China once en­cour­aged ‘holes in the wall’; now, it wants those busi­nesses gone

The Buffalo News - - WORLD NEWS - By Steven Lee My­ers

BEI­JING – When China’s lead­ers be­gan the hurly-burly tran­si­tion to a mar­ket econ­omy, they en­cour­aged dis­lo­cated work­ers to take up their own en­tre­pre­neur­ial pur­suits. Many of them started small shops, bars or cafes, in what be­came known as kai qiang da dong, mean­ing “to open a hole in the wall.”

Now, in Bei­jing, the holes are be­ing bricked up.

Neigh­bor­hood by neigh­bor­hood, block by block, work­ers are tear­ing down unau­tho­rized struc­tures, ad­di­tions and store­fronts as part of a re­con­struc­tion ef­fort as sweep­ing as any since the Olympics in 2008.

The work, which ac­cel­er­ated in the spring, has con­vulsed en­tire districts, churn­ing up de­bris and clouds of dust and wip­ing out scores of the places that have given the cap­i­tal a bit of its rak­ish charm.

Hard­est hit have been the old neigh­bor­hoods of pic­turesque, if not al­ways pris­tine, al­ley­ways known as hu­tongs. In al­ley af­ter al­ley, once-thriv­ing busi­nesses now have bricked-up walls where store­fronts or doors once were.

Pu­dao Cot­tage, a highly re­garded book­store on Mao’er Hu­tong north of the For­bid­den City, shut down af­ter work­ers bricked over an un­ap­proved glass en­trance. Its owner, Zhuo Yi­fang, wrote an an­gry post, called “Who mur­dered a book­store?” but later re­moved it. Reached by tele­phone, he re­fused to dis­cuss the clos­ing.

“We had all the proper busi­ness li­censes, hop­ing that this would save the book­store,” he wrote on Weibo, a Twit­ter-like so­cial me­dia site. “But what we didn’t an­tic­i­pate was a city­wide cam­paign, drag­ging us into the car­nage.”

The city au­thor­i­ties call it a beau­ti­fi­ca­tion project. And it is, of a sort, in places where white walls, tree boxes and flow­er­ing planters have re­placed jerry-built, side­walk-clog­ging stalls and store­fronts.

It is also part of a broader cam­paign – some say a crack­down – meant to trans­form Bei­jing’s bustling, over­crowded city cen­ter into a fu­tur­is­tic cap­i­tal of govern­ment, fi­nance, me­dia and tech­nol­ogy. That means rid­ding it of un­con­trolled de­vel­op­ment and “low end” en­trepreneur­ship, while push­ing out mil­lions of mi­grants from other parts of China.

In the San­l­i­tun neigh­bor­hood, Yashow DVD Shop No. 98 sur­vived the de­struc­tion that swept through a side street in April, but sales have plum­meted since the front en­trance fac­ing the street was shut­tered. Cus­tomers now have to find their way through the grimy court­yard of a six-story apart­ment block, piled with de­bris and garbage.

Zhu Yi, whose fam­ily opened the shop af­ter mov­ing from the south­ern city of Guangzhou in 2008, said they had been given am­ple warn­ing of the work. He ac­knowl­edged that the store­front en­trance, which led to a base­ment shop, had not been erected ac­cord­ing to any zon­ing code, but rents in nearby shop­ping cen­ters are too ex­or­bi­tant.

“To this govern­ment, it is il­le­gal,” he said, but added that a shop like theirs should also be “a part of Bei­jing’s lo­cal color.”

As with most govern­ment de­ci­sions in China, there was no pub­lic de­bate about the cam­paign, and those af­fected said there was lit­tle they could do to chal­lenge it.

It took root in 2014, with Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping’s dec­la­ra­tion that Bei­jing would shift its “non­cap­i­tal” func­tions to the sur­round­ing re­gions. The plan would cap the city’s pop­u­la­tion at 23 mil­lion while ex­pand­ing Tian­jin and other nearby cities, link­ing them all to­gether to cre­ate a me­ga­lopo­lis. With an im­por­tant Com­mu­nist Party congress com­ing in the fall, the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties have an added in­cen­tive to make the city or­derly, if not im­mac­u­late.

A less-ex­plicit goal is to rid the cap­i­tal of many of the mi­grants who have poured into Bei­jing and other prin­ci­pal cities in re­cent decades. While they were im­por­tant con­trib­u­tors to China’s eco­nomic boom, of­fi­cials seem to have cal­cu­lated that they are not as vi­tal to the new phase of de­vel­op­ment. The most vis­i­ble sign of that has been a re­lated cam­paign to close or shrink dozens of bustling whole­sale mar­kets, also heav­ily pop­u­lated with mi­grant en­trepreneurs. These in­clude the Alien Street Mar­ket, which catered to Rus­sian shut­tle traders, and a clus­ter of build­ings near the Bei­jing Zoo that com­posed the city’s largest and most fa­mous cloth­ing mar­ket.

As with pre­vi­ous ef­forts to re­shape Bei­jing, this one has torn the fabric of ur­ban life. Evic­tion no­tices at one of the zoo mar­kets prompted daily protests last month, at least one of which ended with scuf­fles be­tween tenants and guards. Dozens of shop­keep­ers have been promised re­funds on their leases, but those protest­ing said they had yet to see them.

The po­lice, wary as ever of pub­lic dis­plays of dis­con­tent, moved to sti­fle the protest be­fore it could draw more at­ten­tion. (When I showed up the next day, a po­lice of­fi­cer stopped me within min­utes, checked my doc­u­ments and asked me to leave.)

More evic­tions are com­ing. The state-run Xin­hua news agency re­ported that the city plans to close or re­lo­cate 120 mar­kets this year.

“We want to re­veal the dark side of the cleanup,” said Di Yan­jie, one of the shop­keep­ers who protested. She said she had been de­tained at the lo­cal po­lice sta­tion for 12 hours.

A na­tive of Bei­jing, Di and her hus­band first went into busi­ness two decades ago, sell­ing women’s cloth­ing from a blan­ket on the side­walk. Over the years, they grad­u­ally ex­panded, and in 2009 moved into the mar­ket build­ing – which now, ac­cord­ing to Xin­hua, will be con­verted into of­fices for fi­nance and high-tech com­pa­nies.

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