trip with a P&G R&D group exploring attitudes about menstruation for the Tampax product. We visited the homes of locals who had teenage daughters who we could interview about their experiences and products they utilized for their periods.

    I was amazed at the culture and the visits to the homes was eye opening in how so much could be so organized into these small apartments and still have large families living in them. We went into the “courtyard” residences just off Tiananmen Square and conducted some of the interviews as well in some of the high rise apartment buildings.

    The people were extremely cordial in the home visits………….we were always offered something to eat and/or drink. We generally only took something if it was boiled (tea) of a boxed drink, as not sure of the sanitary conditions. I remember being entertained by one parent’s daughter on the piano…… the proud family looked on beaming with glee.

    I tried to take photos on Tiananmen Square, the the military/police waved me off as this was not acceptible. Even when I tried to take a telephoto picture of locals from a distance, if they saw the camera, they would duck out of sight. Our interpreter, said this was because they were suspicious of the government getting a photo of them and then being placed under arrest.

    Food Experience
    We went out as a group to eat at a restaurant for locals, where our guides had ordered up a feast of items that we were not sure we were eating. The big event was when they brought in this 3 foot long fish and placed it in the center of the table to much fanfare and we were told this was a real delicacy. The fish was still alive and breathing!! and we were expected to dig in and not insult anyone by passing on this treat!! Not I.

    Economics of Pay
    We were staying at the Sheraton……….which once inside, you would have thought you were in NYC or San Francisco. There were local artists making paintings on the spot for purchase. We found out that they were making as much in a single day selling to us tourists as most of the people made in several months.

    On the way out to visit The Great Wall north of Beijing, you could see very modern business buildings being built of 20 stores…….but they were still using bamboo scaffolding to do it. I went to visit the Summer Palace on a weekend, and I swear I was the only Caucasian I saw the entire day………………and there must have easily been 20 thousand people in the park. Talk about feeling like a minority. The locals wanted to practice their English. A couple of small children came up and tugged on my sleeve and announced……….”Capital of US is New York City!!” I looked around and a short distance away was their parents encouraging them to talk to me. I did not have the heart to tell them Washington DC……………because for all they knew, they may have had relatives in NYC!!

    In Summary, I found it very enlightening to visit, and would like to return to see how much things have changed.

  3. […] Impressions of Beijing […]

  4. David Rust

    August 7, 2012


    I enjoyed your description of your travels in Beijing. China’s development and greater use of cars is and will have a profound impact on the environment. Right now, China has over 70 million private vehicles and 200 million vehicles overall. In 10 years, that number may double. The question in my mind is how the Chinese will handle the tremendous amount of pollution that will come with all of those extra vehicles.

    Again, it’s going to be very intersting to watch China continue to grow and develop. It’s just another reason for the U.S. to develop its own energy.

    David Rust (

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