Is This Beijing's Suburban Future?

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by Ella Chou

In my close-friend circle, I'm known for two things: ice-cream addiction and zero sense of direction. So when I was marveling at Brian Glucroft's fascinating photo blogs on China's lesser-known cities (Xiapu, Fujian and Yulin, Guangxi) and telling my friends back home how I couldn't believe I've never explored these places, they stated the obvious: "Ella, you didn't even explore Beijing in the four years you lived here." I always blamed this on the massive city layout, the insane traffic, and complex streets, which confused me so much that I once got lost on my way to the Carrefour which I used to go to every weekend.

This is changing. As Jim Fallows noted more than two years ago, Beijing's rapid subway expansion would conceivably change the city's livability, and for me and many others, "explorability." My good friend Dan Chinoy, who grew up in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and is currently studying Chinese at Tsinghua University, has been telling me about fascinating trips he made along the new subway lines to Beijing's suburbs and, after my cajoling and pleading, kindly compiled his thoughts into the following story. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

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 (An image from the Changping County 12th Five Year Plan. Changping is over 20 miles north of central Beijing. H/T Piper Gaubatz.)


Dan Chinoy: Last December, Beijing opened five new subway lines.  I like to explore, and so when I finally had some free time, I hopped on one of them and took the train all the way to its last stop, about twenty miles north of Beijing's city center.  The car was new and very shiny, and each station was decorated liberally with flat screen TVs and advertisements. 

As we went farther north, the crowd slowly thinned, eventually leaving me sharing a car with a pair of giggling, stylish Chinese girls playing with their iPhones, a couple evidently going to a costume party -- the guy in a pirate hat, the girl wearing rabbit ears -- and several young men in Air Jordans and Nike jackets.  Once we arrived, I followed the couple up the escalator from the platform, stepped outside -- and into the rubble of what was apparently once a small, poor, rural village. 

I had, I realized, arrived in the vast borderland between Beijing's urban center and its rural surroundings.  The remnants of a farm were visible down the street, and a growing block of new high-rise apartments and cranes loomed jarringly in the distance.  A brand new, almost empty highway implied expectations of greater things to come -- expectations that perhaps also explained why it was necessary to put a rail station in a rural area underground. 

Curious, over the next few days, I called and emailed around to try and figure out what it was I was looking at.  What, exactly, were iPhones and pirate costumes -- to say nothing of a subway -- doing so far out from the city?

It turns out that this borderland is where a growing number of Beijing's 22 million people live, including much of the city's middle class and substantial portion of its nearly eight million migrant workers.  "In China, it's the opposite of the U.S.," said Zhang Min, an associate professor of urban planning at Tsinghua University.  "In the U.S., the rich people live outside the cities.  In China, most rich people live inside the cities."  And this trend is intensifying, with significant implications for Beijing, and for China's development.

This suburban expansion has taken place so quickly that in some places, it has created what are known in Chinese as 城中村 or chengzhongcun, which translates roughly to village-in-a-city: older mud and brick houses and abandoned fields surrounded by brand new apartment complexes.  Often, residents of these villages choose to rent them out to migrant workers.  Some even build small apartment buildings of their own and become full-fledged landlords.  This creates something that's not quite a slum, but not exactly a well-regulated residential complex either. 

There are also wealthy gated communities and golf courses, and even good old-fashioned farms -- all often right next to each other.  "There's often very little planning and it can be quite chaotic," said Cindy Fan, associate dean of social sciences and a geography professor at UCLA.  "So in the outskirts you see high-rises right next to little villages." This is not, in other words, your typical Los Angeles suburb. 

In part, most people said, the rapid expansion and odd juxtapositions of Beijing's suburbs are simply a result of China's real estate bubble and urban population growth.  Over the last two decades, China's housing prices have soared, as millions of Chinese have moved from the countryside to the city -- a movement the government has encouraged as a way to grow the economy.  (Some experts also believe housing prices are further inflated by the fact that China's under-developed financial system leaves many people without a safe place for long-term investment, other than in property.)  Consequently, for many young Chinese looking to buy a house or apartment -- home ownership is often considered a prerequisite for marriage -- living in the suburbs is often the only affordable option.

In addition, many Beijingers have been forced to move when their homes downtown were demolished to make way for development.  In some cases, this has led to brutally unfair confiscations of land and housing, particularly in the countryside where local governments rely on land sales for a significant percentage of their revenue.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, land confiscation is one of the largest sources of violence in China today, and refusal to vacate a condemned apartment has led to the spectacle of "nail houses" and even public suicides.

