The Death and Life of a Great Chinese City

The Death and Life of a Great Chinese City

Judging from the evidence of Michael Meyer’s portrait of life in a narrow backstreet of Beijing as China prepared for the Olympic Games, old Beijing has been vanishing for a very long time. “Peking you simply would not be able to recognize except by its monuments,” the British journalist George Morrison wrote in 1916. His complaint was eerily similar to those of many Chinese and others today, included by Meyer in The Last Days of Old Beijing, who are sensitive to what has been lost as China’s capital has been transformed into a modern city, bristling with the massive creations of big-name architects. “Macadamized roads, electric light, great open spaces, museums, modern buildings of all kinds, one or two of them on a scale that would not be out of place in Whitehall, motorcars (there are I think at least 200), motor cycles more numerous than we care for, and bicycles literally by the thousand,” Morrison wrote.

One of the alterations that most shocked Morrison was several breaches in the Ming Dynasty–era Imperial City wall to make way for new roads “being driven through the city in many directions.” Four years later, another British writer, Juliet Bredon, complained about “masses of ugly, foreign-style buildings dotted here and there over the city [that] mar the harmony of the general view.” A few years after that, according to a report in TheNew York Times, Beijing’s residents were angry over “the determined effort to reduce this ancient capital to the status of a drab and modernized provincial city.”

But all that seems as nothing compared to what was wrought in Beijing when the Communists took power in 1949 and the city fell prey to a particularly nasty combination: an ideological enmity toward the old joined to petit-bourgeois, Stalinist gigantism. As the Belgian sinologist Simon Leys explained in his 1976 book, Chinese Shadows (excerpted in these pages), no other Chinese city had Beijing’s imperial aura, which is what made it the inevitable choice of Mao Zedong, an emperor in the making, as his seat of revolutionary government.

Mao took over what during the Republican period had been a public park, the former imperial residence known as Zhongnanhai adjacent to the Ming-era Forbidden City, and converted it into his living and working quarters. Then, over the next fifteen years or so, he presided over the destruction of most of the rest of the Ming heritage—the entire encircling wall, all but one of the magnificent entry gates, the dozens of graceful arches that broke up the monotony of the city’s wide, straight avenues. Tiananmen Square, the area in front of the main entrance to the imperial palace, was enormously enlarged, which required the destruction of many acres of old streets and dwellings. As Leys put it, “vast esplanades and exalting deserts of tarmac” were created so that mass rituals of fealty to the regime could take place.

Beijing in the Mao years was damaged not only by the razing of old streets and houses but also by the socialist pauperization that had eliminated China’s middle class, causing a generalized dilapidation to set in. Beijing became drab and lifeless, its streets lined by ugly cement housing blocks, its markets pitifully undersupplied. It was a city stripped of the small things that had given it its everyday charm: its numerous delicacies; its hawkers and peddlers, each singing a different chant as they wandered the twisting narrow lanes, known as hutong. The city’s nightspots, theaters, teahouses, and numerous places of sin were shuttered, its restaurants nationalized, not to the benefit of the cuisine.

* * *

Now all that has famously changed as China has become an international powerhouse, and it is impossible not to feel a mixture of sadness over the transformation and admiration for the vitality of Beijing’s reconstruction, which is itself evidence of a great improvement in the standard of living of millions of its residents. Meyer, in his account of the obliteration of many of Beijing’s old neighborhoods, cites Le Corbusier, who railed against the sentimentality involved in conflating “rotten old houses full of tuberculosis and demoralization” with a medieval heritage whose preservation is deemed a sacred task. Precisely because of the Maoist impoverishment of an already poor city, many of the warrens of small lanes that were, and are, among Beijing’s idiosyncratic charms were beyond repair. So were many old-style courtyard houses, built behind brick walls, usually with four wings on all sides of a rectangular courtyard. Even in those areas where the authorities want to preserve some of the city’s old look, especially in the northcentral part behind the Forbidden City, renovating an old house usually means reconstructing it from scratch. A man who lovingly restored such a dwelling near the Beihai (North Sea) Park told me that the only element left of the original house was the pomegranate trees in the courtyard.

