China | Beijing’s Underground City

China a journey into the vast subterranean system of tunnels meant to protect millions during a Soviet nuclear attack

01 July, 2011

SILENCE ENVELOPED OUR SMALL GROUP as we descended from a bustling street into the cold, dark, flooded tunnels beneath the heart of the city. Peeling paint and mould flashed before the solitary torch beam, along with rusty bicycles and broken furniture—all housed in a crumbling remnant of China’s isolationist past. "There used to be lights down here but, now, because it is flooded, all the lights are gone, ' our informal guide explained, as he pointed with his torch and led us down the cracked steps into a warren of nominally off-limits tunnels beneath Beijing—the vast nuclear bomb shelter, built in the 1970s, called Dixia Cheng, the Underground City.

Anyway, it would be too dangerous for us to use the lights—if one of the wires came down we would all die, ' he said, as the icy water reached to our knees and the darkness swallowed everything but the torch’s steady beam.

As the beam flicked from side to side, we caught glimpses of tunnels stretching off into the distance and claustrophobic rooms left empty except for unusable light bulbs dangling from thin wires. Here and there, messages were scrawled on the walls pointing to emergency exits or extolling those below to dig deep and to 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 millions of refugees, complete with schools, offices, cinemas and hospitals. Yet, that is what it is—or was, until the late 1970s.

In the 1960s, Beijing was a city under threat. It was already cut off from the world’s capitalist powers by its communist government and its Cold War alignment with the Soviet Bloc; then, the mainland’s relationship with the Soviet Union disintegrated fast and, fearing a large-scale military confrontation, Mao Zedong 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, hundreds of thousands of Beijingers were called upon to dig the tunnels, often using nothing more than their bare hands or discarded pieces of wood. The digging, which started in 1969, reportedly continued for almost a decade. The tunnels eventually stretched under a vast section of the city and into the hills beyond; from Beijing’s central government district of Zhongnanhai to the countryside near the Great Wall. The government claimed that there was room to house all six million of the city’s residents for the several months that it was estimated they 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 crisscross Beijing, while others were swallowed up as buildings got taller and their foundations deeper.

One section, near Tiananmen Square, opened as a tourist attraction in 2000—foreign visitors were led by guides dressed as Cultural Revolution soldiers past busts of Mao Zedong to a silk factory and gift shop (a common feature of mainland tourist sites)—but it was closed in 2008, a little ahead of the Beijing Olympics.

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 was through one of these entrances, hidden inside a small, easy-to-overlook building that houses migrant workers, that we went into the tunnels. The workers, resting on shabby bunk beds and surrounded by a few possessions and pictures of girls cut from magazines stuck on the walls, greeted our guide, who wished to remain unnamed, like an old friend. We made our way down a dark stairwell to a massive blast door.

The thick concrete door stood immovably open, offering a view down the few remaining steps to the level below, roughly eight metres beneath street level. Here the electric lights were still working, and we saw long-dead trees in oversized pots; they had brightened up the streets during the Olympics, and then been unceremoniously dumped down here.

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 20 kilometres to the northwest of Beijing  (to enable government officials and military officers to safely escape in the event of an attack); and that the military used the tunnel system to move soldiers around during the night of 4 June 1989, when the student protest in Tiananmen Square was violently put down.

"Some rooms were hospital rooms, some offices—they were all designated for different uses, " our guide said as we passed several differently-shaped rooms, all 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 said, flashing his torch around a dark space that, because it has a few steps leading up to it, had so far escaped being flooded.

The undergrounded were apparently to be fed from vast storage rooms and by 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 said of the room we are standing in, pointing to a small chute leading to a traditional courtyard. "This would have been his living room, " he said, waving his torch around the nondescript dark, rectangular room.

Thick mould had grown on a few items of furniture that looked like they had been here since the tunnels were functional.

We stumbled further into the labyrinth, stepping gingerly to avoid the occasional large underwater holes and passing dozens of rooms. Most were filled with nothing but water and cracked bricks and paintwork. Door signs had long since gone—as had many of the doors—so it was hard to tell what most of the rooms were intended for. In fact, among the occasional signs pointing to emergency exits, we saw one dated 1977, extolling citizens to "Dig deep tunnels, store more food, don’t seek hegemony, " a popular slogan during the Cultural Revolution.

The tunnels continued to stretch off beyond the range of the torch beam in a disorienting way; many, however, ended abruptly in piles of wood, presumably placed there by government workers to prevent people from getting lost.

"The tunnels go on longer down there, " the guide said, 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 had no string, so we went back to the surface.

A few weeks later, I entered another section of the Underground City, this time taken by friends who by chance found the entrance next to a popular hutong (alley) restaurant. After sneaking around stacks of soft-drink crates and down steps leading past several doors, we arrived in a large, pitch-black space that resembles an industrial warehouse and was clearly dug more recently, as storage space. Beyond porcelain toilet bowls and piles of smashed glass doors, there were, on either side of the vast room, small entrances leading back into the much-older tunnel system. These tunnels, similar in design and state of disrepair to the others, were several kilometres from the ones I first entered, demonstrating that Beijing’s bomb-shelter tunnel system remains extensive.

A few months after my first visit to the larger tunnel section, its entranceway was firmly sealed, once and for all. The Underground City belongs to an era that many people would sooner forget; in fact, there seems to be little desire to preserve any of it as a reminder of those uncertain times a half-century ago.