- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 21, 2019

BEIJING — In a meeting with Beijing municipal officials in the fall of 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping made what could have seemed like an offhand remark.

Mr. Xi observed that Beijing’s skyline was dominated by neon signs and billboards. The tops of office buildings, hotels, hospitals, and apartment buildings throughout the capital are festooned with them, giving the capital city what the president called a “crowded” look.

He did not make a specific request or issue a diktat — he didn’t need to. The Beijing municipal government got the message and announced that all signs on buildings taller than three stories would need to be removed — nearly 20,000 of them. Within weeks, the offending edifices disappeared.

The solution caused problems of its own — locals complained that, in a city of monotonous colonies of identical apartment buildings, they relied on the signs to tell which building was theirs. But the concerns were swept aside when the president decided China’s capital should have a tidier skyline.

“Tidy” is not traditionally a word one would associate with Beijing, a sprawling megacity of 21.5 million long characterized by air pollution, traffic and oppressive crowds.

Yet while still a far cry from the orderly (some would say oppressive) state of a Tokyo or Singapore, Beijing has been transformed in the last decade, a tribute to the efficacy of the country’s authoritarian political system, if not its respect for basic human rights or liberties.

Clearing the air

Beijing, set on a sprawling plain ringed by mountains on three sides, has for decades been beset by horrific air pollution. The combination of industry, the heavy use of coal, traffic, and basin-like conditions that trap air, combined to make a toxic brew, so dangerous that going outside on many days was deemed a health hazard.

At its nadir, barely a decade ago, the haze was so thick that flights had to occasionally be canceled. Foreign executives assigned to Beijing demanded hazard pay. When Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics in 2008, the government ordered local factories to shut down for weeks before and during the games to ensure blue skies and healthy conditions for athletes and spectators.

Beginning in 2013, the year after Mr. Xi assumed the presidency, the city began to get serious about reducing pollution on a more systemic level. It did so in classic contemporary Chinese fashion: with an emphasis on results.

The story of the chuan’r salesmen is one example.

For decades, a staple of any Beijing neighborhood was the local chuan’r monger, selling a Chinese-style kabob. The open-air chuan’r stands were a popular place to have a few beers and hang out. Many of them set up plastic tables and chairs.

In the blink of an eye, however, the chuan’r stands disappeared.

In 2013, local authorities were photographed literally destroying them, with public workers seizing and shredding the barbecues on municipal orders. The reason: Chuan’rs were cooked over coal.

Today, you can still get this signature Beijing dish — inside a restaurant, cooked over a gas grill. (It’s perhaps evidence of nostalgia for an earlier time in Beijing that one of the most popular indoor chuan’r restaurants is called “Old Times.”)

The attack on the chuan’r vendors was of a piece with a broader crackdown on coal: Beijing has also aggressively transitioned away from burning the stuff to heat homes and has also forced local factories to either close or move farther from the city.

The effort has borne fruit: An annual survey by Numbeo.com, a database of global living conditions, rated Beijing the world’s 12th most polluted city in 2012 (Jakarta, Indonesia, was No. 1). By 2019, Beijing has fallen all the way to No. 24 in the ranking, with better average air quality than such cities as Manila, Hanoi and Beirut.

The roads have been transformed too. Beijing, long famous for its bicycles, became a city of cars as it became wealthier. Between 1998 and 2013, the number of cars on the city’s roads grew 300 percent, to more than 5 million. Traffic congestion — and pollution — exploded as well.

Today, Beijing enforces strict restrictions on personal vehicles. In order to buy a new car in Beijing, you have to win a lottery, and the odds are steep: Only 1 applicant per 2,000 is selected at each bimonthly drawing, according to Bloomberg News.

Cars already on the road face new limitations as well. Depending on the last digit of each license plate, there is one day of the week that drivers can enter central Beijing. (The day switches every three months.) There are ways around this: The rule does not apply to fully electric cars, or to taxis.

Beijing municipal authorities, liberated from constraints such as eminent domain laws, environmental impact reviews and labor safety regulations that hobble even the most modest of U.S. projects, has invested heavily in public transportation.

The city’s subway system, owned by the municipal government, has expanded at astonishing speed. In 2002, Beijing still only had two subway lines, one dating back to 1971. Annual ridership stood at about 430 million.

Today, Beijing’s subway system has expanded to 22 lines, and it continues to grow. Annual ridership is fast approaching 4 billion.

The effect on air quality — which once routinely ranked at or near the bottom of global rankings, has been marked, with Beijingers now routinely enjoying what once was that rarest of sites: blue skies. Last year, the city enjoyed its cleanest air on record, with the average concentration of fine particulate matter having declined 42.7 percent since 2013.

Pollution control has even extended indoors, with Beijing implementing an indoor smoking ban in public places since 2015, a heretofore unthinkable act in a country with one of the world’s highest smoking rates, a country where the Treasury Department owns China Tobacco, the cigarette monopoly.

While the ban is not strictly enforced — smoking in many restaurants and bars remains rife — it is further evidence of a city determined to — literally — clean itself up. Cultural pollution has been reduced, too. The once ubiquitous red lights that advertised prostitution at hair salons and massage parlors have disappeared.

Bigger isn’t better

For China’s leaders, Beijing has always been a showplace.

The Forbidden City, the massive palace compound in central Beijing constructed in the early 15th century by the Ming and Qing dynasties, was a raw (if elegant) assertion of imperial power. More recently, Mao Zedong wanted Beijing to literally embody the great socialist future he was building.

In 1959, Mao ordered the building of the “10 great constructions,” including the Great Hall of the People, the gigantic, modernist building on Tiananmen Square that hosts China’s rubber-stamp parliament, and the Beijing Central Railway Station. The decade leading up the 2008 Summer Olympics also saw an intense building boom, not just of athletic facilities, but also new hotels, parks and apartment buildings.

Under Mr. Xi, Beijing is taking a radically different tack: going small. The city has an unofficial goal of reducing its population by 15 percent in a decade.

China’s unusual system of social control provides the way to do it. The country is still governed by the hukou, a residential permit system that governs access to public services like education and healthcare. If you don’t have Beijing hukou, you can’t send your kids to Beijing schools.

In Beijing’s prosperous times, however, city officials largely ignored the restrictions, accepting waves of migrants from elsewhere in China to fuel the building boom. But the city is now enforcing the hukou.

Citing safety, the municipal government is busy destroying many physical facilities that the migrants relied on, including the public markets they shopped in and the shanty towns where they lived. The result: an exodus of huge numbers of people from Beijing back to the hinterlands.

There have also been more deliberate moves to move to a smaller Beijing. The municipal government has moved from downtown to a newly constructed satellite city in Beijing’s southern outskirts. There are rumors, too, that some certain central government facilities will move there as well.

Not coincidentally, a huge new airport, expected to serve 100 million passengers annually before the next decade is out, is slated to open in the southern district Oct. 1.

Beijing has taken to micromanaging the residents who will be lucky enough to remain. The city is seeking to remake the hutongs, the historic courtyard districts which are increasingly dominated by the elderly. (Mr. Xi’s mother is rumored to live in one.)

As part of a beautification campaign, scores of hutong businesses have been shuttered. One hutong resident, surnamed Li, points to an empty storefront and recalls that a shoe repair shop had been located in it just a few years ago. The city is offering stipends to the elderly to move out and for young families to move in.

Beijing has been, and will continue to be transformed, but solely on the government’s terms.

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