For Beijing's city planners, this urban sprawl obviously presents major challenges.  Perhaps the most fundamental problem is the fact that despite the government's best efforts, there is only one major economic hub in Beijing: downtown.  Jobs, in other words, have not yet followed Beijingers to the suburbs.  "You need to have a complexity of economic activity in order to make things work," said Fan.  "So I would therefore think very, very seriously before you say 'let's just move 30 miles outside the city.'"

In some ways, this is also a legacy of China's socialist era, when cities were conceived of as centers of industry, and the government actively discouraged major urban growth.  Until about thirty years ago, most everyone in China lived with their work unit and immigration to cities was sharply restricted.  Beijing's city planners therefore did not have to account for commuting or the intricate set of economic interactions that help anchor the development of an urban area.  As a result, in contrast to places like Copenhagen, they did not design the city in such a way as to encourage different centers of growth.

And that exacerbates another major issue: traffic.  The five ring roads that surround Beijing now encircle a total area of about 800 square miles, making biking or walking impractical.  In comparison, Qian Jingjing, who heads the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council's smart growth projects in China, points out that all five boroughs of New York City cover just 300 square miles.  And the sheer number of cars in Beijing is mind-boggling: There are 2,000 new vehicles on the road each day, and the city's 4.7 million existing cars average speeds slower than most bikers during rush hour. 

As a result of all this, much of Beijing's middle and lower-middle class now face a brutal commute across town -- the longest in China, according to one study.  And you can imagine what this does for the city's air pollution and energy use (and its collective sanity).  So perhaps it should not be surprising that last December, Beijing's vice minister for traffic was fired and -- in a decision straight out of the Qing Dynasty -- sent to work in Xinjiang

Beijing's growth also raises questions about the provision of basic services and infrastructure.  The growing population of migrant workers -- none of whom have a Beijing hukou, or residence permit -- does not have the same access to schools and healthcare that local Beijingers do.  And most of the best schools and hospitals are still in the city itself.  Garbage disposal is a massive (and smelly) issue. The fastest growing portion of China's energy use is in buildings, according to the US-based Natural Resources Defense Council.  Beijing does not have enough water. Rapid urban expansion into the countryside has even created the danger of a shortage of farmland.  The list goes on.  

Still, the news is not all depressing.  Over the last five years, most major Chinese cities have started to pay much more attention to these issues.  An estimated 80 percent of new buildings are in compliance with the city's energy efficiency standards.  Most major Chinese cities are now furiously building subway systems, including Beijing, which now has over 300 kilometers worth of track in the city.  Beijing is also trying to encourage biking, recently announced a quota on car purchases, and has imposed stricter environmental standards for buildings.  To ease congestion, the city may even embark on its own version of the Big Dig (though I'm not sure if that's good news or not).

Perhaps most importantly, Beijing has worked hard to create several economic sub-centers outside the city.  This includes building transport connections to the rest of the city; setting up tax incentives and subsidies; and providing water, power, schools, hospitals, green spaces, shopping, and so on.  The idea is that as they develop, these suburban centers will help absorb some of Beijing's growth and ease the pressure on the city center.  Think: Jersey City to Beijing's New York.

Whether these efforts can keep pace with Beijing's expansion, I can't say.  Some people are optimistic, others less so.  As Piper Gaubatz, a professor at the University of Massachusetts who has studied these issues, wrote in an email: "In general China as a whole, and certainly Beijing, has been very innovative in experimenting with ways to mitigate sprawl, control growth, and create more livable cities -- but the rapid economic development which is taking place there often masks this, or even sets up a "losing battle" scenario.

But going forward, the stakes in this race between planning and growth couldn't be higher.  If Beijing can find a way to make its suburbs work, the city could eventually join London and New York as a major global hub.  Or at least the city government hopes so.  However, if it can't keep the economy growing and tame the traffic, Beijing could end up with a set of suburban slums to rival Rio or Mexico City.  My bet, though, is that while Beijing won't be competing with New York anytime soon, it will build enough underground subways in the countryside to keep things working.  But just barely.

Ella Chou, who grew up in Hangzhou, China, is a graduate student in Regional Studies-East Asia at Harvard, studying law and comparative politics.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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