The High Price of the New Beijing

Vincent Thian/AP Images
The Qianmen shopping district in Beijing on the eve of the lantern festival marking the last day of Chinese New Year celebrations, February 2010

One recent weekend, I went for a walk through the alleys around the Qianmen shopping district, once Beijing’s commercial heart and still home to nationally known traditional shops. One of its chief side streets, Dazhalan, had been turned into a Ye Olde Pekinge–type street: its façades scrubbed and tarted up a bit too much but the famous stores still selling their century-old brands of cotton shoes, medicine, hats, and sweets. It was kitschy but the buildings were more or less real and the stores crowded with shoppers and tourists from the provinces.

Then I turned onto Qianmen Street, the main thoroughfare that starts just south of Tiananmen Square and heads to the Temple of Heaven. I knew that Qianmen Street had been renovated but in the past had seen only a glimpse of it. This time I walked its length, and was completely disoriented. The old buildings had never been beautiful—over the years, many had acquired garish additions and all were in bad repair—but they had an authenticity about them that was unmistakable. As I walked, I couldn’t find one of them.

In their place was something akin to a movie lot. The street was now lined with identical two- to three-story buildings, completely new and covered with a façade of traditional-looking gray stones. The bleakness was exacerbated by the all too familiar international chains that occupied the buildings: H&M, Zara, and Rolex. The only Chinese touch was a store selling Olympic souvenirs, illegal under the International Olympic Committee rules (which limit sales of official souvenirs until just a few months after the games end). But in a country where almost everything is pirated, from books and movies to cars and aircraft carriers, it felt real.

When I got to the end, I turned back and looked. Behind the new buildings were empty lots strewn with the rubble of demolished courtyard houses and stores. What had once been a warren of alleys and streets—one of the liveliest and most atmospheric in the city—was now mostly bulldozed. As I stood there, a couple walked by. In a heavy Beijing accent, the man asked the woman where they were. She replied, “Qianmen,” and he blurted out, “No way! How did it end up like this?”

Answering this question is the subject of a newly translated book by the Chinese journalist Wang Jun, a forty-two-year-old reporter for Outlook magazine, which is run by the official Xinhua News Agency. That may seem like an odd place for an independent journalist to work, but the agency’s insider status has long provided a cover for investigative reporting, especially when it touches on problems that the Communist Party knows it can’t afford to ignore.

Urban planning is…

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