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What China’s Airports Tell Us About China

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I had seen photos of it before. From above it had looked like a spaceship had landed in the outskirts of Beijing and forgotten to turn off its parking lights. Photos of its interior showcased a glittering future with all-encompassing windows towering up to a snow-white mesh ceiling.

As we pulled up in our cab to Beijing Capital International Airport for the first time, I couldn’t help but be stunned. It really did exist, as airy, spacious, and beautiful as the photos had suggested. Undulating ceilings rolled high over the massive 11-million-square-foot terminal creating a sense that its piers docked with hundreds of jets stretched into infinity.

Shanghai’s Pu Dong airport is similarly monumental, with a huge parabola of a roof improbably held up by a series of delicate metal beams that shoot out from the ground. The terminal stretches on forever. Need to get into town in a hurry? Don’t worry. The airport’s magnetic levitation train will whisk you 19 miles into Shanghai in a mere seven minutes.

Sophisticated, monumental, and modern, these airports are monoliths devoted to state capitalism. All of the benefits of China’s ballistic ascent since the inception of economic liberalization are on display on the enormous facades of these buildings and the queued international jetliners encircling their peripheries. In the shadows of these buildings, all of the predictions about China’s coming domination of the world seem inevitable. The Chinese model of state-controlled capitalism suddenly seems to hold an irresistible allure.

Even as I marveled at the scale and style of the architecture, though, I quickly began to feel that something was amiss as I wandered through these airports on several occasions. It was clear that the glossy facades and sophisticated interior architecture were meant to present a dynamic, strong, and modern China to the world. It was also clear that they hadn’t gotten it quite right. The devil was in the details.

Whether you’re transiting through these airports or they are your point of entry or exit, the first thing you notice is an almost complete lack of information on how to navigate these labyrinthine structures. As I groped my way around Pu Dong airport, trying to figure out how to transfer to my next flight, there wasn’t a sign or placard anywhere describing where I was supposed to go. My wife and I had to speak with three different people before we could figure it out.

It turned out that in order for us to transfer from one international flight to another in the same exclusively international terminal, we had to go through immigrations and customs and then come back into the exact same section of the building that we had just left. In the process we ran into a few other bewildered passengers in the same quandary.

In Beijing’s airport, it took us forever to figure out what gate our airplane was parked at due to a criminal lack of information screens in the departure lobby. In another instance, while transferring through Beijing, we had to go through some kind of immigration-related formality, even though we were not entering or exiting the country. The purpose of this passport inspection was never made clear by any signage.

Most modern airports I’ve been through are plastered with relevant information. During my multiple stays in these Chinese airports, it was obvious that no one had bothered to consider the passengers while designing the interiors, which are confusing and often leave travelers starved for information.

Even more surprising than the utter confusion that descends upon anyone visiting these airports is the lack of any decent amenities within the terminals. Despite being important international hubs, neither of these airports has a decent newsstand. Most of the commercial space is occupied by lonely duty-free stores and some of the most horrific restaurants I have ever experienced in any airport. Beijing’s airport features a couple of restaurants featuring some sort of slop that someone might consider calling Chinese food.

Beijing’s airport is particularly depressing but Shanghai’s international terminal isn’t much better. The “Sunrise” duty-free shops found throughout the terminal stock the Ferragamo and Johnny Walker Blue Label that one might expect at an airport, and yet their lifeless interiors fail to inspire one to shop. They’re a far cry from the various emporia you tend to find at major international hubs.

The most appealing shops I found were a tiny outlet for Shanghai Tang, the somewhat famous Hong Kong clothing and accessory brand, and PandaQ, a store devoted to all things Panda. Otherwise I was stuck browsing through the South China Collection International Shop with its depressing collection of Chinese snacks and knickknacks, and the oddly literally named China and Civilization store which featured a depressing array of figurines. All of these stores staffed employees who seemed to care very little about customer service.

Even the currency exchange at Shanghai airport was somehow dysfunctional. When I went to exchange some money, the stall had somehow completely run out of small change. I had to wait for 10 minutes while an employee ran to another store to get change. After 10 minutes my wife and I got our 200 Yuen so that we could buy a crappy dinner of ribs, dumplings, and noodles.

