When the Beijing government first started tearing down and bricking up bars, restaurants, and shops throughout the city center, I didn’t really care. After all, I rarely go out to these bars and restaurants (by choice, I think), and having to deal with frustrations like the growing pains of a maturing city is probably within the terms of the implicit contract you commit to when living overseas.
But hip hangouts are only collateral damage. The main reason for the demolition, stated both publicly and privately, is to limit the size of the city. The Beijing government has committed itself to reducing the sprawling city’s population; it has decided that the most effective way to do so is, basically, to kick out as many poor people as possible. The poor in Beijing all come from elsewhere in the country; if taking a wrecking ball to their shops doesn’t drive these upwardly mobile migrants out, rising rents elsewhere will. It is an organized campaign of what US Republicans sometimes call “self-deportation”: make migrants’ lives so hellish that they will choose to leave.
The reason Beijing is home to so many migrants, of course, is because of the effects of the last campaign of destruction as development. In the early years of its tenure, Mao’s government decided to show its authority by destroying the old and bringing in the new. They brought in Soviet planners and cast aside the opinions of those who suggested preserving Beijing as a center of culture and administration. In Chinese Shadows, excerpted in the New York Review of Books, the ever-prescient Simon Leys describes the destruction of Beijing, while also throwing some serious shade in the direction of neighboring Tianjin.
For what they wanted to do to their own capital city, the rulers of the People’s Republic would have been better inspired to have a hideous modern city such as Tientsin [Tianjin], for instance; they could have bulldozed whole neighborhoods, laid out grids of those endless straight boulevards they seem to be so fond of; created vast esplanades and exalting deserts of tarmac for their mass manifestations in the best Stalino-Fascist style; in a word; they could have slaked their thirst for destruction without causing irreparable damage to the monumental legacy of Chinese civilization.
They chose Beijing because it was the center of power, and to declare the capital there was to invoke the continuity and legitimacy of their power. Beijing could not just be the center of culture and administration, but it had to be the center of industry, too. An article on the legacy of building expert Liang Sicheng, who argued to preserve Beijing’s historic core, explains the central vision of destruction as development in the eyes of Mao.
Columnist and writer Ma Dingsheng once wrote: in 1949, in the early stages of building the capital, Beijing mayor Peng Zhen told Liang Sicheng on top of the gate tower at Tiananmen: “Standing here, Chairman Mao wants to look out and see chimney smoke everywhere.” Liang Sicheng was surprised; he believed that Beijing was a city of ancient culture and architecture, and it should not develop industry. It would be best for it to be like Washington, DC, to become a center for government and culture.
Liang’s preservationist aims did not come to pass. Eventually, when the economy opened up, people flooded into where there were jobs; and so they came to Beijing. Not because they wanted to, but because they needed to make a living and this, as the center of everything, was where there was money to be made.
It seems to be a key feature of development in modern China that a new government plan must be accompanied by the elimination of whatever existed before. Leys, for one, does not buy the argument that this destruction is necessary. It is not part of any sort of progress, but a mere facade to hide the fact that there is actually limited progress taking place. For the Maoists, it was revolution; for the current regime, it is stable economic development. Leys:
What makes the Maoist vandalism so odious and so pathetic is not that it is irreparably mutilating an ancient civilization but rather that by doing so it gives itself an alibi for not grappling with the true revolutionary tasks. The extent of their depredations gives Maoists the cheap illusion that they have done a great deal; they persuade themselves that they can rid themselves of the past by attacking its material manifestations; but in fact they remain its slaves, bound the more tightly because they refuse to realize the effect of the old traditions within their revolution.
Leaders now realize that the previous destruction was a mistake. The new plan is to make central Beijing an administrative and cultural center, more like Washington, DC. The path to get there is to tear more buildings down. If the government kicks out all of the migrants who live in Beijing, the theory seems to be, it will be able to keep its center of power while avoiding the pesky overcrowding problem it created in the last round of development as destruction.
It is like a live-action version of James Scott’s Seeing Like a State: a government overlooks how local society functions and instead reorganizes it in service of an abstract idea. Here, the Beijing government envisions a clean, functional, “international” city — except that there will be nobody to clean or make the city function, because those people will have all been pushed out. And, unfortunately, this performance, although less destructive than previous stagings, is once again more likely to be a tragedy than a lighthearted romp.
Like it or hate it, Beijing feeds off renao — the noise and liveliness on the streets. It exudes life and energy. People come to Beijing because it is where things are happening, and the city responds in kind. But somehow renao has become incompatible with modernization. Beijing will be pushed toward becoming a sterile, lifeless mess until its residents find a way to inhabit the gray areas and make Beijing come alive once again.
Leys describes the aftermath of the first destruction, and it sticks:
For those who knew it in the past, Peking now appears to be a murdered town. The body is still there, the soul has gone. The life of Peking, which created never-ending theater in its streets and squares, the noisy and enjoyable life of the city has gone, leaving only the physical presence of a mute and monochromatic crowd, oppressed by a silence broken only by the tinkle of bicycle bells.