But these days, there is an amazing alternative on the outskirts of the city. A place so American it might have dropped right out of Southern California, which is why it's called Orange County.
CBS News correspondent Barry Petersen reports it is a neighborhood of Chinese professionals, entrepreneurs and bureaucrats. Members of China's emerging upper middle class live in the community, such as marketing manager and amateur ballerina Phoenix Zheng.
"People like to have nice things, nice house," she says. "I shouldn't say that belongs to Americans. Chinese like it, too."
This testament to China's booming, 21st century economy is nestled in the midst of vast farmlands. Just outside its gates', peasants till the land by hand the way they have for a 1,000 years.
Phoenix and her husband paid $250,000 for their house. They spent another $125,000 on everything from color schemes to fancy bathrooms.
"I want a house that's pretty, this house is pretty," says Zheng. "It happened to be American style."
And it is American big. It has four bedrooms, a basement movie room, space for Zheng to practice her ballet and a place to play ping-pong — a game the Chinese invented.
Orange County is not the only American-style development in Beijing. There's also Palm Springs and Park Avenue.
Some people find their dreams not in developments, but in isolation. A little weekend home to unwind from life in the big city.
One house is tucked into the mountains. Its space and simplicity is a contrast to crowded China. Less is more there, more relaxing.
American-born businessman Handel Lee found surprising support from the very people who once shunned private property — the local communist party bosses.
"They think that building this house like this would be a showcase for them and also would raise the value of land around here," he says.
A few years ago, homes in Orange County, Park Avenue and Palm Springs were unthinkable in China for any but the rich and powerful. But it is no more.
And there will be more homeowners like Phoenix Zheng who will take pride in ownership.
It doesn't get much more American than keeping up with the Joneses — or in this case, the Zhengs.
(Original Episode Airdate: May 18, 2003)