Běijīng has been transformed over the past 20 years. Unprecedented investment and massive population growth have fuelled breakneck development. In terms of wealth and opportunities, Beijingers have never had it so good, but rapid change has come at a cost. Transport systems are full to bursting, pollution levels are at an all-time high, and the very fabric of traditional society is being threatened as age-old hútòng (narrow alleyway) districts continue to make way for more modern alternatives.
Inevitably, nonstop development brings increased pollution. The condition of the region's soil and water causes much concern to locals (Beijingers never drink their tap water), but perhaps most depressing is the sustained levels of the city's now infamous smog.
Air pollution counts hit record levels in January 2013, a month dubbed 'Airpocalypse' by the world's media. Expatriates began leaving in droves, but Beijingers are equally unimpressed with the often dire situation – it is a major topic of conversation, as well as complaints to local authorities. Any repeat visitor to the city will notice a marked rise in the number of people wearing face masks.
The smog isn't continual – Běijīng still experiences days of wonderfully clear blue skies – but worryingly, the smog seems to be increasing rather than diminishing.
Continued Economic Growth
The authorities can be commended for their continued investment in an increasingly impressive public transport system. Běijīng has an extensive fleet of natural-gas-powered and electric-powered buses, and its subway system is now the world's second-largest (behind Shànghǎi) and is still expanding, with another 12 lines set to open by 2021. Plans for a monorail system in the eastern outskirts of the city have also been mooted, although protests from local residents have seen the scheme shelved for now; a rare case of people power triumphing over the state in China.
The Great Pall of China
Air pollution was brought into focus in the summer of 2012 when the government called for the US embassy to stop publishing its daily Běijīng pollution readings on its highly popular Twitter feed. The figures were wildly out of sync with official air-pollution levels published by Běijīng's Environmental Protection Bureau.
There’s little doubt that Běijīng’s air quality has deteriorated, as more and more cars clog the roads, and visitors will be shocked by the pall of pollution haze that sometimes hangs over the city. The Běijīng government has fought back by investing heavily in public transport. It added 3800 natural-gas buses to its fleet – more than almost any other city in the world – while the already excellent subway system continues to expand. At the same time, a cheap and convenient bike-sharing scheme reflects the capital's long cycling tradition.
Demolition & Gentrification
Běijīng – the last of China's imperial capitals – functioned as the moral and spiritual centre of the entire country; a cosmic focal point where the ‘Son of Heaven’ (the emperor) mediated between earthly and heavenly realms. Due to the city's divine nature, Chinese leaders throughout history paid special attention to the design of their capital. Even the slightest change to the configuration of the imperial city was regarded as an affront to tradition and thus to the established world order.
How times have changed. Today, shimmering superstructures, designed as freestanding landmarks, spring up around the city like individual monuments of modernity, jeopardising the forces of architectural yin and yang that once harmonised the whole structure of the city. Often making way for them are the older, more run-down neighbourhoods made up of ancient hútòng. The most recent high-profile example is the hútòng housing that was demolished to make way for the dazzling Soho Galaxy building.
Historic buildings, including sìhéyuàn (四合院; traditional courtyard houses), are often protected, but it's the dàzáyuàn (大杂院; high-density courtyard compounds with many families living together) which continue to be threatened, either by being demolished to make way for modern superstructures, or by having their essence as residential communities squeezed out of them by large-scale gentrification projects.
Qianmen, until recently the largest uninterrupted hútòng block in Běijīng, was demolished and rebuilt as a Qing-style shopping and residential district, just before the 2008 Olympics. And in 2014, part of the charming residential hútòng district surrounding the historic Drum Tower and Bell Tower was demolished, as the square between the towers was blocked off and turned into a soulless zone.
No More Bizarre Buildings
The frenzied wave of construction in Běijīng over the last decade has resulted in some truly eye-catching buildings popping up on the capital's skyline. Not all have been embraced by the sometimes bemused locals. The National Centre for the Performing Arts was swiftly dubbed 'The Alien Egg' by Beijingers, while the astonishing CCTV Headquarters is known locally as 'The Big Underpants'.
Those extravagant buildings are likely to be some of the last to cause such controversy. In February 2016, China's State Council announced new guidelines on urban planning and they include a ban on so-called 'bizarre' and 'odd-shaped' buildings. Instead, new architecture in China must be 'economic, green and beautiful'.
The new regulations were likely prompted by an October 2014 speech given by China's president Xi Jinping, in which he called for morally inspiring architecture that serves the people. The ban on bizarre buildings will undoubtedly devastate avant-garde architects around the world, who have come to regard China as a place where they can design outlandish structures that other countries won't tolerate. But many locals will be disappointed as well. After all, wacky buildings give everyone something to laugh and gossip about.