It’s been 14 years since we were last in Beijing. In that short period of time Beijing has changed beyond recognition. Fourteen years ago we wandered the streets of Beijing and knew we were in China. The buildings had a distinctive Chinese design, which was not a good thing. They were inexpensive, unattractive, poorly made apartment buildings, most of them no more than seven stories high and few of them having elevators. Today they have been replaced by monstrous modern buildings that could belong in any industrial unattractive city in the world.
The only difference being that in Beijing the tops of the buildings are often hidden by a layer of dark grey smog.
Where Shanghai was all about good design, interesting buildings and sparkling vistas, Beijing is all about size, uniformity and bad air days.
Fourteen years ago the streets were full of bicycles, scooters and motorbikes, as well as cars. Today there are virtually no bicycles and just a handful of scooters and motorbikes. Now cars rule the highways. There are so many cars that only half of them are allowed on the city streets at one time. For five days a week all privately owned cars are split into two groups, each group determined by their registration plate. In a futile effort to keep traffic moving, one group gets to drive one day, and the other the next. But the real nightmare begins at the weekend when all cars are allowed on the streets.
Fourteen years ago there was one ring road to allow traffic to bypass the city centre. Today there are seven concentric ring roads, each one bigger and wider than the last, making an unbelievable total of 600 miles of road circling the city.
The rapid development of Beijing in just a few short years can be mainly attributed to just one event. The Olympics.
The Beijing Olympics showed the world just how much effort and money China was willing to spend to enter the global stage. Having entered stage left, they now want to dominate the stage. How much more money will China spend to do this? The signs are everywhere that China will spend whatever it takes. Building a new China in just a few decades is a formidable challenge and breathtaking in its scope of intent. If any other country attempted to do this, the rest of the world would scoff. But the country is vast, the population huge and the politicians determined and ruthless.
China is scary and the rest of the world better pay attention.
The task of rebuilding China is being taken quite literally. New cities are springing up everywhere. With the manpower China has these cities can be built in a very short period of time. As we drive the 70 miles from the port of Tianjin to the City of Beijing we pass several of them. Clusters of high rise buildings sit in the middle of vast expanses of uninhabited land, like skittles in a bowling alley
Each high rise in a new city is identical. They are laid out in perfect formation
These new cities also boast an equally perfect grid of roads, open spaces, and and in some cases shopping malls.
All that is missing is the people. As we get closer to the buildings we can see that there is not a single curtain at the windows, not a piece of furniture inside the apartments, and the shopping malls are empty without even a sign promising the arrival of new stores.
The idea was to attract the farmers from the countryside to these new cities. Farmers in China are viewed as nothing more than peasants. Their very existence ties the image of China to that of a third world country. The goal is to remove the farmers from the countryside, move them to these new cities and retrain them to work in other areas, such as manufacturing, tech, or administration. China would then truly be recognised as a first world country, and the newly trained workforce would help the country to dominate the world. The fact that there will be no agriculture doesn’t bother them at all. It is no secret that China’s wealth is built on their colossal export of manufactured goods. Their only major import is food. They are happy to let the rest of the world be their farm, as farming is for peasants.
So build the cities and they will come was their motto. But no one asked the farmers if they wanted to come. And they didn’t. No one wanted to be the first person to move into an empty city, a city that had no schools, and no services. Driving into one of these deserted cities is an eerie experience, but nowhere near as eerie as being the only person to live in a 50 story building in a deserted city. So the cities sit empty, the carefully planted parks become over grown and everything starts to crumble and decay from lack of care. The longer the cities sit empty the less appealing they become. China has built a series of ghost towns.
And then there are the roads. They have built new roads on a grand scale to connect these towns. These roads must be straight, with not a bend or curve in them. Anything that gets in their way is demolished. They are as wide as motorways with three or four lanes in each direction. A central meridian is wide enough to allow for light rail, and an equal expanse of land on either side is carefully planted with flowering trees, to make it all look beautiful. And it does. No consideration is given to cost or indeed to the amount of land swallowed up by these roads. They are truly impressive, but once again one vital ingredient is missing. In this case it is traffic
As we leave the port, heading out on these empty motorways there is one more display of grandeur waiting for us. This huge empty road is lined on both sides with rows and rows of containers.
They are often stacked ten high, and twenty deep, and continue on both sides of the road for at least a mile. At first we marvel at the amount of trade that must be conducted through this port, but after a while we realise that they are just like the cities. They are stacked a little too precisely, and they are all identical. They are the same colour with the same markings. There are no shipping labels. They are brand new, placed there with the sole purpose of impressing the foreign tourists. And to complete the picture a row of fork lift trucks are perfectly parked in front of them, and they too are immaculate and have probably never been used.
What is truly amazing is that the land around is flat and dry and there is a lot of dust blowing around, but the containers and fork lift trucks are spotless. They must be cleaned on a daily basis!
When it came to rebuilding Beijing itself, the same design elements used here were used in the City. The new roads required were to be straight and wide, and the buildings tall, modern and uniform. It didn’t matter that this meant tearing down entire neighborhoods. In fact the whole concept was to remove all signs of the old Beijing and replace it with a brand new city. Everything old was demolished and the people simply relocated. (Ed: Before you panic, The Forbidden City and a few other gems are still there!)
The old streets of Beijing have been replaced by these super new highways. They look just like the roads leading out of the port, but in this case they are packed with traffic and lined with modern glass and steel buildings. But even they weren’t enough to handle the ever increasing number of cars.
It was a problem that was simply answered by adding another level of roadway on top of the existing one
All of which makes intersections a little overwhelming:
And everywhere we go in Beijing the skyline is dominated by towering cranes, clustered together in groups, each group signifying another huge building project. It seems like a city that will implode, sheer numbers bringing it to a standstill. There is irony in the fact that just miles away new cities stand empty, desperate for citizens. But China doesn’t do irony. They are too busy building an empire.
And if you have any doubts that this new empire will soon dominate the world, just pay China a visit.
You will come away in awe of what has been achieved and convinced that a lot more will be achieved.
You will come away unsettled.