Beijing agonizes over urban regeneration
By Iain Mills
BEIJING - The news that two of Beijing's most culturally significant areas,
Gulou and Caochangdi, have been slated for redevelopment has re-awakened a
debate on urban regeneration in the Chinese capital.
Western media has made the usual accusations of cultural destruction and forced
evictions, but the reality is more complex. As China's rise in the
international stage continues, the city of Beijing - both in material and
conceptual terms - is becoming a battleground for dominant competing forces in
China's political economy.
Urban development in China, particularly in Beijing - the country's
political and cultural focal point - has received significant attention in the
media and other fields of discourse. In many of these debates, the issues are
portrayed in fairly black-and-white terms. Domestic media tow the Communist
Party line of "constructing a harmonious society" or a "new Beijing", while
foreign media rail against cultural degradation and a lack of respect for human
rights. Both views are equally misleading.
The two latest arenas for this struggle are significant for very different
reasons. Gulou, the area surrounding the Imperial Drum and Bell Towers, is just
to the north of the Forbidden City, the former imperial palace. It contains
some of the finest Qing dynasty structures in the city, including temples and
official residences, as well as a large number of traditional hutong -
the distinctive, one-story lanes of Old Beijing.
Caochangdi, on the other hand, is a former state-owned factory district turned
art district in the northeast of the city. Since Ai Weiwei, arguably the most
famous artist in China, became active there in 2000, the area has grown and is
now essentially an annex of the 798 art district. The 798/Caochangdi area is
generally cited as one of the most dynamic centers of the creative industries
in modern China, portrayed even by government documents as a harbinger of the
country's future: a zone of competitive, innovative, lightweight companies in
which national and international ideas meet to create world-class Chinese
Both of these areas have a high symbolic value - Gulou, the glorious imperial
past and Caochangdi, the creative modern future. As such, their fate is bound
up not only with local factors; on a broader level their development can be
seen as a microcosm of fundamental questions of identity, economic alignment
and relationships of power in contemporary Chinese society.
The proposed redevelopment of Gulou is being driven by the district's
government, and involves turning a 12.5 hectare area around the Drum and Bell
Towers into something called the "Beijing Time Cultural City". This is likely
to follow a similar format to the development before the 2006 Beijing Summer
Olympic Games of the "Qing Dynasty Shopping Street" in the Qianmen area, the
city's traditional commercial center.
The Qianmen project, described in detail by the American journalist Mike Meyer
in his book The Last Days of Old Beijing, saw the destruction of some of
the city's oldest hutong as roads were widened to allow better access,
and traditional lanes and businesses were replaced with modern reconstructions
housing domestic and international brands.
The latest proposal for Caochangdi, whose extant structures are generally
abandoned factories from before China's reform period began in 1978, is being
led by property developers who covet the site's prime location for residential
use - it is close to the airport and the city's central business district. With
many local galleries and workshops effectively claiming squatters' rights, the
bulldozers could move in at any time, although with the authorities yet to
reveal their hand, the district's future is currently anyone's guess.
The emergence of these two stories was accompanied by the usual tropes from the
international media about "an orgy of destruction" which is "driving culture
out of its capital". These claims were strengthened when, at the last minute,
police stepped in to cancel a meeting on the Gulou development project
organized by a local non-governmental organization. Though this fits neatly
into common international paradigms for describing the relationship between the
elite and the masses in modern China, the approach seems too simplistic.
Firstly, the extent of the destruction both in absolute and relative terms is
overstated. A remarkable amount of the city's traditional architecture
survives, as even the quickest glance at a city map will attest. Caochangdi and
other art districts have staved off repeated assaults from developers,
seemingly thriving on their precipitous existence and even tapping into it for
The government's default policy of "wait-and-see" has also meant that huge
swathes of Old Beijing remain intact. If we compare this to Tokyo or Bangkok
some 30 years after their development took off, central Beijing could almost be
a model of preservation.
While the authorities have been responsible for some questionable decisions,
their role in the city's development has not been entirely destructive. For
example, when the remains of a Ming Dynasty structure were found during
development at Dongfanqiao, a bridge across the Yu River in the southeast of
the Gulou area, the local government halted the proposed development. Plans to
extend the Houhai bar area onto the site were scrapped and the riverbanks
landscaped into a park - a story that went unreported in the foreign press.
