Bulldozing Beijing

<strong>City of Heavenly Tranquillity: Beijing in the History of China</strong>

Jasper Becker <e

These are vertical times in Beijing. Starchitects, egged on by politicians and developers, are reaching for the skies. "Bigger, bolder, taller" has become the mantra not just for the likes of Rem Koolhaas and Herzog & de Meuron, whose China Central Television headquarters building and "Bird's Nest" national stadium, respectively, draw in sightseers both local and international to swoon or sigh at their abrupt, bursting beauty, but for those planners eager to transform the Chinese capital into a version of Hong Kong or Manhattan. Modernity - and modernisation - is at stake: the skyline, as much as any diagram charting economic growth, must spike up.

What does Beijing risk losing through this form of urban restructuring? For both Michael Meyer and Jasper Becker, authors of new, important books on the subject, the answer is clear: memory, and a large chunk of its soul. Meyer, a young travel writer who hails from Minneapolis, centres his analysis around the fate of a traditional courtyard, or hutong, into which he moved exactly three years ago.

This hutong is no expat paradise. Meyer occupies two unheated, bare-bulbed rooms in a shared courtyard where the nearest toilet is a public latrine - "Four slits in the floor face one another, without dividers. A squatting man hacks up a wad of phlegm" - a few minutes' walk away. The narrow, sometimes muddy lanes outside are full of hawkers and pedlars, shoeshines, bicycle repairmen, old men drinking and gambling, gossiping grandmothers. Small shops sell bootleg DVDs and hair salons act as fronts for brothels. Arguments and family rows are hard to keep private: in this form of urban village, everyone knows each other.

The word "village" is critical. Not only is it a term routinely bandied about by property developers to add value to their often soulless condos and to offer the promise of a community that their own jobs require them to monetise and disrupt, but it speaks to why the hutongs have been patronised and punished by policymakers for many decades. Where there were 7,000 of these neighbourhoods in 1949, the year that Mao came to power and resolved that Beijing would become the industrial hub whose factories and production plants displaced long-term residents, in 2005 there were only 1,300.

At least 1.25 million residents were evicted between 1990 and 2007. Meyer's stay is haunted by a spectre: that of "The Hand", a corporate graffiti writer who, night after night, tags buildings with the Chinese chai sign that serves as an eviction notice. Residents are remunerated, but never at the market rate, for the land they formerly occupied, and are often forced to relocate to high-rise dwellings in satellite towns that have no transport links to the areas where they grew up.

Meyer, whose evocations of place and people at their best recall Richard Cobb's writings on raffish Paris, pays tribute to the local refuseniks who try to resist these enforced migrations, and to the handful of historians and activists who have tried to alert the world to this architectural devastation. The hutongs emerge as a Chinese version of the kind of urbanism advocated by Jane Jacobs 40 years ago when, against the brutal makeover of New York pushed through by the city's "master builder" Robert Moses, she spoke up for mixed-use communities, pedestrian- and bicycle- rather than car-focused, whose dyna mism sprang from their diversity and density.

For Jasper Becker, a former Beijing bureau chief for the South China Morning Post, the erasures that Meyer chronicles are, like those described in Iain Sinclair's London: City of Disappearances gazetteer, an attempt to void public consciousness of the existence of alternatives to the current metropolitan regime. He journeys to brothels, publishing houses and temples, many of them crumbling or forgotten by residents, which represent other, pluralistic Beijings.

In particular, and running counter to the common perception of the city as rather stiff and earnest next to jazzy, cosmopolitan Shanghai, he uses his discovery of the building that housed the country's first elected parliament to describe the early years of the Republic (1911-49), a time when universities were granted autonomy, a free press flourished, and customs such as foot-binding and concubinage were outlawed.

Becker is a pleasingly forthright writer with a wide frame of reference. He views what has happened over the past 20 years as an example of Sino-Haussmannisation, and also as a ruinous synthesis of Le Corbusier's desire to embrace "the mass production spirit" with an extension of Mao's abolition of the Four Olds - Old Ideas, Old Culture, Old Customs, Old Habits. Wandering around the hutongs of Beijing the other week, I wondered what had happened to the chai signs I'd seen when I was last there. A local told me: "There's nothing left here to demolish."

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Superpower swoop