In recent months, Beijing has been transformed from a city with little nightlife into one that never sleeps. Tens of thousands of labourers have been working into the small hours on gigantic construction sites, with red banners flying in the dark sky calling for quality and speed. They are racing against time, as 67 state-invested large-scale projects have to be completed in time for celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the People's Republic on October 1 next year.
The US$14bn projects range from a new environment-friendly natural gas supply system for one million households, to the building of new railways in northern Beijing. Three projects, in particular, will make a big impact on the life of the capital's 13 million people. They are the six-lane Ping An Avenue, a subway extension and renovation work in Wangfujing and a few other prime commercial districts.
A revenue shortfall
When all the work is done, Beijing's streets will be wider, government planners promise, traffic will flow faster and shopping areas will be prettier and cleaner. But critics say these projects concentrate too much on modern development and not enough on cultural preservation. As Ren Pingsheng, a columnist at the Beijing-based China Economic News wrote: "Beijing is supposed to be a historical and cultural city. But you will have difficulty in finding a lingering shadow of history. The buildings are so close to each other, roads are so crammed and the air is so polluted."
Beijing was for centuries a well-planned and magnificent city, but economic development has affected the 800-year-old capital. With strained infrastructure, it is suffering from the same ills as other fast-developing Asian cities. Beijing's second and third ring roads, the main arteries which circle the city, are jammed during the day. Cars move at an average speed of 20km an hour in the city centre. With slow-moving traffic clogging every corner of the city, the quality of air has deteriorated. Beijing's pollution is now consistently among the worst in international city surveys.
Beijing has fallen victim to the frantic pace of development. Every day, the over-crowded city has to handle 1.2 million cars, eight million bicycles, 13 million residents and four million visitors.
Beijing planners say they do not have enough money to cope with the ever-expanding needs of one of the world's most crowded cities. In the Ninth Five-year Plan (1996-2000), Beijing's scheduled government spending of Yn l 2 l bn (US$14.6bn) is barely enough to cover the basic needs ofheating, electricity, road maintenance and sewage treatment. Its revenue, based on a narrow tax base that needs to be reformed, is expected to reach Yn 113bn during the same period, leaving a shortfall of Yn8bn.
Many much-needed projects, like the fourth and the fifth ring roads that are to be built outside the third one, have been put on hold indefinitely. But some warn that Beijing cannot wait any longer. If the fourth ring road is not completed in the near future, we will have a very serious situation with traffic flow,' wrote the Beijing-based government mouthpiece Outlook.
For the time being, Beijing does not have a problem in raising funds. Premier Zhu Rongji is asking the treasury and the banks to fund more state investment, in a bid to boost growth in a spluttering economy. Beijing, given its importance as the nation's capital, is getting a big share of that extra spending. In the first seven months of 1998, spending on infrastructure in Beijing grew year-on-year 45.1 per cent. The 50th anniversary of the republic provides another convenient reason for Beijing officials to lobby for more money from the central government in order to complete long-delayed projects.
Preserving cultural relics
Topping the list of projects is the Ping An Boulevard, a 7km thoroughfare that will run parallel to Chang An Avenue, the only boulevard that links the east and the west of the city in one stretch. The new road, with 10 overhead walkways for pedestrians, will greatly cut travel time and will be able to carry 2,500 vehicles an hour, six times the current capacity. To make way for the new road, some 8,300 residents living in one-storey courtyard houses in little alleyways known as hutong have to be relocated. All of them have been compensated either with cash or an apartment comparable to what they had before, Beijing officials say.
Having learnt from past lessons of how precious relics were destroyed in the name of development, the city government has taken pains to preserve this culturally rich area. It has put on its protection list 10 important historical sites, including the home of Dr Sun Yatsen, who toppled the Qing Dynasty in 1911, and the famous Beihai Park. To accommodate the park, builders decided to narrow the road by seven metres, so that what used to be a royal gar-den can remain intact. Relics found during the digging, such as jade, pottery and carved objects, go to the museum.
Despite the care taken to preserve cultural relics, one architectural gem is likely to.
The President's man
There is a sharp contrast between the incumbent mayor of Beijing and his more colourful predecessor.
Ask Beijing people what they think Mayor Jia Qinglin has done lately for the city and few can come up with a detailed reply. Enquire about the previous mayor Chen Xitong and they are likely to give a long answer about his discredited career. Chen was sentenced to 16 years in prison in August this year for embezzling state funds and accepting bribes from foreigners. Jia was appointed in 1995 to replace him.
Many Beijingers condemn Chen for his corruption but credit him for many of the capital's new landmark buildings and highways. "If it were not for him, the second and third ring roads would still be under construction," says a taxi driver, referring to the two arterial roads used by tens of thousands of cars use every day in this congested city.
