In total, Beijing plans to spend US$23bn on Olympics-related buildings and infrastructure – a huge amount by any standards, though still barely enough for it to play catch-up with Shanghai. The capital's size, conservative bent and Byzantine local politics have made urban planning difficult. One symbol of the problem is the under-invested metro system, which has only two lines to serve millions of commuters every day. The Olympics have provided the much-needed impetus to improve the city's underdeveloped infrastructure at one stroke.
At present much of Beijing is a construction site – bulldozers, cranes and battalions of construction workers are everywhere. City planners assure residents that Beijing will be cleaner, more modern and more efficient when all is done. Not everyone is convinced, however. For one thing, some critics argue, the city will be even more sprawling than before, with all the drawbacks of a megacity.
Today, Beijing covers 1,040 sq km, compared with just 72 sq km a century ago. Cars speed down newly-built boulevards while pedestrians struggle along the noisy, polluted and unshaded pavements. Many traditional neighbourhood districts have been razed to make way for nondescript skyscrapers and shopping malls.
The latest casualty is Nanchizi, where hundreds of century-old courtyard houses have been destroyed to make way for bigger and more expensive blocks. The area, south of the Forbidden City, was marked as one of 25 historic areas under preservation. The district's officials, however, managed to defy the order and get developers in, saying that the scheme would 'beautify' the area and 'restore' its ancient setting with newly built alleyways and courtyard houses.
Shanghai lost many of its historic European- style buildings during its breakneck development in the 1990s. Cultural preservationists feel the situation in Beijing is even more acute because of the capital's long history and rich heritage. Shanghai rose to prominence only a century ago, while Beijing has been the seat of government for some 800 years.
Downtown Beijing now looks like most other Chinese cities, filled with concrete blocks that are rapidly encroaching on neighbouring rural counties. Quiet villages in Fengtai and Beiyuan have been turned into suburbs, from where people travel long distances to work in the city centre. With the imminent completion of the light railway system and the fifth ring road, more people will move out to these satellite towns.
With an ever-expanding Beijing, its residents will increasingly depend on cars. Public transport is improving, but private cars will remain the preferred mode of transport of the young and affluent. A recent survey of nine Chinese cities revealed that Beijing had proportionately the largest number of people planning to buy a car. Official sources predict that the number of cars in Beijing will nearly double from the current 1.7m to 3m by 2008.
Beijing's answer to a fast-growing car population is to build more roads, tripling the current 216km to 700km by 2008. But newly built roads, such as the fourth ring road, have quickly reached capacity. "The roads to the suburbs are becoming very congested as more people commute to work from satellite towns," says one driver. When bad weather hits Beijing, the deficiency of the traffic system is clearly exposed. In December last year, for example, heavy snowfall paralysed the whole city, trapping cars on highways for up to 10 hours.
For the moment, Beijing is concerned only with growth, not the consequences of growth. This year, the city is expected to record its fourth consecutive year of 11 per cent GDP growth, to Yn312.6bn.
Much of this growth is fuelled by public spending on infrastructure. Another stimulus is property development, the hottest industry in town. Developers are grabbing land and putting up concrete blocks at a startling rate, in anticipation of an Olympics-related property boom. In the suburbs, they build villas and detached houses for the nouveau riche that routinely fetch US$1m a unit. In the city centre, they build studios, serviced apartments and other deluxe units for the growing class of young professionals.