May 08, 2011

Silence envelops our small group as we descend from the bustling street level into the cold, dark, flooded tunnels beneath the heart of the city. Peeling paint and mould flash before the solitary torch beam, as do rusty bicycles and broken pieces of furniture – all housed in a crumbling remnant of the mainland’s isolationist past. “There used to be lights down here but, now, because it is flooded, all the lights are gone,” our guide explains, as he points with his torch and leads us down the cracked steps into a warren of nominally off-limits tunnels beneath Beijing – otherwise known as the underground city.

As a local entrepreneur with the right connections, our guide, Todd (he prefers not to use his real name), was initially taken into the tunnels by a local official attempting to show off. Since then, Todd has befriended those living above the entrance and acts as an occasional and informal gatekeeper to one of Beijing’s lesser-known historical sites.

“Anyway, it would be too dangerous for us to use the lights – if one of the wires came down we would all die,” Todd says, as the icy water reaches up to our knees and the darkness swallows everything but the torch’s steady beam.

As the beam flicks from right to left, the three of us following him catch glimpses of tunnels stretching off into the distance, claustrophobic rooms left empty except for unusable light bulbs dangling from thin wires. Here and there, messages are scrawled on the walls pointing to emergency exits or extolling those below to dig deep and not spread secrets to the enemy.

In architectural terms, the network of tunnels and rooms seems more like London’s Victorian sewage system or a long-flooded cellar in a French vineyard than a “city” built to house hundreds of thousands of refugees, complete with schools, offices, cinemas and hospitals. Yet that is what it is – or was, until the early 1970s.

In the 60s, Beijing was a city under threat. Already cut off from the world’s capitalist powers by its communist government and its cold war alignment with the Soviet Bloc, the mainland’s relationship with the Soviet Union disintegrated fast and, fearing the threat of a large-scale military confrontation, the country’s leaders ordered tunnels built beneath the streets of the capital, to provide refuge in the event of a nuclear attack.

At the height of the Cultural Revolution, amid widespread persecution and as students across the country were being sent to the countryside to learn about agriculture from peasants, hundreds of thousands of Beijingers were called upon to dig tunnels, often having nothing more than their bare hands or discarded pieces of wood with which to labour. The digging, which started in 1969, would continue for almost a decade, and the tunnels eventually stretched under a vast section of the city and into the hills beyond; from the central government district of Zhongnanhai to the countryside near the Great Wall. There was supposedly room enough to house 300,000 people for the several months that it was estimated the population would have to live underground before re-emerging to continue the fight or to pick up the pieces of Chinese civilisation.

The nuclear war never came, of course, and, with the gradual thawing of relations between China and the outside world, the tunnels remained unused except by those too poor to find accommodation elsewhere – as with old air-raid shelters in the basements of building blocks, sections have been turned into dosshouses for migrant workers and the so-called “ant tribe” of unemployed graduates – and the local government, for storage purposes. Large sections of the tunnels were destroyed to make way for the many subway lines that now criss-cross Beijing while others were swallowed up as buildings got taller and their foundations went deeper.

One section, near Tiananmen Square, was opened as a tourist attraction for a while – foreign visitors would be led by guides dressed as soldiers past busts of Mao Zedong to a silk shop (a common feature of mainland tourist sites) – but was closed a few years ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The sections that have survived are now in danger of being sealed up by the government, which increasingly sees them as a hazard.

In December, a legion of subterranean hoteliers, some of whom have been in business for decades, emerged into the daylight to protest against government plans to eradicate accommodation that can be as cheap as 100 yuan (HK$120) a month for a bed-sized room. For millions of housemaids, labourers, waitresses and taxi drivers, the only affordable accommodation in a city where property prices have more than doubled in two years is to be found underground, in basements or in the tunnels. Municipal authorities say the clear-out is for health and safety reasons, but critics say it may be designed to remove a poor inner-city population.

Hundreds of hostel owners braved freezing winds to rally in Chaoyang Park and hand out leaflets that criticised the authorities for ruining their livelihoods and failing to pay adequate compensation.