The contrast in public perception of the two mayors highlights their difference in style and personality. It also reveals the pragmatic side of a politically sensitive populace. More than their counterparts in other Chinese cities, people in the capital have seen at first hand the rise and fall of many communist leaders.
Beijingers understand that politics is about power, not morals. Chen's `official' crimes were illegally receiving gifts worth Yn550,000 (US$66,000) and improper spending of Yn39m (US$4.7m) on a villa used by himself and his friends. Chen's real crime, Beijingers believe, was his open challenge to Party Secretary Jiang Zemin. Chen, who had powerful allies in the capital, was known to be openly defiant of Jiang, who came to Beijing in 1989 with less impressive political connections. "Chen fatally under-estimated Jiang in going after those who opposed him," says a Beijing-based scholar.
Now that Chen is disgraced, there are many unofficial accounts of his `decadent life'. He is known to have had many mistresses and a lavish taste for luxury goods. Beijingers, though keen to read about all this in best-selling novels such as The Wrath of Heaven, downplay the stories of corruption. "When you are in power, everything you do is right; when you are not, everything becomes a crime," says one political analyst.
While Beijing people have a love-hate relationship with Chen, they are indifferent to 58-year-old Jia, a career party bureaucrat seen as colourless, conservative and subservient to the centre. "He has to listen to the centre. That is exactly the reason they hired him to succeed Chen," says the analyst. Jia's career is typical of the new generation of communist technocrats, having worked as a party boss at major state-owned enterprises. Chen, in contrast, had little formal education and no experience of economic management. He rose to power through the public security apparatus.
Filling a hot seat in the aftermath of an intense power struggle between Chen and Jiang, Jia has been toeing the party line. In his report to the municipal party congress late last year, Jia stressed repeatedly the need to "maintain a high degree of political unanimity with the central committee with comrade Jiang Zemin as the core". It seems that Jiang has finally got the loyal Beijing mayor he wants, but maybe not the kind of daring and efficient leadership the city needs to solve its many problems.
give way to the bulldozer. This is a fine Ming-dynasty courtyard house owned by Zhao Jingxin, an 80-year-old retired professor of foreign trade. Zhao has refused to move out of the 1,000 sq metre house, located at a major crossroads near the western part of the Ping An Avenue. "I am too old to move," he says. "This has been my home for the last 50 years. Even if you give me millions of yuan as compensation, I wont accept it. I won't know how to use the money." Zhao argues that it is the greed of developers, rather than the need of the public works, that is behind the proposed demolition of his neighbourhood. "Our house is 150-160 metres away from Ping An Avenue. Developers are using the road project to secure our land," he adds.
Zhao's campaign to preserve his courtyard house is supported by many sympathisers, including scholars, architects and well-known literary figures. Among them is Fang Ke, a lecturer at the Architecture and City Planning Research Centre of Qinghua University. "It is important that cases like Zhao's are publicised and debated. Otherwise, neighbourhoods with historical and cultural significance will be wiped out by developers without proper consideration to the harm it is doing to our cultural heritage," Fang said. Still, he is not hopeful that Zhao will win, as all the houses around his have already been knocked down.
An overcrowded centre
A short drive from Zhao's home is Wangfujing, another area undergoing massive renovation. The opening of the Dong An Shop-ping Mall, said to be the biggest in Asia, has brought new energy to this old shopping area, but Wangfujing remains overcrowded and dusty. With poor wiring, unpaved roads and chaotic traffic, a large part of the district looks more like a down-market bazaar than the leading shopping area it once was.
In December 1997 the municipal government launched a Yn 100m (US$12m) renovation programme to restore the area's long-standing reputation as the number one commercial street in the capital. At present, the area is like a big construction site, with the middle of the road fenced off for public works. Tourists, traffic police, construction workers, buses, bicycles, tricycles and cars compete for room on a two-metre strip of space on each side.
By October 1 next year, all will be complete and there will be trees, flower beds, fountains, artistic sculptures, new paved roads and brighter lights, the planners promise. However, some critics are sceptical whether Wangfujing could ever relive its former glories. As Ren of the China Economic News wrote, "Wangfujing has major surgery every year, raising its nose and shaping its brows, but its appearance is becoming less attractive. Tourists are complaining there is too much concrete and less cultural flavour in the area."
Fang Ke of Qinghua University says the solution to the problem is to develop several commercial centres, rather than have all business activities concentrated in the old parts of the city. Then, the government does not have to knock down courtyard houses, exquisitely designed city gates and other relics that have made Beijing special.
If high-rise blocks and cars continue to cram into an area constituting only six per cent of the city's total, the day may come when central Beijing will be so overcrowded that China has to move its capital elsewhere, Fang warns. This is not such a far-fetched scenario, he claims, noting that Tokyo has been considering this option for years in the face of over-centralisation that has hurt efficiency and diminished people's quality of life. According to Fang, lessons can be learned from the experiences of Japan. "It is still not too late for Beijing."