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The New Beijing:

Overwhelming Change


There is a world of difference between the Beijing founded 855 years ago under the Jin dynasty and the Beijing of today. When new and old collide, what will remain of historical Beijing?



Overwhelming Change

By Benjamin Chiang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 401 )

Beijing is paving over its past in a full-scale campaign of urban renewal at a breakneck pace and scale reminiscent of the Great Leap Forward.

"In Beijing the ultra-modern co-exists with the ultra-traditional," says Tom Hsu, chief administrative officer for VIA Technologies (China) and a Beijing resident for more than a decade. "The government has been pushing hard on infrastructure construction; minor changes every year, major changes every three years."

This year, 2008, will be the most watershed year for Beijing since the city's founding under the Jin dynasty 855 years ago.

Not only are there new buildings going up everywhere you look in Beijing, the city has also become the primary proving ground for architects from around the world. Since the new Terminal Three at Beijing Capital International Airport opened for business, the pace of infrastructure construction has continually accelerated; with the completion of the "Bird's Nest" Olympic Stadium, the "Water Cube" National Aquatics Center and the suspended transom design of the new CCTV headquarters, a number of new and experimental construction techniques have become a reality here.

Old Beijing in metamorphosis

In the years leading up to this year's Olympics, Beijing has seemed like one giant construction site, dominated by full-scale construction mobilization.

"All the construction around Beijing is meant to catch up with the standards of the world's first-class cities and prepare for the Olympics," offers Dr. Yang Bin, associate dean of the School of Economics and Management at Tsinghua University.

Looking at the course of China's history since the onset of reform and opening 30 years ago, the 80s saw the development of Shenzhen, in the 90s Shanghai took off; and in the early 21st century all eyes are on Beijing and its own great leap forward.

The ongoing fundamental change in Beijing's character is even more dramatic than that of Paris in the 18th century.

Standing in the plaza on Financial Street off the Second West Ring Road, one is surrounded by towering skyscrapers as far as the eye can see. It could easily be mistaken for Wall St. in New York.

Heads Full of Ambition, Fixed on Besting the World

Simmering underneath the breakneck pace of change in the new Beijing is a burning ambition – from China's leaders to the ordinary city resident – to be regarded as a world-class city.

For Beijingers, and indeed Chinese in general, this is the greatest stage upon which to prove their conviction that "China will become strong," coming just 108 years after the invading armies of eight nations sacked Beijing and looted the Forbidden City.

After more than 100 years of humiliation and oppression, the Chinese people have an opportunity to show the new face of the "waking dragon" at the Summer Olympics.

"Last year, Beijing began construction on 13 subway lines in one fell swoop," says Wang Fei, director of the Beijing Municipal Planning Commission's Comprehensive Planning Department.

The frenzied pace of construction is almost akin to combat. Take Terminal Three of Beijing Capital International Airport, which began operations only this year. The structure's total area could contain all five terminals of London's Heathrow Airport.

"We built that in three years and nine months; Heathrow's Terminal Five was nearly 20 years in planning and construction," says Zhu Jingyuan, chief architect and deputy supervisor of Beijing Capital International Airport's Airport Expansion and Engineering Directorate.

The city is in the process of replacing all of its older city buses. Just last year the city swiftly swapped more than 10,000 aging buses for new, third-generation low emissions buses equipped with climate control and digital video monitors. Meanwhile, the city put a further 4,000 zero emissions LPG-powered buses on the streets.

"Beijing already has the highest number of natural gas LPG-powered buses on the road of any city in the world," Wang Fei boasts.

What's more, construction of all sorts of commercial and residential developments has proceeded at an amazing pace.

"This is Beijing, there's always something being built and everything has to try to be the world's best," sighs an exasperated Kuo Hsuan-cheng, a manager with Unicore Construction Consultants, which took part in the planning for The Place, a new Beijing commercial complex.

Top Global Talent Vie for Piece of the Action

Beijing has an obsessive desire to impress the world; everything must be the biggest, and everything must be the best. With all design planning open to international bidding, the best designers the world has to offer have naturally gravitated to Beijing to tender the bids and vie for a piece of the action.

The impetus behind the rapid pace of change in Beijing lies primarily in the deeply rooted desire among government officials to be the world's number one.

The Beijing municipal government has proven particularly willing to accept the advice of foreign specialists.

"As long as it's a good idea, China's government officials will give it full backing, saying: ‘go ahead, do it,'" says cultural observer Chen Kuan-chung.

The residents of this imperial city have set lofty goals for themselves. They are highly receptive to outside things and are fond of grandiose, expansive architectural designs.

For the construction of its new museum, the Central Academy of Fine Arts set aside a budget of RMB$100 million to retain the services of Isozaki Arata, a renowned Japanese architech. To attend to the finer details of the construction project, the Academy brought in traditional craftsmen from the south to work on the more textural elements.

"There is no 'yes' or 'no' in the eyes of Beijingers; there is only 'new,' " says Suzhen Xie, the Central Academy of Fine Arts' museum director, adding that city residents are in a constant quest for the new and exotic.

Another characteristic of Beijing architecture is "big", as in the city's obsession with building the biggest and most cutting-edge projects.

