26.06.2018 | The changing face of Beijing

Walking through Beijing’s hutongs – alleys bordered by rows of single-story courtyard houses that criss-cross the city – it is immediately apparent that the Chinese capital’s urban landscape is changing rapidly. A large proportion of the streets that were once lined with small restaurants and bars, filled with the bustle of shoppers, the heady aroma of street-food and the laughter of running children, are now noticeably quieter, cleaner, and more uniform in appearance.

Hutongs have long been hubs of commerce and community life in Beijing. Following the relaxation of restrictions on private commerce in the 1980s a number of residents illegally demolished front walls of their courtyard houses and opened small shops, restaurants, and snack stands – known collectively as “holes in the wall.” Initially home to grocery shops, snack vendors, and other community-focused businesses, in recent years entrepreneurs have set up trendy bars, boutiques, restaurants, and small cafés frequented by members of Beijing’s ever-growing young middle class and expats alike.

Last month, I returned to the city, having visited as a student and tourist over a number of years. Whilst studying in Beijing in the autumn of 2016 I witnessed the start of the hutong transformation. One night that October several of the “holes in the wall” on Baochao Hutong – including popular bar and music venue Modernista and dumpling restaurant Mr Shi’s – had their doorways unceremoniously bricked up. Throughout the spring and summer of 2017, vast swathes of the capital’s historic hutongs received the same treatment as Baochao, as the government-led “bricking up” campaign moved into full swing.  The demolitions form part of what the government describes as a regeneration program to beautify Beijing, and to return the hutongs to being largely residential areas. The latest round, which began in mid-June, has targeted the cafés and Buddhist souvenir shops that line Yonghegong Dajie in the vicinity of popular tourist attraction, the Lama Temple.

Though the program’s origins may be traced back to the 1990s, it has been most visible in the years since Xi Jinping’s ascent to power in November 2012 – and has received mixed responses from Beijing’s courtyard-dwellers, many of whom have lost their businesses. Some say it has returned a sense of tranquility to the hutongs, others suggest it is destroying the city’s diversity. In May, it was clear regeneration had reached its “beautification” stage.  Once crudely bricked-up doorways and windows have been replaced by uniform whitewashed walls lined with grey tiles that closely mimic the hutong walls of old.

It is undeniable that certain changes implemented as part of the regeneration program have been necessary to ensure the safety of courtyard-dwellers. The tangles of hazardous cables, for example, that once stretched haphazardly from the eaves of houses to makeshift electricity poles are now being systematically moved underground. Last month, I saw stretches of hutongs in the Gulou area covered in constant clouds of dust as channels were cut in the tarmac to house new cables. Noticeable also was the large number of newly-renovated public toilets built to serve local residents.

Chinese friends tell me that life for the majority of Beijing residents has not been altered in any meaningful way by the clean-up. While businesses have been forced to close down, a number have moved premises and rebranded, or found more creative means to avoid the crackdown. After Fangjia Hutong favorite Cellar Door was bricked up in May 2017, the door-less bar quickly rebranded as Cellar Window and operated for a number of months through a small high window with the aid of a step ladder for access. The bar has now moved round the corner into the premises of an independent coffee shop.

Regeneration has not been confined to the hutongs. It has extended to the demolition of all illegal structures and businesses that are said to clutter Beijing’s streets. The once ubiquitous carts selling local street food favorites such as jianbing (Chinese savory crepes) and sugar-dipped haw, for example, have all but disappeared. Thus far the demolitions have been felt most keenly by the city’s migrant workers, many of whom rent rooms in buildings that have been constructed illegally and operate unlicensed businesses. Migrant workers have played an important role in supporting the economic rise of China. Increasingly, however, their presence does not appear to accord with the government’s long-term vision for their capital.

A policy to clean up the city center and reduce the number of migrant workers has been pursued intermittently with varying degrees of intensity since the early 1990s when Beijing bid unsuccessfully to host the 2000 Olympic Games, and was particularly noticeable in the years prior to the 2008 Beijing games. In recent months, the pace has increased markedly. It has been driven in part by officials’ desire to reduce the population of Beijing’s central districts, cap the city’s overall population at 23 million, and relocate “non-capital functions” – features of the urban landscape deemed incompatible with the government’s image of Beijing as China’s center for national politics, diplomacy, culture, and technology.

The pace of demolition has been impressive. Several years ago, I recall a small market that operated by the railway tracks across the road from my flat – it was fully operational one day, and gone the next. The most recent clean-up operation was sparked by a fire last November in an illegal housing block in southern Beijing’s Daxing District, which killed 19 migrant workers. Subsequently, the city authorities announced a 40-day campaign to demolish all unlawful construction, which left many migrant workers homeless.

The destruction of migrant dwellings in Beijing has been described by some media as spelling the end of the “Chinese Dream,” a phrase popularized by Xi following his November 2012 appointment as chief of the Chinese Communist Party. The Chinese Dream has become a common feature of Chinese political billboards, speeches, government publications, and international commentary on Chinese politics. The phrase is even regularly used in television programs and advertising campaigns. Its precise meaning, though, has been kept intentionally vague by the government. Originally described by Xi as “the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” analysts have connected it to a host of other aspirations, ranging from the sustainable development of the economy, dominance on the world stage, and increasing China’s cultural influence, to the empowerment of ordinary Chinese.

But while the loss of their livelihoods undoubtedly represents the end of migrant workers’ hopes, the Chinese Dream is not simply the sum of its citizens’ desires, nor should it be seen as analogous to the American Dream. Rather, in my opinion, the regeneration program is an example of how individuals’ aspirations are sometimes at odds with the government’s far-reaching vision for the nation as a whole. The government may well argue that demolitions and regeneration are necessary to achieve this. For those left to restart their lives from square one, this seems a particularly hard pill to swallow.

(The above article was first published in The Diplomat)