First city of the future

On a corner of the eastern extension of the Avenue of Eternal Peace, the broad, straight east-west boulevard that Mao Zedong cut through the heart of Beijing, Beijing’s oldest and newest cultures lie in bizarre proximity. Deep below the avenue, in a room carved out of an underground station, fragments of bone and flint are on display. They were excavated from a Paleolithic site discovered in 1996 during the digging of foundations for Oriental Plaza, a giant commercial development in the heart of the city.

This unlovely postmodern mix of expensive apartments, offices, hotels and glossy shopping malls occupies a full city block. Beneath the concrete, glass and steel, subway passengers hurry past the studded wooden doors of the tiny museum that was set up in a deal between the city and the developer to pay cursory homage to Beijing’s earliest inhabitants. Their passage is commemorated in an implausible life-sized family group of parents with two children — one more than they would be allowed in today’s Beijing. On the walls are two romanticised murals that depict a few shaggy figures in fur loincloths, hunting along a river bank in a lush green landscape that teems with game. Back at street level, the choking dust from a nearby building site — one of 7 000 in the city — sends passers-by scurrying into the malls. Beijing lost its greenery long ago and its surviving rivers run black with industrial and domestic waste.

Few cities in modern times have changed as much or as fast as Beijing. The city I first knew, in the early Seventies, was a sleepy, dusty town, its wide avenues travelled by drifts of bicycles ridden by blue-clothed workers, mule carts piled high, their drivers often asleep on top, an occasional camel, crowded buses and open trucks packed with people. Occasionally an official’s car would pass, windows screened with white curtains against the stares of the proletariat.

In the historic centre, the hutongs — the rabbit warrens of crowded lanes with their single-storey courtyard houses of grey-painted brick topped with grey roof tiles — were a legacy of the Mongols, who first laid out the city in its present form in the 13th century. There were no bars, no cafés, no pets and no teahouses, and the electricity in most districts was off by eight o’clock. Beijing, like the rest of the country, had turned inward: there were few foreigners on the streets or imported goods in the shops, and cultural life was so diminished that a movie from North Korea was an occasion for excitement. Beijing slept through the long winter nights, and in the summer residents would sit under street lamps on tiny stools, playing cards, little dreaming that their capital was halfway through what has been nearly 60 years of violent reinvention.

It began in 1949 when the newly arrived Communist Party of China began an assault on the fabric of a city that had barely changed in centuries. By the turn of the century they had transformed the greatest walled city the world had ever known into 80 square kilometres of traffic-choked megalopolis, home to at least 16-million people, three million of them — the migrants who have flocked to the city in recent years and who form the tireless workforce that has physically rebuilt it — not recognised as resident. Beijing today is multi-ethnic and cosmopolitan, a consumer paradise for the growing ranks of the rich, and both a dream and a nightmare for its less fortunate residents.

When the Party proclaimed Beijing the new capital of the infant People’s Republic of China in 1949 it began to enact its shifting ideology in the living fabric: in its first decades of militant socialism it tore down the past to build monuments to the new age — impressive avenues (empty, at the time, of traffic), the massive expanse of Tiananmen Square — for military parades and the mass rallies at which the people were drilled to applaud the Party — with the equally oversized Monument to the People’s Heroes planted square in the centre. The historic city walls were demolished to build a ring road and an underground line which for decades the public was not allowed to use. The Great Leap Forward — an ill conceived frenzy of accelerated ”modernisation” in the late Fifties — bequeathed to Beijing the Ten Great Projects — monumental Stalinist buildings, many eccentrically capped with curving Chinese roofs. After that, from the city’s point of view, the Cultural Revolution — when construction was all but abandoned in favour of chaotic political mobilisation — was almost a relief.

But though Mao’s era was marked by a reckless assault on the historic character of Beijing, it was the period that followed his death that truly transformed the city as China turned to authoritarian capitalism. A combination of corruption and speculation unleashed a power greater than ideology — that of money — on to the city. Today, in the era of globalisation and in the final frenzy of dressing up for its Olympic display, Beijing is being re-described as the 21st-century capital of an ancient but newly reawakened power, a showcase of the huge, the bombastic and the eye-catching.

