With a collection of top-tier luxury brands including Givenchy, Balenciaga, and Miu Miu interspersed with prestigious multi-brand boutiques and niche labels like Maria Luisa and A.P.C., Beijing’s Sanlitun area can be a shopping heaven for the city’s trendiest fashionistas. But a spate of recent events this year including a brutal murder and terrorism threat have highlighted the area’s reputation for violence—and could have a real impact on foot traffic numbers in the coming year.
Right before Christmas, foreign embassies including the U.S. and British ones warned of a vague potential threat to foreigners in Sanlitun, which was joined by a “yellow alert” security warning issued by Beijing police. Paramilitary officers armed with machine guns were stationed outside the Uniqlo in Taikoo Li, which houses the aforementioned top luxury brands along with more mid-range shops such as the Apple Store, Kate Spade, and Michael Kors.
This was far from the first time Taikoo Li—and namely its Uniqlo store—was featured in unsettling visuals this year. In July, a couple released a sex tape filmed in the store’s dressing room that created a firestorm on social media and became the fourth most-searched topic of the year in China. Despite the film’s scandalous nature, it actually wasn’t bad for foot traffic to Uniqlo and Taikoo Li as crowds of young Chinese shoppers inexplicably gathered to take selfies in front of the location. The massive attention the store gained even provoked rumors that Uniqlo itself had engineered the video as a marketing stunt (which it firmly denies).
But that hype died down quickly, however, as a young Chinese woman was brutally stabbed by a random attacker and bled to death in front of the Uniqlo in August. Her French husband, who was also stabbed and survived, tried to help her as she lay dying in the street while the sword-wielding attacker dragged a mannequin out of the store and hacked it apart before being led away by police.
Home to a strip of seedy bars surrounding the shopping village, Sanlitun’s reputation as a dangerous neighborhood precedes these events. In 2012, the streets surrounding the shopping village were host to numerous savage beatings and attacks concentrated in the bar street located between the mid-range and high-end shopping areas of Taikoo Li. These incidents were coupled by two horrifying stories of brutal gang rapes that took place in the south of Sanlitun in the fall of 2012. The murder in front of the Uniqlo wasn’t Sanlitun’s only recent stabbing. In February 2014, a man was stabbed at 4 a.m. west of Sanlitun Road with reports that his “intestines were hanging out.”
@horwitzjosh tough love!
— MH Zhou (@ZMH1986) December 24, 2015
But this year’s incidents could be especially harmful to the area’s reputation as a prime retail spot for several reasons. While the attacks in previous years did happen mostly within view of the main retail area, they occurred at night and were associated with the sketchy bars in the vicinity—and the drug dealers nearby. This year brought about the unsettling reminder that the gleaming shops, cleanliness, and modern design of Taikoo Li can’t prevent violence from taking place in the shopping area itself at random and in broad daylight.
Much of the violence in the area has also featured a strong undercurrent of hostility toward international visitors, but it’s increasingly viewed in Beijing as unsafe for Chinese shoppers as well. There was an outpouring of concern on WeChat after the August Uniqlo stabbings, which led to the death of a Chinese national despite the fact that the perpetrator claimed he was looking to kill Americans.
Despite the strong show of “yellow alert” force on display over the Christmas holiday, visitors also have little faith in the often-unarmed Beijing police to keep the area safe. The police have held intermittent drug busts in the area in the past, but many of the violent incidents have taken place within 100 yards of a police station. The most unsettling example is the fact that the Uniqlo stabbing happened literally right in front of a police booth stationed on the sidewalk a few yards away from the store, and there had even been extra guards placed on duty in the square in response to the hordes of selfie-takers.
Of course, Sanlitun isn’t the only shopping area in China with risks of violence. In July 2013, two people were stabbed to death at the Joy City Chaoyang shopping mall in Beijing. The yellow alert over Christmas also prompted police to block off roads in the embassy area, and there were reports of extra security at other shopping centers around Beijing.
Thanks to WeChat, news of these incidents spreads rapidly among Beijing residents. While it’s still not hard to find trendy young twentysomethings wandering the area showing off their outfits (and sometimes posing for street style photos), many could think twice about frequenting the shopping village after it becomes clear that random acts of violence are not just an after-hours phenomenon for foreign drinkers. As a result, luxury retailers—which are already becoming more choosy about their China store locations in the midst of the economic slowdown—are likely to take into account risk assessment and resulting foot traffic numbers as they negotiate their retail rents in the coming year.