Bird's Nest stadiumBeijing is the capital and second largest city in China (Shanghai is the largest). The only major city in the world not built on a river or ocean, it was the central city of the eastern Mongol Empire and the capital of imperial China for 700 years before it was transformed into Stalinist industrial city under Mao Zedong. Today it is not only the home of the Chinese government and its vast bureaucracy, it is also the home of the officially-sanctioned culture of the Communist party and China’s intellectual, literary and artistic elite. Maps of Beijing: chinamaps.org
In China, Beijing is sometimes just called “Jing” for short. Like many Chinese cities, it is booming, dirty, crowded, commercial and industrial — only in Beijing all these things are on a much more massive and intimidating in scale. Traffic engulfs freeways and ring roads; consumerism engulfs rich and poor alike; pollution engulfs the air and water. The hard work, high growth rates and high stress levels give the city a sense of dynamism and irritability, perhaps augmented by the fact here are only around 7,000 public toilets for 11 million people.
Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing are direct-administered municipalities — municipalities under the direct administration of the central government in Beijing and have the same rank as provinces. A municipality is a "city" (“shì”) with "provincial" (shěngjí) power under a unified jurisdiction. As such it is simultaneously a city and a province of its own right. A municipality is often not a "city" in the usual sense of the word term but instead is an administrative unit with a main central urban area at its core and much larger surrounding area containing rural areas, smaller cities (districts and subdistricts), towns and villages.
Beijing City sits at an elevation of 43 meters (143 feet) above sea level Gray is the color most associated with Beijing. The buildings, streets, clothes people wear, pollution and weather are all predominately different shades of gray. Noise is also a constant. Honking cars and gear-grinding buses occupy streets that were once filled bicycles. Construction noise seems around every corner.
Little remains from the imperial era other than the Forbidden City and few temples and tombs. Communism seems to exist only for its kitsch value. Still, Beijing is a place one has to go and there is a lot to see and do: The Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Mao's Mausoleum, the Ming Tombs and the Summer Palace of the Empress Dowager Cixi. And the sheer numbers of people make it a very vibrant and alive city, with lots of good restaurants, food stalls and nightclubs as well as wide boulevards and back alleys shared by girls in mini-skirts and old men in Mao suits. The drearier parts of Beijing are often off the tourist path and easy to avoid.
Ben Blanchard of Reuters wrote: “Beijing has a lot going for it, aside from being capital of the world's second-largest economy and home to UNESCO World Heritage sites like the Summer Palace and world-famous cuisine. For expatriates in Beijing, especially from the West, air pollution is not the only challenge. English is not widely spoken, public transport is often crowded, food safety is a worry and tight controls on the Internet mean websites like Facebook and Twitter are hard to access. "For expat staff themselves looking to move here, the concerns they invariably express to me are: first and foremost safety of consumables and/or prevalence of fake and adulterated groceries, drinking water, pet food and so on, and then the high fees associated with international schools. Pollution is mentioned, but only in passing," said a consultant who advises foreign businesses operating in China. [Source: Ben Blanchard, Reuters, July 29, 2012]
After a dust storm Beijing has cold winters, hot summers and windy and dusty springs. Autumn is the nicest time of the year. In the winter canals and lakes freeze over and snow sometimes falls. The marginal rainy season begins in June. August is the rainiest month. The average high in August is 29 degrees and the average rainfall is less than 17 centimeters. Many people feel the humidity is worse than the pollution or the heat. Tracee Hamilton wrote in the Washington Post, “Everything here is damp. Hand washed clothes never dry. A packages of Ritz cracker opened at 8 a.m...is stale by 11 and inedible by 4."
Beijing sits at an elevation of 54 meters (177 feet) and has a continental climate. January is the coldest month with an average temperature of -4 degrees C (24 degrees F) July is the warmest month with an average temperature of 26 degrees C (79 degrees F). The best time to visit Beijing is May, September and October. Central and Northern China has four seasons, and the climate is comparable to that of the eastern United States, with the lengths and intensity of the winters and summers varying with the latitude and proximity to the sea. Spring is pleasant, sunny and mild. Summer, arriving in June and often accompanied by month-long rainy season, is characterized by hot, humid weather. The winters tend to be cold and dry. Sometimes there is snow.
The fall is the nicest time of the year in northern China. The days are often clear; the air is brisk and bracing; the temperatures are cool and there are pretty autumn colors. The spring — especially in Inner Mongolia, Gansu and Shanxi and areas upwind from Beijing — is often very windy, with some intense dust storms that fill the air with chocking grit and turn the sky orange. In the northeastern region near Annual rainfall in Beijing averages about 60 centimeters (25 inches). High levels of air pollution are common in Beijing. Severe smog is common in summer; less frequent in fall and winter. Dust storms generally occur in spring; may be severe enough to close all forms of public transportation. Flooding is possible in the city's low-lying central districts during heavy rains.
