Creative Destruction

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In a recent post Liam discussed the debate in Hong Kong over the planned demolition of Queen’s Pier. It made me think of some destruction I recently encountered in Beijing. Since coming here a month ago I’ve attempted to revisit spots I remember from my time as an exchange student over a decade ago. I studied in the northern city of Harbin, so my Beijing memories are limited. But for a few weeks 1996, between traveling in China’s south and returning to a data-entry job in Des Moines, I stayed at a branch campus of the Capital Normal University in western Beijing. I didn’t do much during that time except eat beef noodle soup, read books and drink 25 cent bottles of beer. I went back recently, mainly to see what happened to a neighboring Uighur district. I expected the Uighurs, who come from western China’s Xinjiang province, to be gone along with their rows of lamb and noodle restaurants. But I was surprised to find that the campus had also been demolished. Nothing was left save the gates, piles of rubble and a few remaining walls and brick buildings waiting to be torn down. It’s primary use now seems to be for parking cars.

I was shocked and saddened–for a moment. Then I tried to think of what it was that had been lost. I couldn’t come up with much. I couldn’t even recall the appearance of the buildings. It’s tempting to think there’s an important loss any time something that holds a place in the memories of thousands disappears. But this school wasn’t like Beijing’s historic hutongs or the Star Ferry terminal in Hong Kong. While some former students and teachers may sigh at the disappearance of the campus, new buildings would better serve future students. A recently retired school official said that the campus will house a graduate-level campus for the teachers college. It will be reconstructed in the next few years, possibly after the Olympics when labor is easier to find. Here’s hoping they build something truly worth remembering.

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