It was planned as China’s symbolic return to international eminence, the rising power of Asia hosting the world’s iconic sporting festival, and a chance to showcase the dizzying modernisation of the last two decades. Now that vision has been tarnished by events far from the capital: the uprising in Tibet, the protests against the torch relay and the withdrawal of Steven Spielberg from the opening ceremony are read as sour rebukes to China’s self-esteem. Today, Olympic anticipation is tinged with touchy resentment and a hurt suspicion that foreigners are out to spoil Beijing’s party.

Each time I return, the city is more bewildering. Familiar landmarks have disappeared and new towers — built, half-built or just begun — clamour for attention. Old factories become smart art galleries. New buildings pretend to be ancient. And ancient buildings, demolished in an earlier mood of iconoclasm, are re-erected, complete to the last detail, challenging passers-by to remember that there was an interlude of absence. In the last few decades, 95% of Beijing’s buildings have been razed and replaced.

There is only one place in the city where the dimensions of the capital of what the government believes will be the Chinese century can be glimpsed. Just off the south-east side of Tiananmen Square is a new museum of city planning. Occupying most of the third floor is a 1 300 square-metre scale model of the city in miniature. Even at the reduced scale it is a seemingly infinite grey sprawl, urban expressways cutting through the canyons of the newly rising central business district, the golden roofs of the imperial city, with its graceful lakes and gardens, marooned in a vertical sea of concrete. Chinese families strain over the parapet on the floor above, pointing out to a child or a visitor their neighbourhoods — or where their neighbourhoods used to be.

Conspicuous in the model are the new signature pieces of Beijing’s latest makeover: the titanium egg, designed by the French architect Paul Andreu as the national theatre; the twisted legs of CCTV’s new headquarters, designed by Rem Koolhaas, rising above the business district; and, of course, Herzog & de Meuron’s showcase Olympic stadium, along with Norman Foster’s new airport terminal — beyond the scope even of this model. Together they present a roll call of international architects drafted in to add dazzle to the urban sprawl [see Beijing architecture].

The story the museum tells is one of careful planning, of attention to the city’s needs of water and transport, of formal exchanges between the teams of planners and the political authority which must approve their schemes. But Beijing’s real history is far more dramatic: centuries of grand schemes, of wars and repeated destruction, as successive emperors built ever grander testaments to their power.

Beijing was not always the capital. The location was against it: it was a frontier town perched on the northern edge of the north China plain, nudging the shifting line that divided China’s sedentary civilisation from the nomadic peoples of the grasslands. This made it the first stop for the fierce invading armies that came out of the north and west, bent on raiding or conquering China. It was those peoples who first made Beijing their capital: Chinese dynasties mostly preferred the relative safety of the south. Of the three great imperial dynasties that did settle in Beijing, two — the Yuan dynasty (Mongol) and the Qing dynasty (Manchu) — were foreign invaders. It was the Mongols who gave the city its expansive, rectilinear character. In 1215, Khubilai Khan, the grandson of Genghis, employed a Muslim architect to design him a suitably majestic seat from which to rule his newly conquered land. He called it Dadu, and this was the capital described by Marco Polo, though whether he actually saw it remains disputed. But the city that survived until the middle of the 20th century was finally shaped in the 15th century when the Ming-dynasty emperor Yongle moved in.

The Ming capital was not just a city: it was a cosmology of power, a city built to represent the mystery and might of the emperor. The city wall, more than 9m high and 15 years in construction, surrounded 40 square kilometres of city. At its heart was the imperial palace and its complex of ministries and temples. At the very centre of the city and the political world was the Forbidden City, aligned along a north-south axis, facing south. At fixed moments in the calendar the emperor made his ritual offerings to the only authority higher than himself, to ensure good harvests and the continuation of his reign.

In 1949, when Mao’s army took the city, there were many who would have preferred Beijing to remain on the margins of Chinese political life. In particular, a prominent architect, Liang Sicheng, feared that the splendours of historic Beijing would not survive the new Communist government, and he proposed a new, modern city be built outside the formidable city walls, on the flat and featureless plain, where little was at risk but villages and fields. Mao dismissed Liang’s scheme with contempt. But Liang was right: today less than 20% of Ming-era Beijing has survived.