Within the confines of Chaoyang Park, Beijing's biggest urban park, the Chaoyang District Government has spent RMB$100 million to construct the world's biggest Ferris wheel, expected to be finished in time for the start of the Summer Olympics.

New Lifestyle Movement Among City Residents   

The Summer Games has also been seen as a golden opportunity to promote a lifestyle change among city residents. Tapping into the age-old Chinese emphasis on "face," the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee was aware that not only a physical overhaul was necessary, but the city's people could help present a friendly visage to the outside world. Taking a cue from CommonWealth magazine's "Smile Taiwan" campaign, they vigorously promoted their own "Smile Beijing" campaign to promote courtesy to visitors. Young people have responded enthusiastically to the campaign.

In the interest of staging a successful Summer Games, the notion of "keeping foreigners from ridiculing Chinese as uncivilized" is no longer a preoccupation of just the government, with media campaigns, the exhortations of legions of volunteers and endless sloganeering seeking to ingrain general civility and "niceness" into ordinary Chinese life.

The ban on smoking in public places that took force on May 1 has been executed with particular thoroughness. Within two days, there was a complete ban on smoking in all of the city's 66,000 taxicabs, which are now adorned with "No Smoking" stickers.

The media have played a huge role in facilitating Beijing's modern-day great leap. CCTV has dedicated a special channel for round-the-clock broadcasts about Olympic history, explaining the rules and regulations of various sports and presenting biographies of star athletes.

"Beijing residents will become the world's most knowledgeable group of people about Olympic competition," chuckles Horizon Research Consultancy Group Chairman Victor Yuan.

The Foreign Brands Just Keep Coming

Attracted by China's enormous 1.3 billion strong consumer markets, the first stop for many international brands upon entering the country is Beijing. In late April of this year, Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto unveiled his new collection for this year at Taimiao.

"If something catches fire in Beijing, it's not long before the rest of the country is caught up too," says Shen Lu-bai, a veteran Taipei ad man.

The international character of Beijing is somewhat surprising. Of a total population of 16.3 million, more than 70,000 foreigners are legally registered residents, but unofficial estimates place the number of foreigners living in Beijing in excess of 300,000. The embassies of more than 160 nations and offices of the world's top 500 corporations enhance the city's multinational flavor.

"If the food and beverage industry is an indicator of a city's internationalization and degree of multiculturalism, then you could say Beijing is a United Nations," observes Han Liang-lu, managing director of Taipei gourmet shop Southvillage.

Last year, per capita GDP for Beijing residents was US$7,370. The city's residents are willing to spend; if it's the latest big thing the wallets will come out.

For those Beijingers so inclined, there is no need to travel abroad when you can encounter the latest from around the world free of charge on the streets of Beijing.

Here in Beijing, the latest and trendiest co-mingle with the retro and antiquated; the city's dozens of theatres are packed nightly. Performing arts groups have cascaded into Beijing, with nightly performances at the National Centre for the Performing Arts. In June alone, the Centre hosted world-class performances by groups from 10 different nations.

Beijing is also a classic immigrant city.

"75 percent of Beijingers are first-generation transplants who came here for work or school. This has created a heady immigrant culture characterized by a high degree of openness," says market researcher Victor Yuan.

Chan Koon Chung, founder of Hong Kong's City magazine, describes Beijing as a "Bohemian capital" where even the biggest weirdoes can find their counterpart. "Beijing has become a dream chasing factory," Chan says.

Looks Good but No Fun?

But looking behind the beautification of Beijing's bright shiny new infrastructure it is clear that a number of details have obviously been overlooked.

"Beijing has developed too fast, resulting in haphazard urban planning; it has bitten off more than it can chew," iLook magazine publisher Hong Huang concedes.

The result of Beijing's single-minded pursuit of impressive airs in its development is that "it looks good, but it's no fun." So says Wang Wei-chung, a well-known Taiwanese television producer, pulling no punches. Beijing city planners neglected to establish a system of public spaces, rather bit by bit completely reordering the established residents' relationship with the city. With the crumbling old quarters of the city being parted out, the new quarters of the city (like the Central Business District and Financial Street) continue to expand.

"In the city, people feel even smaller; city planners don't take human values into account," laments Pei Zhu, a well-known Chinese architect.

"Beijingers have sacrificed their leisurely, comfortable small-neighborhood lives all for their big Olympic dreams," says Han Liang-lu. Along with their big Olympic dreams, most residents must also endure cramped living conditions.

Beijing has paid a steep price for its high-speed development and urban expansion. Of the more than 6,000 original hutongs, the twisting lanes lined with traditionally built residences for which Beijing is famous, scarcely 2,000 remain.

Beijing is like an old city that has been given an artificial heart transplant; the heart is pumping impressively but there's always something not quite right.

Nobody knows what face the city of Beijing will show the world in the future. One thing is for sure, however, Beijing's "great leap forward" is a double-edged sword, one the one hand leading the city in the direction of a world-class metropolis, while on the other hand the old Beijing and all links to the new Beijing have been heartlessly dismembered.

After this the "great leap forward" has passed, Beijing still has a long, long way to go.

Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy

Chinese Version: 新北京 大躍進