Stranger Than
Urban Inequality, Density, and the Spatial Imaginaries of Beijing’s City Plan and Hao Jingfang’s Folding Beijing

Text: Samuel Kay
Photography: Muxia Liu 刘沐夏

Inequality, hierarchy, and population density are major themes of Hao Jingfang’s widely read, Hugo award-winning novelette, Folding Beijing, currently under development as a feature film. They are also major themes of Beijing’s 2016-35 Urban Master Plan and associated constellation of Beijing Municipal Government policy documents. Folding Beijing has much to tell us about how government and popular discourses deal with questions of inequality, population density, migration, labor, and social reproduction. It also offers clues to understanding how many of the people working to address Beijing’s inequality and spatial layout—planners, administrators, and development-focused NGOs—have come to implicitly think of high population density as a problem, and how this way of thinking also pervades popular discourses about the city.

Hao Jingfang is a graduate of China’s top-ranked Tsinghua University, studying physics as an undergraduate and earning a PhD in Economics and Management. In 2013, she joined the government-affiliated China Development Research Foundation, a group that carries out economic and development policy research commissioned by China’s State Council and private enterprises. In 2018, Hao was a visiting scholar at Harvard’s Kennedy School. That year, she opened a Beijing-based children’s academy, joining a growing group of graduates from China’s elite universities to found educational enterprises when their own children reach school age. Hao continues to be a prominent public voice for education reform. She stands out from her generation for her powerful response to inequality, but as a product of the same institutions and meritocratic sorting, Hao’s work also shows elements of shared assumptions about hierarchy, policymaking, and what marks someone as possessing “quality,” even as her work deftly interrogates these themes.

A close reading of Folding Beijing alongside municipal policies and plans shows how a powerful critique of inequality and the very policies that drive inequality can nonetheless share certain assumptions: chiefly, that inequality is an intrinsic feature of progress. Points of overlap are also evident on questions relating to the desirability of low density, urban design features that mirror the aesthetics of large gardens, and assumptions about the irrationality of choices made by internal migrants. Beijing’s 2035 comprehensive plan calls for reducing both construction density and population density. In 2016 and 2017, the first two years of enacting the lower-density vision of this plan, a total of 80 square kilometers were targeted for demolition. This targeted expulsion included dozens of logistics centers, hundreds of rental sites and manufacturing enterprises, and tens of thousands of shantytown renovations and unlicensed business operations.

Inequality is not just a major feature of China’s urbanization, but a key ingredient of its progression over the past several decades. Folding Beijing imagines a future, dystopian version of the city where land has become so limited that the city is divided into three “spaces” that fold and unfold to take turns occupying the same area. When one space’s residents are asleep in specially-designed pods, their world is folded up and flipped over to make way for another space’s residents to awaken and go about their day. The days are of uneven length: first space enjoys a full 24 hours from sunrise to sunrise, but second and third space share the next day, with second space active from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., and third space taking over until first space again awakens the next day at 6 a.m. Waste flows freely from first and second space to third space, where it is processed, but the movement of people between the spaces is strictly controlled and nearly non-existent in practice. Hao’s rendering of the differences between “First”, “Second,” and “Third” space mirror the class inequalities of contemporary Beijing, and takes literally the notion that the daily lived experiences of different classes of Beijing residents are so great that it is as if they are living in separate worlds. The novelette’s protagonist, Lao Dao, is an everyman waste worker born in Third Space who risks everything smuggling a message between Second Space and First Space so that he can afford to send his adoptive daughter to a decent kindergarten.

Hao’s descriptions of Third Space as dense, loud, messy, and smelly closely mirror those of places exhibiting “big city diseases” found in the guiding document for the 2017-2020 “special action” (BMPG, 2017). In an effort to resolve these perceived problems, the Beijing Municipal Government sought to reduce density and population by clearing out what they saw as the least desirable spatial uses and users. These spaces, once cleared from “irrational” uses such as migrant living space and small businesses, were handed over to the control of developers, planted with trees, or set aside by the city as part of a strategic reserve of “blank space.” Key goals from this policy suite include:

  • Capping the entire city’s population at 23 million by 2020 and in the long term
  • Reducing the inner six districts’ population from 12,828,000 in 2015 to less than 10,850,000 by 2020 and beyond
  • Reduce urban construction up area by ~160 square kilometers between 2015-2035
  • By 2020, increase per capita water resources from 176 cu.m to 185 cu.m, and by 2035 increase to 220 cu.m
  • By 2020, increase “green open space” from 59% to 63%, reaching 70% by 2035
  • Afforestation of about 100 million trees over a 10-year period, covering an area of at least 2,000,000 mu (1,333 km2).
  • (BMPB, 2016; BMPG, 2017; UFRC, 2019)

In Folding Beijing, Hao’s Descriptions of First Space parallel the de-densification and greening agendas in Beijing’s 2016-35 Master Plan (BMPB, 2016): “There were no skyscrapers at all, only a few low buildings scattered around a large park … The pedestrian lane was lined with a row of weeping willows on one side and a row of Chinese parasol trees on the other side. It was late spring, and everything was a lush green.” (Hao, 2016). It is with regard to neo-Malthusian approaches to the level of density as shorthand for the quality and desirability of an environment that the assumptions implicit in Folding Beijing most closely align with those of Beijing’s key policy documents.

Even as Hao lays out a powerful indictment of inequality, like Beijing’s urbanization agenda, her novelette relies on an understanding of Beijing as a city of finite space and resources that is strained by the presence of too many people whose very presence in the city is the result of irrational choices. This formulation is also ubiquitous in government narratives and city plans. While Folding Beijing argues that the social order is unfair, it also falls back on familiar tropes about class and suzhi that also appear in government narratives, which employ formulations of quality that lean on stereotypes. To promote the idea of “quality over quantity”, the Beijing municipal government uses the decidedly folksy phrase: Jiānchí zuò “càixīn”, bù zuò “báicàibāngzi” (focus on promoting the heart of the cabbage, not the outer leaves). This phrase expresses in friendly terms what the now controversial phrase “Dīduān rénkǒu” (low-end population), says more bluntly: the city will only take you if you are worthy. This phrase and parallel language referring to the goal of eliminating “Dī duān chǎnyè” (low-level industries) and dispersing associated populations were commonly used in pre-2018 documents and policies (BMPB, 2016; Chen and Liu, 2015; Ni and Bai, 2015; BMPG, 2017; BMMC, 2016). Closely related popular discourses frequently refer to migrant workers as “swarming” or “flooding” into Beijing, framing them as an irrational and dehumanized force.

Hao likewise flattens the characters from Third Space, rendering them as either big-hearted and ignorant or conniving and cynical. Hao describes the migrant construction workers who built the city as hard-working, docile, meek, and small-minded, comparing them to a swarm of termites:

“His father and others like him had built this folding city. District by district, they had transformed the old city. Like termites swarming over a wooden house, they had chewed up the wreckage of the past, overturned the earth, and constructed a brand-new world. They had swung their hammers and wielded their adzes, keeping their heads down; brick by brick, they had walled themselves off until they could no longer see the sky. Dust had obscured their views, and they had not known the grandeur of their work. Finally, when the completed building stood up before them like a living person, they had scattered in terror, as though they had given birth to a monster. But after they calmed down, they realized what an honor it would be to live in such a city in the future, and so they had continued to toil diligently and docilely, to meekly seek out any opportunity to remain in the city. It was said that when the folding city was completed, more than eighty million construction workers had wanted to stay. Ultimately, no more than twenty million were allowed to settle.” (Emphasis added)

In describing an eager group of 80 million migrant construction workers desperate for the “honor” of living in a “city of the future,” Hao glosses over the strategic planning and decision-making behind people’s choices about whether to go to or remain in Beijing. In doing so, Hao echoes a narrative widespread in government and research circles that the choice to migrate—and migrants themselves—are both fundamentally irrational.

Hao renders the residents of Third Space as wards of the administrators of First Space, who tolerate their existence and provide employment (however undesirable) and time and space (however limited.) Hao’s work can be read as a critique of society’s response to automation and the resulting warehousing of people. Lao Ge, a technocrat who rose from Third Space to a low-level position in First Space through a career in the military, explains the socioeconomic situation to protagonist Lao Dao: “The problem is: Now you’ve gotten the people off the land and out of the factories, what are you going to do with them? … The best way is to reduce the time a certain portion of the population spends living, and then find ways to keep them busy.”

Far from being enraged at this injustice, Hao renders Lao Dao as frustrated but mostly confused: “Lao Dao listened, only half grasping what was being said … He felt that he had approached some aspect of truth, and perhaps that was why he could catch a glimpse of the outline of fate. But the outline was too distant, too cold, too out of reach. He didn’t know what was the point of knowing the truth. If he could see some things clearly but was still powerless to change them, what good did that do? In his case, he couldn’t even see clearly.”