When Mao died in 1976 his preserved corpse was put on display in the last addition to the square he had created. His mausoleum was built a few hundred metres from Tiananmen Gate, the south entrance to the Forbidden City. Here, in 1949, he had read the proclamation of the founding of the new, socialist dynasty. Today, still, dutiful queues form to troop past the remains. Around him, though, is the wreckage of his vision of revolutionary, proletarian sacrifice, a city shaped by the get-rich-quick philosophy of the new era and the flamboyant spending of a nation bent on respect.

When, in 1992, Deng Xiaoping declared that China would reform and open up to the world, he released a startling surge of energy. Until then Beijing had been shaped by planners working to the dictates of a political vision. Now the political straitjacket came off and other forces came into play: commercial developers, corrupt officials and international investors were to take Beijing by the throat in the decade-and-a-half of riotous development that followed. New ring roads were built, only to choke on the ever-growing number of cars. Office blocks and apartments were thrown up, steadily obliterating the trace of the historic city. The regulations that tied peasants to the land were relaxed, and millions migrated to the city looking for cash wages, however meagre. There were other migrants, too: Uighurs from Xinjiang, Tibetans and Mongolians, who came seeking money but also escape from the suffocation of their heavily policed homelands. What had been a monochrome city began to dissolve into colourful fragments.

The migrants created new, informal quarters in the city, based on ties of kinship and origin. They opened restaurants and small businesses, bringing life back to grey streets. The first private restaurant opened in 1980, a four-table affair in a back alley near the national art gallery. By the Nineties there were several thousand. In the early Nineties what was thought to be the first bar opened up. It had three tables and a sullen waiter. The night I visited there were three customers — a thickset Chinese who was yelling into his cellphone while a heavily made-up young woman smoked and sulked; I was the third. Soon there were dozens of bars, then hundreds, catering to every taste.

Office blocks began to rise above the historic city, and apartment buildings sprang up to accommodate the ambitions of the newly prosperous middle class. In the older districts living rooms were hastily converted to shopfronts. Fashion blossomed, in the knocked-off fakes churned out in the factories of the south and in the high-priced global brands that rushed to take space in the new shopping malls. Not all the migrants were labourers: designers and writers, painters and filmmakers crowded in, seeking their fortunes. ”To be somebody in China,” a friend said, ”you have to be somebody in Beijing”.

The city began to spread. In the eastern suburbs, convenient for the expanding airport, speculators built gated communities, first for the increasing numbers of expatriates who wanted to escape the now noxious air of the city, then for the newly rich Chinese who sought to shield their affluent lifestyles from the less fortunate. They were laid out in an eclectic mixture of styles — some have a Truman Show quality of fake American towns, eerily quiet, access controlled by uniformed guards. One opulent development displays mock chateaux in a suburb otherwise mired in rural squalor. In the city, too, apartment complexes were built to a jumble of fantasy themes — from mock-Roman to Seventies kitsch. Beijing took on the confusion of a nation hungry for heterodoxy, buying in cultures and styles to superimpose on a native tradition that had lost its bearings. The city hailed as the expression of China’s new dynamism was culturally adrift as its population threw itself into the pursuit of money.

Fortunes were made overnight. In a half-reformed system, the state still controlled the land on which houses sat, and the city’s local authorities, free of the constraint of any ballot box, began to wheel and deal. In 1995 Chen Xitong, Beijing’s mayor, Politburo member and political rival of China’s premier, Jiang Zemin, was charged with embezzling $5-million and presiding over a regime of corruption in city hall. Among his misdeeds was the approval of Oriental Plaza at a height that violated the restrictions for buildings in the vicinity of the Forbidden City. He was sentenced to 16 years in jail and saved from worse when his deputy, Wang Baosen, drove out of town to a quiet spot near the city’s reservoir and shot himself, taking his secrets with him. Oriental Plaza, in terms of height at least, was brought down to size.

Corruption is still a part of Beijing’s story, and not everybody wins. In the Chaoyang district, in the east of the city, property prices are rising fast, and new apartment buildings are thrown up to feed Beijing’s middle class. The district boasts a park and a convenient location, ripe for high-end development. Zhao Xingbao, a businessman who produces high-tech agricultural products, used to live there. Now he rents a small studio flat in the suburbs.

