Is This Beijing's Suburban Future?

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.

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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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