But the leveling of whole stretches of the old city has also had a brutality to it that adds to the sadness one feels over the loss of the features that made Beijing different and special. Like other great projects—the railway to Lhasa and the damming of the Yangtze River, for example—Beijing’s building boom illustrates both the muscular development of China as an emerging world power and the clumsiness of the one-party state. “The hutong disappeared,” Meyer writes. “Developers ‘bought’ entire neighborhoods, and everyone—even those holding full title, not just usage rights, to their homes—had to go.” In 2007, with China observing the slogan “New Beijing, New Olympics,” the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions in Geneva estimated that 1.25 million people had been evicted from their homes.

Meyer spent three years living in a single room of an old courtyard house, using a public toilet and a public bath a few minutes’ walk away, which he shared with several others, who became characters in a group portrait of ordinary people facing removal from their old homes and the lives they were used to. No sentimentalist or preservationist ideologue, Meyer acknowledges that Beijing is doing what many other cities have done in the past, even if it is doing it in exceptionally sweeping fashion. Meyer’s chief comparison is with Paris and the “drastic surgery on the medieval city center” performed in the nineteenth century by Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the big and essential difference being that Paris remained ravishingly beautiful, architecturally harmonious, and scaled to human dimensions, while Beijing managed none of those things. In 1929, Le Corbusier noted that it was no longer possible, “as in Haussmann’s day, to throw whole districts into confusion, drive out the tenants, and make a desert in the crowded heart of Paris over a space of three or even five years.”

Le Corbusier, in his somewhat wistful recollection of a time when democratic procedures were no obstacle to the utopian dreams of architects, could not have anticipated what has happened in China. The transformation of Beijing in this sense is a demonstration of the way capitalism actually works in a country whose ambitions and projects are unencumbered by grassroots organizations, independent courts, or a press that tells more than the government’s side of the story. Meyer makes repeated references in this regard to what he calls “the Hand,” his symbol for the faceless and unaccountable government bureaucracy that determines when a house or a whole neighborhood will be slated for destruction. He was never able to identify just who ran it or the higher authorities who set its policies. People learn that their homes are to be demolished when they wake up to find the Chinese character chai, meaning “raze,” painted “in ghostly white strokes and circled” on their houses. Nobody ever seems to see an actual person painting the dread ideogram. It simply appears, Meyer says, “like a gang tag, or the work of a specter. The Hand.” The Hand, moreover, “didn’t have to listen to gadflies and theorists, or residents, at council meetings and public forums. The Hand just erased and drew, erased and drew.” The officials involved frequently worked with private real estate developers whose plans they had approved. “When the time came, someone posted a notice that the houses were to be cleared of the plan’s final obstacle: people.”

Exactly how the people were cleared is, of course, an important element in the picture, and Meyer gives a few illustrations, drawn from his neighbors’ experience. Almost everybody facing eviction is offered compensation, not small sums by Chinese standards certainly, but barely enough for them to buy a small apartment in one of the vast high-rise developments that have been put up outside Beijing’s Fifth Ring Road precisely for the purpose of relocating the former residents of the central city. This means not only that they will no longer live in a familiar neighborhood in a house with rosewood latticework on the windows, shaded by locust or persimmon trees and redolent of memory; they will also be dispersed to some anonymous and sterile high-rise building from which, if they work in the city, it will take them an hour or more by bus to get there.

Meyer tells the story of an elderly widower he calls Old Zhang, who stubbornly rejected a developer’s proposed compensation of $28,174 for the courtyard house where he had lived all his life, plus an additional bonus of $7,333 if he left right away—this for a living space of either 250 or 341 square feet (depending on whether the developer or Old Zhang did the measuring). Eventually Old Zhang was one of the last people on his street not to have accepted the developer’s offer. But his case was handled rather gently. He and the developer made their arguments before an arbitrator who awarded him nearly three times the amount originally proposed by the developer. In addition, Old Zhang told Meyer, he had found another courtyard house to rent not far away, so, as he put it, “I will still enjoy the lifestyle that keeps both of my feet on the ground.”