An energetic man in his forties, Zhao bought his house when, like thousands of others, he left the security of state employment and took the plunge as an entrepreneur. ”I thought, if the worst came to the worst, I would always have somewhere to live,” he said. He sits behind a pile of documents, evidence of his fight for fair compensation for his house, demolished to make way for Park 1872, a luxury high-rise development. ”They gave me 200 000 RMB (about $28 000) — which they calculated on 2001 prices,” he said. ”Nowadays that’s about enough to buy a bathroom.” He went to court but the case was thrown out. He is one of 10 000 people whose homes were demolished for the development, and calculates that the local government and the developer cheated the residents out of 2bn RMB ($277million) in compensation, leaving many homeless and destitute. ”We called every newspaper, and reporters came and wrote the story,” he said. ”But not a word was ever published.”

Down at the building site, an expanse of compacted clay scoured by eddies of yellow dust, cranes are working round the clock, and the rubble of the former homes is heaped up behind blue corrugated iron fences. One man, his possessions now crammed into a dank basement utility room nearby, showed me where his home had stood. There is nothing left but the two trees planted by his grandfather, trees that used to shade the family’s courtyard. ”My family has lived here for 17 generations,” he said. ”Since the Ming dynasty.” His wife burst into tears.

In the middle of the desolation, one ramshackle house still stands, a pot of red geraniums perched on a pile of bricks by the front door. Graffiti on the walls accuses the government and developers of being one mafia. The door frame is still decorated with fading red paper strips pasted on to mark the New Year, wishing the occupants prosperity and good health. Behind the chipped door, there is little of either: a narrow open-air passage bisects the cramped courtyard: six families have lived here for more than 30 years, crammed together in the forced intimacy of the slums. Along one window ledge stands a line of beer bottles filled with petrol. The house is overdue for demolition but the residents say they’ll fight. Theirs was a story of loss: of once secure jobs and the promise of pensions, a social contract torn up when the market moved in. This rickety house, and their indignation, is all they have left.

Soon they will be gone, cleared out, like three million other Beijing residents, of the inner city. The lucky ones bought new apartments, glad to embrace the comforts of high-rise living. The less fortunate ended up in the grim satellite suburbs that are not on the tourist route, leaving the city centre to the moneyed classes. Beijing’s once rich street life went with them. Now, the lower floors of their tower blocks have iron bars — defence against the petty crime that comes, like a seasonal rash, before the New Year holiday, when Beijing’s migrants make their annual pilgrimage home. They have expenses to meet: presents for families and train fares, and residents believe their family duties generate the annual crime wave in an otherwise remarkably law-abiding city.

As the rebuilding frenzy reached its Olympic speed, the city authorities seemed to pause to remember that, as well as the sporting Olympics, they had promised an Olympics of culture and respect for the environment. Labourers were dispatched to plant turf and roses along the expressways, and a few surviving hutongs were spared the bulldozers, to be rehabilitated as tourist attractions, with paved streets, spruced-up public toilets and newly installed retro street lighting that could have come from Dickensian London. At the south end of Tiananmen Square, nearly 50 years after Mao’s planners tore it down, a Ming gatehouse was quietly rebuilt, perfect in every detail, a re-created historic building to fit a re-created official history.

But there are other histories in the making in Beijing. Even as the city was being demolished and rebuilt by the power of money, its official spaces had changed. The occupation of Tiananmen Square by students in 1989 was only the largest of a series of claims by citizens to play a role in national life that was not scripted by the Party. Others followed: the banned religious movement Falun Gong chose the square for repeated acts of resistance, and in the Nineties it became a heavily policed space, haunted by security men on the watch for acts of defiance. Even in the wake of China’s catastrophic earthquake in May, when citizens were allowed to use the square to demonstrate their solidarity and national emotion, the crowds were controlled and dispersed after a due interlude, lest grief and shock bring less acceptable thoughts to the surface.

Beijing’s underground
Nevertheless, outside the state-sponsored public spaces left over from the Mao era, alternative spaces were growing, to be filled by a new generation who found in the margins of its increasing wealth the freedom to experiment, a generation of only children who had, for the first time in contemporary China, the choice of an independent life of creativity and cultural dissent. Beneath the din of traffic and building sites, there is a steady murmur of other voices.

