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Return Trip to Beijing Reveals City Transformed (And Smog-Choked)

There's nothing nuanced about the levels of pollution in Beijing. It's heavier than fog on a chilly October morning in coastal New England.

Dawn Chmielewski

Ahead of November’s Code Asia conference in Hong Kong, Walt Mossberg and Re/code staffers including senior editor Dawn Chmielewski checked out the scene in Beijing, Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Here are a few stories we collected along the way. Expect more from us across Asia leading up to our conference.

On my last visit, Beijing was frantically preparing to impress its out-of-town guests. These days, those guests, in the form of the world’s luxury brands, are trying to do the same with China’s newly affluent locals.

I first arrived in the capital city in the fall of 2007, roughly 10 months before the elaborate spectacle that kicked off the start of the 2008 Summer Olympics. The city was scrambling to assert its place as a modern, world-class city, even as politicians and celebrities including Steven Spielberg announced plans to boycott the games over China’s human rights record.

In those earlier days, NBA star Yao Ming and China’s action hero Jackie Chan greeted me at the airport, peering down, larger than life, from countless billboards. The luggage carousel was festooned with flowers, Olympic rings and other decorations celebrating the forthcoming global competition.

The city itself was frenzied.

At midnight, sparks would arc off of the skeletal steel frames of skyscrapers like fireworks as migrant workers from China’s countryside labored day and night to finish the towering landmarks. In this rush toward modernity, I remember encountering workers primitively cooking their dinners on the sidewalks over open flames. Some 40 million migrant workers provided the muscle for the Olympic infrastructure — though watchdog groups like Human Rights Watch would later document unpaid wages and dangerous work environments.

Evidence of scrappy, entrepreneurial China was everywhere.

Street hustlers would hawk fake Chanel and Prada bags to foreigners from street corners in the city center, leading visitors down alleyways and through cloth-draped doorways into private residences to inspect rows of counterfeit luxury goods. The black market was thriving — indeed, an entire multi-level mall, the Silk Market, attracted tour buses of shoppers with stalls overflowing with knockoff clothing, sneakers and other goods. (It’s still around.)

Meanwhile, on ring roads that radiate out in rectangular loops from the ancient city’s core, modern China was finding its feet. IDG Capital Partners was touting the rise of the Internet economy; some of its fast-growing investments have since become major tech players — including Internet search service Baidu, video-sharing platform Tudou and media download service Xunlei.

Apple was already winning over the city’s young influencers, years before its products were legally sold in China. At one Nike party with hip-hop music and break dancing, a partygoer held an iPhone in his hand. He was not making calls or checking messages, just showing it off as a status symbol.

These days, Apple products aren’t hard to find. IPhones were seemingly as ubiquitous in the conference rooms, coffee shops and restaurants of Beijing as they are in Silicon Valley.

Apple is one among many prestigious global brands courting the city’s conspicuously wealthy, with one of its four Beijing stores sharing space in the trendy metal-and-glass Sanlitun shopping village with the likes of Armani, Givenchy, Kate Spade, Alexander McQueen, Versace and Vera Wang.

Once upon a time, before the Olympics, this part of town was known for its dive bars that attracted ex-pats (not that I would know, of course).

On my latest trip, I was surprised by how much Beijing had transformed in just seven and a half years. I could sense the change as I walked through the airport’s sprawling international terminal, which opened a few months before the Olympics. Its vast, arching roof canopy, which was perforated with skylights to let in the daylight, projected a sophisticated, contemporary feel.

Airport signs were in English as well as Mandarin, and the billboards featured such globally recognizable figures as Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt and Australian actor Hugh Jackman, in place of China’s home-grown celebrities.

Even the street vendors who gather at tourist destinations like the Forbidden City were hawking guided tours, not phony Gucci bags — especially now that the Italian fashion and leather goods brand operates more than 50 stores in China. A friend in Beijing assures me that if I walked around Sanlitun, guys would approach saying “handbag, handbag” though the practice is not as prevalent as it used to be.

The Internet upstarts of nearly a decade ago are playing the role of venture capitalists, seeding a new generation of startups — both in China and the U.S. Alibaba Chairman Jack Ma, through Yunfeng Capital, backed a company that has become China’s leading smartphone maker, Xiaomi, and Internet conglomerate Tencent has backed scores of investments, including Shanghai-based food delivery service company

A quick spin through Xiaomi’s headquarters in Beijing reveals a company that is equal parts Silicon Valley and China. Near one office wall, red paper lanterns hang in the shape of the company’s Mi logo, while elsewhere, a Google-inspired recreation area with pool tables invites a break from the workday.

In a nod to startup culture, Xiaomi adopted a stray dog developers found roaming the construction site of the company’s new headquarters. The mutt received a name that seems befitting of a company on such a rapid growth trajectory: Wang Cai, which loosely translates to Prosperous or Fortune.

The region’s tech scene has been perceived as producing copy-cat versions of Silicon Valley companies, with promising startups like daily deal site Meituan (which just raised $700 million from Alibaba and others) compared with its U.S. equivalent, Groupon. But evidence suggests that Chinese entrepreneurs are focusing on the needs of the local market. Hong Kong-based GoGo Van developed a mobile app for hailing a mover to transport bulky items that wouldn’t fit in the city’s fleet of cramped, aging taxis; Xiaomi introduced a “smart” air purifier which users can remotely control based on air pollution levels.

Which brings us to Beijing’s dirty little secret: One casualty of the city’s booming economy is air quality.

As a transplanted Angeleno, I’m accustomed to seeing smog hang in the air like a gray haze, though I’ve only experienced Los Angeles’ worst days vicariously, through photos and news accounts. There’s nothing nuanced about the levels of pollution in Beijing. It’s heavier than fog on a chilly October morning in coastal New England — except Beijing is land-locked, and this filthy claustrophobic mist rarely lifts.

Everywhere, people in the city walk around in surgical masks, like so many displaced hospital workers. It’s a practice that dates from the SARS epidemic of 2002, when Chinese citizens would wear masks to protect against the spread of the deadly respiratory disease. Now, masks represent a desperate attempt to filter out pollution — though their efficacy was the subject of some debate in the city.

A documentary film by CCTV reporter Chai Jing brought the issue to the forefront during our visit. The project, “Under the Dome,” tackles the issue of air pollution, the role of state-owned oil and gas companies and the government’s lax environmental laws. It garnered more than 100 million online views in the first 48 hours, and millions more, until censors ordered it taken down.

Censorship did not stop the conversations about the topic, which were still raging during our visit. Like the smog, it was unavoidable.

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