Featured in
Issue 162

Heritage Inc.

Consumption, conflict and the Beijing cityscape

BY En Liang Khong in Critic's Guides | 20 MAR 14

Zancon Gaetano, The ‘European Palace’ at Yuanmingyuan, c.1800, from Giulio Ferrario, Le Costume Ancien et Moderne. Courtesy: Private Collection, Stapleton Collection and Bridgeman Art Library.

Beijing’s identity is always a mirage, its landscape perpetually enveloped by the vapour of its smog-filled air. In this city – the very existence of the smog a symbol of China’s dynamism and its determination to be modern – dangerous reminders of the past are reduced to ghosts and ruins, haunting the city but powerless in reality. Welcome to Vapour City.

The past decades have brought remarkable change to Beijing’s streets. Since the 1990s, in order to realize China’s visions of global consumerism, free-market ideology has been embedded in the glass and steel plazas at the heart of the capital, which have displaced long-term resi­dents of the city centre in extensive compulsory relocations. In this environment of unbridled urban development, imagining alternative, anti-capitalist ways of living has become increasingly difficult. Infrastructure jostles with shopping malls, both veiling the vast urban labour reserves that suck in migrant workers from impoverished rural areas. The increasing polarization of power has marked itself upon the urban form, which has become a series of heavily controlled public spaces and individualized fortresses for the wealthy.

Dispossession and the predatory practices of the housing market are creating a landscape of social ruin in China; this, in turn, has generated a form of Disneyfication, which attempts to pave over the social and ideological conflicts raging across the city. Insatiable development leaves spectacular misery in its wake. The high-speed train that now links Shanghai to Beijing’s emergent complex of gated communities and plazas demarcates the city’s class lines. New economic times are ushering in a new urban elite, with particular intentions on Beijing: the heartland of the Party, yet transparently open for big business, the city expresses all the brilliant contradictions of socialist neoliberalism.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Yuanmingyuan, site of the ruins of a favoured Qing Dynasty imperial retreat northwest of Beijing. Yuanmingyuan Palace was razed to the ground by British and French troops in 1860, before being rebuilt and destroyed again by the allied powers in 1900. Though it was largely forgotten and absorbed by the surrounding urban fabric during the Maoist era, it has since been rediscovered. Intellectuals and urban planners debated the site’s history as a tool for moral education, and a furious conflict emerged over how the pursuit of ticket revenue threatened to undermine the sober lessons that could be learned. But this veiled a far more critical shift in the history of the ruins: the removal of Yuanmingyuan’s long-time inhabitants, including the eviction of a collective of artists who had settled there in rented quarters in the mid-1980s and who held impromptu poetry readings amidst the ruins. By banning all occupants, the remains of the imperial palace were ‘purified’ and rendered ‘sacred’. The way was paved for the Emperor to return to Yuanmingyuan, as part of a wholesale re-imagining of the Qing Dynasty ruling class within the romantic fantasy and consumerist nostalgia of reform-era pop culture. Today, Chinese tourists come in their thousands, reliving an act of historic vandalism. One specialist declared: ‘Our Yuanmingyuan is far more famous than Disneyland. Once it is fully developed, it will surely attract visitors from all over the world.’ And this Disneyfication of the site’s traumatic history has prevented it from becom­ing a space of political potential, papering over the cracks through which radical memories might emerge.

Chinese ruinscape culture in the 21st century works in dialogue with the wider socio-political situation. In 2013, a series of blog posts by the writer and photographer Tong Lam described a new, particularly Chinese predilection for ‘disaster tourism’. In the wake of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, the issue of shoddy public construction became the focus of a national debate on corruption, and those on the margins of China’s economic miracle. So the news that the earthquake ruins of the city of Beichuan were being preserved for tourist groups, bussed in daily, made for easy caveats over the moral complexity of Chinese development, especially when such sites remain places of political contestation.

