Urban planning

How a clean-up campaign is changing the face of Beijing’s Sanlitun bar street

Looking to reduce capital’s population, authorities crack down on unauthorised building alterations, forcing many establishments to close

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 May, 2017, 8:02am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 May, 2017, 8:02am

A demolition crew with sledgehammers recently set to work on Jin Zhenghui’s shop in Sanlitun, one of Beijing’s oldest bar streets and an area she considered home.

When Jin first arrived in the capital from Henan province in 1989, she made a living selling clothes in Sanlitun. In the 1990s, after the market was demolished to clear the way for property development, she switched to selling African food, with her shop growing out of the ground floor of a residential building.

She rented an apartment in the area, got married and had two children there.

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But the men with sledgehammers demolished her shop, along with dozens of others, as part of a crackdown on unauthorised building alterations.

“The urban control officers wouldn’t even let me have a clearance sale after the demolition,” Jin, 52, said. “They wanted us out, but where could we go? My children are here and my life is here.”

The shops at 42 Sanlitun Nan Street, part of Beijing’s “dirty bar street”, were the latest casualties in a citywide facelift campaign.

After decades of tearing down the hutongs in central Beijing to clear the way for property development, the capital’s streetscape is undergoing another profound change, with shops and restaurants tucked away in alleys being demolished for reasons beyond neighbourhood tidiness and cleanliness.

City officials say the hole-in-the-wall shops, restaurants, hair salons and bicycle repair stalls need to be walled up to preserve the capital’s built heritage and protect the environment.

Shops that fail to take the hint find themselves visited by sledgehammer-wielding demolition crews.

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Some shops have been shut down for operating illegally in residential premises, where commercial activities are prohibited. Some have been allowed to remain open after their doors and windows have been bricked up, with signs directing customers to rear entrances.

Others have put ladders in front of windows to allow access.

The government had turned a blind eye to the existence of such shops, which first emerged in the 1980s, but now wants to cut the capital’s population to 23 million by 2020, down 15 per cent from 2014.

The crackdown started in Chaoyang district in 2015 and spread to other districts in central Beijing. The municipal government made it a government priority in this year’s annual work report.

Beijing resident Zhu Yuan, a 35-year-old office worker, said he supported the campaign because the streets “looked tidier and cleaner”, especially as some businesses had occupied space on the pavement. “It may be a bit inconvenient to find a place to have lunch, but I am prepared to have a better environment in exchange,” he said.

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Other residents were less sanguine.

“I understand the idea of a cleaner environment but sometimes it loses the idea of being in Beijing and in China,” said history teacher Todd Fedan, an occasional shopper in Sanlitun. “I like Sanlitun, certainly not because of the big shopping mall but for the smaller businesses.”

Marcus Provencio, a chef who works in Sanlitun, said the urban lifestyle was a mix of commercial and residential, and the authorities were pushing an “artificial concept”.

“I think the city is right in trying to clean it up, but I don’t think the model they are using, trying to destroy the business just based on whether the building they are using is commercial or residential, is actually very useful,” he said.

Zhao Zhao, assistant president of China City Development Academy, said Beijing had allowed the ground floors of residential buildings in alleys to be modified for private business to promote self-employment after many “sent-down” young people returned to Beijing following the end of the Cultural Revolution and the Mao-inspired “Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement”.

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They had spread rampantly across the city over the years due to a lack of proper management, Zhao said, and it was time they were regulated because not all businesses were suited for close-living residential areas.

“I think the Beijing government is determined to regulate the illegal construction and use of residential premises for commercial use,” he said. “Maybe the efforts went overboard, but the government has to be tough in the beginning to keep the momentum.”

But it could have been handled better, Zhao said, suggesting a need for more clarity on the types of business suitable for residential areas.

The municipal government aims to wall up about 15,600 illegally operating commercial ventures in six urban districts this year. Almost 1,300 were walled up in Dongcheng district in the first quarter of this year, according to a government statement, resulting in 8,711 people leaving the district.

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“I have stayed in Beijing for nearly 30 years. I love Beijing and I consider myself a Beijinger even though I don’t have hukou (permanent household registration),” said a restaurant owner in Baochao Hutong who requested anonymity. When other shops closed and staff left, he continued his business, even though it customer numbers were down.

“I have a family to support and staff to pay for,” he said. “I am not going anywhere. If I die, I die in Beijing.”