Artists jerked out of their studios, cast out onto the street by the government. Building complexes in art zones destroyed without notice, their occupants harassed by hired thugs. Little to no compensation offered for leases cut short, real estate lies, and lost investments in renovation and construction.
These images, formed from media headlines, blog posts and on-the-spot photos, all contribute to a shocking (and not unrealistic) picture of the displacement of artists in Beijing. Stuck between wanting to stamp out criticism and valuing art as part of China’s soft power future, the Chinese government has made the city an unstable place for the arts.
The scale has recently tipped against artists as police have put down protests over the destruction of several of Beijing’s nascent artistic communities, including the Zhengyang and 008 art neighborhoods.
But the problems at the heart of the recent real estate issues do not seem to me to be a result of artists’ political attitudes. Rather, what most coverage has not clarified is that this insane state of flux, neighborhoods there one minute, gone the next, is an inherent part of Beijing’s violent dynamism, top-down change driven less by gentrification or a desire to punish particular groups than by pursuit of strictly economic gain.
It’s more efficient, not to mention safer, to corral artists into a small number of areas. Whether the process is organic, or produces great art, is clearly not the principal concern.
As the contemporary art community in Beijing has gained momentum and fame in the past two decades, Chinese artists have come to the city in droves. Yet as one of the most expensive cities in China, the cost of living in Beijing’s developed center is prohibitive to the vast majority of artists. So, as is the avant garde’s traditional modus operandi, Chinese artists have colonized the vague semi-urban areas on the outskirts of Beijing city, areas where rent is cheap, space is plentiful and oversight is a little less direct.
The 798 District, today Beijing’s largest, densest and most reputable art district (think Chelsea, but China), began as such a haven. As time has gone on, international renown has developed, rent has gone up, artists have been pushed out for galleries, shops and cafes, and the government has learned to keep hands off. So the city’s expanding artist population has moved outwards, to even less strictly regulated areas far enough outside the city to be zoned as “rural.”
Song Zhuang is Beijing’s largest “rural” art zone, home to thousands of working artists. The village’s main street, a two-hour bus ride from the city center, is lined with galleries, art supply stores and the gates of studio complexes. The development’s scale belies its instability. Song Zhuang has been threatened with demolition more than a few times, according to its residents, and its future is still uncertain.
As commenter LostinWonder pointed out on the Guardian’s article covering the recent protests, rural areas like Zhengyang or Song Zhuang are often developed under the table, “built illegally on agricultural land.” Artists make a deal with rural landlords, knowing full well that long-term leases aren’t guaranteed on agriculture-zoned land.
The funny thing is that in China, you might own your house, but the government owns the land it’s built on.
So far, most Beijing art neighborhoods have gotten by on a mixture of tenacity, populist appeal, and flight under the radar. Now it looks like there is a consolidation underway as certain art zones are pushed into demolition while others, namely Song Zhuang and 798, are visibly backed by the government and are seeing expansion plans. New developments are announced every day; as one studio goes down, a complex of 16 arises miles away.
The difference becomes which area gets support and which doesn’t.
This is not only relevant to artists and art neighborhoods. Last summer I paid witness to another violent “redeveloping” in Beijing’s center as a fruit stand was demolished to make way for a new subway line right through a historic neighborhood.
The occupant didn’t vacate immediately, but the police arrived, persuaded him off the pile of stock and belongings outside his store, and by nightfall the building was a shell and the owner and his wife sat on a steel frame bed propped up on the sidewalk. A crowd gathered throughout the evening and night, paying witness to the silent protest.
Real estate instability is an issue for the entire city of Beijing. It would be a nearsighted mistake to assume that the destruction of these art zones is purely a result of political judgment or government vengeance against Beijing’s artists. The incidents point to much deeper, more general problems of city infrastructure and the slash-and-burn method of Chinese urbanization.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
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