As closing time approaches, the 20-story wholesale clothing emporium called Shiji Tianhe Market is madness. All day, local bargain hunters and retailers from outside Beijing have been sifting through apparel varying from faux fur coats to the latest South Korean fashions.
By late afternoon, the alleyways outside are littered with plastic and discarded instant-noodle containers, and couriers hauling enormous black bags of clothes are shoving through the narrow passageways.
Shiji and its 12 neighbors are collectively known as the Zoo Market, named for the animal park across the nearby highway. It’s the largest wholesale clothing market in northern China. What was once a smattering of peddlers has become a behemoth of 13,000 stalls that, by some estimates, draws about 100,000 people a day.
For that reason, the Beijing government wants the Zoo Market – and many others like it – to get out of town. The plan is to move them to a city about 40 miles away in Hebei province.
It’s all part of a scheme to shrink – or at least contain – Beijing’s population and the myriad problems that come with so many people, from toxic pollution to crippling traffic.
The city’s population at the end of last year had swelled to 21.52 million - more than double the population of Los Angeles County. Nearly a third of the capital’s inhabitants are migrant workers, who come in search of better opportunity.
Beijing fell short of meeting its 2014 pollution target of reducing particulate matter in the air by 5% from 2013 levels, seeing only a 4% drop despite closing hundreds of polluting businesses and taking 476,000 aging vehicles off the road.
Officials now hope that by kicking out businesses such as those in the Zoo Market, their workers – and some of the city’s problems – will follow them out the door.
The smog is such a problem that the city is now not suitable for living, Mayor Wang Anshun said in his year-end work report last week.
“To establish a first-tier, international, livable and harmonious city, it is very important to establish a system of standards, and Beijing is currently doing this,” he said. “At the present time, however, Beijing is not a livable city.”
The idea of moving out large markets has been discussed for years, but the city’s embarrassing pollution problem has given the push new urgency. One building at the Zoo Market was gutted last week and converted to offices, and 36 other markets that sell household goods and clothing will be closed. Three hundred companies that are said to contribute to pollution, such as furniture manufacturers, are also on Beijing’s chopping block.
“It will mean moving some polluting industries out of the city, along with some labor-intensive ones,” the mayor said. “The labor force supporting those industries will move with them.”
Migrants – often branded waidiren, or out-of-towners -- have long been scapegoated in Beijing, blamed for ills such as crime and rising housing costs. But the mayor has assured newcomers that they are still welcome in the capital, if they can manage to fit in.
“We cannot flatly forbid migrant workers from coming,” said Zhang Cuixi, a district official quoted in the report. “Relocating the industries and removing the markets is the way forward. This will be effective, but it will take time.”
Beijing may adopt a point-based system that could allow migrants to claim permanent status over time, using criteria such as tax payment and length of residency. That would allow migrants to qualify for schooling and other services.
But some critics say that closing businesses like the Zoo Market will not do enough to solve the pollution crisis. Nearly a third of the city’s pollution is blown in from neighboring provinces, according to the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau, and 22.4% comes from coal burning, which was not addressed in the mayor’s report.
Guo Hui, a project manager at the Beijing-based environmental advocacy group Friends of Nature, said moving industries and markets out of the city center will probably not have a significant effect.
“If we need to change the air quality in Beijing, we need to change the entire structure of the industry around the city,” she said.
For now, vendors at the Zoo Market seem unconcerned about the fate of their place of business. One middle-aged merchant, sitting in front of garish bright pink coats, brushed off the possibility that the market will close soon.
Another vendor, who gave only his surname, Xiao, brandished a recent copy of the Beijing News, and challenged the reports saying the market would soon disappear.
“They don’t know what they’re saying,” he said. “You see how many people shop here, how many people spend money? It’ll have to be done gradually.”
Silbert is a special correspondent.