Population in Beijing
The population of the municipality of Beijing, which is a pretty big area (16,410.5 square kilometers) is 21,542,000 (2018). The population of metro area is around 24,000,000. The population density is 1,300 people per square kilometers (3,400 people per square mile). Based on a United Nations 2018 population estimates which lists the city’s population at almost 20 million, Beijing is the world’s eighth most populous city behind, Tokyo-Yokohama (37.4 million people), Delhi, Shanghai (25.6 million), Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Cairo and Mumbai.
The population of Beijing was 21,893,095 in 2020; 19,612,368 in 2010; 13,569,194 in 2000; 10,819,407 in 1990; 9,230,687 in 1982; 7,568,495 in 1964; 2,768,149 in 1954; 1,722,000 in 1947; 1,551,000 in 1936-37. [Source: Wikipedia, China Census]
The city grew about one million to five million in the first five years after the Communists came to power in 1949. In 1990 the population surpassed 10 million and topped 14 million in 2002. The city continues to grow at a rate about a million every three years and is expected to reach 19.4 million in 2015 and 21 million by 2020. The government is moving 2.5 million people from the city to the suburbs to relieve the crowding.
More than 95 percent of the registered residents are Han Chinese About 25 percent of Beijing's population is regarded as transient. This includes a "floating population" of 3 million rural immigrants that moves from job to job. Many of them contribute to trash and pollution problems, tap into water and electricity supplies but don’t pay any taxes. A large number of them live in an area in the middle of Haidan called the Tree Village that abuts against a landfill.
The residents of Beijing are called Beijingers. They are often described thermoses — cold on the outside and warm on the inside and gregarious. They are also regarded by other Chinese as aloof and having a droll, ironic sense of humor. Todd Carrel, a former bureau chief in Beijing for ABC news, wrote in National Geographic, "I found Beijingers hospitable and generous...Standoffish at first, they open up with a little encouragement, eager to talk about life in the West, politics, culture, personalities — no morsel too small...They were frank, opinionated and cheeky, as evidenced by the jokes...Beijinger...were, in short, as tough as dragon’s hide, the ultimate survivors...One anchor is family. Another is humor, which is usually acrid and never far beneath the surface," One film maker told the Los Angeles Times, “People from Beijing love to talk politics and critique society.” In Beijing there is a deeply embedded “ye”, or master, culture formed by being at the center of north imperialist and Communist power.
Beijing and Peking mean "northern capital." Although people have been living in the area of the city for a long time (500,000-year Peking Man was found nearby and evidence of 3000-year-old settlements have been found in the city limits) Beijing itself is not an ancient city. It emerged as the capital of the Liao dynasty in the 10th century, when it was known as Yanjing (City of Swallows), and was made the capital of China and the Mongol empire in 1260 by Kublai Khan.
During the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) a space was cleared in what is now Tiananmen Square for a courtyard leading to the imperial family's home. Although the imperial family didn't live in Beijing, they kept a home there.
The capital of China has changed its location many times. Emperor Qin established the first capital of China in 221 B.C. in Xian, where the Han emperors also kept their court. After years of chaos and upheaval, the Sui emperors built a city called Chang'an on the ruins of Xian. Under the Tang emperors, Chang'an grew into a dynamic metropolis of two million people.
The Song emperors established a new capital in Kaifeng and were later to driven south to Hangzhou. After the Mongols of Yuan dynasty were driven out of China in the 14th century , the first Ming emperor moved the capital south to Nanjing where it was safe from barbarian attacks from the north. The Emperor Yongle, second Ming emperor, moved it back to Beijing in 1420, where it more or less has remained ever since. In imperial times Beijing was made up primarily of one story building because no buildings were permitted to rise higher than the emperor's throne." In 1949, there was still a 40-foot-high wall, with 10-story watchtowers, around Beijing and camels coming and going through the main gates. Until the Communist takeover Beijing was known as Beiping (“Northern Peace”).
Kublai Khan’s and Marco Polo's Beijing
Kublai Khan began building his new capital Daidu (Beijing) next to the old Jin capital of Zhongdu (both cities today are within Beijing's city limits) in 1267. Jin was a rich empire in northern China with 20 million people. Kublai Khan chose Beijing as the location of his capital in part because it was protected from invaders by a horseshoe of mountains to the north.
Inspired by Persian astronomers, Kublai Khan built an observatory with a sphere that measured angles between celestial objects. His huge palace, located near present-day Beihai Park, is said to have had a banquet hall able accommodate 6,000 people. Remnants from the Yuan Period can be seen in Daidu Ruins Park between the Third and Forth ring roads north of the city center.