Hao may be suggesting that twenty-eight years of sorting garbage has rendered Lao Dao unable to imagine or fight for an alternative way of living. In so doing, she imagines real-world laborers as compliant and complacent, dormant as political actors. A generous interpretation of this rendering would be that she is trying to show the depth and extent of oppression, but she seems to be flattening the political imagination of workers.

The very premise of the novelette—the division of the city into three distinct spaces—offers a powerful critique of the lack of class mobility. Hao further highlights this by describing educational barriers and the failures of meritocracy. In addition, she highlights the inherent injustice of the fact that the descendants of those who build the city are not those who get to enjoy it; she also highlights the erasure of the labor required to actually build the Folding City: at the banquet celebrating its 50th anniversary, a slideshow features glamorous aerial views, but our protagonist is left to “hope to see a scene of workers laying bricks, even if for just a few seconds.”

Beijing’s city plan is in some ways—at least in terms of aspiration—far more fair and just than the dystopian city of Hao’s novelette; it aims to put parks, social services, and daily needs within a 15-minute radius of as many residents as possible. Yet its spatial imaginaries of environmental aesthetics, low density, and delimited urban functions closely mirror those depicted in Folding Beijing. But while Hao imagines that the administrators of the Folding City—however cold and cruel—feel the need to provide space and employment for those excluded from the top rungs of the socioeconomic hierarchy, Beijing’s real-world solution to “surplus population” is to systematically erode the capacity of certain people to stay in the city at all.

For population density to decrease, fulfilling Beijing’s policy and planning agenda, some people must leave. The group bearing the heaviest burden of displacement are internal migrants who had been living in areas slated for demolition. They are left with the choice of navigating an ever-tighter rental market or leaving the city altogether. Yet even local residents are impacted to some extent: in cases where their houses are demolished, compensation apartments are nearly always further from the city center, or residents are offered a choice between a smaller apartment near their former home or a larger one further away. This trade-off is often welcomed, and the relocation compounds are heavily promoted as exemplifying a more desirable, suburban lifestyle. This also idealizes an aesthetically greener, lower-density lifestyle. Like Folding Beijing, these government campaigns use lower population density as shorthand for a better, more desirable urban environment. Yet for many people and communities, high density living is a reasoned, strategic choice that enables them to live and work in Beijing. By conflating high-density with low-quality, and by implying that people living in high-density areas are doing so as the outcome of an irrational decision-making process, Hao joins the Beijing Municipal Government in framing part of Beijing’s population as a problem in need of a governance solution. This understanding of inequality is seemingly in accord with that of many of the planners and policymakers born in the 1980s and 1990s who now occupy lower and mid-level roles in the institutions tasked with formulating and implementing the “relief, remediation, and promotion” campaign. Hao describes the China Development Research Foundation as “a small group that can touch First Spaces, but chooses to cheer on Third Space” (Hao and Liu, 2016). Like Hao, city planners are also concerned with inequality, but in interviews were able to reconcile the “unfairness” of certain policies with achieving an outcome that they consider both desirable and in line with the “natural progression” of nature and society.

Hao’s critique of inequality is powerful, but ultimately it is not radical. It treats inequality not as artificial and arbitrary, but as intrinsic to development, an unavoidable symptom in need of better and more enlightened management. In an editorial she released at the time of her Hugo Award nomination, Hao notes that inequality has been a long-standing struggle throughout Chinese history, with each dynasty moving closer to land and tax policies that “had to accept unequal land ownership as a fact,” arguing: “Indeed, if the regimes had insisted on resisting the economic impetus driving [property] mergers, the economy of the country would have stayed at the relatively primitive stage of inefficient household farms. Throughout this process, successive Chinese governments’ committed many violent errors and acts of tyranny, but their intentions and goals were often positive” (Hao and Liu, 2016).

Table: The "Spaces" of Hao Jingfang's Folding Beijing


Third Space

Second Space

First Space



~25 million

~5 million

Time allotment /48 hours

8 hours

16 hours

24 hours





Primary industries and employment

20,000,000 waste workers

30,000,000 service workers

Mid-level administrators, graduate and professional students

Top-level administrators, entrepreneurs, highly-skilled service workers

Typical income

10,000 RMB/month

100,000 RMB/month

800,000 RMB/month


Underground mag-lev train

Personal cars

Driverless sedan chairs

People and Daily Life

“[Lao Dao] was wearing a white shirt and a pair of brown pants—the only decent clothes he owned. The shirt’s cuffs were frayed, so he rolled them up to his elbows.”