In light of this, it is necessary to avoid generalizations about an oppressive
elite destroying the city. What emerges instead is the picture of a government
struggling to manage and control the force of change in modern China, and an
ancient city trying to define itself as a modern capital.
Despite the tendency of some to romanticize the hutong, it is important
to bear in mind that conditions in many of these old dwellings are only
marginally better than those in shanty towns. The poorly built, dangerous
buildings often house dozens of families who share the same latrine. With more
generous compensation packages being offered, the proportion of hutong residents
who feel aggrieved by forced evictions is often small.
In an era of breakneck modernization, municipal planners are faced with the
challenge of balancing the competing pressures of rapid urbanization and the
emergence of new social and economic power groups, be they developers or
consumers, residents or tourists, all of whom have their own needs and demands.
In a city with a history such as Beijing's, these tasks are rendered all the
more delicate by the cultural and symbolic value of much of the urban
Gulou and Caochangdi exemplify the fundamental socio-economic dilemma facing
strategists and urban planners throughout modern China: how to modernize the
urban environment while preserving its physical and emotional essence. In more
practical terms, this dilemma can be formulated as whether growth and
development should be allowed to occur organically, or whether it is the role
of government and big business to "guide" development through large-scale
schemes and strategies.
The challenge facing the authorities is how to best to stimulate local urban
economies and strengthen communities while preserving physical and social
structures. From the government's point of view, particularly with centrally
imposed targets for growth hanging over the heads of local officials, organic
growth can be too slow, while the tendency of small business owners towards Tokushima
loushui (tax evasion) meaning that government often turns to bigger
business to guarantee returns on infrastructure investment - hence the new
Qianmen Qing Dynasty shopping street is lined with European clothes shops such
as Zara and H&M.
As one Gulou shopowner phrased it, the city is sitting on "a pot of gold", with
many of its most important urban areas almost totally untouched by development.
However, the management of this resource rests in the hands of a handful of
mid-level cadres who have absolutely no experience of - or interest in - urban
planning. Under pressure to meet the centralized targets, and with little
awareness or sensitivity to local history, many in charge of the city's
development instinctively favor large-scale, commercially orientated projects
that may seem destructive to some but ultimately meet the party's requirements
for economic growth.
The debate does not revolve around deliberate cultural degradation; rather, it
is question of quality of governance - specifically, whether the party is
capable of managing a process as sensitive and diverse as urban development. As
with most areas of the Chinese political economy, the government's role has
been mostly responsive, developing vague, ad hoc policies as events unfold. In
terms of long-term, strategic planning, it has not yet proved it has the
capacity or vision to establish a workable and equitable framework for
mediating the competing interests of the modern urban environment.
Managing urban change is rendered nearly impossible by the deep-rooted problems
of governance that affect nearly all areas of policy implementation in China.
For example, when compensation packages are withheld by developers or siphoned
off by local officials, citizens have extremely limited channels of recourse.
Regulatory frameworks are dogged by archaic land laws, along with the perennial
problems of corruption, poorly trained cadres and localism (even among
Beijing's district governments there is huge competition and political
Thus, while the biggest threat to sensitive, sustainable development in Beijing
is often portrayed as the government's master plan to construct a modern
capital of shopping malls, skyscrapers and faux-Baroque mansions, lining its
own pockets in the process, the opposite seems true: there is no plan or
strategy. Policy remains vague, the law is negotiable, and decisions are made
by local officials who may not have the capacity to manage complex social
It is often said that the market economy is destroying Old Beijing - a feat
that countless marauding armies failed to achieve. However, this view needs to
be refined. Beijing survived previous assaults because it is a hard city, its
people are ingenious and adaptive - precisely the qualities needed in a free
market. The real threat emanates not from market forces - Beijing has, after
all, been one of the great trading cities of Asia for nearly a millennium - but
from the government's apparent inability to manage the complex issues at hand
Iain Mills is a Beijing-based freelance writer specializing in the
Chinese political economy. firstname.lastname@example.org