Beijing is one of the largest cities in China with a population of 20 million. I was there at the start of the Golden Week in October where hundreds of millions of people were expected to be on the move during this nation-wide holiday. I was warned to beware of huge crowds in the major areas in Beijing city and to avoid such areas if at all possible.
Thus I was very puzzled to find the main roads around Tiananmen Square virtually empty of people when I went there one evening. To put matters in perspective, Tiananmen Square (named after Tiananmen Gate – Gate of Heavenly Peace) is a large city square occupying an area of almost half a square kilometer. Such famous monuments as the Forbidden City, National Museum of China, Great Hall of the People and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, surround it.
The next morning I visited the Temple of Heaven which was also practically empty of people. The Temple complex is an area of over 2.7 square kilometers of beautiful parkland and great historic monuments. Music blared and I saw some half a dozen couples dancing a tango. On both visits, the weather was beautiful.
I was also advised to allow several hours to get to the airport as tens of millions of people are expected to fly out of Beijing Capital airport during this period. It turned out that traffic was fine and I got to the airport in a record time of 50 minutes, very fast for Beijing even in normal times.
So where is everybody?
There are probably good explanations for this phenomenon from local perspectives – which I don’t know. I got thinking about this and I would like to offer an explanation from a psychological perspective.
We are familiar with the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy, which is a prediction that directly or indirectly causes itself to become true by the very terms of the prophecy itself due to positive feedback between belief and behavior. Literature and movies abound with self-fulfilling prophecies. We know of the famous Greek story of Oedipus. Warned that his son would one day kill him and marry his own mother, Laius abandoned Oedipus to die. But Oedipus was found and raised by others in ignorance of his true origins. He later got into a fight with a stranger (his father), killed him and married the widow of the slain man (his own mother). Would Oedipus have done that if he were not abandoned in the first place?
A modern story of our time – the Matrix, a movie made in 1999 – has a good illustration of a self-fulfilling prophecy. When Neo walks in to speak to the Oracle, she said: “I’d ask you to sit down but you are not going to do it anyway. And don’t worry about the vase.” Neo answers: “What vase?” and turnes around to see what she could be talking about, and in so doing he knocks over and breaks a vase sitting on a counter near him. Would Neo have broken the vase if the Oracle had not said anything?
But there is also the reverse psychology. This is the concept of a self-defeating prophecy, which is a prediction that prevents what it predicts from happening, and is a complementary opposite of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Could the prediction that millions of people would be wandering in the main City squares and parks of Beijing cause fear in people who then decide to stay home to avoid the crowd? Could the prediction of heavy traffic to the airport cause people to leave home earlier than usual so that when I left my hotel, most people would have already got to the airport?