In 1979 a group of artists who called themselves the Star group (Xing Xing) hung their own work on the railings of the national gallery in an open challenge to official culture. It was quickly closed down but the artists kept coming. A young generation of aspiring artists gathered in impoverished but vital suburban collectives, eventually breaking the stranglehold of Beijing’s academy. Rock bands appeared; writers read from unpublishable work; performance art broke out across the city, chased by breathless police. Beijing’s underground was born.

At first few of them could make a living by it. Even in the Nineties, the private art market barely existed in Beijing. Today some of those original rebels have become superstars as Beijing sells its image as a cultural capital. But politics is never far away. In the east of the city, Sheng Qi, an artist in his forties who is celebrated for his provocative performance art — which included cutting off his finger in protest at the crushing of the Tiananmen Square demonstration in 1989 — parks his new Mercedes outside a coffee bar. The car is the fruit of the upsurge of international interest in all things Chinese. ”I get calls all the time,” he says, ”from dealers who want to buy everything.” But, he tells me, I shouldn’t confuse the opulence of the art market with artistic freedom. Last year, in an exhibition at 798 (Beijing’s former munitions factory, now a cultural centre), he showed a piece that included a man standing in front of a toy tank, an unmistakable reference to Tiananmen. ”I argued for two weeks with the management but I had to put it away,” he said. ”It happens all the time: no nudity, no leaders, no Mao’s face in green or blue. Everyone knows the rules. If you paint pretty girls, you make money. If you talk about history, you’re in trouble.”

But history, in this once historic town, is an ineradicable passion. As the city races towards its future, its dizzy residents, or at least its intellectuals and artists, recreate the past, challenging the amnesia of their political masters. Zhao Guojun used to work for the government. Now he’s a freelance intellectual and organiser of a regular discussion group in which historians, lawyers, journalists and political scientists delve into China’s past to find some foundations on which to build a different future.

”I was a tax inspector for 11 years,” he says, nursing a glass of expensive tea, served by a young woman dressed in a pastiche historic costume. The teahouse stands in an undistinguished suburban street but inside it explodes with nostalgic kitsch: cushioned booths sit either side of a wooden bridge built over a non-existent stream, and fake cherry blossom defies the seasons. The menu boasts a dizzying choice of tea at prices equivalent to a day’s salary for an average office worker.

”If I was still in a job I would be just another nobody worried about promotion,” he said. ”Better to be an independent intellectual — there’s no guarantee of a livelihood but infinite space for thinking and exploring.”

He talks about the fierce debates between left and right that rage in Beijing. ”What both sides have in common is that they want a fairer society and they criticise corruption. But the left think it’s because the Party has not stuck to authentic socialism. There are a lot of people like that in Beijing. The rightists want to move things forward, and they have a lot of practical ideas for how to help the poor get justice, and how to build the rule of law. They are really at the forefront. I read history because I feel we are in a transition from subjects of the emperor to citizens. You can’t really be a nation without informed, responsible citizens, so in an era of globalisation we are like country bumpkins who have strayed into a sophisticated party and don’t now how to behave on the dance floor.

”I am Chinese but my life is Westernised in a city in which history survives in isolated fragments, sporadic pieces of tradition ruptured by modernity. We want to preserve our traditions and promote our value systems but we don’t know what either of them is. After 30 years of this explosion of power, there are no rules, no plan for this city. We are crossing the river by feeling the stones beneath our feet.”

Behind the cherry blossom, a flat-screen TV plays a contemporary soap opera. ”In the early 20th century,” he continues, ”China had an elected government, good universities and independent public intellectuals, so why can’t we do it again? We want to take up the legacy. It won’t be overnight. Maybe not in my lifetime. But even if it’s a long road, I can be a stone on that road. That’s a meaningful life.”

