The airport terminal at San Francisco is gargantuan. Walking into the terminal check-in area, you are immediately struck by how much space is all around you. It feels like you are up in the sky. You feel insignificant. It is simply nearly impossible to see from one end to the other. It is like walking into an old, majestic field house that hosted the basketball team at your alma mater (or the indoor track team, if you went to WSU). Your eyes are drawn upward toward the ceiling, where light gray massive steel girders, hoisted on massive round white cement pillars float lazily overhead. On one side, the windows reach all the way up to the ceiling giving the terminal an open airy feel that contrasts with the massive structure surrounding you.
If PDX claims to be an international airport, SFO actually feels like one. Apart from its sheer size, the diversity of the people traveling is much greater. From Sikhs to sheiks, every type of language, country and culture is on display. If you sit at a café for 15 minutes and watch people pass by, you will have no shortage of entertainment trying to guess where each person comes from. SFO is like a smaller version of the UN, except that the people get along better in SFO, if only because they have to in order to reach their destinations.
The Beijing International has a similar effect when you walk into it. The sheer size of the new terminals is striking. You instantly feel small. The terminal was built to impress, to intimidate even. It reflects the grand ambitions of a growing nation. In a way, the airport is much like Mussolini’s train station in Milan, which towers over all who dare to come to the Italian fashion capital. The terminal is also like Washington, D.C., built to impress and make foreign dignitaries feel like they have come to a great, noble place. In fact, much of Beijing is like this.
If you walk down Changanlu (Long Peace Road), the main street that passes by Tiananmen square and the Great Hall of the People, you get the feeling that the rest of Beijing is like the airport. Beijing is a city obsessed with its own grandeur. It deeply cares about the image it projects to the world. Each building that you pass by is massive. They are not exceptionally tall buildings—in fact, their breadth is often larger than their height, which makes them look like huge fists ready to strike at anyone who dares deny their greatness.
There are a number of banks, many hotels, government buildings, company headquarters, with massive glass and steel structures that while beautiful, remind you that your are visiting a very powerful, modern state. The Chinese nation has gone out of its way to reflect its new status in the world. Its people are extremely proud of the modernization that has taken place, with good reason. Why shouldn’t they be?
Another question is: why is China so desperate to prove that it is a great nation? There are several answers. First, the Chinese believe that they are historically one of the great world powers, which they are. For a thousand years, China had what was the most technologically, culturally and commercially advanced society on earth. Chinese people believe today the shift in economic might towards Asia (and their own country, in particular) is just a natural return to the way things should be.
Second, Beijing really wants to prove that it has arrived. For many years, China was invaded and abused by colonial powers. The British and the Japanese had two especially terrible periods where they lorded over the Chinese (during the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively), and the Americans, Italians and Germans also had their own administrative regions here too. This caused a lot of pain for the Chinese nation, being subjugated as it was, and China’s need to prove its strength is a reaction to that. As recently as 10 years ago, the West was still treating China as if it were not a great power, and there is still resentment over this treatment.
Third, and perhaps most important, is the desire of the Chinese government to show its strength to its own people. While it is true that the Chinese economic revolution has brought millions and millions of people out of poverty in an extremely short period of time (an unquestionably remarkable fact), political reform has not evolved as quickly. Political power in China is still concentrated in relatively few hands, and the government needs to demonstrate that this is still the best thing for China. Stories and symbols matter when trying to govern the multitudes, and the Chinese government has effectively used its power to create symbols of the “new China” that the people can be proud of. As long as the construction of monumental-sized buildings continues, everyone understands that the country is pushing forward with the ambition to be the dominant country in the world. It is a strategy that is working well so far, and I expect it to be effective for a long time to come.