Wastelands of Beijing

About 20 km outside Beijing, tourists sitting in tour buses from Beijing north-eastwards towards the Badaling section of the Great Wall can spot the apparent remains of a medieval castle some distance from the expressway. Its concrete spires rising above a muddy corn field, the eerie shell remains as a relic of the grandiose ideas of once-powerful men who’ve since passed through the grinding mill of elite politics, corruption and prison in China. All around Beijing, architectural artefacts of previous decades remain, many decayed and going to ruin.

This article is a tour through some of the more spectacular wastelands of contemporary Beijing, places that will surely be developed into something entirely different at some point in the future – when the interest groups that control the land and construction finally make a deal they can live with.


 What we can see Shougang at the moment. Photo: Danwei

Travel to the farthest station on Line 1 of the Beijing subway, Pingguoyuan, in Shijingshan District, and step out onto a busy Beijing boulevard of flatbed trucks, lorries and cars. Nothing to see here but a desolate suburb with little of remark, except a hulking ghost from the industrial past looming on the westernmost stretch of Chang’an Boulevard, the axis that separates Tiananmen Square from the Forbidden City. This is the former location of Shougang Company Ltd, a pig-iron plant originally founded in 1919. It became the largest steel mill in the country, sprawling from the suburbs over 8.56 square kilometers, the size of 2.7 Summer Palaces, two CBDs and three Financial Streets. At its peak in the 1990s, it had an annual output of 10 million tons and offered “iron rice bowls” to more than 200,000 workers.
Yet Shougang’s story is as much about what was left behind as what is supposed to come. The plant’s migration to Hubei in 2010 deprived 22,000 workers of a job they probably expected for life, and many found themselves cut adrift without any kind of social safety net (6,000 workers were sent to new plants, with a further 6,000 remaining to  “man the facilities,” according to the Global Times article). Some have made their way back to scratch a living as scavengers or squatters, while others simply seem unable to escape its shadow.

One youngish-looking “black cab” driver dawdles outside the gate. A child of Shougang, like Guan he vividly remembers the factory’s dining halls, where dinner was usually noodles and steam buns. At 31, though, he seems slightly adrift; there’s not a lot of work for laid-off steel workers or their families.

Still, on the way out, there’s a queue of about a dozen workers waiting to collect box suppers from inside a corrugated building on the very outskirts of the factory’s edge. Their foreman chafes at them to hurry: there’s a bus on the way. When the cogs were still turning all over Shougang, such a scene must have been commonplace. Now, of course, it’s an unexpected rarity. And although there are plenty who might disagree, that doesn’t necessarily always have to be a bad thing. “As long as Shougang can stay in operation, unlike those Olympic facilities that aren’t in use anymore, it should be fine – however that is,” says Guan. “I’ve read many articles saying Beijing has huge potential for the development of its ‘cultural industry.’ Now that the central government is promoting it, you can either call this industry ‘soft power’ – or more simply, ‘what’s profitable.’”
The Homko Club
The Homko Club had everything a wealthy Chinese businessman needed. Inside a gated compound, the Grecian-style club offered members a chance to unwind in comfort, with a fully equipped gym, swimming pool with jacuzzi, steam rooms and sauna, bar, billiards, mahjong, massage and the convenience of private bedrooms, in which a weary (or eager) member could find succour with a personal masseuse in secluded comfort.

Despite amenities fit for an ancient emperor – or, perhaps, a mid-level provincial official – membership at the Homko remains at an all-time low of zero. In the 25-meter swimming pool, mounds of concrete rise from the frozen surface. The bar is bereft of bottles; no sighs will ever be heard from its bedrooms, because the Homko has long been abandoned.

“Now the Red Cross is hiring its own people to investigate itself, there’s probably never gonna be a way to find out [the truth],” scoffed Mencius, who claims to be CEO of a dating website called 7SOYO. Specializing in exposing corruption in the charity sector, Mencius is one of a growing number of “people’s supervisory activists,” citizen journalists who interpret new leader Xi Jinping’s reformist rhetoric as an anti-corruption call to arms.

But Mencius reckons the case is murkier and more dangerous than at first suggested. “Even you [foreigners] won’t dare to investigate it,” he warned in an email interview. The Red Cross uses a two-room, seven-employee accountancy firm, an usually small accounting operation considering the amounts of money involved. “To protect my source,” Mencius said, “I can’t release more proof [but if the Red Cross investigation] differs from the facts, I’ll be providing more materials until the truth comes out.”

However, he adds tantalizingly, the story goes further than the mere quotidian misuse of public funds: “The water is deep and there are bigger parties involved.”

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