Axis of Medieval, a Tale of Three (Communist) Cities: Beijing, Ulan Bator and Pyongyang


At one time, from the 1950’s to the 1990’s, Beijing, Ulan Bator, and Pyongyang were almost synonymous, the three northern Asian Communist monsters, occupying a contiguous northern plain, and gladly welcoming Hanoi, Vientiane, and Phnom Penh into the fold on a southeastern Asian front against the capitalists. For a while there it looked pretty bad for the home team, with Nicaragua newly joined to the American front in Cuba and El Salvador tottering. Africa had nothing to lose, of course, by flirting with Communism; it just wasn’t clear what the USSR had to gain. It and the Mideast were like Communist Swiss cheese, with every other country a sympathizer, if not outright Bolshevik.

In the 1970’s the US itself was mired in inflation and economic stagnation so bad that they called it “stagflation,” and had a general malaise and corruption at a level that could hardly be considered much better than a petty Communist bureaucracy. China was just starting to show the strength that would allow it to join the ranks of superpowers. East Europe was testing the political boundaries of Soviet resolve in one place or other about once a decade. Then something happened—it’s still not clear what—and one by one the Communist states (almost) all fell in some kind of reverse domino theory. When the smoke finally cleared, they were all left scrambling for safety, if not the exits. It’s interesting to see how they all fared. After all, Communism does nothing if not stop the clock. Those Iron Curtains were not there to conceal all the change occurring, quite the opposite.

Beijing was always the most important of the three northern Asian communist capitals, and so it is today. While still nominally Communist, hardly anyone—except maybe North Korea—would consider them worthy of that designation today. After all, Marx envisioned nothing like the national capitalism that reigns supreme in Beijing these days. Today Beijing is a modern city like almost any other of its socioeconomic class, full of shops and stores and restaurants and bars, with the malls rapidly moving in and supermarkets on the way—I hope. The only things missing are Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and the full panoply of websites. There is little if any vestige of the former planned economies at which Communism so famously failed, nor the political indoctrination that was its method of operation. So why bother to maintain a grip on the lip? Good question. If they’re trying to make the point that economic development is more important than individual freedoms, then that point is made. So why then is the yoke on individual freedoms so necessary, if they’re so non-essential?

Compared to Beijing, Ulan Bator is like the Wild West. I wouldn’t say “anything goes,” but almost. One of the first things you notice is the traffic. Not only is there a lot of it—day-long traffic jams—but almost everybody is a freelance taxi-driver. They’re all learning English, too, or at least as fast as they can. The average Beijinger could care less I sense, even when his business might profit greatly from it. There is no obvious control on the Internet, and rock bands play in the parks. Foreigners are interspersed here and around, and are particularly noticeable in tourist circles. There are a lot of pickpockets, too, no surer sign of creeping capitalism. Everybody wants in on the new economies of scale. The state department stores still exist, but they look more like modern malls than the drab dusty shelves that used to define Commie-style consumerism. They even have modern supermarkets, something that I have yet to see in Beijing. Outside the capital of course it’s different, but so are they all.

Then there’s Pyongyang. Apparently they haven’t yet gotten the news that Communism is over, nobody but they and Cuba and a few other lesser states holding up the Communist line that once had the West all up in arms. Radical Islam is the new Western Front, arguably godless Communism’s exact opposite, one rising while the other falls, especially significant for those states which have flirted with both, as in Africa and the Mideast. Still Pyongyang plods along oblivious, cheerfully indoctrinating its youth with the heroic tales of the Kims, how the grandfather was born in a little log cabin way up north, before coming down to liberate the country. Sound familiar?

Still the city is not unpleasant, if a bit sterile. There are monuments everywhere, and school-children cheerfully prepare for the next big celebration of dialectical materialism’s triumph over the cowboy capitalism of the West. Stores are barely signed, where they exist at all, and the state stores haven’t smelled fresh air in years, a perfect metaphor for the country. Amusement parks are the big thrill and vehicles are almost non-existent. Sounds good to me. This is a city for living in, and that in itself is truly revolutionary. Cities have almost always been at commercial crossroads, with life almost secondary to trade in the city itself. Is this the future? If they could lose the personality cult and a certain missile program it just might be.

But for my money, there’s nothing like the fresh winds of full unfettered freedom to get the blood flowing, so Ulan Bator and Mongolia are just the ticket for now. If Beijing is all about the glory of China and the pursuit of power, and Pyongyang all about the glory of Kim-style communism and the preservation of power, then Ulan Bator is about moving on and beyond the narrow confines of doctrine and dogma. No country in the world has more right or motive to glorify their past and their accomplishments. But that’s not what they’re doing. They’re too busy getting a buzz on, having outgrown the boundaries of their Sino-Soviet ‘hood and opening to the world… for the first time since Kublai Khan. Check it out…while it’s fresh.

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