BEIJING - What used to be one-story brick shacks
are now high-rise residential complexes. As older neighborhoods are
torn apart, towering high-rises known as "commodity housing" have
taken their place, offering urban residents a higher standard of
living as well as a modern lifestyle. However, most such commodity
housing units sell for 700,000 yuan to over a million yuan (about
$85000-$120,000), which the average Beijinger, who makes about 20,000-30,000
yuan a year, cannot afford. Instead, most Beijing residents continue
to live in far more modest housing given to them by their work units.
It is only a short bike ride from luxury neighborhoods, fully equipped
with modern facilities like swimming pools, gyms and even golf courses,
to the older and much more dilapidated communities. The drastic difference
in the standard of living reflects the kind of inequality that exists
within the city.
The physical and spatial arrangement of neighborhoods definitely affects social interaction. For example, the older and poorer a neighborhood is, the more people you see on the streets. Life in these traditional neighborhoods seems to be filled with leisure time as residents play Chinese chess and hold long conversations with one another in large groups. In such neighborhoods, it is common to see women walking around in their nightgowns holding half-naked babies, and men in their boxer shorts and tank tops patting their bellies while chatting with others. Such scenes reflect the intimate community relations that exist in traditional neighborhoods, where residents are comfortable enough to walk around in their underwear.
In the upper-class high-rise communities, such public behavior is
considered “low suzhi,” or low quality. In the high-rise
communities, high suzhi seems to be tied to modern facilities that
offer yoga classes, to men and women in business attire, and to children
who take piano lessons and recite poetry in English. In such neighborhoods,
life is rushed. Members of this new class of urban bourgeoisie rush
off to work in the morning in their private cars, and rush back in
the evening, only to lock themselves away in their private residential
units. During most of the day these communities are empty, which
makes finding people to talk to extremely difficult. Sadly, I was
only able to harass a few security guards for a quick chitchat.
As I looked up from the empty streets to the towering high-rises, I wondered how a mediation committee intended to maintain community relations could possibly function here. In traditional neighborhoods, with their limited living space and high population density, conflicts over public space are common. But such problems rarely arise in upscale neighborhoods built on the notions of privacy and individualism.