In the end, the contrasts between the startlingly modern structures and the terrible amenities and processes within them stand as a stark symbol of modern China. China is indeed modernizing quickly. It ploughs ahead with monumental displays of its ascent like the Three Gorges Dam, the Beijing Olympics, or, well, Beijing Capital Airport. And yet, it’s also clear that there is a lack of consideration for the individual in this ascent. There is a lack of information and a lack of attention to simple details that we take for granted, like clear signage and comprehensible processes. Seemingly simple and obvious things are not easy to accomplish and rules and regulations are not clear.

Furthermore, things simply aren’t as nice as they ought to be. Sure, things look great on the surface, but even in a top-notch hotel or restaurant, it’s not difficult to come across walls that are just a little too thin, a toilet that looks like it was cobbled together by an amateur, or service that just doesn’t reflect the amount you’re paying. In the end, in these airports, you get the sense that the powers that be in China are pushing the massive projects forward so quickly that many of the basics are left by the wayside to meet deadlines. I can’t help but think that similar forces may have resulted in tragic events like last summer’s deadly bullet train accident.

In the end, these airports, like modern China, leave me with a sense of great excitement and apprehension. Without a doubt, these monumental structures reflect the rise of hundreds of millions out of poverty and into modernity. They provide great hope that even the poorest can accomplish great things. At the same time, I can’t help feeling like right now those millions of new Chinese middle class have ended up in a hollow country, devoid of basics that make places pleasant and functional. Furthermore, I can only hope that this breakneck development has not been at the expense of safety, even while I suspect it has.

Only time will tell if these airports will eventually evolve into bustling, well-designed hubs that showcase the best of Chinese culture, or continue to be mired in cut corners, confusion, and mediocrity beneath their monumental edifices.

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About A. K. Moore

  • Ruud van Winden

    Very true observations. Airports and other prestegious projects are all about facade and ego for the local officials. Making the buildings work for the people that actually use the facility is a secondary concern.

    China design principle: form follows ego

  • Paul

    I cannot express how much I enjoyed this article (and The Dust Jacket too for that matter).

    I read Modern Chinese Studies at university, spent four months studying at Peking University, and have been living and working in Beijing since September last year. Your observations are spot on. The airports, like the train stations, are beautiful yet strangely eerie. There is something quite surreal about being surrounded by these awe-inspiring buildings, whilst at the same time being immersed in a civilisation that doesn’t seem anywhere near ready for them. The majority of people, who grew up under a Communist ideology with its many economic experiments and suffered all the poverty and violence that came with it, still exemplify many of the cultural norms and behaviours that would have been necessary to survive within such a system: from general pushing, shoving and queue-jumping to black markets, bribes under the guise of ‘favours’, stealing intellectual property and trading in shoddy counterfeit products. Customer service is almost non-existent, because it never has existed here. I’ll be gazing up at a shiny new sky scraper in Beijing’s financial district thinking how far China has come, then someone will shoulder barge past me, make a loud hocking noise and spit on the floor.

    Most major streets now have huge red government banners stating that this is a ‘wenming qu’ (civilised area) and behaviours such as spitting, squatting on the floor, littering and pushing past people are no longer acceptable. What the government doesn’t seem to realise is that while you might be able to rapidly transform city infrastructure, you can’t just culturally modify people in a few months, or even a few years. Poor education and economic stagnation has had a lasting effect on the majority of mainland Chinese, regardless of whether they are wealthier now. Beijing is fascinating because at first glance it looks like a rapidly modernising, capitalist metropolis but, underneath the facade, the majority of people struggling to make a decent living here seem to have come from a totally different era, bewildered by it all, as if they’d just been plonked on as an afterthought.

    Ruud Van Winden’s quote, “form follows ego” is most apt.

  • http://dustjacket.org/ A. K. Moore

    Glad you enjoyed the article! The thing that I noticed about Beijing in particular when I visited was that it was very lacking in what I would consider unique cultural amenities. It wasn’t lacking on big showy things (forbidden city, Tiananmen square etc.), but lacked the large number of interesting little stores, restaurants, and museums that a city of that size should have. Overall, I just felt like the city had no character whatsoever, like the economic development of the place took complete precedence over other kinds of development that usually happen alongside. So, yeah, I guess I agree with Paul.

  • Peye

    If somone want to beat a dog he will find a stick. My opinion : The person who wrote the article is so full of himself it is pathetic. Looks to me that he never produced anything that was worth producing at all. The same goes for some of the people who left comments. I have visited Bejing and Pudong airports several times and never had any problems to get to where I wanted to go. I think it be wise to sweep before your own door first and not try to tell others what to do. Get a life.