Describing Beijing, not long after it was conceived, Marco Polo (1254-1324) wrote: "The new city is a form perfectly square...each of its sides being six miles. It is enclosed with walls of earth...the wall of the city has twelve gates. The multitude of inhabitants, and the number of houses in the city of Kanbalu, as also in the suburbs outside the city, of which there are twelve, corresponding to the twelve gates, is greater than the mind can comprehend...
"Within these walls...stands the palace of the Great Khan, the most extensive that has ever been known. The sides of the great halls are adorned with dragons in carved wood and gold, figures of warriors, of birds and of beasts. On each of the sides of the palace there is a grand flight of marble steps." On the Mongol New Year, "great numbers of beautiful white horses are presented to the Great Khan...all his elephants, amounting to five thousand, are exhibited in the procession, covered with housing of cloth, richly worked with gold and silk." Marco Polo described glazed roof tiles of "red and green and blue and yellow” in Daidu that “are bright like crystal, so that they shine very far." He said that he could estimate the city's population, based on the number of prostitutes — 20,000 — and said coal was so plentiful that people could take three hot baths a week.
Beijing Under the Communists
In the 1940s and 50s, under Mao and the Communists, the classical city center was smothered under monumental Stalinist structures. Hutongs (old neighborhoods) and courtyard homes were razed and replaced with "work compounds," where housing and factories were combined within walled enclaves. Many of the thousand or so temples and monasteries that filled the city were converted to other uses. The monks and priests that resided in them were kicked out. Beijing’s walls, as high as 40 feet in some places, came down in the early 1950s to make way for a ring road. Many relics in central Beijing were moved to the outskirts of the city so the center could become the “forest of chimneys” that Mao envisioned. Factories and housing compounds were plunked down in the middle of hutongs and Soviet-style halls, stadiums, wide boulevards and swaths of four- and five-story Socialist-style apartment compounds were built.
The American urban historian Andre Tang said that “the half of Beijing destroyed in the three decades from 1950 to 1980 constituted one of the of the single greatest losses or urban architectural culture in the 20th century.” Even so, many hutongs remained. Mao-era Beijing was like an amalgamation of charming northern Chinese villages, with a few Stalinist monuments, factories and high-rises thrown in between, Farmers used to drive their sheep through the city streets at night and roosters woke people in the morning. In the winter, people huddled in quilted coats.
In recent years Beijing has grown into a modern, sprawling, industrial city with skyscrapers, shopping malls, high-rise apartment complex, traffic and pollution. The first waves of development hit in the early 1990s as free market reforms gained momentum and speculators began buying up property with an eye for developing it. The process accelerated when then Beijing won the bid in 2001 to host the Olympics.
In 1980, before the development began, Beijing was a quiet place. In all of Beijing there were only 20 privately-owned motor vehicles, only four international hotels and almost no home telephones. Economic freedoms have brought some activity. In 2001 there were 1.5 million cars, trucks and buses. That figure had doubled by 2007. Per capita income doubled to $600 between 1990 and 2000 and has quadrupled since then. The rapid growth has come at a cost for some. An estimated 2 million Beijingers have been evicted since 1990 to make for new buildings, residences and infrastructure. Most of them were relocated to new high-rises in the suburbs.
Ai Weiwei on Beijing
The controversial rebel artist Ai Weiwei wrote in the Daily Beast: “Beijing is two cities. One is of power and of money. People don’t care who their neighbors are; they don’t trust you. The other city is one of desperation. I see people on public buses, and I see their eyes, and I see they hold no hope. They can’t even imagine that they’ll be able to buy a house. They come from very poor villages where they’ve never seen electricity or toilet paper. [Source: The Daily Beast August 28, 2011]
Every year millions come to Beijing to build its bridges, roads, and houses. Each year they build a Beijing equal to the size of the city in 1949. They are Beijing’s slaves. They squat in illegal structures, which Beijing destroys as it keeps expanding. Who owns houses? Those who belong to the government, the coal bosses, the heads of big enterprises. They come to Beijing to give gifts — and the restaurants and karaoke parlors and saunas are very rich as a result.
Beijing tells foreigners that they can understand the city, that we have the same sort of buildings: the Bird’s Nest, the CCTV tower. Officials who wear a suit and tie like you say we are the same and we can do business. But they deny us basic rights. You will see migrants’ schools closed. You will see hospitals where they give patients stitches — and when they find the patients don’t have any money, they pull the stitches out. It’s a city of violence.
The worst thing about Beijing is that you can never trust the judicial system. Without trust, you cannot identify anything; it’s like a sandstorm. You don’t see yourself as part of the city — there are no places that you relate to, that you love to go. No corner, no area touched by a certain kind of light. You have no memory of any material, texture, shape. Everything is constantly changing, according to somebody else’s will, somebody else’s power.
To properly design Beijing, you’d have to let the city have space for different interests, so that people can coexist, so that there is a full body to society. A city is a place that can offer maximum freedom. Otherwise it’s incomplete. I feel sorry to say I have no favorite place in Beijing. I have no intention of going anywhere in the city. The places are so simple. You don’t want to look at a person walking past because you know exactly what’s on his mind. No curiosity. And no one will even argue with you.
