Sacked. A man carries sacks from a razed house in a hutong. Photo: Reuters/Thomas Peter
Sacked. A man carries sacks from a razed house in a hutong. Photo: Reuters/Thomas Peter

The Chinese capital is sanitizing its ancient hutong alleyways, home to millions of migrants workers and thousands of small businesses, bulldozing illegal constructions and forcing shops, bars and tiny courtyard restaurants to relocate or go under.

As part of guidelines unveiled in April, authorities have started to brick in doors of properties along the narrow passageways, many of which date back to the 13th century. They have also cracked down on illegal shopfronts to restore the original facades.

Traditionally a courtyard property has only one entrance. That means shops on a property are not allowed to create or maintain additional entrances. On top of that, authorities have stopped issuing new commercial licenses in Beijing’s most ambitious clean-up of the hutongs, where some buildings are crumbling and unsafe. And current licenses will not be renewed.

The municipal government says it is trying to eradicate an “urban disease.”

Business owners have been seen taking photos of their shopfronts and bidding them goodbye. For some, they are saying farewell to the old city.

“The most appealing part of Beijing is about to disappear,” said Titi, the owner of a clothing store in Fangjia hutong, famous for its bars and vintage stores.

Shopkeepers in Fangjia complained that they had not been given enough time before their stores were bricked in. Some had no choice but to hold flash clearance sales during a recent three-day public holiday to get rid of stock.

Residents and businesses are given from five to 15 days to rectify unapproved construction before “the authorities enforce mandatory demolition with no obligation to compensate any losses,” according to notices posted on the walls of many hutongs.

“I am not against government policy, but you [the authorities] have to give us some time to take care of our business,” said the owner of a Fangjia Mexican snack bar.

Pre-Olympic clean-up

The winding, bustling hutongs with their tell-tale tiled roofs have been central to Beijing life since the government allowed private businesses to set up shop in the late 1980s in the hope of stimulating the economy and creating jobs.

They have been targeted before. More than 1,000 courtyard properties in dozens of hutongs were renovated or destroyed in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics in a gentrification process, which drew much criticism from admirers of the old city.

Now, under a three-year plan to clean up 1,674 hutongs, the municipal government is targeting illegal construction. That’s more than two-thirds of all existing hutongs, most of them in congested central Beijing.

It was unclear what will happen to properties that are restored but left empty. Most hutong properties are leased to migrant workers.

Official data shows the number of migrant workers has risen fivefold over the past 18 years, peaking at 8.2 million in 2015. That growth has slowed due to new population controls which aim to cap the number of people at 23 million by 2020. Beijing’s population now is about 21.7 million.

While there is no official word linking the revamp to efforts to curb population growth, some migrant workers, who run everything from convenience stores to hair salons to dumpling restaurants and even a British-themed pub, are convinced they are a target.

“There is no single high-rise building that was not built by migrant workers,” construction worker An said. “Now the city doesn’t need us to build more buildings, so we are being kicked out.”

Playing ‘hardball’

An and his wife may have to move back to eastern Shandong province after their kitchen was torn down.

“What can we do? We’ve to go back home if the authorities are determined to kick us out,” said An, who declined to give his full name for fear of repercussions.

An and his wife have rented a 10 square-metre (100 square-foot) room in Xilou hutong for three years. Their children and grandchildren visit every day, but they never stay overnight as the room is too small.

The hutong revamp is overseen by Beijing’s new mayor, Cai Qi, who said city authorities should “dare to play hardball” when taking down unapproved projects and unsafe construction.

The press department at the Beijing municipal government office could not immediately comment on the current hutong revamp. The Beijing Administration for Industry and Commerce did not reply to a fax seeking comment.

In Wenchang hutong near Beijing’s financial center, the owner of a pancake shop, who gave her name as Su, is worried about the future.

“My store is of the same age those of fancy buildings nearby, but mine has to retire early,” said Su, who left central Henan province for Beijing more than two decades ago.