By Geoff Raby
Next month, one of New York's top steak houses, Wolfgangs, will open for business in the centre of Beijing's high-end restaurant and bar district, Sanlitun. Its owners intend to have American waiters to serve its wealthy Chinese customers. When at home, China's wealthy consumers crave the US experience.
Wolfgangs' opening follows hot on the heels of the opening of another New York high-end entertainment icon, the Blue Note Jazz Club, located on the grounds of the former US Legation complex, in the old Legation Area, just south of the Soviet and Chinese Communist-built Beijing Hotel and a short walk past Mao's Mausoleum to the Party's leadership compound at Zhongnanhai.
Notwithstanding Chairman Xi Jinping's relentless anti-corruption campaign, China's young, rich and powerful still like to spend big on entertainment. In the past few months in the Sanlitun district, several new bars have opened which could have been dropped from New York's Bowery district into the centre of Beijing.
La Sociale bar, owned by an entrepreneurial Columbian couple, is decorated with retro-consumer goods that were once the staple of Communist China's past when people were poor and things like brightly enamelled thermos flasks, clunky radios and tiny screened televisions were prized consumer goods. Portraits and busts of Jesus Christ and Chairman Mao are juxtaposed side-by-side, challenging faith in both the West's and China's saviours. A speakeasy, with no name, is similarly decked out in retro-Chinese consumer goods but without the iconography.
The Black Moth bar's walls are covered with US-inspired cartoon art works, some of which are mildly erotic, and many evoke the British street artist Banksy to complement its signature saffron martini.
Nearby, in the recently-opened Intercontinental Hotel, is the massive Mercedes Me concept store, which has an ultra-modern Sichuan Restaurant and a cool lounge looking down on the busiest intersection in Sanlitun. Mercedes Benz opened this space purely for brand promotion. It is not a car show room. Although two or three of Mercedes' latest concept vehicles are on display, the store is to promote the fast-moving modern Mercedes life-style.
All stream contemporary jazz or re-mixed US rock music from the '60s and '70s. In these bars, the baristas' skills are flashy and the Manhattan-inspired martinis are perfect. Prices are what you would expect to pay in New York's top bars.
The remarkable thing is that these days, such places are packed with Chinese. Hardly a Western is to be seen. Areas of Beijing, once created for and patronized by foreigners, have now been reclaimed by the local citizens. Foreigners are leaving Beijing for a mix of reasons. Many are fed-up with the dreadful pollution and those with families no longer wish to endanger their children's health. Foreign firms, faced with ever increasing costs and a seemingly limitless supply of highly-educated Chinese returning from foreign universities and jobs in leading Western firms, are aggressively localising their workforces. Last year, more than a million Chinese nationals were studying in the US. Such people are often referred to as "pseudo foreigners". They aspire to live a Western, mainly US, urban life-style, while living and working in cities like Beijing and Shanghai where the opportunities are greater and the incomes higher.
This social transformation of the the major cities of China is occurring at a time when China's President Xi Jinping is adopting an ever more strident nationalist stance against what the Party believes is corroding Western influence. Xi is clawing the media, arts and on-line social networking back into line to serve the Party. Censorship and old-fashioned Communist propaganda is being re-enforced in the interests of patriotism, which in China really means the Party.
At the same time, the US is about to install a President with avowedly antagonistic attitudes towards China. The paradox of the elite, at great expense, embracing US lifestyles is palpable. As China's leadership seeks to again quarantine China from the West, the elites' scions are emulating it. And this is no more apparent than in Beijing, the absolute centre of power in China.
This stark incongruity is only likely to become more pronounced once President-elect Trump takes office. If Trump continues along the lines of his tweeted foreign and trade policies, he will get little sympathy from the patrons of Beijing's high-end restaurants and bars. While they are deeply unhappy about the pollution and the government's seeming inability to fix the problem, and while many increasingly feel insecure with the arbitrariness of the Party/State under Xi and the controls on the internet and meddling in social media, they will see Trump's policies as an affront to their dignity. Face in China is still a powerful emotion.
Over the four decades since the reform and open door policies began, led by the US, the West has sought to engage China in the international community. The beneficial results for both China and the rest of the world have been nothing short of astonishing. The Chinese-populated bars and restaurants of Sanlitun were unimaginable 30 years ago, when the district contained only a few greasy and grimy state-owned restaurants and a tiny, desultory street market selling tired vegetables.
Wolfgangs will open and will be packed with Chinese diners served by American waiters. Blue Note will still feature great live bands from New York. But Trump is putting at risk the US' moral authority in China and with it, its most important strategic asset in dealing with China – its moral authority.
Geoff Raby is Chairman and CEO of Geoff Raby & Associates and a former Australian Ambassador to China.
This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review:
© 2018 Geoff Raby & Associates