“For the Good of Public Safety”

My neighborhood is being gentrified…

May 22, 2017

A man surveys the rubble from a liquor store

I woke up at eight o’clock, and I checked the air quality index, like I always do. It read, “PM 2.5: 500.” One hundred is a bad day. Overnight a sandstorm had blown in to Beijing.

I put my 3M mask on and went to work. To my surprise, all of the small stores I had grown accustomed to walking past every day had all been reduced to piles of rubble. Most of the shops were merely small clothing shops, and there was also a fresh fruit shop and a popular noodle shop. Judging from the traces of wall left behind, these shops couldn’t have been more than a few hundred square feet each.

This demolition is not limited to the bustling back street near my house—it’s part of a Beijing city government project to tear down small, unlicensed shops all over the city.

a man surveys the damage of a demolished liquor store on a Beijing back street

Most of the people who set up in these tiny storefronts are immigrants from other parts of China, who’ve come to Beijing to make a living or support their families. By now, I am sure hundreds or thousands of shops all over the city have been demolished, leaving those “foreigners” without a source of income. Often, their only choice is to return back to their hometowns, with little prospect of finding a decent job.

government declarations proclaiming public safety adorn the former walls of the storefronts.

Some people do support these efforts to return the streets to a more quiet state. Several of my colleagues are local Beijingers, and they are certainly very proud of their status. They were lucky enough to be born in the city. They also dislike outsiders, like those who set up these shops, for various reasons. They are often seen as poor and uncultured. Ironically, such intense classism is stronger than ever in a communist country that (purportedly) tried so hard to eradicate it.

This government project is possibly part of a larger goal set by Beijing officials to cap the population at 23 million by 2020. This comes as a result of a regular problem in Beijing, that of water shortage. This is a valid problem, but destroying people’s livelihoods for the sake of pleasing the wealthier locals is not a reasonable solution.

As far as my own back street is concerned, it feels too quiet, now. I used to walk by three men who would squat on the sidewalk outside their tiny shop, fixing bicycles as people brought them. Next door, an old lady sat under an umbrella with a sewing machine, making alterations to clothes. Now, I walk by hastily assembled bricked-up windows along a quiet sidewalk to work everyday.

Like Stephen McDonell, living in Beijing and writing a China blog for BBC, noted in his May 6th post, “your favorite restaurant, cafe, … park bench … could be there one day and obliterated the next.” What neither the government officials nor some of the local Beijingers seem to appreciate is the unique atmosphere of China’s cultural and political center that is being demolished, one back street at a time.