* * *

In Out of Mao’s Shadow, Philip Pan, who was a Washington Post correspondent in Beijing, has written one of the most revealing books about China since it opened up to the outside world in the 1970s. In a series of finely drawn and moving portraits, he writes of Chinese who in one way or another have tried to stand up to China’s authoritarian apparatus and have been engaged in what Pan calls a struggle for China’s “soul.” He tells, for example, the story of a former air force officer named Hu Jie, who was fired from a prestigious job as a cameraman and producer for Xinhua, the official press agency, because of his work as an independent documentary filmmaker, a rarity in China, aiming to resurrect figures from the Maoist past who have been dropped down the memory hole by the state’s censors. His first project after leaving Xinhua was to retrace the forgotten life of a remarkable woman, a poet, writer, and patriot named Lin Zhao, who was executed in 1968 at the age of thirty-six because of her refusal—highly unusual in the annals of Chinese dissent—to write a confession stating she had committed political crimes during Mao’s anti-rightist campaign of 1957.

Many of those protesting the arbitrariness of authority and the absence of redress in China today are not students or intellectuals demanding, in the abstract, more democracy, but ordinary people who feel they have been ground under in China’s drives toward economic growth, including Beijing’s building boom and the forcible removals that it has required. In his treatment of this subject, Pan is less concerned about preserving the charms of an ancient city than with describing the corrupt cooperation of investors and Party officials—in other words in showing how China actually functions—and he reveals much about real estate deals that Meyer found elusive. His overall conclusion is that China has created a “corrupt and predatory form of capitalism” in which monied interests combine forces with Party officials to the benefit of both. He does not accept the view, common among Western China experts, that capitalism will inevitably lead to political liberalization in China. “For every entrepreneur who would embrace political reform, there are others who…believe in one-party rule and owe their success to it,” he writes.

Pan begins this part of his account, as he usually does, with a real person, Liu Shiru, who was forcibly evicted from a house in the center of Beijing that developers and city officials had earmarked for the construction of a luxury hotel. Liu demanded market value for his house, rather than the fraction of that value being offered by the developer. Most of Liu’s neighbors accepted the developer’s offer, not because they were satisfied with it but because they felt it was useless to oppose a project that clearly had the backing of the municipal government. At one point, Liu was beaten by feuding family members and thugs as a policeman prevented him from running away. He filed lawsuits to no avail until, finally, as he watched disconsolately, his house was demolished.

* * *

The developer of the luxury hotel was Chen Lihua, reportedly China’s richest woman. Though there are frequent gossipy stories about her in China’s press, many details about her remain vague, particularly how she acquired the money to become a major real estate developer in the first place. But Pan is clear about the underlying secret of her success: her ability to ingratiate herself with Party officials. Her first venture into real estate was a ten-story private club, the first of its kind in Beijing. It opened in 1995 and “quickly became the venue of choice for the city’s new rich to hobnob with the party’s power brokers.”

In China, as Meyer makes clear, the government raises money for development not through taxes or bond issues but from the sale of land-use rights. Chen got rights not only to build the luxury hotel on whose site Liu’s house once stood but to develop an entire complex of office towers, a shopping mall, two hotels, luxury apartment buildings, and schools, all on a new street, called Jinbao Avenue, that would be cut through one of Beijing’s most densely populated old neighborhoods.

In an interview with Pan, Chen denied getting any particular advantage because of her close relations with Party officials, attributing her success to hard work and close study of the regulations. But to Pan, the Jinbao project was typical of urban development in China in general. Some projects, he argues, get approved because of plain, ordinary bribes; but the main reason Chinese city governments strike sweetheart deals with private entrepreneurs is “the desire to privatize the difficult job of evicting and uprooting entire communities.” Many such evictions were seen as necessary if China’s cities were to be modernized and ready for the Olympics. Pan estimates that Beijing’s land-use rights have been sold to developers for about 10 percent of the final value of the projects that the developers then proceeded to build. “Altogether,” Pan writes, “developers and local officials in Beijing fleeced the public of more than $17 billion in the 1990s.”

