Written by Terence Zhao
Today, we visited Digua, a community center located in the underground air raid shelter of a high-rise building in a suburban development just adjacent to the North 4th Ring Road. We were received by Spencer, an English-educated designer who founded the project, and Daphne, who is Chinese-Canadian and was trained as an ethnographer at Brown.
The two opened with a brief description of the project - a collection of spaces for the community that includes a variety of functions and vary in cost of use from free to thousands of RMB per year for the gym.
The majority of Spencer and Daphne’s talk about Digua was centered on the model of operations for the community - namely, the fact that many parts of the space costs money to use, and users can further make money from their usage of the space (for example, running a fee-based daycare). The duo gives a few reasons for why they use the model that they do. First, it allows the project to be more sustainable in maintaining its finances and, crucially, the size of its staff, given the Chinese context where young people find it not very viable financially to engage in low-pay, social entrepreneurship work.
Second, in a somewhat bizarre case of culture shock, we learned that the residents of the community actually broadly rejected a zero-cost version of Digua when it first started because they were scared that the project was a scam, which highlights the lack of consumer trust in contemporary China. Third and most importantly, they explain that given that most people in the community have busy schedules, the prospect of profit is the only motivation that is strong enough for many to take part in the activities of the center.
Following the talk and some videos of previous events at Digua, the group, which included students from Stanford, Tsinghua, and the Chinese Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) transitioned into an open discussion on the present and future state of Beijing. Despite having such a diverse set of backgrounds, we came to a fairly unanimous conclusion that Beijing was not, at this point, a human city. The comment we heard again and again from our Chinese colleagues who moved to Beijing from other parts of China was that the city was simply not as livable as their hometowns, but that the economic and educational opportunities the city offered outweighed its faults. And, we also largely came to the consensus that unless Beijing is able to shift some of the functions it currently holds to other places (which some noted is occurring slowly as some government offices and universities are relocating from the urban core) and China’s opportunities could be distributed in a more decentralized way in general, more people will keep coming to a city whose resources (natural and social) have long been saturated.