China razes inn once hailed as symbol of change


When they introduced market reforms that would shake the world, China’s rulers celebrated a tiny privately owned Beijing hotel that had survived decades of state planning as an example to the nation.

Now, in a twist of fate, the Tianyi Inn has been demolished, apparently overcome by the very changes it once symbolized.

The hotel reportedly endured as Beijing’s only private business even during the worst excesses of Mao Zedong’s rule, when capitalists were often vilified, but was torn down in late December to make way for a government-backed modernization project.

Its former owners say they have not been compensated and live in constant fear of arrest.

“Until we were demolished, the government always protected us,” said Qiao Shuzhi, 63, the son of the inn’s founder, who supported China’s Communist Party when it was still an underground movement.

“Now it’s not safe anymore, so I won’t stay there,” he added.

His father, Qiao Tianmin, was granted a “special business operation license” in 1953 by Beijing’s chief of police, seemingly as a reward for his service to the Communists as China fought against Japan.

“He was a farmer with just a few months of schooling. He couldn’t work as a party cadre . . . so they permitted him to open a small business,” Qiao said.

The hostel began as little more than a spare room, where a single heated bed slept up to eight people each night — a miscellany of farmers, builders and craftsmen who arrived in Beijing for work and were charged a pittance to stay.

The business never made the Qiao family a fortune but was unique in the city during an era when virtually all Chinese worked in government-controlled work units and the ruling party planned all aspects of the economy.

It even survived the tumult of Mao’s decadelong Cultural Revolution, launched in 1966, when those labeled “capitalist roaders” were beaten and even killed.

“That we remained open during the Cultural Revolution is really a miracle,” Qiao recalled. His father — who died in 1991 — maintained it was protected on special orders from former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, he added.

After Mao’s death in 1976, the party sought to revive China’s wrecked economy with pro-market reforms, and seized on the humble west Beijing boardinghouse as an example of the kind of private business they hoped to foster.

The 1980s were a comparative golden era for business, Qiao said, as emerging entrepreneurs and migrant workers from across China headed to the capital, and a new building was added to cope with demand.

But the establishment soon faced competition from scores of other privately run hotels as the city transformed, and in later years its guests were mostly poor travelers visiting family at a nearby hospital.

Last year, the district government earmarked the inn and the surrounding streets as a “village within the city” — a designation for dilapidated areas that usually precedes their demolition and replacement with new buildings — and ordered locals to move out.