In Pan’s account, urban development, like a lot of other things, not only depends on a corrupt complicity between capitalists and officials but is likely to be rough on any citizen who tries to obstruct that powerful combination. The government begins with posters and notices politely persuading residents to give up their old houses for the conveniences, cleanliness, and comforts of modern apartments. It moves on to threats that may be reinforced by beatings administered by thugs hired by developers to deal with holdouts. The government bans the press from reporting on them.

Pan gives no evidence that very rough tactics were used in the development of Jinbao Avenue, but when a lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, later imprisoned for his human rights activism, began writing articles protesting the mass evictions in Beijing, Chen arranged to meet him. “In the real estate business, you can’t succeed without a political patron behind you,” Chen said, according to Gao. “So you can’t touch them. The only result is that they will hurt you.”

In the end, the Jinbao Avenue construction was completed in time for the Olympics, along with similar complexes in Beijing. Visitors to Beijing would never know that where Chen Lihua’s hotels and office towers now stand was a fifty-five-acre zone of narrow lanes and alleys that were home to 2,100 families. Wang Shouyuan, a former city official whom Chen hired as the general manager of the Jinbao project, boasted to Pan that the entire demolition was finished in just twenty-eight days. Pan asked him how the developers were able to get so many people to leave their homes so quickly. “For demolition to proceed quickly, it depends on a combination of strength and force,” Wang replied. “Strength means giving enough money. Force means the backing of the government. That’s the key.”

* * *

That Meyer’s account of the transformation of Beijing and Pan’s description of isolated protests against political and commercial forces could have been reported and written in the first place is itself a sign of change in China. In her different way, Jen Lin-Liu also illustrates this change. Lin-Liu, a second-generation Chinese-American from California, was the only foreigner to study at a cooking school in Beijing; she then worked in a variety of restaurants, from a simple noodle shop in Beijing to the Whampoa Club in Shanghai, one of China’s fanciest restaurants. Along the way she produces fascinating portraits of the vast world of Chinese cuisine—struggling noodle-shop owners, world-class chefs, waiters, waitresses, food critics, and others. Her book casts light on an important aspect of China’s vaunted economic reforms: the return of good food to the lives of the Chinese people after decades in which eating well was deemed a bourgeois affectation, held in contempt by true revolutionaries.

Lin-Liu doesn’t put it this way, but the world she depicts is that of a rising affluent class seeking bourgeois satisfactions, and that is where her story dovetails with those told by Meyer and Pan. What she encountered in her quest to learn to cook in China was the revival of China’s culinary tradition after a hiatus of several decades. But just as China’s middle class for the most part no longer lives in courtyard-style houses, those who go to restaurants no longer go to old-style restaurants but, more often than not, to shiny new places in hotels and shopping centers, often on upper floors, which have been decorated sometimes to look like the old-style restaurants that used to be at street level.

Eating out thus involves both a return to tradition and a departure from it, an end to the old way of life, part of the disappearance, as Meyer puts it, of Old Beijing. Plenty of people still do their shopping at the old markets of individual stalls, believing that the produce there is fresher and cheaper and that buying food from small, specialized stall-keepers is an element of the art of living. But at least in Beijing more and more people go to amphitheater-sized supermarkets, particularly to what the Chinese call Jia Le Fu (meaning the Happy Family)—the Chinese branch of the French supermarket chain Carrefour. They often drive there (parking is available) from large, gated apartment complexes (with underground parking lots), and while there are certainly many people in China who are interested in preservation and horrified at what has happened in their country’s cities, most Chinese don’t seem especially nostalgic about the old ways of life. Perhaps, and Meyer adduces some evidence for this, it is because the Chinese associate crumbling buildings with past national decline rather than with glory. One person, Feng Jicai, tells Meyer, “I often say that on the entire earth, there isn’t a nation that could, in the name of the Olympics, destroy its own cities, and its own history.”

