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The Little Red Book

The Little Red Book

Markus Appenzeller

Rediscovering urban China after Covid

Since more than 20 years I have been travelling to China several times a year. In this time I have seen the country developing – a miracle happening in front of my eyes. The Covid epidemic put an abrupt end to this experience. For three years I have not been there and returning has been both, a journey into history and future at the same time. When I arrived in China for the first time at the beginning of the millennium, it still was busy shaving off the ideological past and the ‘closedness’ it had experienced for half a century. On markets all over the country one could buy vintage copies of Mao’s Little Red Book and I could travel through China for days without seeing any Western face. Projects that were in the making back then were ambitious but had to be economical at the same time. One could feel that the economy was booming, but it still was relatively small compared to the huge size of the country. The people I met back then were an interesting mix of those that had fully embraced the gold rush and those that were just pushed along by it.

The Little Red Book – Mao’s Writings

By definition, anything Western was desirable and had to be replicated – not just Louis Vuitton bags or Prada shoes. All across China entire cities and neighbourhoods jumped out of the ground modelled after European cities. Amsterdam, English Small Towns, German Medieval Cities, Paris including a 1:2 scale copy of the Eiffel Tower and a mix between Venice, Rome and Florence all found their counterpart in China. Baroque stucco and antique classicism were the styles of choice, and where money was an issue one went for simple modernism with a little decoration by means of trellises and tile facades. Chinese architecture was practically nowhere to be found apart from the old districts in city centres that – with their low standards were deemed obsolete by the majority of the people and in many places got removed and replaced by shiny new buildings. Growth was so fast, that often maps of all the new districts did not exist, and taxi rides were always an adventure with the uncertainty if the place one was supposed to go to was actually known to anybody one could ask for directions. Taxi rides were the means of transport everywhere since public transport was not able to keep up with this change and the resulting traffic jams were epic. The environmental impact of all the construction and the economic growth was huge. Leaving a window open for a day meant cleaning the entire room since it had become drenched under a layer of dust and environmental data of the American embassy in Beijing – the only reliable source – was closely followed not only by concerned expats but also the local population.

All this changed over time. Western expats could be found in the most remote corners of the country. Western styles were still popular, but modernist architecture had greatly outperformed it and developed its own local expressions. And while there still was a trend to remove entire old neighbourhoods, preservation occasionally was also perceived as a viable option. Digital maps existed, even for brand-new areas, including information about how the traffic lights one is waiting at are still red. The public transport strategy had completely changed to a ‘public transport networks first’ strategy, where high capacity public transport was up and running before the city arrived. Traffic jams were less of an issue and steadily China had developed the longest high speed train network in the world that makes flights up to a distance of 1,500 kilometres the slower option. Governmental air pollution data was reliable and environmental pollution had drastically reduced – in part by the upgrade or closure of polluting industries, in part by large scale roll out of nuclear power and renewable energy generation and also though behavioural changes of a population that had developed environmental consciousness, reflected in an organic food movement and the emergence of many new urban green spaces all across the country.

Then Covid hit China. For three long years, Chinese were largely confined to their hometowns and regularly also to their flats since the world’s strictest anti-pandemic measures lead to wholesale lockdowns of entire cities because of a few reported cases. Expats left the country in troves, international travel came to a complete standstill, and the economy took hard hits. While before the pandemic, China became a country more and more integrated with the world, now, all by a sudden, Chinese found themselves in the ancient China that was closed to the rest of the planet.

Returning to Chinese cities now is an interesting experience. The housing market – long overheated, has seen a huge plunge and one can clearly see that the speed of city extension has slowed a lot, especially outside the big cities. Again one can stroll the streets for hours as the only western face around and kids playing in the streets again wonder about the ‘Laowai’ – the long nose, the Chinese description for a western foreigner. Something that had disappeared before Covid. Streets have changed completely. They are now dominated by electric cars and therefore a lot more pleasant to stroll along. Speaking about strolling: the number of urban green spaces has increased even more and local government invest heavily in activating nature for its citizens and protecting if from their impact at the same time. The desire for green has also led to a trend of leaving the big cities – at least during weekends. Everywhere tourist destinations are popping up in the vast landscapes of China and many villages that looked doomed a couple of years ago see the influx of urbanites in search for the rural life – in their interpretation. In parallel, there is also a rediscovery of Chinese architecture – old-old and new-old. Entire ‘historic’ districts are being built in many cities, reintroducing an architectural vernacular that seemed lost for good. China embraces the future and the past at the same time and brings it together in a way that does not make old things look outdated but contemporary and at times even futuristic.

Even the “little red book” returned. Not as a reprise of Maoist ideology, but as that combination of past and future: an app that represents the Chinese capitalism with communist characteristics in its purest way: an app that offers Amazon style online shopping, TikTok style videos and LinkedIn style professional communities in a single social network.

Like the app, today’s China constantly recombines past, present and a dose of future asks for perpetual rediscovery.

P.S.: Before sinologists and Chinese native speakers complain: I am aware that the two little red books are not the same in mandarin. So forgive my the cultural barbarism I have shown for this story to work in English 😉

by Markus Appenzeller
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