Letter from Beichuan — From the June 2017 issue

Here a City Shall be Wrought

What’s forgotten in China’s time-lapse urbanism

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On May 12, 2008, Mu Zhihui, a teacher in Beichuan, in southwestern China, was supervising her second graders as they watched Young Pioneer TV, a state-run education channel. Every day after the show, the class would discuss what they’d learned and share stories related to their lessons. The children were rarely at a loss for words — there were so many reasons to be a little patriot. For starters, they went to school in a futuristic all-white structure of swooping balconies and porthole windows, topped with an encouraging slogan cast in shimmering metal: go global from here.

At 2:28 p.m., the classroom began to sway. It was an earthquake — not uncommon in that region — and Mu ordered her charges to evacuate. The school was built on the slope of a mountain ridge, and her third-floor classroom opened directly onto the recess yard in the back. Several students quickly fled; others were too frightened to move, and Mu remained behind to coax them out. When they finally emerged, they were greeted by a horrifying sight. The earthquake had caused a landslide; many of the children who’d run out when instructed had been crushed by boulders. In all, 407 people were killed at the school that day. “I couldn’t bear to look out at a classroom of children ever again,” Mu told me on a cloudy fall day in 2015. “So I became a librarian.”

A broken statue of Da Yu, the god-king who tamed the long-term flooding of China’s rivers, in front of the collapsed Beichuan county-government building. Both were damaged in the 2008 earthquake. All photographs by Sim Chi Yin/VII Photo

During the 7.9-magnitude earthquake, which left more than 69,000 dead, schools throughout Sichuan province were destroyed, even in towns where other structures remained intact. In Beichuan, around 1,300 middle school students also perished that day. Bereaved parents called it tofu-dregs construction: contractors, they alleged, had been given free rein to skirt building codes as long as they greased the right palms and completed projects swiftly. The suffering was compounded by the country’s One Child policy, though the central government subsequently authorized those who had lost children and were still fertile to reproduce.

Although the school collapses were largely suppressed in domestic media — to this day, the official death toll remains dubious — the catastrophe was a humiliation for China’s leaders. For years, the one-party state had dazzled the world with its bristling skylines. Now questions began to arise. Were these vaunted cities nothing more than Potemkin villages? What were the human costs of the nation’s blistering development model? Would China’s citizens continue to accept these wrenching trade-offs?

I met Mu, a warm but guarded woman in her forties, at New Beichuan Public Library, where she had worked for the past year. The library, a cavernous building of gray slate and dark wood, resembles a high-end ski lodge; like everything else in the city, it is conspicuously new. The whole city was conceived as a means of saving face. Ten days after the earthquake, the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, decided that Beichuan’s roughly ten thousand survivors — about half the population — would be rehoused nearby. By August, a location had been chosen: a cluster of impoverished farming villages fourteen miles downriver. Here, the government proclaimed, a new city would be wrought.

With the eyes of the world on rural Sichuan, the project became a national priority, a way of demonstrating the resilience and superiority of China’s authoritarian system. More than $1 billion was lavished on the effort. Construction proceeded at a pace that was stunning even for China — three years of work finished in two, as the slogan went. In early 2011, New Beichuan opened to residents with a grand outdoor banquet. Tables and chairs were set up in the streets and the lampposts were festooned with red lanterns.

Rebirth Square, in the center of New Beichuan

The results of this time-lapse urbanism are by turns enviable and cloying. New Beichuan’s streets are spotless, the plantings in the medians meticulously trimmed. The neighborhoods, built on a human scale rarely found in China’s burgeoning megacities, are made up of six-story walk-ups painted in earth tones and bedecked with balconies. Meandering pedestrian paths laid out along landscaped canals, many of them planted with water lilies, beckon residents away from the wide avenues.

Elsewhere, however, New Beichuan feels overbearingly like the national showpiece it is. Immense government offices and state-owned banks line the major avenues. The central plaza, Rebirth Square, dwarfs the residential districts around it. Indeed, the place has the feeling of a ghost town; it was built to house 70,000 inhabitants, but the old town’s survivors and the rehoused residents of the villages that once stood here together number fewer than half that.

The public boarding school on Forever Happy Street, on the northern end of town, is the most outsized structure of all. Built around a number of vast sports fields, the gray stone dormitories are enlivened with mosaics, vertical stripes of subdued yellows, greens, blacks, and reds. Funded by donors from the Chinese diaspora and designed with input from M.I.T. and Harvard, the boarding school is the most prominent building in the city. This is fitting, since New Beichuan largely owes its existence to the school collapses of 2008.

A courtyard in New Beichuan

Mu had teared up as she recalled the day of the quake, but when I asked her to comment on the controversy that lay behind the building of New Beichuan, her studied equanimity reappeared. She preferred to focus on China’s progress rather than its setbacks. Offering me a cup of strong green tea, she expressed pride in her library, her city, and her family’s achievements since the earthquake. Her son had been admitted to Fudan University, in Shanghai, one of the country’s most prestigious colleges. This would prepare him to reap his share of China’s growing prosperity. He had gone global.

“We are grateful to the government for building such a nice town for us,” Mu said in conclusion, and sent me on my way.

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is the author of A History of Future Cities (W. W. Norton). His article “New Hampshire Goddam” appeared in the November 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine. This article was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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