“This is incomprehensible to everyone in our business,” said a petition in the name of Civil Air Defence Shelter Industry Workers.

“This is all people like me can manage. I tried to rent a place above the ground but it cost nearly all my salary,” said Xiao Lin, a migrant from Hubei province who earns 1,200 yuan per month at a nearby Korean restaurant. “If they ask us to leave, the only thing I can do is go back to my hometown.”

“It’s a shame,” said a hotel manager, who gave only her surname, Li. “In the past, officials from the civil defence bureau praised our contribution to the city because we make otherwise empty spaces profitable.”

The head of the municipal civil defence bureau, Wang Yongxin, has said that this year, accommodation in shelters will be phased out because the residents pose a security risk and sometimes create a disturbance. He said: “Civil defence shelters will become public facilities to meet the demand for parking and places for public activities.”

Years of neglect have left large portions of the remaining tunnel network blocked off, but some entrances have survived, hidden in nondescript buildings often only a stone’s throw from busy shopping streets.

It is through one of these entrances, hidden within a small, easy-to-overlook building housing migrant workers, that our group enters. The workers, resting on shabby bunk beds surrounded by a few possessions and pictures of girls cut from magazines stuck on the walls, greet our guide like an old friend. We make our way down a dark stairwell to a massive blast door.

Made of thick concrete, the blast door now stands immovably open, offering a view down the few remaining steps to the level below, roughly eight metres beneath street level. Electric lights are still in operation here and we can see long-dead trees in oversized pots, which brightened up the streets during the Olympics before being unceremoniously dumped down here.

It would be easy to become lost in the endless series of tunnels, passageways and rooms that are sprawled far beneath the surface.

“The Sino-Soviet split started in the early 1960s,” says Professor Zhang Xiaoming, a specialist in cold war history at the School of International Studies, Peking University. “The relationship took a long time to fully breakdown.”

Nonetheless, military clashes became increasingly frequent along their 4,200-kilometre shared border.

“There was also a serious incident in Xinjiang in 1962-63, when about 60,000 Chinese crossed the border into Soviet territory,” says Zhang. “They were all minorities wanting to migrate – they wanted to live in Russia and Russia let them in. The Chinese were not happy about that.”

It wasn’t until after the Zhenbao Island incident, in March 1969, when Chinese troops ambushed their Soviet counterparts and were bombarded in retaliation, and finally forced to quit the island, that Mao acted.

“It was from mid-1969, after the Zhenbao Island incident, that Mao released the call for the whole population of Beijing to start digging the underground city, though some digging had actually started at the beginning of the 60s,” says Geng Yongcheng, a professor at the school of civil engineering at the Harbin Institute of Technology. “Other cities also began digging their own underground shelters.”

People of all ages were called upon to dig.

“It started in 1969,” says Bai Shixiang, who was 12 when the construction began and still lives in the same hutong neighbourhood near the Drum and Bell Towers, a few miles north of Tiananmen Square. “We would use chunks of wood stripped from the city walls as tools to dig with, so by digging the tunnels we dismantled the old walls.

“I remember it being quite fun as I was very young and could help out. The local residential committees organized when to dig and where; we just followed their instructions. We mostly dug in the larger courtyards but we filled in nearly all of the entrances a few years later,” he says. “There were one or two main years of effort but I have no idea how much we actually dug.”

Few verifiable pieces of information about the full extent of the tunnel system, both at its peak and today, seem to exist, at least in the public sphere, and most discussion about the subject seems to be based more on urban legend than solid facts. Among some of the more persistent rumours – repeated by nearly every Beijinger who expresses knowledge of the tunnels but verifiable by none – is that, even to this day, there exist huge tunnels, four lanes wide, that can be used to transport vehicles the size of tanks directly under the heart of the city; that the tunnels covered an area of 85 square kilometres and stretched as far as the Western Hills, to the northwest of Beijing (so that government officials and military officers could escape in the event of an attack); and that the military used the tunnel system to move soldiers around during the night of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, on June 4, 1989.

Some truths may never be known but the tunnels that do remain and can be entered help paint a picture of what life might have been like had the worst happened.