None of my art represents Beijing. The Bird’s Nest — I never think about it. After the Olympics, the common folks don’t talk about it because the Olympics did not bring joy to the people.
There are positives to Beijing. People still give birth to babies. There are a few nice parks. Last week I walked in one, and a few people came up to me and gave me a thumbs up or patted me on the shoulder. Why do they have to do that in such a secretive way? No one is willing to speak out. What are they waiting for? They always tell me, "Weiwei, leave the nation, please." Or "Live longer and watch them die." Either leave, or be patient and watch how they die. I really don’t know what I’m going to do.
My ordeal made me understand that on this fabric, there are many hidden spots where they put people without identity. With no name, just a number. They don’t care where you go, what crime you committed. They see you or they don’t see you, it doesn’t make the slightest difference. There are thousands of spots like that. Only your family is crying out that you’re missing. But you can’t get answers from the street communities or officials, or even at the highest levels, the court or the police or the head of the nation. My wife has been writing these kinds of petitions every day, making phone calls to the police station every day. Where is my husband? Just tell me where my husband is. There is no paper, no information.
The strongest character of those spaces is that they’re completely cut off from your memory or anything you’re familiar with. You’re in total isolation. And you don’t know how long you’re going to be there, but you truly believe they can do anything to you. There’s no way to even question it. You’re not protected by anything. Why am I here? Your mind is very uncertain of time. You become like mad. It’s very hard for anyone. Even for people who have strong beliefs.
This city is not about other people or buildings or streets but about your mental structure. If we remember what Kafka writes about his Castle, we get a sense of it. Cities really are mental conditions. Beijing is a nightmare. A constant nightmare.
Beijing is regarded as the art and culture capital of China. While Shanghai and southern China may be doing more business and attracting more foreign investment, Beijing seems to be attracting everything else: artists, musicians, opportunists, students, and people with ideas. In Beijing, there are punk rock clubs, performing arts centers designed by famous architects and loads of art galleries. The live music scene is happening almost every night of the week and art galleries have sprung in hotels, mansions and old arms factories. A Shanghai-born art curator told Newsweek, “Beijing has it all...Ideas, imagination, creativity, resources, diversity.” Evan Osnos of the The New Yorker wrote: “For many years, Beijing has spearheaded an ambitious drive for cultural renaissance, investing in new museums, opera houses and art venues, and injecting money into expanding the reach of China's television, newspaper and film industries. In published guidelines for the development of cultural industries, Chinese leaders have let it be known that they now see the ascent of China's cultural products as the next step along a path marking the country's transformation from developing nation to global power. “
Entrepreneurship is also very much alive. There are lots highly educated people in Beijing and a number of Chinese high tech and Internet-related business got their start in the capital. U.S. companies with research centers and offices in Beijing include Google, Intel, Microsoft, FMC, Cigna, Unisys and General Electric. GDP rose 144 percent between 2000 and 2008. Beijing is not just a city but a huge municipality — like Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing — that encompasses a huge area, including mountains and rural villages. Plans for the future call for manufacturing to be centered in the east and high technology to be focused in the west. As Beijing has developed it has also gotten expensive. In 2003 it was listed as the world’s fifth most expensive city after Tokyo, Moscow, Osaka and Hong Kong.
Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times: “When I first came to Beijing in 1984, the city felt dusty and forgotten, a onetime capital of temples and palaces that Mao had vowed — successfully, it seemed — to transform into a landscape of factories and chimneys. Soot penetrated every windowsill and every layer of clothing, while people rode simple steel bicycles or diesel-belching buses through the windy old streets. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Times, May 1, 2017]
“Then, as now, it was hard to imagine this sprawling city as the sacred center of China’s spiritual universe. But for most of its history, it was exactly that. It wasn’t a holy city like Jerusalem, Mecca or Banaras, locations whose very soil was hallowed, making them destinations for pilgrims. Yet Beijing’s streets, walls, temples, gardens and alleys were part of a carefully woven tapestry that reflected the constellations above, geomantic forces below and an invisible overlay of holy mountains and gods. It was a total work of art, epitomizing the political-religious system that ran traditional China for millenniums. It was Chinese belief incarnate.
“Beijing’s cosmology changed in the 20th century, especially after the Communist takeover in 1949. Its great city walls and many of its temples and distinctive alleys, or hutong, were destroyed to make way for the new ideals of an atheistic, industrial society. The 1980s brought economic reforms and uncontrolled real estate development, which wiped out almost all of the rest of the old town. Lost was a vast medieval city of 25 square miles and also a way of life, just as the local cultures of the world’s other great cities have been swamped by our restless times.
