By any measure, Beijing is a huge city with a booming population. According to the 2010 census, the capital’s population is over 19 million, up by some 45 percent (or six million) since 2000. Migrants, drawn to the city from across China seeking economic opportunities and the perceived glitz and glam of the capital, are the major contributing factor to the rapid population growth, with their number increasing from 4.5 million to 7 million during the past decade. Beijing’s annual average population growth of 3.8 percent over the past 10 years has far outpaced the national average of 0.57 percent. According to government studies, 10 years ago one in every five Beijing residents was a migrant; now that number is now more than one in three. China’s family planning policies have had an impact on family sizes. The capital’s birthrate is about six per 1,000, one-third of pre-1990 levels. Therefore the influx of migrants, who are largely between 15 and 60, has helped to alleviate an aging problem. There’s no reason to believe the migration rate will slow over the next several years, as the Beijing economy continues to grow rapidly. City planners are trying to curb migration by shutting down so-called illegal dwellings and discouraging street vendors and other informal economic activities that newcomers depend on. Although the population figures are staggering to many Westerners, bear in mind that the municipality covers many rural districts and encompasses an area nearly the size of Belgium.
Getting to know a new people and culture is one of the most exciting aspects of living abroad. A city as large, vibrant and diverse as Beijing presents endless stimuli for Western visitors. Glamour and economic opportunity have attracted millions to Beijing in the past 20 years. The city is now composed of migrants from all over China, and recently from all over the world. Beijing has been China’s political and cultural center for centuries and, for better or worse, Beijingers pride themselves on this.
To be considered a Beijinger, you generally need to have two generations of roots in the city. Chinese-speakers can distinguish Beijingers by the ubiquitous ‘rrrr’ of the local dialect, which non-Beijingers claim sounds like a mouth full of bean curd. They’re known throughout China as being serious and politically savvy, as opposed to their aloof and materialistic rivals in Shanghai. Beijingers, like most Chinese, are welcoming hosts who are proud of their city and their role as bearers of the national torch. Most expats will find people in this international city open and gracious to foreigners and very tolerant of different habits and customs.
Despite these stereotypes, the fact is that Beijing is immensely diverse and it’s impossible to generalize about the attitudes and personalities of its people. The city is, and has always been, a melting pot of different ethnic groups from China’s vast provinces. Chinese people from outside Beijing and waiguoren (foreigners) make up at least one-third of the population. In most neighborhoods, you’ll see young professionals wearing Gucci and toting the newest iPhone on the same street as an old street vendor from Inner Mongolia who may have never conceived of such a magical device. Despite Beijing’s international feel, just scratching the surface reveals evidence of Chinese tradition and custom. The best way to get to know people here is to learn the language and proactively engage with them. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.