Thursday, September 21, 2017

Beijing's great bricking up: what lies behind it?

The "great bricking up" of 2017 would seem to be almost over, and the dust is settling again over the hutongs in the center of Beijing. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of small businesses have been forced to close by having their entrances bricked up (although many have valiantly tried to continue operating through a side entrance or a small window). Corner shops, hairdressers, restaurants and bars, no one has been spared. In the process, some of the city's greatest nightlife spots for foreign hipsters and alternative young locals have been mercilessly destroyed.

Workers brick up the entrance to a hutong restaurant

These are the facts. But what are the motivations behind all of this? The official explanations don't necessarily have much to do with reality. The authorities claim the point of the campaign is to close down illegal hole-in-the-wall businesses, address "architectural violations" and "restore the hutongs to their original look'. This all sounds very reasonable, but I would bet these are not the real motivations. Calling the hutongs' small businesses "illegal" means very little, in a context where property rights are unclear and everything is a grey area.

Most of those in the know seem to think that the point of the campaign is to push the migrants (or in some cases, the foreigners) who operate these businesses out of Beijing, thus reducing the city's population. This is what the Economist claimed in its May article "The Wider Meaning of Change in a Beijing Alleyway", and James Palmer in his Diplomat article, "How to Destroy the Heart of a Chinese City". Some of the smarter analysts who I have spoken to, both foreign and Chinese, make the same claim. In their minds the campaign is linked to the stated policy of capping the capital's population at 23 million by 2020, and moving some of the government functions and a few million people from Beijing to the soon-to-be-constructed city of Xiongan, out in Hebei.

Personally, the idea that the main motivation behind all this closing down of bars and shops in Beijing's central cluster of hutongs is reducing the city's population doesn't strike me as realistic. After all, the vast majority of Beijing's residents don't live or work in the one-storey hutong houses of the center, but in the vast 30-floor tower blocks further in the periphery. A single 小区 (a kind of gated community) in a suburb like Sihui probably contains more people then all of Dongcheng's hutongs put together.

What I suspect is a better explanation for the campaign is one that Palmer's article touches upon: social control. Essentially, the authorities aren't comfortable with the kind of unregulated, spontaneous and cosmopolitan street life that has grown in some of the hutongs in question. Their vision is one of a uniform city where entertainment is provided by air-conditioned shopping malls, and every street just has the same repeated McDonalds, Starbucks and Chinese fast food branches.

If there must be hutongs where people go to have fun, they should be along the model of Nanluoguxiang: essentially horizontal shopping malls, completely commercialized and standardized, replete with a bit of packaged "traditional culture" for out of town Chinese visitors. Incidentally, Nanluoguxiang was also closed down for a few months and renovated last autumn. It's now even more awful than it used to be. Hilariously, this article in the Chinese media claims that it "got a facelift to bring out traditional character". Sadly, touristy towns all over China, from Lijiang to Pingyao, now present shopping streets that look exactly like Nanluoguxiang.

Shops in Nanluoguxiang

It is no accident, I would bet, that some of the hutongs well known as nightlife haunts for young foreigners and Chinese alike, like Fangjia hutong, have been among the hardest hit by the closures. To me they represent the best of Beijing, a place where people from all walks of life (including foreigners and ordinary Chinese) rub shoulders in a genuine traditional setting, and neighbours still know each other. To the decision-makers, they are something that doesn't fit in with their vision of a society "governed by law" with Chinese characteristics. It is also no accident that Sanlitun's famous (or infamous) bar street, which is not in a hutong, has received the same treatment. The dirty, wild and unmanageable bar street is going to be turned into just another extension of the glitzy shopping malls that surround it on both sides. The final result of all this may be to irreparably damage some of the few areas of Beijing that still have some real character and uniqueness to them, in favour of a standardized and soulless entertainment culture that looks the same throughout China.

People eating in front of Moxi Moxi, the now forcibly closed Israeli street food joint in Fangjia hutong 

1 comment:

Gilman Grundy said...

Yeah, this happened in Nanjing city-centre as well - a lot of the spontaneous stuff got closed down and everything concentrated at the 1912 district, which is a fake-oldy-worldy style area. Same with Chengdu. I have no time for nostalgia for what were in many cases slums, but destroying the character of a city is something else. Like Liverpool closing down the Cavern, or London shutting down Soho or the Borough Market and concentrating everything to some newly-construct "Sherlock Holmes Town".