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Beijing Letter: ‘When I asked him if business was back to normal, he looked up at me for a moment and then back down to work on my toes’

With Covid restrictions lifted, China’s capital is getting back on its feet

The young man in the podiatrist’s chair wiggled his toes, pulled down his face mask and looked across from below a short, orange beanie with a perky little cabillou on top.

“Hello,” he said.

“Where are you from?”

While I was telling him, his friend stood up to watch what the podiatrist was doing and to admire the symmetry of the feet on display. They were so flawless that I felt anxious at the prospect of revealing my own, which would look by comparison like those of a pterodactyl.


The door opened and a young woman came in, looked around at the rest of us and walked out again. The young man in the orange beanie pulled a face and said everyone was in a rush to get things done ahead of Chinese New Year on January 22nd.

Then he jumped off the chair, put on his shoes and socks, paid the podiatrist and headed for the door, turning back to me before he left.

“Bye, uncle,” he said.

Chinese people routinely use familial terms to address strangers, so that a slightly older woman will be called jiejie, or older sister and a man your parents’ age can be called shushu, or uncle. It is meant affectionately and even respectfully but I’m still struggling to enjoy being on the receiving end of it.

After just a few months, this podiatrist has achieved for me with Traditional Chinese Medicine results beyond anything decades of western chiropody could manage. Throughout our sessions, he has said almost nothing about what he is doing or what active ingredients are in the small, unlabelled jars of ointments and unguents that he uses.

“Don’t worry about that, it won’t do you any harm,” he said when I asked him.

Now when I asked him if business was back to normal with the end of zero-Covid, he just looked up at me for a moment and then back down to work on my toes.

In fact, the evidence of economic recovery is everywhere in Beijing, starting with the traffic jams which are getting worse every day, starting long before and finishing well past the morning and evening rush hours. Lollipop ladies have returned to help pedestrians at busy intersections, one at each corner carrying a short-handled stop sign in one hand and a red flag in the other.

When I asked a human resources manager over dinner the other evening if recruitment was picking up, he pointed out the window of the restaurant on the top floor of a shopping mall.

“Look down there,” he said.

This place, which had been almost deserted every day for months, was thronged with people and alive with noise and bustle. At another mall I had visited at lunchtime that day, every table in every restaurant in the food court was occupied.

Since the coronavirus restrictions were lifted last month, the Chinese authorities have turned their focus on the economic recovery, using every policy lever to stimulate growth. The central bank has kept interest rates steady for months but is expected to start cutting them during the first quarter of this year.

A number of local governments this week announced economic growth targets for 2023, most of them above 5 per cent and the national government is likely to aim for a similar increase. But the Chinese economy has changed since the start of the pandemic, with the property market and infrastructure spending running into trouble.

The government wants to shift the focus to the digital and green economies and to accelerate the growth in exports to Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) countries that has helped to offset pressure on China’s markets in the EU and the United States.

Last month’s Central Economic Work Conference, an annual Communist Party event which sets the economic agenda for the year, called for greater efforts to attract foreign capital and give foreign-funded enterprises better access to the Chinese market. Foreign companies that have long complained about unfair treatment in the Chinese market will welcome a move this week to simplify import and export procedures but other hurdles remain and geopolitical tensions will continue to complicate trade with China.

A woman who works in events management told me this week that the last three years were a series of nightmares in which plans were postponed again and again until they were cancelled or cut short by coronavirus restrictions.

“People are talking about plans again and the mood is much better but now I need more than plans. I need things to start happening,” she said.