A worker walking past renovation work on a street in Beijing. (Fred Dufour / AFP)
BEIJING (AFP) – It took Zhang Zhimin a decade to cultivate a loyal clientele at his imported shoe shop facing one of central Beijing’s busiest streets.
Yet it took authorities no time at all to make his life’s work disappear behind a wall of bricks.
Just two days after receiving a government notice, men arrived with cheap cement and wheelbarrows of clay blocks to seal off Zhang’s store door and windows, despite his protests and possession of an official business operating licence.
It has become a familiar sight in China’s capital — doors and windows of businesses operating in areas zoned as residences are being plugged with bricks, most notably in the city’s charming and bustling alleyways known as hutongs.
It is part of a broader campaign that authorities say will beautify the city, reduce overcrowding and ease pollution as it enforces zoning codes.
Critics, however, call it a misguided land grab which is driving out migrants to turn the city centre into a playground for the rich.
“It’s the same process as when China had emperors: if you don’t close your shop, we’ll chop your head off. Where’s our say in this?” Zhang said angrily.
Though technically his windowless shop is allowed to continue operations through a side door, business has dropped so drastically he will not be able to pay the rent. He now plans to move back to his hometown in southern Guangxi province.
“In the future, China will be divided into two separate societies — the rich areas, comparable to Tokyo or New York, and the poor areas, comparable to Africa. But the emperor only needs the place where he lives to be pleasant.”
Award winner closes
Across Beijing’s ancient city centre, authorities have also torn down or bricked up residences that they say were illegally built.
The structures, often self-built, housed migrants running the barbershops, dry cleaners and restaurants that brought a vibrant, cacophonous life to the hutongs. Most former residents have already left.
“Who will do the grunt jobs? All the lower salaried people have been chased off,” said Wang Liguo, a hutong fruit shop owner who said he couldn’t find a salesperson to hire since the campaign began.
Many sushi vendors, cocktail bars and coffee shops that have popped up in recent years alongside local dumpling vendors have been bricked up.
Even well-known establishments like Big Small Coffee have not been spared. The closet-sized hutong space was shortlisted in July for a prestigious World Interior of the Year award, but it closed weeks later, unable to operate without a door.
The changes are part of a year-long, 10 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) campaign to “recover the original appearance of the hutong, which is an integral part of the capital’s traditional culture,” the China Daily newspaper quoted a local official as saying.
‘Now it’s hideous’
But conservationists are divided as to whether the campaign is restoring or destroying the history of the hutongs.
Matthew Hu, trustee at the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre, said he believed the changes were moving in a “good direction” for hutong conservation.
Since historically 90 percent of spaces in such districts were non-commercial, demolitions and closures could be seen as merely “going back to normal,” he said.
Privately carried out ad hoc renovations and add-ons in recent decades were “not very authentic at all,” Hu said.
But the small government team in Beijing tasked with regulating such additions had lacked the manpower to crack down on illegal construction, he added.
“It’s not like in a new apartment complex, where what is public and what is private is very clear — because of the history in the hutongs, there’s a lot of grey. You can’t just do whatever you want with your house.”
But a government official in the Dongcheng district cultural bureau, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP that the campaign was the disastrous result of botched bureaucratic communication.
“Nearly a decade of preparatory reconnaissance work was completed — every hutong analysed and photographed — but no one asked us for those surveys,” he said.
“They just went out and did whatever they wanted to do, without even coming up with unified standards,” he said.
The official said his bureau was now providing training to those involved in the campaign, but he feared that it was too little, too late.
“Now it’s hideous, and even traditional courtyards that ought to have been preserved have been covered up.”
(Becky Davis / AFP)