Ruin tourism is one of the disturbing byproducts of Chinese modernity. This is destruction rendered as entertainment, a kind of freak disaster zone that is somehow disenfranchised from the very real political battles fought between earthquake activists and the state. Stripped of all political dialogue, ruins all too easily slide into the world of Instagram fantasy. The abandoned Wonderland theme park on the outskirts of Beijing, construction of which was halted by the late 1990s Asian Financial Crisis, became a photography sensation on Chinese social media before its demolition early last year. Such dreamy online musings, whether over haunted houses in Beijing or ghost settlements on the city’s outskirts, aestheticize ruins in a kind of Disneyfied nostalgia.

Urban nightmares, dreamt up in the aura of post-crash aesthetics, reached their culmination in Ai Weiwei’s ice-cold, hypermodernist vision of Beijing in his 2011 Newsweek article: ‘Cities really are mental conditions. Beijing is a nightmare. A constant nightmare.’ Ai’s writing comes out of a long tradition of the Chinese avant-garde responding to the tragedy of development, which leaves barely a trace of the old world. But the rapidly changing environment of Chinese modernization has been met at every turn by the radical interventions of its artists, from the blaze of Chinese rock music to the scrutinizing gaze of the independent documentary movement. Zhao Liang’s film Bored Youth (2000) surveyed a Beijing neighbourhood being prepared for demolition to facilitate urban redevelopment. Art and protest had walked hand in hand throughout the years leading up to the turn of the millennium. Artists were always there, showing how space could be turned over for public action or lamenting a lack of urban vibrancy. In artist Zhan Wang’s Ruin Cleaning Project ’94, he deliberately ‘restored’ part of a building marked for demolition. No sooner had he carefully cleaned it out and painted on doors and windows, than the buildings were brought down.

Amidst the bloody suppression of the Tiananmen protesters in the summer of 1989, a new Chinese modernity was emerging, embracing commodity fetishism and advertising guile. Then, just before the turn of the new millennium, Tiananmen Square itself, its entire history of emotional and ideological conflict, was wiped clear, as the Party embarked on a physical erasure of the final traces of protest, those last bloodstains and bullet holes.

Now the great millennial shift has ushered in a new global capitalist regime, operating according to the logic of what the Marxist geographer David Harvey calls an ‘aestheticized economic of consumption’: divisions of culture and commodity rapidly disintegrate, and all is aestheticized, enforcing consumerism and embedding capitalism. But in Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx (1993), the philosopher coined the term ‘hauntology’ to counter the full blast of Francis Fukuyama’s proclamation of ‘the end of history’, with the warning that, far from being defeated, Marx would go on to haunt history. The utopian promises of Beijing’s past are haunted by what actually came to be, and this in turn haunts the present malaise.

One winter night, I ventured into Wangfujing, a sanitized area of Beijing, in which all the pleasures of the plaza and the shopping mall converge in the heart of the old city, not far from the imperial palace. Foreign investment entered here in the 1980s, with Beijing’s first McDonalds opening in 1992, followed by a steady influx of Hong Kong money and development. This was accompanied by the destruction of the distinctive old hutong network of alleys that created the city’s neighbourhoods. I bathed momentarily in the spectral lights of Wangfujing’s vast billboards. Just as I turned to face the glow of the Apple store, I caught sight of the surreal spectacle of a troupe of elderly women, dancing unselfconsciously in the shadows. These are the people who have lived through the full costs of Chinese modernity, from Mao’s revolution to the present day, in which his teachings no longer make sense. Yet these nocturnal balletics, which can still be glimpsed here and there throughout the city, offer us a greater insight into the ongoing evolution of Beijing than some of us may wish to acknowledge.

En Liang Khong is senior editor at frieze. His writing on politics and art has been published in Prospect, Financial Times, Times Literary Supplement, Los Angeles Review of Books, The New Statesman, The Daily Telegraph and The New Inquiry. Follow him on Twitter: @en_khong