“Over the years, I have watched some of this transformation... Like many people who have fallen in love with this city, I was disheartened and felt Beijing’s culture was lost. But in recent years, I have begun to think I was wrong. Beijing’s culture is not dead; it is being reborn in odd corners of the city and in unexpected ways. It is not the same as the past, but still vibrant and real — ways of life and belief that echo bygone days.
“Compared with the sacred city of the past, today’s Beijing is a slightly out-of-control urban area of highways and high-rises, subway and suburbs. The old cosmological tapestry is in shreds. But it is a place where places have meaning. The urban historian Jeffrey F. Meyer, who wrote “The Dragons of Tiananmen: Beijing as a Sacred City,” points out that Chinese capitals always reflect the governing ideology. This is true of all capitals, of course, and Mr. Meyer also wrote a book on Washington about the ideas behind its monuments.
“But unlike open societies, which are messier and where the official message is often lost or at least softened by competing voices, Beijing is still the capital of an authoritarian state. Beijing’s message is still the state’s message, perhaps not perfectly but still audibly. This state once despised tradition but now supports it. And so the city changes — not back to the past but into something made up of ideas from the past — of filial piety, respect for authority, traditional religions, but also privilege for the rich. As Mr. Meyer put it, then as now, “Beijing was an idea before it was a city.”
Nancy Trejos wrote in the Washington Post: “Today’s Beijing is a booming metropolis on a building, boozing and buying binge. A lot of it is thanks to the 2008 Olympic Games. When the city was chosen as the Olympics site in 2001, the government poured billions of dollars into construction projects and neighborhood revitalization. Many worried that the businesses and buildings would empty out once the athletes and world attention went away. But China is now the second-largest economy in the world, behind the United States, and second in the sale of luxury goods. Conspicuous consumption remains high among a certain segment of the population, despite some recent stock market turmoil. Neighborhoods continue to evolve or sprout virtually overnight. Driving around Beijing, I was amazed at the number of construction cranes everywhere.” [Source: Nancy Trejos, Washington Post, October 7, 2011]
Architecture in Beijing
CCTV Headquarters Beijing does not really have a skyline like Shanghai, Hong Kong or New York. Its trophy buildings are scattered around the city in a rather haphazard way. This contrast with old Beijing, a mostly flat city in which courtyards and narrow lanes of the hutongs were part of grand geometric scheme with the Forbidden City at the center of the city’s central north-south axis.Old Beijing — designed for pedestrians, camels and Imperial processions — has proven to be a bad frameworks for a modern city. There are not that many conventional streets and blocks. The hutongs are like masses that have to be obliterated to be updated.
As the 2008 Olympics approached a number of foreign architects were asked to come in and build new building, some of them quite radical. The result: some of the world’s most spectacular modern structures. Some — like the Bird’s Nest stadium and the Water Cube made for the Olympics, Norman Foster’s new airport terminal and Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV headquarters — have received rave reviews from architecture critics. While others — namely the Egg concert hall — have been panned. Some Beijing residents are not so pleased with new structure, calling the non-Chinese architects “foreign devils,” and complaining their work disrupts Beijing’s feng shui. There were even nationalist-tinted accusations that the building — mostly designed by Europeans — were unsafe. Some find the debate about high profile buildings amusing because there is so much bad architecture around. Many nondescript buildings have kitchy pagoda designs or some other eastern ornament to meet demands by the city’s mayor for buildings to look Chinese. New development are dominated by blocky apartments and offices that have nothing to distinguish them except their ugliness. Among the worst buildings are those that attempt to copy masterpieces of Western architecture. One architect told the New York Times, “They’re like copies of copies. Kitsch derived from kitsch.” Web Sites: Gluckman.com ; New York Times
Development in Beijing
New subway station
In last few decades, many new multistory buildings have been built along the broad east-west access, which passes through Tiananmen Square. In many sections of Beijing, new high-rise office buildings, hotels, shopping complexes, and apartment houses have sprung up. The city is constantly changing. The remaing old neighborhoods known as hutongs are characterized by narrow streets fronted by gray walls, beyond which are courtyard houses with gray roofs with slightly upturned gables. These are often mixed with brick apartments that were built for workers.
The makeover of Beijing has involved relocating smokestack industries to the suburbs and housing of workers in satellite communities. Subways lines have been built and then expanded, and 100 cultural sights have been restored. Stretching east of the Forbidden City all the way to the Third Ring is a half-empty financial district with five-star hotels and shopping centers. There has been so much development Beijing maps are changes very wight months to keep up with the changes,
The editor of the Architectural Review Peter Davey once said, “With considerable tenacity and a huge amount of energy, the Chinese have built and awful, hideous capital.” Many of the new buildings haven’t even used. In 2000, about of third of the space in the newly constructed office and shopping malls was unused and nine shopping malls closed down due lack of business, poor location, bad management or embezzlement. In 2002, the Beijing city government agreed to preserve 25 historic areas but if nothing the pace of development has increased not deceased in these areas. The forces to develop and make money have simply overpowered those to conserve.
