Outcomers in Beijing's reconstruction, to leave, or to stay?

A banner posted in Xizongbu hutong in downtown Beijing. Photo: Zheng Xiaolu

Beijing is experiencing a new round of urban transformation: if you wander around the alleys, it is not difficult to notice the renovation of many old-style houses. Unlike the large-scale demolition of the old Beijing city wall towers which started from the early 1950s and later extended to the alleys, the current effort seems to be aimed at restoring the charm of the old capital: walls uniformly colored in gray and white, windows transformed into red and green traditional Chinese lattice, and matched with air conditioning covers in the shape of Chinese knot patterns. All this revives the look and feel of the old Peking era. However, behind this massive transformation lies a more important historical mission: to coordinate with the government's goal of establishing a district directly under the central government administration, disperse the over-populated capital and move out the non-capital functions.

Wang Changgui (pseudonym), a middle-aged man who has been living in Beijing for 18 years, runs a cigarette and wine shop in an alley two kilometers from the Tiananmen Square. In his less than 10 square meters grocery store, he said with a bitter smile that since the renovation in March, his store's income has been reduced by half. The door of his store used to open into the main street, but according to the latest planning of the municipal government, all stores along the streets need to be restored to the original housing design. Within the second ring road of Beijing, a lot of such stores were converted from the residential houses. In order to facilitate the commercial operations, the original street windows were turned into doors and rented to small retailers who came to the city in search of prosperity. Now, with the city government's order to remove illegal construction, Wang's shop door was sealed and replaced by a red and green grid window. Customers could buy goods through the window, while the door was shifted to the non-street side of the store, and is not easy to be seen.

"The store is not visible without a door opening into the street, and people passing by can easily overlook it," Wang said with a sigh. The renovation drive is officially aimed at removing illegal constructions and preventing potential dangers, but in fact it is part of a move to drive away the outsiders. There are too many people staying within the second ring road area, which is to be turned into a district directly controlled by the central government, Wang noted. Wang told sino-us.com that since the alteration, many vegetable markets in the downtown have been gradually closed. "A lot of outsiders doing small businesses have already left the city."

Vendors like Wang are not a small group. They now are not fully stocking the store for the fear of their business license being revoked. They think sealing the doors is the first step. Why should we stay here if we couldn’t make money? China is so big, and we could go to other cities. Wang said once the contract of the store expires he would move out. "I have been thinking of leaving for a long time," he said, shrugging off his shoulders.

The concerns of the vendors like Wang are not without reasons. They are lucky that they could continue their business although the income has dropped significantly. But vendors not far from them on the Nanchizi Street and Beichizi Street have no choice at all.

Cai Yun (pseudonym) runs a traditional costume shop on the Nanchizi Street only one kilometer from the Tiananmen Square. When the sino-us.com reporter entered her store, she was holding her baby, and a woman who appeared to be her mother was helping with the business. Signs of "on sale" were hanging in the store, and two or three foreign tourists were selecting scarves and wallets. She told sino-us.com, "If you could ask the government (not to close my store), you can take anything from (here)!" Businesspeople on this street were asked to close their stores at the end of this month, and Cai Yun intends to take her family back to her hometown.

A lottery shop owner on the same street said that on the night of 30 May, shops here will be all closed. "Our only choice is to return to our hometowns." The man from Northeast China said the government began to reconstruct the illegal buildings in March, and then required the illegal vendors to leave at the end of April. Now comes the final cleanup. “All will be gone.”

Businessmen said the government is very determined this time, with several government departments, including the urban management department, the industry and commerce department, taxation department as well as the street management department, joining the implementation. They first talked to the owners of the shops separately, explaining the reasons for the closure of the shores while hoping them to take the initiative to give up their business licenses to support Beijing’s goal of establishing a new image. Then the police got involved in the reconstruction work, and the shops were turned into unified gray and white walls, red and green lattice and the Chinese knot decorative image. And of course, the last step is the closure of the shops at the end of the month.

Looking into the future, the street would be turned into a green belt, according to a police officer who declined to be named.

Although the unified planning by the government affected the interests of the small merchants, and even stimulated dissatisfied people to post banners like "Illegal demolition, where is the axiom?" on their inside wall, it is undeniable that the streets look better and cleaner after the reconstruction, showing flashes of charm of the ancient city.

On the Nanheyan Street not far from the Nanchizi Street, a middle-aged Beijing man runs a Hakka restaurant. Although the restaurant's large glass windows were turned into windows several times smaller than the original ones, looking less transparent, and the operating income reduced by 20%-30% as a result, the Beijinger said the government's move has pros and cons: "The streets are much cleaner than ever anyway."

In the lottery shop, a young Beijing man who has been living in a nearby hutong for more than 20 years, said that the famous commercial street Nanluoguxiang and the hutongs around it are also under reconstruction. "In the 1980s and 1990s the Nanluoguxiang was particularly quiet, and later small hawkers came in. The doors along the streets were all opened for them to run business." The Beijinger said, "My family has been living in Beijing for three generations, and could represent the views of a large group of local residents. We miss the original Beijing, and we firmly support the decision (of such reconstruction) by the central government!"

Although the removal of small vendors brings inconvenience to resident’s daily life, the Beijing man said that Beijing is a political center, and "we must maintain its stability, (and we need) to restore the capital's original residential function."

The pressure of the population not only brings security problems, but also resources problem. As the capital of China, Beijing, with the migrants flooding in to realize their dreams, faces increasing pressure on its resources. One of the biggest problems is to solve the shortage of water resources. Based on the international standard of water resources per capita, Beijing has an extreme water shortage. Experts believe Beijing’s current water resources sustain a population of 15 million to 18 million, while the actual population far exceeds that.

The Beijing Municipal Bureau of Statistics figures show that by the end of 2015, Beijing's permanent population was 21.71 million, of which 8.23 million were migrants, accounting for 38% of the permanent population of the city. While in 1978, the permanent population of Beijing was only 8.72 million, of which the migrants accounted for 220,000.

According to an article published by Tong Yufen from the Population Study Institute under the Capital University of Economics and Business, the per capita water in Beijing in 2009 was only 231.2 cubic meters, far below the high water resources level of 3,000 cubic meters/person and the alert level of 1,700 cubic meters/person set by the United Nations. It is even less than half of the UN’s extreme water shortage level of 500 cubic meters/person.

On April 1, 2017, the Communist Party of China's Central Committee and the State Council decided to set up a national new district - Xiong'an New District in the hinterland of Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei area. The area covers three counties named Xiongxian, Rongcheng and Anxin in Hebei Province and their surrounding areas. The aim is to transfer the non-capital functions of Beijing and to explore new development models for population-intensive areas.

According to the draft Beijing Urban General Plan (2016-2030) published in April this year, the population of Beijing will be controlled at 23 million by 2020.

The above-mentioned police officer said that Beijing's goal this year is to move out 500,000 people.

A banner posted in Nanluoguxiang area. Photo: Zheng Xiaolu

A worker is reconstructing a house window in Nanluoguxiang area. Photo: Zheng Xiaolu

A house is under reconstruction near the Nanheyan street. Photo: Zheng Xiaolu

Houses under reconstruction in Xizongbu hutong. Photo: Zheng Xiaolu

Notice posted to residence in Nanluoguxiang area by several government departments, explaining reasons for the reconstruction. Photo: Zheng Xiaolu

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