For eight years Chen Zhongshen has run a small, inexpensive restaurant on the ground floor of a residential building in east Beijing.
She sells tasty, home-cooked dishes that are a hit with taxi drivers and low-paid office workers.
But in January the government bricked up the front of her shop, leaving her with only a small window (a common way for Chinese officials to shut small businesses deemed illegal). In a testament to Chen’s cooking it hasn’t deterred her customers, who now climb in and out of by way of a ladder. Every seat was full during a recent lunch hour. “We’ll hold on as long as we can,” she says. “We have nowhere else to go.”
Chen is not alone. Across Beijing’s low-rent spaces, informal businesses are being shut by the thousands as the capital gears up for a massive revamp under the Jing-Jin-Ji project (see WiC231).
Health and safety is the reason the authorities give for most of the closures but the real motive is something else: reducing the population. Beijing currently has 21.7 million people – 3.7 million more than a cap the local government set in 2005.
Environmentally speaking the city can’t cope – it is short of 1.5 billion cubic metres of water per year.
So the plan is to move people and businesses out to an expanded, interconnected area which covers Beijing (Jing), Tianjin (Jin) and the surrounding province of Hebei (Ji) – hence the name Jing-Jin-Ji.
First in line are Beijing’s 8 million migrant workers – people like Chen and the other migrants who ran shops on her block.
Already 13,000 such businesses have gone and another 16,000 are targeted for closure in the remainder of the year. Meanwhile 350 wet markets have also been shifted out of the city.
Low-rise blocks like the one where Chen works are popular with migrant workers because they aren’t zoned for commercial use, which means rents are lower. They also have the advantage of being in small communities that require affordable restaurants, shops and services like hairdressers.
Another area popular with informal businesses is among the hutongs in the city centre, which are the capital’s remaining historic alleyways.
After officials bricked up the shops on a lane near the Forbidden City recently, many shopkeepers tried to keep going by posting sales assistants on the kerb outside to attract customers and hand goods to shoppers.
Fine if you are selling cold drinks, less successful if you are selling sex toys, as one reportedly was.
It feels like the passing of an era, and even the Beijing government acknowledges that many of these shops first popped up as a result of economic liberalisation in the eighties and nineties. “Conditions have changed and we need to change with them,” a commentary in Xinhua said unsentimentally.
The Jing-Jin-Ji project is about coordinating development so that the areas around Beijing reach similar levels of wealth to the capital. That way people and businesses will move out and the burden is taken off the city. The new area will cover 212,000 square kilometres (the equivalent of two South Koreas) and be home to 130 million people.
The backbone of the plan is high speed railways, with close to 2,000 kilometres of bullet train track set to connect Beijing and Tianjin to eight major cities in Hebei: Baoding, Langfang, Tangshan, Qinhuangdao, Shijiazhuang, Chengde and Cangzhou.
Some lines have already been built such as the Beijing-Tianjin link and the Tianjin-Baoding line. Eight others will be completed by 2020. The idea is to have a one-hour commute time between most cities in the area. New highways connecting the cities are also being built, including a seventh ring road around Beijing.
Under the scheme the three areas – Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei – have been given different roles. Beijing remains the national capital, the country’s international face and a centre for culture and innovation.
Tianjin will expand its role as a busy port, develop advanced manufacturing industries like robotics and act as a model for financial reform.
Hebei will specialise in logistics and act as “ecological support” for the whole region. One of its key tasks is to stage a successful Winter Olympics at Zhangjiakou in 2022 (for which another high-speed train line is being built).
To make sure Tianjin and Hebei meet these goals money is flowing out of Beijing into the surrounding areas. Zhongguancun – known as Beijing’s Silicon Valley – has set up an innovation centre in Baoding, for example. Beijing’s universities and hospitals are doing the same: the thinking being that Beijing is what it is because of these skills and services. If others had them too the capital would not be such a people-magnet.
The government says hospitals are a particular draw – over 700,000 people use Beijing’s medical services every day and many of them are from out of town.
“We should keep the heart of the cabbage and cut away the other parts,” proclaimed Li Shixiang, vice-mayor of Beijing at a recent press conference to discuss the project. A line regularly repeated in official media is that “Beijing has too many functions”. The Jing-Jin-Ji project is also a way of creating something akin to the booming economic areas around Shanghai (the Yangtze River Delta) and Guangzhou (the Pearl River Delta).
To show the project doesn’t just impact on the poor and powerless, the Beijing government is taking the lead in moving out of the city itself.
This year it will leave its offices in the historic heart of the capital and move 15 miles east to Tongzhou. Initially it will relocate 20,000 jobs but over time it says that 400,000 people will move, as families and auxiliary services follow.
Beijing’s target is to cut the population by 15% from its 2014 levels by 2020 when most part of the Jing-Jin-Ji project will be in place.
A report in the People’s Daily chronicled the experiences of two sisters – one who had stayed in her family village in Hebei, and the other who moved a few kilometres down the road to an area administered as part of the Jing-Jin-Ji initiative.
The sister who stayed behind had to draw water from a well and navigate a potholed road. But her sister had a two-storey house and modern plumbing. “I had heard talk about integrated development for years. To my surprise, real changes have begun to take place in recent years,” the sister who stayed behind said.
Another tale in the China Daily explains how some of the space created by the removal of the Zoo Market – a massive wholesale clothes emporium near the Bejing Zoo – has been leased to a company which makes drones.
“The plan has not only reduced the number of daily visitors to 10,000 and saved space of about 163,000 square metres, but also led to upgrading of the local economy,” it said.
Sadly for Ms Chen, her business looks unlikely to survive as this ‘upgrading’ process continues in the coming years…
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