In the old days many buildings were oriented with the feng shui in mind, namely they had their backs to the north and the mountains and the their fronts facing towards water and the south, but these days buildings are put up mainly with money in mind. The government hasn’t completely let development run amok. It has imposed some zoning laws, height limits and incentives for preserving old buildings. There are plans to move government offices outside the city center to outlying hubs but thus far no one has expressed interest in moving to these hubs.
Before the Olympics Beijing was home to the largest construction zone in history. In 2006, there were roughly 8,000 major construction sites and 1 million construction workers in Beijing. Between 2006 and 2008 more than 500 million square feet of commercial real estate — more than all the office space in Manhattan — was developed and that figure doesn’t include huge projects developed by the government.
After the Olympics — with the economic crisis in 2008 and 2009 sapping growth — entire office buildings stood empty and more than 100 million square feet was vacant. Construction cranes continued to occupy the skyline but many of them stood idle. Migrant workers continue to occupy sidewalks but many of them were there demonstrating against bosses who split town without paying them — not taking a break from work.
Many of the residences that were built during the period of growth were made for the high end market by developers in search of the highest profits, ignoring the masses who need housing but can’t afford the luxury prices. The result has been a bubble, empty condos and a collapse of real estate prices. New luxury hotels are also largely empty. See Hutongs Below
Beijing, environmentalists say should never have been developed as a major economic and industrial hub. "We've been saying this for years: Beijing was just the political and cultural capital of China, and if the population were kept under 6 million, we wouldn't have this problem," one environmentalist said. "But now there are too many vested political and real estate interests."
Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin and Preservation in Beijing
Liang Sicheng (1901-1972) and his wife Lin Huiyin (1904-1955) are regarded as two of China's most revered architects, with Liang being known as the father of modern Chinese architecture. Their appreciation of China's ancient buildings and their devotion to preserving Beijing's heritage have made them highly respected by conservationist and architects today, but not so much so by the Chinese Communist Party. Their most important work was carried out while they were living in a courtyard house in Beizongbu Hutong in Beijing in the 1930s. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, January 30, 2012]
Liang and Lin wrote seminal pieces on Chinese architecture and listed relics in need of protection during wartime. Liang and his colleague Chen Zhanxiang urged the Communist government to build an entirely new city when it decided to make Beijing the capital of the new republic. He believed it was the best way to preserve its ancient buildings. But officials rejected that plan and most of the old city has vanished forever.
Tania Branigan wrote in the The Guardian: , Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin are regarded by some as Beijing’s original preservationists. Liang wrote “The History of Chinese Architecture”. After the Communists came to power Liang and Lin helped design the new national emblem and were asked to invent a new style of Chinese architecture. Among Liang’s most famous designs is the Monument to the People’ Heroes that stands at the center of Tiananmen Square. In the end Liang’s ideas where incompatible with those of the Communists. Liang tried by persuade Mao Zedong to save Beijing’s towering walls, which encircles the capital. The request was rejected and the walls were torn down and replaced with a quasi ring road. In February 2012, under the cover of night and the Chinese New Year, a team armed only with hand tools demolished the sprawling 400-square-meter courtyard house at No. 24 Bei Zong Bu Alley, where Laing and his wife lived from 1930 to 1937, to make way for modern development.
Tony Perrottet wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “The architect Liang Sicheng and his brilliant poet wife, Lin Huiyin” were a “prodigiously talented couple, who are now revered in much the same way as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Mexico” They “were part of a new generation of Western-educated thinkers who came of age in the 1920s. Born into aristocratic, progressive families, they had both studied at the University of Pennsylvania and other Ivy League schools in the United States, and had traveled widely in Europe. Since China’s embrace of capitalism in the 1980s, a growing number of Chinese are realizing the wisdom of Liang and Lin’s preservation message. As Beijing’s wretched pollution and traffic gridlock have reached world headlines, Liang’s 1950 plan to save the historic city has taken on a prophetic value. “I realize now how terrible it is for a person to be so far ahead of his time,” says Hu Jingcao, the Beijing filmmaker who directed the documentary Liang and Lin in 2010. “Liang saw things 50 years before everyone else. Now we say, Let’s plan our cities, let’s keep them beautiful! Let’s make them work for people, not just cars. But for him, the idea only led to frustration and suffering.” [Source: Tony Perrottet; Smithsonian Magazine, January 2017]
Traffic in Beijing
Traffic is heavily congested. Rush hour traffic speed are often between 10 and 15 mph — more or less the same as bicycling speed. Inadequate traffic management and increasing numbers of taxis and private vehicles contribute to congestion.
