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How to Destroy the Heart of a Chinese City

Beijing is wrecking migrants' shops and lives — and the capital's spirit with them.

Workers erect a brick wall at the former shop front of a restaurant in a hutong neighborhood near the Forbidden City in Beijing, China April 20, 2017.  REUTERS/Thomas Peter - RTS1340S
Workers erect a brick wall at the former shop front of a restaurant in a hutong neighborhood near the Forbidden City in Beijing, China April 20, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter - RTS1340S

BEIJING — They began bricking up my street, a quiet alley in central Beijing, on a Sunday morning. Behind a half-built wall, the middle-aged owner of a small phone accessories and knickknack store sat glumly, minding his stock as he watched his vocation disappear brick by brick. The construction workers sent by the city government weren’t technically evicting him — just sealing off the only entranceway from the street. What could he do? The hairdressers across the road had made plans to move back to Shandong, their home province; they’d been in the capital for 16 years only to have their livelihoods vanish on a government whim.

Riot police leaned against their plastic shields next to piles of teetering bricks. There didn’t seem to be any chance of trouble. Word of the Beijing government’s upcoming “cleanup” campaign, and the demolitions that would go with it, had already gone through the neighborhood a few weeks before. But it wasn’t just our street. Across central Beijing, posters announced plans to demolish “illegal structures” made by “building walls and digging holes.”

Yet “illegal” is a shifting term in China. Business operates in a permanent gray zone, where the rules can shift at any minute. The smaller a venture, the more vulnerable it is. There’s no definite protection, only layers that can provide some shield from a change in the authorities’ mood. With this campaign, it took a new level of legitimacy for shop owners to save their businesses — the right papers in the right zone, ideally with the right city listed on their personal residence permit.

Restaurant owners, who believed that they had the necessary food permits, came to terms with the fact that they were now in blocks zoned only for residences. Fruit vendors found that their stalls, which had been operating for years, were obstructing the pavement. In the chaotic and corrupt early 2000s, it was often impossible for business owners to get legitimate paperwork. Even if they did, the city could still brick up their doorways. Out of a dozen stores in the first 100 yards of my street, two survived.

On the third day of construction, the builders didn’t look happy about their work. Like many store owners, they were migrants trying to make their way through an expensive and confusing capital. They were mostly small men, ill-fed and badly shaven. In streets elsewhere in the city, they’d put up improvised shelters to sleep in even as they tore down other people’s shops and homes. “We don’t like the work,” one of them told me as his friends nodded. Two were from Shandong and the other three were from Anhui, both among the poorest provinces in China. “But it’s work. What can you do? Outsiders never have a home in Beijing.”

By Wednesday, the brickwork was finished and the demolition had begun. Yards of new alleyway appeared as frontal expansions were torn down. The building next to my house, once a mahjong parlor, shrunk by a third. Two members of the demolition crew shared a companionable pack of cigarettes with the manager of a bathhouse as they tore down his neighbor’s home. Fresh mounds of dirt littered the sidewalk; on one of them, three children played as happily as if they were on a sandy beach.

The next night, I found Mrs. Yang, the owner of the diminished mahjong parlor, staring drunkenly at what used to be her front door. “I don’t know where all the wires go now,” she said, looking at the tangle of cables running across the street. In the former barbershop, now half-rubble, the builders had pulled down the ceiling-high mirror stand and were using it as a place to eat their noodles. I saw the former owners packed and ready to head to the train station. Their small dog, Jingjing, ran to me to say an unknowing goodbye.

The same process has been going on all over the city center. On the edge of Guanghua SOHO, a glitzy mall, another set of restaurants had been bricked up but was still operating behind the wall. “Come on round, we’re still going,” the owner of one eatery said cheerfully. On the weekend after my alley was torn down I returned to my old Beijing neighborhood, Tuanjiehu, to count the businesses. Photo shop, gone. Pizza parlor, gone. Hand-job salon, gone. Brick walls were in their place, blocking former doorways made from identical-colored bricks. 

The goal of the campaign has been to drive out as many of Beijing’s incomers as possible. Local government’s population figures are consistently fake, as the National Bureau of Statistics frequently complains. Officials in rural areas try to keep their numbers up to get more central government funding, and urban areas try to lower theirs on paper to fulfill promises to control migration — and to prevent peasants from using the superior hospitals and schools of the metropolises.

Beijing’s nominal population of 23 million is in reality far larger, as judged by proxy figures such as the use of public transport. But population quotas are being issued district by district, motivating local officials to clear out their neighborhoods in the service of their own careers. Breaking up small businesses makes life in the capital deliberately harder for the poor. If the cheap street-side dumpling joints are gone, what’s left behind are the chain restaurants that serve the same food at three times the price.

But there’s also a determination to “civilize” the city, to turn the streets into a uniform slate-gray frontage broken only by Costa Coffee outlets and luxury malls. Small businesses are the veins of a city, but the authorities’ vision of the Chinese capital as “an international city” doesn’t include New York-style bodegas or Londonesque corner shops. Their determination to present a clean face to the leadership’s upper echelons, who drive through Beijing on their way between palaces in the city center and villas elsewhere, has nothing to do with what people — both foreigners and locals — want. Nor does the unrestrained gutting of small businesses throughout the city seem very practical. “They can’t close us down!” a stallholder argued naively. “Where would people buy their vegetables?”

Perhaps there’s a fear there, too. Authoritarian states have never liked tangled alleyways. That’s one reason most of Beijing’s traditional neighborhoods have been replaced by the vast, bleak highways that pierce the city — designed like the avenues of Paris under Napoleon III for the easy marching of soldiers. “Paris sliced by strokes of a saber: the veins opened, nourishing one hundred thousand earth movers and stone masons; crisscrossed by admirable strategic routes, placing forts in the heart of the old neighborhoods,” Émile Zola wrote in 1871 of the city’s redesign.

These measures are disastrous for Beijingers. The small businesses targeted, according to 2011 data quoted by the Financial Times, make up 35 percent of the city’s economy. But top-down order is prevailing yet again over the determination and intelligence of small-town Chinese in the big city.

This economic hollowing is visible in the Yashow Market, once a bustling bazaar in the foreigner-friendly Sanlitun neighborhood. After the city government pushed out clothing markets, a popular business for migrants, to the far reaches of Beijing, Yashow was closed and redone as a fancy mall full of empty boutiques. The only thriving business is a Burger King. The shopping center’s management has already resorted to offering shops free rent to stay. However, the successful strip of shops behind the mall — with its tailor, kebab stand, and cheap booze  — has just been bricked up.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of FP magazine. 

Photo credit: THOMAS PETER/Reuters

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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