A wrecking ball for Beijing's historyx
As property prices spiral upward in Beijing, some tenants in the city's 600-year-old hutong alleyways are rushing to cash in on their neighborhoods' destruction.
On the latest of Beijing's ancient lanes to be scheduled for demolition, a tale of two cities is unfolding. Their diverging stories have probably sealed the leafy alleyway's fate.Skip to next paragraph
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At No. 21, Li Xiaoling cannot wait for the bulldozers to roll up. After 17 years living with her daughter in a decrepit one-room rental shack thrown up in the middle of an old courtyard "this is a good chance for us to improve our living conditions," she says.
A few doors down, Xia Jie is determined to defend the traditional "four-walled yard" house that she inherited from her grandfather. "It is Beijing's cultural heritage," she says defiantly, "and it's my private property."
The conflicting interests of renters crammed into slumlike corners of the old yards on one hand, and owner-occupiers seeking to protect their patrimony on the other, makes a common front unlikely among the 90 families facing eviction from Dongsi Batiao street.
But if recent experience in Beijing's 600-year-old hutongs is any guide, neither side can expect much satisfaction from the developer who wants to raze their homes.
To the dismay of conservationists, the historic hutongs – serried ranks of grey-brick, single-story courtyard homes with elegantly curving tiled eaves – are shrinking fast. Where more than 3,000 such lanes stood at the time of the 1949 revolution, only 1,559 had survived by 2003, according to the capital's urban planning committee. Several hundred more have been destroyed in recent years.
City ordinances drafted to protect the capital's historic heritage have been brushed aside by developers who are in league with local officials in search of profits, experts complain.
"There has been some enforcement of rules protecting preservation zones, but not always," says Hou Zhaonian, deputy director of the Beijing Ancient Architecture Research Institute, a branch of the city government. "There are a lot of 'interesting' relationships between the authorities and property developers."
On Dongsi Batiao Ms. Xia, whose vocal defense of her house has attracted widespread attention from Chinese journalists and bloggers, says she found evidence of such collusion when the developer seeking to evict her called her on her private cellphone number.
Investigating this breach of her privacy, she says, she found that the local government heating bureau had provided the company with details of all residents on the street.
Tenants fight for more compensation
The latest threat to a hutong has sparked protest because Dongsi Batiao runs along the edge of a preservation zone full of similar lanes. The property developer had announced that it plans to build a European-style residential and commercial complex on the site. That would violate laws that limit construction in controlled "buffer zones" near preservation areas.
In an interview this week, Bai Hua, vice president of the Zhong Bao Jia Ye development company, said his firm's design had changed. It now includes nine replica courtyard houses along the lane, backed by two six-story buildings containing apartments and offices "in Chinese traditional style … colors and materials," he claimed.
Those plans appear to be within the law, conservation experts say. But Mr. Bai was unable to provide architects' drawings or an artist's impression of the scheme, saying his company "is still adjusting the design."