In the 1990s bicycles outnumbered cars by a large margin and traffic jams were largely unheard of. Now traffic jams are a fact of life and situation is expected to get worse before it gets better. As of 2007 three million cars were registered in Beijing and 1,200 new automobiles took to the streets every day (400,000 a year). By early 2011 there were 4.8 million vehicles in Beijing. The number may reach 7 million by the end of 2012. By contrast there are about 2 million vehicles registered in New York City.
Drivers complain that rush hour now lasts all day. Even though Beijing has highways with 10 and 12 lanes and six concentric ring roads it can take more than an hour to travel the 6½-kilometer diameter of the city center. To reduce congestion, car access to some streets is restricted, with vehicle only allowed to use these streets on desegrated days according to the numbers of their license plates. Beijing has not been as aggressive trying to reduce the number of cars as Shanghai, where licencing fees are as high as $7,000 per car.
According to ASIRT: Intersections with traffic lights generally have zebra crossings. Be alert. Most drivers assume pedestrians will yield to them, even when police are present. Some drivers play "chicken" with pedestrians. May blow horn and keep coming. Drivers are more likely to stop for large groups of pedestrians crossing a street. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT), 2011]
Pollution in Beijing
Beijing was ranked 56nd on list of the 500 most polluted cities based PM2.5 annual mean concentration measurement between 2008 to 2017 as documented by the World Health Organization. The data was based on air pollution monitoring from almost 2700 towns and cities in 91 countries of particulate matter (PM) between 10 and 2.5 micrometers. In some surveys in the past, Beijing was ranked as high as the second most polluted city in the world, with air quality 16 times worse than New York City, and the amount of suspended particles ten times higher than Los Angeles. Air pollution in Beijing is measured on a scale of 0 to 500 with 200 being bad and 300 being harmful to health. Each year there are numerous days above 300 and occasionally there is a reading over 500, which is like having the mercury in a thermometer breaking through the top of a tube. The amount of particle matter — much of it from construction and Gobi desert dust — is sometimes especially high.
The doesn’t mean government of Beijing has worked hard to improve the situation. An estimated $21 billion was spent on environmental improvements in Beijing between 1998 and 2008 for things like switching from coal burners to natural gas, closing down factories or moving them out of the city and getting high-emission cars off the road. Huge industrial works like the Capital Iron & Steel Corp., which was located near the Summer Palace and releases large amounts of acid-rain-producing sulfur dioxide, were moved before the Olympics.
Unfortunately gains that have been achieved have been outweighed by new pollution created by the city’s rapid growth and urbanization, especially from cars and construction. A report by the U.S. embassy in Beijing found that “extremely unhealthy pollution levels” jumped to 17 days in 2005 from five days in 2004. Sheer growth caused the use of coal to peak at 30 million tons in 2007 despite success in reducing coal usage on a per capita basis. Achievements made before and during the Olympics largely disappeared once the Olympics were over. The water situation isn't much better. Around 3.5 billion tons of waste water (an amount equal to the flow of the Yellow River in some years) is released into Beijing's waterways annually. Some progress has been made her. Urban sewage teratment doubled between 2001 and 2007.
Some say the great threat to Beijing in the future is from water shortages. To address tat problem the nation government is building an aqueduct system from southern China to Beijing that would traverse a distance equal to the distance between Washington D.C. and the Mississippi River, and deliver almost 4 trillion gallons of water (more than seven times the amount used in New York City annually) to Beijing each year.
Air Pollution in Beijing
Tiananmen Square in the smog
Ben Blanchard of Reuters wrote: “With its parks, centuries-old palaces, history and culture, Beijing should be one of the more pleasant capitals of the world. Instead, it's considered among the worst to live in because of chronic air pollution. Lung cancer rates are rising among the 20 million residents of China's capital, health officials say. For many multinational companies, Beijing is considered a hardship posting and, despite the extra allowances that classification brings, some executives are leaving. On some days, Beijing is enveloped in a brownish-grey smog, so thick it gets indoors, stings the eyes and darkens the sky in the middle of the day. [Source: Ben Blanchard, Reuters, July 29, 2012]
On several occasions, pollution combined with fog has been so bad that motorists have had to turn on their headlights in the middle of the day. "The fine particulate matter is what affects visibility and makes it look like a horrible foggy day," Cornell air quality expert Westerdahl told the New York Times. "It also is what most directly affects human health."
The air is so bad people sometimes go weeks without seeing the sun and nearby mountains and sometimes even have trouble making out buildings a few blocks away. Newspaper run reports on the best times to go outside: usually before rush hour, in the middle of the day and before the evening rush hour and the time when people aren’t cooking their meals with coal stoves. Hospital are filled with people with respiratory problems. Doctors say they see about twice as many patients with asthma and non-smoking related lung cancer as they did a decade ago. According to one study breathing the air in the city is the equivalent to smoking three packs of unfiltered cigarettes a day.
