- Suburban Beijing: Housing and Consumption in Contemporary China by Friederike Fleischer
One of the most prominent phenomena of China’s development in the recent two decades has been its rapid urbanization. Prior to the late twentieth century, more than 80 percent of Chinese were rural dwellers. From 1990 to 2000, the urban population rose by 26 percent (China Daily, April 29, 2011). According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, by the end of 2011, 691 million Chinese (or 51.27 percent of China’s total population) lived in cities, surpassing the rural population for the first time.
This fast-paced urbanization arose from multiple roots: rural-tourban migrations, the expansion of large cities, the growth of small towns, and the boom of housing markets, and all contributed to the dramatic increase of China’s urban population. But the most visible change has been the suburbanization of rural communities on the immediate outskirts of major cities. The pace is such that few scholars are able to effectively monitor and document the changes in detail. Friederike Fleischer’s Suburban Beijing is one of a handful works that contribute to this endeavor.
This book is based on the author’s anthropological fieldwork in Wangjing, in the northeast suburb of Beijing and about 20 km from Tiananmen Square. The author did part of his fieldwork in 2001– 2002 and returned in the early spring of 2007 after 5 years of absence. This particular timespan gives a near-perfect timing for observing China’s astonishing change in urban landscape at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Five chapters of this book focus mainly on three types of residents in Wangjing: the affluent professionals; the retirees, mostly former state employees; and new migrants from rural areas.
The affluent residents, most of them young and educated couples, chose to live in Wangjing for its quiet location, better air quality, and perhaps most of all, the perceived higher “human quality” (suzhi) of the people in neighborhoods such as the Wangjing New City, a gated apartment complex. These residents were often known as “chuppies” (Chinese urban professionals) and most of them were below age 50. For them, “to choose a home means to choose a lifestyle” (p. 129), and such a lifestyle represented Western-molded modernity as they understood it. For these young urban residents with well-paying jobs, consumption of housing was an everlasting hunt for a better, more suitable place (p. 118).
Unlike the affluent young professionals who had consciously chosen Wangjing, the majority of residents in the work-unit (danwei) [End Page 584] compounds there, especially among the older people, had been assigned to the area before China’s housing market reforms in the late 1990s. These residents were able to purchase their units with substantial discounts given to sitting tenants only (pp. 50–51). Fleischer indicates that the older generation’s favorable access to subsidized public housing proved to be a positive factor in easing the negative effects of the reform of the housing provision system for their children’s generation, as older work-unit residents often provided housing and other forms of support to their adult children. The old residents themselves, however, usually lived thrifty lives quite in contrast with their “chuppie” neighbors. Indeed, these work-unit retirees did not travel much beyond their immediate neighborhood, and if they did venture to other parts of the city, few ever took a taxi (p. 57).
At the bottom of this social spectrum were migrant workers and their families, who appeared to have nothing in common with the other Wangjing residents. These people did not have legal residential status (hukou) in the city and had to frequently change workplace and housing in order to eke out a living (p. 67). They were subjected to various types of discrimination and generally seen by other residents as uncultured and uneducated country folk. Yet like hundreds of millions China’s migrant workers, they were the...