The Chinese capital is not used to snow. Winters here are among the driest I have ever experienced. So when a storm on Sunday dumped nearly eight inches of powder onto the city – the most since 1951 – life pretty much ground to a halt.
By Monday morning, though, armies of citizens (and the Army itself in some districts) were clearing the aftermath using the tactic that the Chinese so often use in tackling unusual challenges – mass manpower.
Snowplows were nowhere to be seen. Instead, in bright sunlight signaling a reprieve from the snow – if not from the bitter cold – men and women made the streets loud with the clatter and bang of shovels as they broke up the packed ice and snow and swept it into piles.
They didn’t need to be told to do this. A standing city ordinance makes every work unit – be it a shop, a business, or a government department – responsible for “cleaning spittle, filth, rubbish, puddles and snow” from the ground in front of their premises.
Unusually for modern-day Beijing, where the automobile has long displaced the bicycle, the street sweepers made clearing a bicycle lane their first priority, at least in my part of town. They shoveled an 18-inch wide swath along the curb, and piled the snow into a long ridge which offered welcome protection from the car drivers – unused to these sorts of conditions – skidding and fishtailing all over the place.
This manual approach is more or less OK when it comes to getting the city back in gear (though schools were closed on Monday), but it proved less than satisfactory at Beijing’s gleaming new international airport.
Ninety percent of flights were canceled or delayed on Sunday, and my elder son, sitting on the tarmac for three hours in a stranded London-bound plane, explained to me over the phone why: Two of the three runways were closed, and the other was being kept more or less open in a most old-fashioned manner: hordes of airport workers wielding the kind of long-handled bamboo twig brushes that have been in use here for centuries.
China is, indeed, a country of perpetual and breakneck change. But only up to a point.