In the late 1980s blue skies were the norm on clear days and distant mountains were often visible from apartments in the center of the city. Before the Olympics the Beijing government introduced “blue sky” days to measure air pollution levels based on the amounts of three primary pollutants in the air. The goal for blue sky days in 2006 was 238. The goal for the “Green Olympics in 2008" was 292. Many have been skeptical of these measurements, saying the data has been manipulated to achieve a desired results and it contradicts what people see with their own eyes. Days that rate “good” in Beijing would be rated a s polluted in cities in the United States. On many blue sky days the sky is brown.
In 2011, the state-run China Daily quoted a Beijing health official as saying the lung cancer rate in the city had increased by 60 percent during the past decade, even though the smoking rate during the period had not seen an apparent rise. The Economist Intelligence Unit's liveability index this year ranked Beijing's pollution at 4.5, with 5 being the worst. Out of 70 cities surveyed, the only ones rated worse were Mumbai, New Delhi, Karachi, Dakar, Dhaka and Cairo.
Don Lee wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Although Beijing officials have said sulfur dioxide counts have dropped in recent years, other major air quality measures and the soupy haze that often blankets the city tell a different story. China's rapid economic growth and urbanization have brought many more pollution-spewing vehicles to the city, and Beijing also has the misfortune of being surrounded by mountains that trap the soot-filled air from neighboring provinces that churn out huge amounts of steel, cement and other products for the domestic market. [Source: Don Lee, Los Angeles Times, June 20, 2013]
Beijing's smog is a noxious cocktail consisting mainly of heavy automobile exhausts, major coal-fired generators outside of the city and smaller ones located inside the city, as well as dust from construction sites. People sometimes joke that you can smell China's GDP in the air. Peter Foster wrote in The Telegraph: “For most of the last two decades, Beijing's residents have endured dense smog caused by industry, coal-fired heating and traffic that increased at a rate of 1,000 vehicles a day. The government issues daily air pollution reports and occasionally warns the young, elderly and people with respiratory problems to remain inside. Even on many “blue sky days” pollution levels are considerably higher than the standards set by the World Health Organization. Red flags are raised outside my school classroom when it is too polluted to go out and play."Source: Peter Foster, The Telegraph, August 16, 2010]
Why Air Pollution in Beijing Is So Bad
Beijing is located in a basin surrounded on three sides by mountains that trap pollutants. Winds are both a blessing and a curse. Westerly winds tends to push pollution and haze out towards the sea. The problem is that the winds usually blows up from the south or southwest, bringing smoke and dust from the polluted coal and steel regions of Shanxi and Shandong that is trapped by mountains to north and west of Beijing.
During the winter a layer of sand and coal dust covers almost everything in Beijing. There is so much coal soot in the air that Beijingers have to peel away the outer coal-covered leaves of their cabbage before they can toss into boiling water and make soup. During the spring wind storms blow in Yellow River basin dust. The planting of a windbreak of trees — known as the Green Great Wall — outisde of Beijing has help alleviate the spring dust a little
Ben Blanchard of Reuters wrote: ““Smoke from factories and heating plants, winds blowing in from the Gobi Desert and fumes from millions of vehicles can combine to blanket the city in this pungent shroud for days. English-speaking residents sometimes call the city "Greyjing" or "Beige-jing". One day in early December 2012, Beijing's smog was so severe it forced the main airport to shut for several hours. [Source: Ben Blanchard, Reuters, July 29, 2012]
Keith B. Richburg wrote in the Washington Post: Beijing sits ringed by mountains on its north and west, so when a haze of pollution lumbers in, it just sits, and sits, and sits, until either strong winds or rains come along to push it off to the east. Technically, the stuff in the air is “particulate matter," defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as dust, dirt, soot and smoke that comes from cars and power plants, like those in the provinces that surround Beijing. [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, January 19 2012]
According to a January 2012 report by the Xinhua News Agency, research by Beijing authorities found that 60 percent of the smallest particulate matter in the city's air comes from coal burning, car emissions and industrial production; 23 percent from dust; and 17 percent from the use of solvents. “The major problem is coal," said Zhou Rong, a climate and energy campaigner for the environmental group Greenpeace, who wears a face mask when she goes outdoors and bought masks for her colleagues. “Cars are easier to control," Zhou said. “It is really hard for any Chinese government body to say “no more coal."
Image Sources: Province maps from the Nolls China Web site. Photographs of places from 1) CNTO (China National Tourist Organization; 2) Nolls China Web site; 3) Perrochon photo site; 4) Beifan.com; 5) tourist and government offices linked with the place shown; 6) Mongabey.com; 7) University of Washington, Purdue University, Ohio State University; 8) UNESCO; 9) Wikipedia; 10) Julie Chao photo site; 11) Beijing Olympics site
Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization), UNESCO, Rough Guide for Beijing, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Updated in September 2021