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The Death and Life of a Great Chinese City

Judging from the evidence of Michael Meyer’s portrait of life in a narrow backstreet of Beijing as China prepared for the Olympic Games, old Beijing has been vanishing for a very long time. “Peking you simply would not be able to recognize except by its monuments,” the British journalist George Morrison wrote in 1916. His complaint was eerily similar to those of many Chinese and others today, included by Meyer in The Last Days of Old Beijing, who are sensitive to what has been lost as China’s capital has been transformed into a modern city, bristling with the massive creations of big-name architects. “Macadamized roads, electric light, great open spaces, museums, modern buildings of all kinds, one or two of them on a scale that would not be out of place in Whitehall, motorcars (there are I think at least 200), motor cycles more numerous than we care for, and bicycles literally by the thousand,” Morrison wrote.

One of the alterations that most shocked Morrison was several breaches in the Ming Dynasty–era Imperial City wall to make way for new roads “being driven through the city in many directions.” Four years later, another British writer, Juliet Bredon, complained about “masses of ugly, foreign-style buildings dotted here and there over the city [that] mar the harmony of the general view.” A few years after that, according to a report in TheNew York Times, Beijing’s residents were angry over “the determined effort to reduce this ancient capital to the status of a drab and modernized provincial city.”

But all that seems as nothing compared to what was wrought in Beijing when the Communists took power in 1949 and the city fell prey to a particularly nasty combination: an ideological enmity toward the old joined to petit-bourgeois, Stalinist gigantism. As the Belgian sinologist Simon Leys explained in his 1976 book, Chinese Shadows (excerpted in these pages), no other Chinese city had Beijing’s imperial aura, which is what made it the inevitable choice of Mao Zedong, an emperor in the making, as his seat of revolutionary government.

Mao took over what during the Republican period had been a public park, the former imperial residence known as Zhongnanhai adjacent to the Ming-era Forbidden City, and converted it into his living and working quarters. Then, over the next fifteen years or so, he presided over the destruction of most of the rest of the Ming heritage—the entire encircling wall, all but one of the magnificent entry gates, the dozens of graceful arches that broke up the monotony of the city’s wide, straight avenues. Tiananmen Square, the area in front of the main entrance to the imperial palace, was enormously enlarged, which required the destruction of many acres of old streets and dwellings. As Leys put it, “vast esplanades and exalting deserts of tarmac” were created so that mass rituals of fealty to the regime could take place.

Beijing in the Mao years was damaged not only by the razing of old streets and houses but also by the socialist pauperization that had eliminated China’s middle class, causing a generalized dilapidation to set in. Beijing became drab and lifeless, its streets lined by ugly cement housing blocks, its markets pitifully undersupplied. It was a city stripped of the small things that had given it its everyday charm: its numerous delicacies; its hawkers and peddlers, each singing a different chant as they wandered the twisting narrow lanes, known as hutong. The city’s nightspots, theaters, teahouses, and numerous places of sin were shuttered, its restaurants nationalized, not to the benefit of the cuisine.

Now all that has famously changed as China has become an international powerhouse, and it is impossible not to feel a mixture of sadness over the transformation and admiration for the vitality of Beijing’s reconstruction, which is itself evidence of a great improvement in the standard of living of millions of its residents. Meyer, in his account of the obliteration of many of Beijing’s old neighborhoods, cites Le Corbusier, who railed against the sentimentality involved in conflating “rotten old houses full of tuberculosis and demoralization” with a medieval heritage whose preservation is deemed a sacred task. Precisely because of the Maoist impoverishment of an already poor city, many of the warrens of small lanes that were, and are, among Beijing’s idiosyncratic charms were beyond repair. So were many old-style courtyard houses, built behind brick walls, usually with four wings on all sides of a rectangular courtyard. Even in those areas where the authorities want to preserve some of the city’s old look, especially in the northcentral part behind the Forbidden City, renovating an old house usually means reconstructing it from scratch. A man who lovingly restored such a dwelling near the Beihai (North Sea) Park told me that the only element left of the original house was the pomegranate trees in the courtyard.

But the leveling of whole stretches of the old city has also had a brutality to it that adds to the sadness one feels over the loss of the features that made Beijing different and special. Like other great projects—the railway to Lhasa and the damming of the Yangtze River, for example—Beijing’s building boom illustrates both the muscular development of China as an emerging world power and the clumsiness of the one-party state. “The hutong disappeared,” Meyer writes. “Developers ‘bought’ entire neighborhoods, and everyone—even those holding full title, not just usage rights, to their homes—had to go.” In 2007, with China observing the slogan “New Beijing, New Olympics,” the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions in Geneva estimated that 1.25 million people had been evicted from their homes.

