Prosperity and pain

Amid China's new capitalism, Beijing's redevelopment comes as progress to some and, to others, the final blow to social equality.

August 19, 2002|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- Just off South Small Street along Full Blossom Lane once stood the red-brick house of the three Gong brothers. They and their families shared its nine small rooms for nearly 40 years, holding fast to the traditions of old Beijing as a modern metropolis rose outside like a forest of concrete and steel.

The brothers grew up playing as boys always had in the neighborhood, shooting marbles in the lane and raising a small menagerie of pigeons, crickets and other pets. Their boyhood and teen-age years, through the 1950s and early 1960s, were the heyday of Chinese socialism, when everyone worked for the state and everyone, the state insisted, was seen as equal.

Faster than anyone on Full Blossom Lane could have foreseen, the Gongs, their home and that world are gone.

The Gong brothers are Wenbiao, 53, who retired from a state-owned factory; Wencong, 51, a successful food wholesaler; and the youngest, Wenju, 43, who drives a cab. This spring, the city of Beijing demolished their house and much of the lane as part of the world's most sweeping urban building program.

Where a dozen members of the extended Gong family once shared a 650-square-foot house, workers plan to lay a sidewalk along a new six-lane road to be lined by high-rise apartments.

After living under one roof, the brothers, their wives, four children, one grandchild and a son-in-law now live apart in radically different styles, facing starkly different prospects. The families' move from Beijing's winding alleys to its jungle of glass and steel mirrors the country's transition from a socialist system to a ruthlessly competitive one.

The story of the Gong brothers is the story of China since 1978, a tale of those who embraced economic change and succeeded and others who resisted and failed. And it is a cautionary story of how a neighborhood's destruction, decreed by an authoritarian government, can alienate three brothers who took different paths away from Full Blossom Lane.

Although Beijing's modernization was necessary and inevitable, the scope and speed of destruction have been devastating, the process strikingly harsh. Demolition of the Gongs' house and tens of thousands like it has led to the breakup of traditional, multigeneration households and irreparably damaged a distinct style of communal living.

Since the early 1990s, the authoritarian government here has razed mile after mile of housing by fiat. Officials negotiate compensation with individual families in secret, sowing distrust among neighbors. Those who challenge the process sometimes face beatings or the forced destruction of their homes.

Unable to afford new housing spacious enough to accommodate large households, some families have had to split up.

Different fates

The last time the three Gong brothers slept under one roof was in early May, the night before Wencong, the middle and most successful brother, loaded his belongings into a truck from the Don't Worry Moving Co. and headed for the suburbs. The last time the brothers saw each other was May 23, when they divided $61,000 in government compensation for the home their father bought for about 4 ounces of gold in the 1940s, before Mao Tse-tung and the Communist Party proclaimed the birth of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

Since the family separated, Wencong, a smooth-talking, retired vegetable wholesaler, has fared best. He lives in one of the capital's distant suburbs, in a modern apartment with a wide-screen television and a shower with a nine-nozzle back massage.

Wenbiao, the taciturn eldest brother who is on disability from a state-owned factory, found the move far more difficult. He lives amid stacked suitcases in a relative's cramped house, another building scheduled for demolition. No longer able to afford China's capital, Wenbiao decided last month to move to Inner Mongolia, where he spent the years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) growing wheat and potatoes.

He has bought a simple brick house with an outhouse and a garden filled with corn, in a city filled with bankrupt, abandoned factories.

"I'm bitter about this," Wenbiao said of leaving the capital. "People who have good economic circumstances all choose to live in Beijing."

The youngest brother, Wenju, the cab driver, has struggled as well. He had worked for a state-run wool factory until it collapsed. With income of $240 a month, he can't afford mortgage payments, and his wife is ill. These days, he sleeps on a couch in a relative's house on the outskirts of Beijing.

The brothers, once close, now speak only by phone. They reveal little to one another. Until recently, Wencong kept secret his proudest achievement: the purchase of his modern, two-bedroom apartment. Wenbiao, the eldest, won't discuss his housing problems; he fears Wencong will think he wants money.

Why stay silent?

"This is my principle," said Wenbiao, sitting on a folding stool in his temporary home in the alleys just west of the area called Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party's leadership compound.

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