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.