He finishes his tea and hurries out. In the street, the noise of a dozen hammers beat out a lopsided rhythm. A scrawny young man pedals a tricycle loaded with scrap paper, hauling the city’s rubbish to the suburbs where the rag-pickers make a meagre living recycling trash. The sun is filtered through a yellowing haze as I make my way back, past official Olympic billboards that proclaim: ”One world, One dream.” Zhao has vanished and the clamour of the city has closed over his dream of the future — just one of many competing dreams of Beijing. August will be the month of the official dream, when Beijing becomes the capital of the imagined future of China as a world power. Sheng Qi will spend it in his studio, painting for different times.

· Isabel Hilton is a writer, broadcaster and editor of

Grand dimensions: a nation in numbers

1100BC — 256BC: The Zhou dynasty rules, creating a feudal system.
221BC: The Qin dynasty establishes the first unified Chinese state. The Great Wall is finished.
206BC — 220AD: The Han dynasty expands China to reach Korea, Vietnam, Mongolia and Central Asia.
1368: Zhu Yuanzhang (Emperor Hongwu) founds the Ming dynasty by overthrowing the Mongols.
1644: The final Chinese dynasty, the Qing, seizes control, withdrawing from Western influence.
1851: Taiping Rebellion. Conflict between Qing and rebel forces sees 20m killed, making it the bloodiest civil war in history.
1911: Sun Yat-Sen leads a revolution against the Qing after which China is declared a republic.
1937: Japan invades China. Ten million Chinese lives are lost before the Japanese withdraw in 1945.
1949: The People’s Republic of China is formed by Mao Zedong as a socialist state headed by a ‘democratic dictatorship’.
1958: Mao insititutes The Great Leap Forward, a plan for rapid industrialisation. It collapses within three years.
1966: The Cultural Revolution, launched by Mao to purge China of his rivals, leads to chaos. Over 500,000 people are killed.
1978: Deng Xiaoping becomes de facto leader of China, instigating a reforming, modernising agenda.
1989: Student protests in Tiananmen Square are brutally repressed.
2001: Bejing is awarded the 2008 Olympic Games.


  • 24% of the world’s population speak a form of Chinese. The official state language in China is Mandarin.
  • 33,6 years: the average age in China. The life expectancy at birth is 73.18 years.
  • One child permitted for each Chinese couple under population control legislation introduced in 1979.
  • 400-million fewer babies born as a result of China’s one child policy.
  • One million more births than deaths in China every five weeks.
  • 17,43-million people live legally in Beijing. There are also an unknown number of migrant workers, who take this number to over 20 million.
  • Nine million bicycles in Beijing.
  • 200 people thought still to be in prison as a result of the 1989 Tiananmen Square riots.
  • 210-million internet users. It is expected to become the world’s largest internet-using population this year.


  • $3.5-trillion: the GDP of China last year, making it the world’s second largest economy after the US.
  • 106 Chinese dollar billionaires at the end of 2007. There were 15 at the end of 2006.
  • 795,3-million: China’s labour force.
  • 70% of Chinese workers are employed in agriculture and industry.
  • 10% of the population of China live below the poverty line.
  • $485: average monthly salary in Beijing.

    Culture, sport and lifestyle

  • 66 Starbucks stores in Beijing.
  • 759 McDonald’s restaurants in China. The first opened in 1992.
  • 215 481 searches in one day on internet search engine for Chen Chusheng, winner of Super Boy, China’s answer to Pop Idol
  • $55-million earned last year by basketball player Yao Ming, China’s most popular sports star and the tallest player in the US National Basketball Association.
  • 550 000 foreigners expected to visit Beijing over the course of the Olympics. There will also be well over two million domestic spectators.
  • 3 491 Chinese babies named ‘Aoyun’, meaning ‘Olympics’, since Beijing launched their bid for the games.

    Recommended reading
    Gate of Heavenly Peace by Jonathan Spence (Penguin). Spence is an excellent writer and the story of China in the 20th century is one of humanity’s epic struggles.
    The China Price by Alexandra Harney (Penguin). If you want to know where your stuff comes from (luggage, shoes, socks, iPod) this will tell you — and what China”s industrial revolution has done to the environment and the lives and health of the people who make our stuff.
    Authenticating Tibet: Answers to China’s 100 Questions Anne-Marie Blondeau and Katia Buffetrille (editors), foreword by Donald Lopez (Philip E Lilienthal). An expert appraisal of the arguments and issues to help you cut through the rhetoric and misinformation. –

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