“Finally, Peng Li appeared: His shirt unbuttoned, a toothpick dangling between his lips, strolling leisurely and burping from time to time. Now in his sixties, Peng had become lazy and slovenly. His cheeks drooped like the jowls of a Shar–Pei, giving him the appearance of being perpetually grumpy.”

“The trucks of the city cleaning crew were approaching slowly … The loud chants of the woman next to him hawing her jujube interrupted his thoughts and gave him a headache. The peddlers at the other end of the road began to pack up their wares, and the crowd, like fish in a pond disturbed by a stick, dispersed. No one was interested in fighting the city cleaning crew … Anybody who dilly-dallied would be packed up by force.”

“The men dressed mostly in western suits while the women wore blouses and short skirts, with scarves around their necks and compact, rigid purses in their hands that lent them an air of competence and efficiency.”

“Lao Dao’s last memory of Second Space was the refined air with which everyone conducted themselves before the Change. Looking down from the window of the apartment, everything seemed so orderly that he felt a hint of envy. Starting at a quarter past nine, the stores along the street turned off their lights one after another; groups of friends, their faces red with drink, said goodbye in front of restaurants. Young couples kissed next to taxicabs. And then everyone returned to their homes, and the world went to sleep.”

“[Yi Yan] was indeed as elegant as Qin Tian’s description had suggested … She had a good figure: Tall, with delicate bones. She wore a milky white dress with a flowing skirt. Her belt was studded with pearls, and she was wearing black heels.”

“Most of the people in the park wore either well–fitted western suits made of quality fabric or dark–colored stylish Chinese suits, but everyone gave off a haughty air. There were also some foreigners. Some of the people conversed in small groups; others greeted each other at a distance, and then laughed as they got close enough to shake hands and walk together.”


BMMC. (2016) ― 治“大城市病”本市开出十剂“猛药”. In: Committee BMAM (ed). Beijing.

BMPB. (2016) 北京城市总体规划 (2016年-2035年). In: Bureau BMP (ed). Beijing.

BMPG. (2017) 北京市人民政府关于组织开展“疏解整治促提升”专项行动(2017-2020年)的实施意见.
In: Government BM (ed). Beijing: 政府公报.

Chen Y and Liu T. (2015) 北京城市总体规划中人口规模预测的反思与启示. 规划师杂志社 (Planner Magazine): 16-21.

Hao J. (2016) 北京折叠. 孤独深处. Nanjing: Jiangsu Phoenix Literature and Art Publishing House.

Hao J and Liu K. (2016) I Want to Write A History of Inequality. Uncanny Magazine.

Ni Y and Bai Y. (2015) 北京宣布新的人口调控目标:2020年控制在2300万以内. Xinhua News Agency.

UFRC. (2019) 北京森林城市发展规划 (2018年-2035年). In: Urban Forest Research Center SFaGA, Capital Greening Office (ed). Beijing: Beijing Municipal Bureau of Landscaping and Greening.

Text: Sam Kay
Photography: Muxia Liu 刘沐夏

Sam Kay is a visiting assistant professor of Geography at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. His work takes a justice-centered approach to questions at the intersection of urbanization and the environment. Key areas of focus in his research and teaching are comparative urbanization, environmental justice, and urban humanities. His Beijing-based research attends to these issues through a grounded, primarily ethnographic analysis of the Beijing government’s attempts to manage population and environment at the same time under the state framework of ecological civilization.

Muxia Liu was born in July 1993. Beijing, China. She has received a M.A in Arts and Cultural Management from King’s College London and a B.F.A in General Fine Arts from Maryland Institute College. Muxia’s artistic practice is involved with painting, photography, illustration and mixed media collages where she aimed to minimize the distance between form and content via various approaches. Her works have been exhibited in wide-range of exhibition venues in Beijing, Baltimore and Florence such as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Hall. Meantime, her academic research is focus on the curatorial diversity in the context of post-colonial criticism and new internationalism. Muxia is currently base in Beijing, China, working as a creative solo and has been a member of creative collective “IP 39.116”.