“Some rooms were hospital rooms, some offices – they were all designated for different uses,” says Todd, as we pass several differently shaped rooms, all now dark and most filled with traffic signs, discarded rubbish bins and long-rusted bicycles. “I would guess that this was a government official’s room,” he says, flashing his torch around a dark space that, with a few steps leading up to it, has so far escaped being flooded.

Enjoying the chance to escape the icy cold water we have been standing in for 20 minutes, we spend a few minutes poking around the 10 metre by five metre room. It is hard to imagine the realities of living underground for several months with no natural light – and perhaps no light at all, for periods – many other people and little or no fresh food, all the while waiting for the dust to settle above to see if there is a world to return to.
The survivors were apparently to be fed from vast storage rooms and fungus cultivation and were to drink water supplied by 70 wells dug deep into the earth. Living quarters would have been cramped for all but the top officials.

“It has a living area plus an office space and also a way to get out,” our guide says of the room we are standing in and pointing to a small chute leading to a traditional courtyard. “This would have been his living room,” he says, waving his torch around the nondescript dark rectangular room. “And this would have been his office,” he says, pointing to an equally dark and nondescript room, albeit a slightly bigger one.

Thick mould has grown on the few items of furniture that look like they have been here since the tunnels were functional.

We stumble further into the labyrinth, stepping gingerly to avoid the occasional large holes under the water and passing dozens of rooms. Most are filled with nothing but water and cracked bricks and paintwork. Door signs have long since gone – as have many of the doors – so it is hard to tell what most of the rooms were intended for. In fact, beyond the occasional sign pointing to an emergency exit, the only one we see is dated 1977 and extols citizens to, “Dig deep tunnels, store more food, don’t seek hegemony,” a popular slogan during the Cultural Revolution.

Following one emergency exit sign leads us to a small stone staircase that ends with a padlocked and rusty trapdoor. Listening carefully we can hear people talking above. The tunnels continue to stretch off beyond the range of the torch beam in a disorienting yet still claustrophobic way, although many end abruptly in piles of wood, presumably placed there by government workers to prevent people from getting lost under the city.

“The tunnels go on longer down there,” Todd says, pointing down a path. “But I wouldn’t recommend it unless you want to get lost or you have brought a ball of string with you.”

We have no string, so we head back to the surface.

A few weeks later I enter another section of the underground city, this time taken by friends, who found the entrance by chance next to a popular hutong restaurant. Sneaking around stacks of soft-drink crates and down steps leading past several doors, behind which, by the sounds of it, are people, I’m led to a large, pitch-black space that resembles an industrial warehouse and that was clearly dug more recently, as storage space. Beyond porcelain toilet bowls and piles of smashed glass doors, on either side of the vast room there are small entrances leading back into the much-older tunnel system. These tunnels, similar in design and their state of disrepair to the others, are several kilometres from the ones I first entered, highlighting the fact that, despite the building boom that has taken place above, Beijing’s bomb-shelter tunnel system remains extensive.

More officer quarters are apparent as we make our way down one side of the tunnels, as is what could be another possible layer of tunnels above, visible through a large, empty shaft held open by a skeleton of wooden beams. Soon we reach a downhill section that’s submerged in water. Piles of rubbish block other tunnels and we are forced to imagine what might be ahead of us.

The underground city belongs to an era that many people would sooner forget and, as such, there seems to be little desire to preserve any of it as a reminder of those uncertain times.

“The site’s numerous fire hazards, cracking walls and leaking tunnels pose a great threat to the safety of anyone entering the area,” an anonymous official was quoted as saying in the state-run Global Times newspaper recently. “The [underground city] finished its mission as an underground bomb shelter in the 1970s. We’ve long since upgraded the standards for building bomb shelters.”

“Nowadays the Sino-Russian relationship is very good,” Zhang says. “Though it is unpredictable; no one knows what could happen.”

Whatever does happen, though, it is unlikely the residents of Beijing will make use of the cracked and flooded tunnels that, for now, serve as a reminder of more volatile times.

Additional reporting by Guardian News & Media

Images by Jonah Kessel