Zhang Lijia, author of the book Socialism is Great, says that despite her great respect for Ai Weiwei, she disagrees with some of the things he said about Beijing in his recent article for Newsweek. In the article, Ai had described the city as a “constant nightmare” in which he had “no favorite place” left anymore.
I am surprised that Ai claims that there’s no favorite place for him in the city. Not even his cool spacey house in the art district of Chaochangdi? Usually people carve out their favorite corners even in the bleakest place on earth: you have to make the most out of where you live.
My favorite place is my neighborhood Jiuxianqiaocun – Wine God Bridge Village. Despite its name, it is not a particularly poetic place: it’s rather messy; the narrow streets are littered with rubbish; the low-rises red-brick houses are mostly simply constructed and the public toilets on street corners are smelly. A typical migrant workers’ area. Yet, for me, it is authentic, real and lively. I am renting a house here. There are a lot of activities on the street: people cook, wash their babies and socialize outside (well, their homes are too small). They share food when they cook something good and keep an eye on the neighbour’s children. You have to help each other out when life is harsh. Every day I chat and crack jokes with my neighbours, who always lend me a hand when I drag my heavy electric scooter in and out of my house. Joaquin, a friend stayed with me recently, grew up in Latin America. He described the neighborhood like ‘a slum in Venezuela without the violence or danger’.
For most of them, their lives are much better than previous generations. And despite of the fact that the migrant workers are not treated equally as urban dwellers, they can make more money in the city than tilling the land at home. And more importantly, they feel hopeful about the future. Sure, life is no dinner parties for the migrants as they encounter a host of challenges in the city, including their children’s education. The school of my helper’s daughter was closed a few months ago which caused such stress to her. (I blamed it for the few crushed plates) but the girl has been arranged to attend to a local school. Others may not be so lucky.
Beijing as a city has its own problem, its extreme climate, its increasingly congested traffic and of course the polluted air. For Ai, a city is about its mental structure while for me it’s about the people. If you like the people, and can relate to the people, then you naturally feel part of the city as I do. I came from a poor family and slaved for ten years at a factory, I understand the desire of the migrant workers in bettering their lives.
Like Ai, Zhang claims to be “no darling of the government” and has had her own run-ins with the Chinese authorities, mostly stemming from her participation in the Tiananmen student protests in 1989 and her work as a journalist. But she agrees that “people find different paths and different roles to play” and that her own mission in life now is to play her part in helping people see where China is coming from today.