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    Greater China
     May 11, 2010
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 industries.

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 creative inspiration.

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 environment.

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 entrepreneurialism).

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 problems.

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. sigmills@hotmail.com

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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