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Jonathan Chatwin explains how the changes of Beijing can be seen in its streets

by Paul French
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Jonathan Chatwin

By Paul French

Jonathan Chatwin is a writer on China who splits his time between Birmingham and Beijing. His new book, Long Peace Street, is an attempt to understand China’s recent past and possible future by walking the twenty miles from one end of Beijing’s major central thoroughfare, Chang’an Jie, to the other; from the Western Hills to the far eastern end when the road becomes a motorway to Tianjin, with Tiananmen Square dead centre and halfway. So, what did he learn?

PF: You started at the old Capital Iron and Steel Works, Shougang, which used to employ 200,000 workers and is now a building site. What happened to all those workers and what will happen to that vast site which, thanks to better public transport, is now relatively close to central Beijing?

JC: The plant relocated to Caofeidian, an industrial area of reclaimed land that sticks out into Bohai Bay, to Beijing’s south east. When I spoke to workers in 2016, the year of my walk, some of them were still commuting to the new plant – about three hours away – doing a ten-day work week and then coming back to their families for a couple of days before commuting again. The company had also offered incentives for workers to retire in advance of 2011 when the plant closed for good.

That area of Beijing, however, had never been part of the city proper – it’s miles from the centre – and getting rid of Shougang had a pretty severe impact on the suburb of Shijingshan, which it originally formed part of. Now, they’ve redeveloped some bits of the old industrial architecture and it’s become the headquarters of the 2022 Winter Olympics – they’re even building a snowboard ramp running down from one of the cooling towers. It’s a huge plot of land, though, and not all of it will be given over to the Olympics. Its future beyond the Winter Olympics is unclear, too; many of the 2008 Olympic sites have been little used since those Games took place.

PF: Much of the western end of Chang’an Jie seems to be new and endless cookie-cutter high rise apartment blocks. Is there anything else happening out there – there was talk of hi-tech zones, “Animation City” etc?

JC: There were a lot of grand plans put forward for Shougang and Shijingshan after its closure, but much of it never happened – that gap between word and deed is something one becomes quickly used to in following the story of Chinese urban space.

The Olympic Headquarters has offered a chance for some redevelopment: Apple Orchard, the terminus of Subway Line One, Pingguoyuan, always had a pretty down-at-heel, ramshackle feel to it, but more subway lines now reach there. New office compounds have also been thrown up, along with countless ranks of those identikit apartment blocks which blight the edges of all Chinese cities these days.

Most tourist maps of the city don’t even include the western suburbs – they start six or seven miles in from the western edge of the city. They’ve also built a grand new bridge over the Yongding River, extending Chang’an Jie beyond Shougang – so Long Peace Street is now even longer than it was when I walked it!

PF: One of your themes is that Chang’an Jie symbolises the reality of Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening Up process, from the deemphasising of old industries like Shougang to the fact that Jingrong Jie, China’s “Wall Street”, and just about all the major bank head offices line the street, or are very close. Is Chang’an Jie then really the centre of the reform and recalibration of China?

JC: That’s certainly one of the stories which it tells – the shift away from heavy industry, the development of the financial sector and the reform of the State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) whose headquarters are dotted along Chang’an Jie. The more contemporary part of that story is told out in the east, where the Central Business District has replaced what was fields, and then factories, with statement architectural buildings providing this once notoriously low-rise city with a new skyline. The street, for me, articulates the struggles China has had with its modern identity, post-1949, and there are echoes of all phases of communist rule along it.

PF: I know for your next project you’re looking at revisiting all the sites of Deng’s famous Southern Tour. Do you think that by walking Chang’an Jie or revisiting such historic sites we can gain greater understanding and insight into China’s future direction?

JC: Control over the historical story of China is one of the most important ways in which the CCP shapes contemporary Chinese identity. The stories they allow to be told, and the way that they frame those stories, tell us a lot about the self-image of the state, and its particular insecurities. So, visiting these historical sites, and comparing the stories they are telling to those which could be told, is a powerful way of understanding contemporary China.

I was in Wuhan earlier this year, and they’ve just opened a museum there on the history of “discipline” in the CCP. It’s had lots of money lavished on it, and all the displays discuss how important discipline and cracking down on corruption is in ensuring the country continues to make progress. Clearly, that’s a narrative being pushed by a leader who sees himself as a strong man, and wants to capitalise on his reputation as someone who won’t tolerate corruption – or indeed dissent.

PF: You describe Beijing as a ‘glorious mess’, endlessly sprawling and still growing. Do you think there’s a sense in our more environmentally-aware and concerned world that the constant growth of Beijing goes against the grain of urban planning somewhat? And can Beijing’s city planners do anything about?

JC: In the days before the CCP took over, Beijing was a political and intellectual city, but Mao insisted it become a centre of manufacturing, and that much of the imperial architecture be razed. So, the issues the city is struggling with are partly the legacy of that enormous shift in identity that happened in the 1950s and 1960s.

There is a new plan for Beijing now, which involves limiting the overall population of the city and pushing some of the ‘non-capital functions’ out to other satellite cities like Tongzhou to the east, and the new city of Xiong’an in Hebei to the south, which is still being built. The trouble is that often these new urban plans are developed without consideration of the human element – the population cap has led to much of the low-end ‘floating’ population being kicked out of the city, and there’s a sense that the city is being reformed into a somewhat sanitised version of its old self. I’m a sceptic about the CCP’s aims and methods in urban planning, but Beijing has weathered its fair share of external pressure over the centuries and has always, somehow, managed to preserve its identity.

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