Demolition of a residential area in Shanghai, 2009.
Courtesy Blaine Brownell Demolition of a residential area in Shanghai, 2009.

In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), Marco Polo recounts to Kublai Khan a series of fantastical settlements he has visited within Khan’s vast empire. In one city, called Thekla, building construction never ceases. Its physical character is thus defined by the transient materiality of building: “the scaffoldings, the metal armatures, the wooden catwalks hanging from ropes or supported by sawhorses, the ladders, the trestles.” When a visitor asks Thekla’s inhabitants why the construction does not end, they reply, “ ‘So that its destruction cannot begin.’ And if asked whether they fear that, once the scaffoldings are removed, the city may begin to crumble and fall to pieces, they add hastily, in a whisper, ‘Not only the city.’ ”

Thekla’s description applies to many Chinese cities today. Although construction has tapered off in recent years, its constant presence remains inescapable. Cranes populate the horizon, piles of building materials occupy streets and sidewalks, and construction fencing is ubiquitous. In The Chinese Dream: A Society Under Construction (Nai010 publishers, 2013), authors Neville Mars and Adrian Hornsby put China’s massive building boom in perspective—predicting that China will add an urban population the size of Beijing every year for the next 35 years and that China’s urban population will reach 1 billion in two decades. Such dizzying change is palpable in places like Beijing and Tianjin—particularly within their historic neighborhoods. In the past few decades, traditional settlements such as Beijing’s hutong have been disappearing rapidly to make way for new commercial development. More recently, a new kind of construction threat has emerged in these communities in the name of preservation.

Scaffolding spells imminent construction in the Fanjia Hutong of Beijing’s Dongcheng district, 2017.
Courtesy Blaine Brownell Scaffolding spells imminent construction in the Fanjia Hutong of Beijing’s Dongcheng district, 2017.

Translated, hutong actually means “well” in Mongolian, and first appeared in the 13th century during Khan’s Yuan dynasty. It is a term popularly used in reference to traditional neighborhoods composed of siheyuan, or low-rise courtyard dwellings—although the term denotes the long alleys formed between them. The siheyuan—a word popularly replaced with hutong—dominated much of the urban fabric of Beijing until the late 20th century when these houses were routinely razed to make way for higher-density development. According to The Atlantic: “At the height of the city’s headlong rush to modernity in the 1990s, about 600 hutong were destroyed each year, displacing an estimated 500,000 residents.” This widespread demolition inspired an outcry among preservationists, both in China and abroad, who mounted campaigns to curtail the destruction of these historic districts and the expulsion of their generations-old communities. Ensuing dialogues with government officials resulted in “historical and cultural protected area” designations in the 2005 Beijing City Master Plan, although the proposal has not guaranteed the same protections for the hutong.

In a curious turn of events, the hutong are now endangered by preservation itself. While these neighborhoods have been thriving with culture and activity, the Chinese authorities’ interpretation of historic conservation has resulted in a mandate for renovation, threatening the hutong's status-quo. As Elizabeth Nix reports, a new controversy has developed around the Beijing government’s plans to bulldoze a large swath of the city’s Dongcheng district in order to “rebuild a public square and restore it to its 18th-century Qing Dynasty appearance.” The authorities cite unsafe conditions and lack of historical value of 1970s-era renovations executed in the hutong as a rationale for the rebuilding; however, additional reasons exist. Ironically, now that hutong are relatively rare and have become fashionable homes for the ultra-wealthy, their newfound economic value supports their preservation in this way—and is tailored to a high-tax-paying audience.

Building materials await renovations, Dongcheng district, Beijing, 2017.
Courtesy Blaine Brownell Building materials await renovations, Dongcheng district, Beijing, 2017.

Today, the Dongcheng is one of many neighborhoods undergoing architectural “cleansing” in the name of preservation, which is just as much a cultural agenda as it is a physical one. By insisting upon architectural improvements, the Chinese government is effectively removing much of the hutong's immigrant and lower-income populations. The Economist describes this as a kind of degentrification, whereby newly arrived migrants are being kicked-out along with their successful businesses, which generate significant revenue but little tax. In a March 2017 meeting, the Beijing government classified 40 million square meters of illegal development—certain constructed additions to hutong that seemingly have been arbitrarily deemed unlawful—as among the “urban diseases to be tackled.” “These hutong look like a war zone, with debris from fallen buildings everywhere,” reports Noelle Mateer of That’s Beijing. “A month later, though, they’re bricked over and painted gray. The streets are clean, and storefronts stripped of their entrances.”

This recent surge of renovation in the name of curing “urban diseases” mirrors the story of Thekla, in which the builders’ aim is not only the conservation of the physical environment but also what it represents. Paradoxically, this approach is in some ways more disquieting than more overt forms of raze-and-rebuild. When hutong are replaced wholesale by modern apartment towers, the authorities can cite the pressures of increased population density in general; however, the targeted expulsion of lower-income, non-native Beijing populations in the name of restoration of these areas is disturbing. The field of historic preservation—which promotes the conservation and selective renovation of historically significant structures—is poorly equipped to address such an approach, as it is the very strategy Beijing officials are pursuing. “Architectural demolitions inevitably have a sacrificial logic,” claim authors Stephen Cairns and Jane M. Jacobs in Buildings Must Die: A Perverse View of Architecture (MIT Press, 2014). “This is architecture’s perverse secret: its professional stability, and its ability to reproduce itself, depend upon demolition, as both a material fact and a psychic desire.” This sacrificial logic can be employed with malicious intent—such as authorizing physical “improvements” to neighborhoods that extinguish their social vitality.

An act of preservation in vain: a resident of a neighborhood slated for demolition makes repairs, Tianjin, 2013.
Courtesy Blaine Brownell An act of preservation in vain: a resident of a neighborhood slated for demolition makes repairs, Tianjin, 2013.

Of course, this phenomenon is nothing new in the history of cities; nor is it unique to Beijing. Rather, it is an unfortunate yet inescapable part of the urban story. As cities grow and become infused with new populations, a counter-trend emerges within existing communities to preserve aspects of the old social and physical order. We certainly have our share of this phenomenon in the U.S.: Although blatantly discriminatory practices in real estate seem to have disappeared in this country, in fact, they still exist in broad measure but have merely become more furtive and sophisticated. Such practices are not only immoral; they are also increasingly impractical in the wake of a rapidly urbanizing planet. Consider China’s coming urban billion: it will emerge not from within its cities, but as a product of immigration. Megacities such as Beijing could take this opportunity to set an example, finding ways to preserve aspects of their cultural heritage without driving out new occupants—instead of attempting to cap the current population and banish outsiders. With an expected 400 million new Chinese urban-dwellers by 2020, it may be the only viable option.