Meyer spent three years living in a single room of an old courtyard house, using a public toilet and a public bath a few minutes’ walk away, which he shared with several others, who became characters in a group portrait of ordinary people facing removal from their old homes and the lives they were used to. No sentimentalist or preservationist ideologue, Meyer acknowledges that Beijing is doing what many other cities have done in the past, even if it is doing it in exceptionally sweeping fashion. Meyer’s chief comparison is with Paris and the “drastic surgery on the medieval city center” performed in the nineteenth century by Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the big and essential difference being that Paris remained ravishingly beautiful, architecturally harmonious, and scaled to human dimensions, while Beijing managed none of those things. In 1929, Le Corbusier noted that it was no longer possible, “as in Haussmann’s day, to throw whole districts into confusion, drive out the tenants, and make a desert in the crowded heart of Paris over a space of three or even five years.”

Le Corbusier, in his somewhat wistful recollection of a time when democratic procedures were no obstacle to the utopian dreams of architects, could not have anticipated what has happened in China. The transformation of Beijing in this sense is a demonstration of the way capitalism actually works in a country whose ambitions and projects are unencumbered by grassroots organizations, independent courts, or a press that tells more than the government’s side of the story. Meyer makes repeated references in this regard to what he calls “the Hand,” his symbol for the faceless and unaccountable government bureaucracy that determines when a house or a whole neighborhood will be slated for destruction. He was never able to identify just who ran it or the higher authorities who set its policies. People learn that their homes are to be demolished when they wake up to find the Chinese character chai, meaning “raze,” painted “in ghostly white strokes and circled” on their houses. Nobody ever seems to see an actual person painting the dread ideogram. It simply appears, Meyer says, “like a gang tag, or the work of a specter. The Hand.” The Hand, moreover, “didn’t have to listen to gadflies and theorists, or residents, at council meetings and public forums. The Hand just erased and drew, erased and drew.” The officials involved frequently worked with private real estate developers whose plans they had approved. “When the time came, someone posted a notice that the houses were to be cleared of the plan’s final obstacle: people.”

Exactly how the people were cleared is, of course, an important element in the picture, and Meyer gives a few illustrations, drawn from his neighbors’ experience. Almost everybody facing eviction is offered compensation, not small sums by Chinese standards certainly, but barely enough for them to buy a small apartment in one of the vast high-rise developments that have been put up outside Beijing’s Fifth Ring Road precisely for the purpose of relocating the former residents of the central city. This means not only that they will no longer live in a familiar neighborhood in a house with rosewood latticework on the windows, shaded by locust or persimmon trees and redolent of memory; they will also be dispersed to some anonymous and sterile high-rise building from which, if they work in the city, it will take them an hour or more by bus to get there.

Meyer tells the story of an elderly widower he calls Old Zhang, who stubbornly rejected a developer’s proposed compensation of $28,174 for the courtyard house where he had lived all his life, plus an additional bonus of $7,333 if he left right away—this for a living space of either 250 or 341 square feet (depending on whether the developer or Old Zhang did the measuring). Eventually Old Zhang was one of the last people on his street not to have accepted the developer’s offer. But his case was handled rather gently. He and the developer made their arguments before an arbitrator who awarded him nearly three times the amount originally proposed by the developer. In addition, Old Zhang told Meyer, he had found another courtyard house to rent not far away, so, as he put it, “I will still enjoy the lifestyle that keeps both of my feet on the ground.”

In Out of Mao’s Shadow, Philip Pan, who was a Washington Post correspondent in Beijing, has written one of the most revealing books about China since it opened up to the outside world in the 1970s. In a series of finely drawn and moving portraits, he writes of Chinese who in one way or another have tried to stand up to China’s authoritarian apparatus and have been engaged in what Pan calls a struggle for China’s “soul.” He tells, for example, the story of a former air force officer named Hu Jie, who was fired from a prestigious job as a cameraman and producer for Xinhua, the official press agency, because of his work as an independent documentary filmmaker, a rarity in China, aiming to resurrect figures from the Maoist past who have been dropped down the memory hole by the state’s censors. His first project after leaving Xinhua was to retrace the forgotten life of a remarkable woman, a poet, writer, and patriot named Lin Zhao, who was executed in 1968 at the age of thirty-six because of her refusal—highly unusual in the annals of Chinese dissent—to write a confession stating she had committed political crimes during Mao’s anti-rightist campaign of 1957.

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