Beijing is a city with nine lives, having survived wars, fires and other destruction that suecessive dynasties have inflicted on this thousand-year-old capital. Palaces, imperial gardens, city walls and other monuments were still intact when the last imperial dynasty of Qing fell in 1911. Now, the ancient metropolis and its architectural gems are facing the greatest threat ever, a new building craze that threatens to radically and permanently change the look of the city.
Beijing has undergone much development since economic reform began in the 1980, with new ring roads, flyovers and stadiums being built each year. Howeser, the historical 62 sq km inner city did not change much because of building restrictions and a shortage of funds. But under an ambitious plan introduced in the early 1990s to modernise the city, developers and bureaucrats joined hands to demolish tens of thousands of century-old courtyard houses and the surrounding little alleys, or ?hutong.? On what were formerly quiet little residential districts with attractive local flavour suddenly rose large, colourless concrete blocks that look all alike from a distance.
In the process of Beijing's frantic development, many millionaires have been made from lucrative, and often behind-the-scenes, property deals. The losers are Beijing residents who have been relocated from the inner city to shoddy apartments in faraway suburbs. Numerous cultural relics have also been destroyed, as developers knocked down everything that stood in the way of the bulldozer.
With many parts of Beijing looking increasingly alien, the public has voiced its concern. Scholars, artists and other concerned citizens have urged the government to slow down the pace of development. Professor Wu Liangyong, a nationally renowned authority on cultural preservation at the Chinese Academy of Science, compares Beijing today to a flea-infested scalp, with ugly-looking patches spread all over the city. Mr. Ye Tingfeng, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Science, concurs: "The big new buildings are architectural rubbish. They are ugly, permanent scars on the beautiful face of the imperial city."
The press, too, has become bolder in exposing developers' failure to resettle evacuated residents and to protect cultural relics as promised. Meanwhile, affected citizens have taken developers to court, seeking compensation and reasonable resettlement.
More careful approach
As discontent intensifies, the government has become more careful in knocking down old houses and preserving cultural relics. The first such serious attempt was made in 1998, when it built Pingan Avenue that runs parallel to Changan Avenue. Certain parts of the east-west, six-lane road were made to bend or narrowed to steer away from certain historical homes and monuments.
Residents affected by the construction were also given relatively generous treatment in settling them into new homes. Still, a few fine examples of architecture have been destroyed, including the premises where a group of well-known social reformers of the late Qing dynasty used to meet. Many evacuated residents also are unhappy, with at least 200 of them suing the developers for unsatisfactory resettlement.
This year, the government is building another huge thoroughfare that it describes as the third Changan Avenue, after Pingan Avenue. Affected residents are already up-inarms against what they claim to be unfair compensation. Architects, art critics and other social activists are also busy lobbying the government to protect the relics found along the proposed Guangan Avenue, which is south of and parallel to Changan Avenue. It will run from Guangqumen Bridge in the south-eastern district of Chongwen district to Guanganmen Bridge in Xuanwu district in south-western Beijing.
Some critics say it is too late to try to save old Beijing, as only 7 sq km, or 11 percent of the inner city is under official preservation. The rest has either been turned into modern blocks or been levelled flat for future development.
Chinese historians argue that the seed of Beijing's destruction was planted in the 1950s when the party rejected a proposal to build a new capital in the western part of Beijing. For ideological and economic reasons, the government decided instead to stay in the old city and turn the `feudal, consumption-driven' capital into a `socialist, industrial' city. Based on the Soviet model, Beijing set up factories and brought in workers to raise the `proletariat population' from 4 percent in 1949 to 25 percent. It also poured money into heavy industries. Between 1949 and 1982 nearly half of Beiiing's budget for urban development was spent on local production of steel, petrochemicals, electronics and other industrial goods.
Little was left over for improving the living conditions of the local population. Residents in once-spacious courtyard houses were forced to share their homes with other families. A standard, 300 sq metre courtyard house built for one family is now shared by 10 families, with newcomers turning gar-dens, halls and any empty space available into separate housing units. A public kitchen is usually built in the corner of the garden, while the toilet is nothing more than a small shed with a hole in the ground. There is no gas or sewage treatment, and tenants continue to rely on a primitive drainage system that was built a century ago.
The municipal government promised to improve such poor housing conditions but made little headway. The turning point came in 1992, when the communist party gave the green light for the first time to land transactions. Almost at the same time, the Beijing government announced an ambitious target to upgrade all sub-standard housing by the end of the century. It also offered preferential treatment to developers willing to take part in such redevelopment.
These policies immediately led to the emergence of hundreds of new property firms scrambling to submit plans to develop old urban areas. Such plans usually involve the demolition of traditional houses, the resettlement of evacuated residents and building new commercial blocks on the site.
Mr. Fang Ke, a researcher at the architecture faculty of Qinghua University, believes many of these property firms are merely shell companies set up to secure land leases for sale to genuine developers at a later date. Fees for such transfers average Yn2,500 per sq metre for most plots in the inner city, says Fang, who has written a doctoral thesis on the subject.
In theory, property firms are required to compensate evacuated residents an average of Yn6,000-8,000 for every square metre of land they used to occupy. But without strong official supervision in the resettlement process, developers use all ways to cut corners. They move residents to sub-standard apartments in faraway counties, uprooting them from lifestyles they had enjoyed for decades.
One worker has to spend four hours every day to travel to his workplace in the city centre since his relocation to the Shijingshan area in western Beijing. Another old man, who was moved from downtown Dongxi to outside the fourth ring road, has to spend four hours and change bus three times to get to the hospital where he needs regular treatment.
Commuting headaches aside, relocated residents also have to endure problems such as contaminated water, power cuts and a lack of sewage treatment in their new homes.
Frustrated residents have sued developers for compensation but no individual has yet won a case against these politically well-connected companies.
Another casualty of the building spree are cultural relics. The inner city is filled with ancient temples, sculptured gates and carved walls. There is, however, no powerful official body to protect these treasures from being destroyed or damaged in the development process. Fang can mention dozens of examples of monuments being demolished, including those declared officially as `protected relics'.
The inner city has seen a lot of mindless destruction, but there are still 25 historic sites intact covering a total area of 7 sq kin. Some scholars suggest that the government should have learned from its past mistakes and adopt an incremental approach in its development of these treasured plots. They say the upgrading of old houses in these areas should be done on a small-scale, avoiding levelling off large tracts of land at one stroke.
The government seems to be listening to such advice and has invited the public to offer proposals on how to develop these areas. "This could he a mere political gesture. We will have to wait and see how committed it is in slowing down the flood of development that is turning Beijing into an ugly town," says Ye of the Chinese Academy.