Shiny New Apartments for All


The old fruit market’s become a pharmacy, my favourite Cantonese restaurant’s now selling Sichuan hotpot, and the hole in the ground that was once a mess of cranes and cement mixers, is now a set of luxury apartments. It’s been three months since I was last in Beijing and, as locals would say, bianhua tai da le ‘the changes are too big.’

Man standing in front of his
soon-to-be-demolished apartment block.

While China, as a whole, has been turning itself inside out since former leader of the Communist Party, Deng Xiaoping, opened the doors to foreign trade and investment back in 1978, Beijing has the added impetus of being the 2008 Olympic host. And according to the city’s Mayor, Wang Qishan, what we’ve seen so far is just a small taste of what’s to come. Earlier this month Wang told the People’s Daily that three new ‘towns’ would be built in suburban Beijing over the next 15 years to accommodate growth in both population and industry.

For Beijing locals, and visitors like me, this means no relief from the sounds of jackhammers any time soon. Likewise, the Chinese character chai (for ‘demolition’) will still be marking walls long after the Olympics are over.

For the city’s residents, construction inconveniences have become a part of everyday life. My first apartment here 14 storeys of concrete Stalinesque glory overlooked a massive chasm dotted with excavators and yellow-hatted workers. I’d been told that construction sites have a curfew, but my interrupted sleep suggested otherwise.

One day I spoke with a woman whose bedroom was literally 10 metres from the edge of the site. She told me she also couldn’t sleep for the noise, and confirmed that, yes, they do sometimes work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I asked her why she didn’t move. She told me that her apartment was supplied by her boss, and she had no choice but to stay. Mei banfa no solution.

Others have no choice but to move. Last year, I asked a taxi driver to take a Chinese friend and me on a tour of the neighbourhood. I wanted him to tell us about the changes he’d seen new buildings, new streets, new parks. We drove past what’s now a huge multi-storeyed shopping plaza with ritzy apartments on top, and he told us the area used to be low-rise apartments. He used the term ‘cleaned up’ to describe the transformation. I asked him what happened to the people who used to live there, where did they go? He said they were all well compensated and happy to move to other places.

It’s the kind of statement you want to believe, and in many cases the option of moving out of a cramped run-down abode into a new apartment in the ‘burbs is welcomed. The Beijing Government insists it’s shifting people out of ‘dangerous’ and ‘dilapidated’ housing into much more comfortable digs. Since 1991 they say that over 400,000 households have been ‘relocated’ and that each family’s living area has increased on average from ’20 square metres to 60 square metres.’

The dreaded "chai" character (for demolition) spells death to any building it’s painted on.

But with an ear to the ground you can also hear grumblings of discontent stories of people who’ve been forced to move away from the area their family has lived in for decades because the compensation offered is not enough to buy a place in the same neighbourhood.

I recently met a man who was moving out of the house he had lived in for 38 years. He and his family were the only ones left in the half knocked-down building. In between expletives, he told me that he didn’t want to move, but had no choice. If he didn’t leave soon, the police would forcibly remove him. He said the Government has warned developers and local authorities to treat evictees kindly, but often the opposite occurs. The family’s been offered compensation, but he says it’s not nearly enough. Mei banfa.

And then there’s the case of Ye Guozhu, who was sentenced to four years in jail in 2004 for organising a housing rights protest in Beijing. Ye was removed from his home in 2003, and had become a vocal campaigner against forced evictions. Last year, the Government also ordered the courts to stop hearing cases brought directly by unhappy evictees. Instead, tenants are now encouraged to go through an arbitration process, and only if this fails can they file a case.

Luxury "CBD" apartments for sale.

Suffice to say, the construction industry in Beijing is big business. The Beijing Government hails construction as one of the city’s ‘pillar industries,’ and foreign investors are encouraged to jump onboard. According to official sources, the city already had over 2100 construction enterprises back in 2002, raking in a profit of around AUD$4 billion per annum. A scan of the city’s skyline today shows a whole range of new luxury apartment blocks that are being sold off at exorbitant prices well out the reach of the average local, who earns just 15,000 yuan (about AUD$2500) a year.

To compensate, the Government has instigated tax incentives for developers to build ‘economy housing’ apartments that those on low incomes can buy at less than the market price. But it’s not uncommon to hear about developers who get all the tax breaks and still sell their apartments for a hefty sum.

The need for more cheap housing is a problem the Beijing Government acknowledges. Mayor Wang Qishan pledged in 2005 to ‘build a total of two million square metres of practical, affordable housing and make more low-rent housing available,’ giving priority to those who’ve been ‘evicted from dangerous and dilapidated’ buildings.

But as with governments anywhere, actions speak louder than words.

As the hum of bulldozers and earthmovers continues in Beijing, there are other, less obvious, changes taking place. My friend Chen Rong tells me that the city today is ‘more beautiful’ than when he was a child, 20 years ago. There are more parks, more trees and grass, and it’s less polluted (surprising given the increase in vehicles on the road).

Another friend, Maggie, who came here from a smaller coastal town, says that now the streets are ‘more clean, with less rubbish.’ She believes there’s been a shift in people’s attitudes today’s Beijingers are far more conscious of the way their city looks to the rest of the world.

And it seems people are also more conscious of their own looks, too. Chatting with some kids on the steps of a huge department store, one girl tells me that for her generation ‘traditional’ dress is out Western, Japanese and Korean fashion is in. Just watching families walking together on the street can provide a good understanding of Beijing’s recent fashion history. The kids will be branded in Nike or Adidas, their parents unbranded in dowdy suit-pants or dresses, and the grandparents will be buttoned up in Mao-era cotton tops and bottoms with flat-soled ‘kung fu’ shoes.

To the horror of many parents, the punk aesthetic is also big in Beijing big hair, tight pants, a zillion leather bracelets. But in many cases this is also just a ‘look,’ not an indicator of political or social rebellion. Out at a club one night, I met a boy wearing a cap bearing the English words ‘I love punk.’ We talked about music and he said he liked R’n’B, Madonna and Britney. When I asked about punk, h
e told me he hated it and didn’t know why anyone would listen to it.

Turns out the cap was just a cool accessory he didn’t really know or care what the words meant. When I saw him a few days later, the cap had been replaced by a headband half Beckham, half J-Lo. Like the streets of Beijing, he too had reinvented himself practically overnight.

This morning I went to my favourite market. Outside, it was the same as always, but when I walked inside I found a maze of scaffolding and the searing sound of an electric saw. Amid the chaos, some of the old stalls were still set up all doing surprisingly good business.

Customers came and went, all walking around the rubble, shouting over the jackhammers and accepting the inconvenience with little more than a mei banfa or a resigned smile that said ‘what can you do?’

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.