Last year, during the summer between Year 1 and 2, I had the opportunity to visit Beijing for the first time to attend Peking University’s (PKU’s) Summer School International. Beijing, as China’s cultural capital, was a wonderfully immersive experience for someone with quite some interest in Chinese culture – I played the pipa, the Chinese lute, in my schools’ Chinese Orchestra, and love watching Chinese imperial dramas. I visited the Forbidden Palace, stayed a stone’s throw away from the Old Summer Palace, and even got to admire traditional Chinese architecture within the PKU campus itself, for several of its buildings featured traditional tiled roofs.
Despite this, it was clear that Beijing is urban and modern, filled with the sounds and sights that we have come to associate with cities. The area that PKU is located in, Zhongguancun, is known as China’s Silicon Valley and houses the offices of a multitude of technology and electronics companies. Massive ring roads generate a dizzying cacophony of discordant tooting and revving engines as bicycles, cars, and trucks wait impatiently for their turn. Its subway system is efficient and intricate. These are the more visible flows of labour, materials, and goods as they pass through the city of Beijing. Other flows also create issues that give rise to the city as we know it, such as air pollution (which tends to become more visible in winter months, something definitely undesirable), as well as wastewater drainage (my roommate had to tell me to throw used toilet paper in a designated bin instead of into the toilet bowl, as the old and narrow pipes tend to get choked up).
From the analytical lenses of Urban Political Ecology (UPE), all these are a manifestation of the intertangling of natural materials with social-political influences of science, economics, and policy, which result in the creation of ‘the city as a hybrid’ (Swyngedouw 1996: 65). The urban landscape brings together actors with differential power, knowledge, and interests, who act on nature and its flows, which are in themselves transformative, for they have the ability to shape the lived experience of urban inhabitants. UPE thus gives us a lens through which we can cast fresh perspectives on inequities, inadequacies, and contestations we observe in cities (Swyngedouw 1996; Zimmer 2010).
In my following blog posts, I look forward to exploring different issues in Beijing and framing them with the perspectives of UPE. I hope you’ll enjoy this series too!
List of References
Swyngedouw, E. (1996) ‘The city as a hybrid: On nature, society and cyborg urbanization’, Capitalism Nature Socialism, 7, 2, 65-80.
Zimmer, A. (2010) ‘Urban Political Ecology: Theoretical concepts, challenges, and suggested future directions’, Erdkunde, Bd. 64, H. 4, 343-354.