Does Beijing Still Believe Foreign Technology Is “Clever But Useless”?

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Beijing has never been known for its hospital weather. Sandstorms, arid conditions, and pollution are all commonplace in the capital of the People’s Republic of China.

When you look at Beijing’s location on a map, next to the Gobi Desert and Mongolian Plains, it is incredibly difficult to understand why it is such a populous city in the first place.

That is to say, throughout history prosperous cities have had an ecological reason. Shanghai started out as a fishing town and Guangzhou made it’s name via port trade and industry, for example.

So, why are there so many people in Beijing today?

Beijing’s Political Clout

Beijing has little in terms of ecological advantage. In fact, the biggest reason for it’s importance today is the city’s colorful history.

  • Beijing was first dubbed a capital from 1264 until 1267 under the Khans’ Mongol empire.
  • In the Ming and Qing dynasties from 1421 until 1912, Beijing again regained its status as the center of China, only to be displaced by Sun Yat-sen in the forming of the Repulic of China via the Xinhai Revolution.
  • Finally, in 1949 it was made the capital again, as it remains today, when Mao Zedong and the People’s Liberation Army won out in a civil way against Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang (Singh, 2007).

These dates and the significance behind them illustrate why Beijing has had both incredible strategic and political significance through the past millennium in China. And while the strategic importance of Beijing’s position as a military location has decreased somewhat over the years as military technology has advanced, its political clout remains as strong to today as ever.

As mentioned above, the city’s geographical position is less than ideal. The air quality is abysmal and the climate perpetually arid. Yet, the Chinese still flock to the capital in search of opportunity, exacerbating  its overpopulation problems.

Notably the CCP doesn’t seem to be sitting on their laurels when it comes to the issue of making Beijing more livable. In fact, it is rapidly expanding and building more subway lines as part of its plan to help workers commute from the suburbs and mitigate the myriad of problems that come from so many people living in one area. 

A Short History Of Beijing’s Railways

train station

Beijing’s recent love affair with rail networks is very interesting when you consider their attitude historically towards outside influence. Moreover it is incredibly telling when discussed in terms of China’s march towards modernization and its relationship to the outside world.

When the British first tried to sell railways to the Qing Dynasty in the 19th century, one mandarin was famously quoted as having said that the trains were “clever but useless”.

(Sidenote: The source for this quote is broken on the wikipedia page where I originally read it. Perhaps it is misreported, but nevertheless is a good metaphor for how the Qing Dynasty viewed trains in the 19th century).

The British did not let their initial attempts to sale rail technology disuade them, and in 1876 the British trading firm “Jardine, Matheson, and Co.” built the “Woosung Road” railway. This ran from the American Concession to Zhunbei District in Shanghai. Presumably this was an attempt to market the such railway systems to the Chinese. But, it ultimately failed when the government decided to pull it up after two weeks of operation. 

In 1881, the Kaiping Tramway was completed by the imperial Railways in north China to transport Coal from Tangsun mines. This time the project was not undone, as it was backed by powerful government supporters. However, they did need the direction and guidance of the English engineer, Robert Reginald Burnett. 

Interestingly enough, in order to secure support for the railway, a government official made a present of a smaller railway for the Empress Dowager Cixi in 1888. This rail was built between her residence in Zhongnanhai and dining hall in Beihai.

The Empress Dowager, however, was concerned that the sound of the train would disturb the fengshui of the imperial city. She therefore decided to have her eunuchs pull the train, rather than use a steam powered engine .

Foreign Technology, Still “Clever but Useless”?

Today, it is safe to say that the original “clever but useless” sentiment towards foreign influence in China has made a one hundred and eighty degree turn. Now, we see both the CCP and private enterprise adopting foreign technology and partnering with foreign companies to help advance both the country’s and their own interests. 

In fact, the Chinese railway system, once decried as “clever but useless”, is now centerpiece to the governments modernization plan.

In 2016 “China’s top economic planner approved a 247 billion-yuan ($36 billion) railway plan to link Beijing to neighboring cities as part of a government effort to improve connectivity around the nation’s capital” (Lyu, 2016).

This rail system will effectively link Beijing with the neighboring cities of Tianjin as well as other cities in Hebei Province. If completed, it will represent a a project which is the first of its kind both in intricacy as well as scale.

Moreover, this project is just one of many in which the government plans to use foreign technology as the solution to their unique situation. The Bohai Strait Tunnel, subways and bridges in Guangdong, as well as the Gansu Wind Farm project are just some of the many examples taken from the governments thirteenth Five Year Plan.

With so many problems caused by overpopulation and the Party’s determination to meet GDP targets, China seems to have adopted a strategy in complete opposite to the late Qing Dynasty.

These projects, if completed, will certainly put China “on the map” and give them even more credibility in a time of uncertain global affairs. The question that seems to be on everyone’s mind, is if Chinese organizations can properly manage these types of never-been-done projects.


Singh, R. (2007, Jan 20). When did Beijing become the capital of China?
Retrieved from

Lyu, D. (2016, Nov 28). China Approves $36 Billion Rail Plan for Cities Around Beijing
Retrieved from

Wiki Background Reading


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