* * *

This does not mean that the old courtyard houses have lost their appeal. Many foreign residents of Beijing, feeling that to live in an old-style house is to recapture an authentic Chinese experience, rent courtyard houses in the hutong near the Drum Tower in the northern part of the old city, though for the most part, unlike the room rented by Meyer, they have been equipped with toilets and bathrooms, have heat in the winter and air-conditioning in the summer, and are among the most elegant and comfortable residences in the city. It’s not only foreign residents who seek out these dwellings. So do members of the Party and military elite, who have often been assigned homes behind high brick walls and heavy wooden doors in the lanes and alleys behind the Forbidden City. Tremendous prestige among both foreigners and Chinese attaches to such courtyard housing.

But it’s not what many Chinese people I know would choose, including those who have done well during the period of economic reform. I once asked a woman in Beijing, the mother of two children and the wife of a successful businessman, if she would like to live in a courtyard house. Her answer was that the idea never occurred to her. Instead she lives happily with her family in a three-bedroom apartment in a large gated complex of eighteen-story buildings situated just inside the Third Ring Road. Called Fulicheng (City of Wealth and Power), it comes with magnificent gardens, outdoor pavilions, a meandering lagoon with goldfish and fountains, Versailles-like bronze sculptures, and a private club with an indoor swimming pool, gym, badminton courts, and restaurants. Children play in the lagoon with remote-controlled toy boats, or zip around on in-line skates. The complex, where a three-bedroom apartment would cost around $500,000, seems an attempt to provide modern conveniences and security within a reincarnated imperial model, when scholars frequented moon-viewing pavilions set in exquisite gardens as they drank rice wine and wrote poems.

Fulicheng in this sense represents a kind of urban ideal in China today, though, needless to say, it is an ideal that most Chinese cannot afford. Nor should the ideal conceal the reality that tens of thousands of workers, including the migrant construction workers allowed temporary residence in Beijing to do the hard labor of the city’s building boom, live in cheap substandard housing and dormitories. As Beijing frantically made itself over in preparation for the Olympic Games, the construction sites humming noisily twenty-four hours a day, these workers were a common sight, men whose leathery faces and threadbare clothing marked them as aliens from the bourgeois world they were helping to build. (A further irony of the recent construction is that, coming on the brink of the current economic crisis, it has far exceeded the city’s ability to put it to use: six months after the Olympics, some 100 million square feet of office space remain vacant, and the Bird’s Nest stadium, for all its attention-getting design, has largely fallen into disuse.)

The disappearance of Beijing’s backstreets and way of life is saddest of all for those who have been driven from their homes, and moved to new buildings not as livable or as close to the center of town as Fulicheng. “Bulldozing six-lane roads through dilapidated neighborhoods does not mean a city will resemble Paris,” Meyer writes. The fact is that Beijing, despite its many examples of world-class architecture, is something of an urban monstrosity, immense, polluted, congested, hostile to pedestrians, stylistically jumbled, and sliced up by concentrically arranged ring roads that Meyer calls “caverns of speeding traffic”—when traffic is moving at all.

The transformation of Beijing was probably an unavoidable consequence of the kinds of economic reform carried out since the late 1970s, especially the official encouragement given to automobile culture and the construction of limited-access highways. With the explosive rise in real estate prices, modest families would not long have been able to occupy their old courtyard houses in any case, no more than their counterparts have been able to stay in the historic centers of Paris or New York. The demolition of the hutong and the vast amount of new construction have wrecked a lot of the city, and the government has not only been corrupt in abetting it but has failed to put forward coherent plans both for urban development and for dealing adequately with the harsh effects on citizens who are displaced.

It can’t be forgotten that life is a lot better for most people in the new Beijing than it was in the old one; that fact, so far as I can see, tends to make many Chinese rather unsentimental about what has been lost. Still, it is well to remember that all such impressions have to be formed in the continuing absence of any systematic public means by which Chinese citizens can publicly express their opinions, seek redress for unjust treatment, and bring about political change if they want to.

Richard Bernstein was born in New York but grew up on a poultry farm in East Haddam, CT. He received his B.A. from the University of Connecticut and then spent five years in a Ph.D. program at...

Reviewed in This Article

The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed
by Michael Meyer
Walker, 355 pp.

Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China
by Philip P. Pan
Simon and Schuster, 349 pp.

Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China
by Jen Lin-Liu
Harcourt, 341 pp.

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This article was first published in the issue of the New York Review of Books.



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