Beijing: Constant Nightmare, China's Most Liveable City, or Capital of the Future?

An ongoing series at The Economist’s More Intelligent Life site searches for a new global capital, with a particular focus on London, New York, Washington DC, Beijing, Delhi and Singapore. As noted in ‘Beijing: Capital of the World‘ at CDT, the Economist Intelligence Unit has been making even more controversial claims for China’s capital; it recently released its latest “most liveable cities” list, rating Beijing first on the Chinese mainland (but far behind Hong Kong). From China Real Time Report:

China’s capital city ranked 72nd out of the world’s 140 most livable cities in Economist Intelligence Unit’s semi-annual survey, released earlier this week, upping Shanghai, Dalian and Shenzhen. Hangzhou, known as a picturesque retreat for the rich, didn’t crack the list.

Suzhou, in China’s eastern Jiangsu province, came in second among Chinese cities, at 73rd place, followed by Tianjin, on the northeast coast, at 74th place. Shanghai ranked 79th; Shenzhen, 82nd; and Dalian, 85th.

The ranking was greeted with widespread ridicule and disbelief: The Financial Times’ Kathrin Hille felt that the EIU’s conclusion “would be funny if it wasn’t so sad …. Perhaps more than any other city in China, the capital is … a place where only a minority of residents enjoy full economic and social rights.” A prominent example is the ongoing demolition of many of Beijing’s schools for the children of migrant workers, for whom mainstream education is generally inaccessible. From The Economist:

China’s system of household registration, or hukou, makes it very difficult for migrants to gain access to urban education and health care. But the urban economy relies on migrant labour, and some cities have been much more adroit than Beijing in providing schools. Shanghai claims last year to have become the first city in China to provide free education for all migrant children, mostly in state-run schools, with some in subsidised private ones.

Beijing is far less keen to embrace them. Chu Zhaohui, of the Ministry of Education’s Central Institute for Educational Research, says Beijing could afford to accommodate all of its more than 400,000 migrant children, some 40,000 of whom have little choice but to use unlicensed schools. But he says the city worries that it is growing unsustainably large. Figures last year showed that Beijing’s population, including nearby towns and villages, had reached 20m, up nearly 45% on a decade earlier, and exceeding the city government’s estimate for 2020.

The fear of a soaring population has already inspired officials to attempt, a few months ago, to close down, again “on safety grounds”, cheap accommodation favoured by many migrants. Tian Kun, a lawyer who has been trying to help the migrants, says that forcing them out will exacerbate social tensions in the capital. The parents of the school-deprived children, he says, “are filled with hate”.

See also ‘China Takes Aim at Rural Influx‘, via CDT.

Ai Weiwei recently wrote at Newsweek that “cities really are mental conditions. Beijing is a nightmare. A constant nightmare.” The article was ripped from hard copies of the magazine in China, but remained accessible online. From The Telegraph:

“Ai Weiwei’s piece for Newsweek, his first in defiance of the Chinese gag order on him, was a cry from the heart in which he likened Beijing to a vast prison. It ran on the last page of the magazine, and the Chinese censors ripped that page out in every issue,” Tunku Varadarajan, the editor of Newsweek International told The Telegraph ….

“We had flagged the piece on the cover, too, but they left the cover alone, so it delights me that astute readers will have seen the coverline, noted the ripped page, and then gone straight to the Web to read Ai’s courageous piece,” added Mr Varadarajan.

Also on the negative side, though more mundanely, Beijing topped IBM’s “commuter pain” list last year, level with Mexico City.

On The Economist’s Prospero blog, however, a more optimistic Q&A with Tom Scocca delves into his experiences in the city, which formed the basis of a book, ‘Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future‘:

What was the most jarring thing you noticed about the transformation of Beijing?

The government made communal, substantive changes to the infrastructure—new subway lines appeared, giant developments went up—but there was also the hilariously superficial stuff. In 2008 smooth, greyish-silver, aluminium panels would go up over all the storefronts to just square off the building alignment. These weird scrims were put over air conditioning units to unify building facades. It was the little details, impossible to worry about and difficult to make any real headway against, that they set out to fix.

One thing that really did happen was with the escalators. The convention of stand-right walk-left had not existed at all so they painted a line right down the middle of the escalator and put up signs. For some reason, with that, people just picked it up. Maybe New York should take note?

What makes Beijing the capital city of the future? What works about it?

It’s a combination of things, some good and some not so good. China lacks a certain stability unlike America, which has just settled into this almost Panglossian outlook: we have the best rail system that we could therefore it’s stupid to try and make high-speed rail work; we can’t change our health-care system because it might be worse. But this is not the history of the United States. Most of America’s history consisted of stitching stars on the flag as fast as we could—but what would happen now if someone proposed that we should add a state? At the moment we have a perfect round number of states. It is like we’ve achieved the end of history. In China I don’t think they’ve ever had the notion that they’ve reached the end of history.

Sources:

What’s the Capital of the World? – More Intelligent Life
Washington, Capital of the World – More Intelligent Life
Beijing, Capital of the World – More Intelligent Life
Delhi, Capital of the World – More Intelligent Life
Beijing: China’s Most Livable City? – China Real Time Report – WSJ
Beijing: the most liveable city in China, for whom? – FT.com
Beijing’s migrant workers: School’s out – The Economist
China censors Ai Wei Wei’s Newsweek interview – Telegraph
Mexico City, Beijing top list for worst ‘commuter pain’ – latimes.com
The Q&A: Tom Scocca, author – The Economist