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.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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."

Xia does not find such vagueness reassuring. "Lots of things have changed since 1999," she says, when the developer first earmarked the site for construction and then knocked down all the hutong buildings in the lane immediately to the north of Dongsi Batiao, including a Ming dynasty temple.

The fate of the area's heritage, however, is of secondary importance to most local residents. Not only do the shoddily built and overcrowded lean-to's and extensions where most of them live conceal the courtyards' original elegance; they are miserable to live in, with no toilets or bathrooms.

Unsurprisingly they are delighted by Bai's promise that his firm will pay them enough compensation "to buy a comfortable space to live, a much better place."

That is not what they say they have been offered, however. "Ninety percent of the people here agree with the demolition," says a resident who identified himself only as Huang. "But the compensation is too little to buy anywhere else" given Beijing's rocketing real estate prices.

With the 8,090 RMB ($1,057) per square meter that the lane's occupants say the developer proposed, "I couldn't afford to buy anything, except maybe in Inner Mongolia," scoffed one resident.

While renters prepare to bargain with the developer, none of the seven homeowners facing eviction is ready to budge, says Xia, the only one among them willing to talk in public.

She hired a lawyer this week, and plans to go to court to challenge the eviction order that was posted on a wall last month. "Everything about this is so illegal," she argues. "I feel like I'm dealing with criminals."

Even if she loses her appeal at the district level, she says, she will go on fighting the developer. "There is a whole legal procedure," she points out. "All this takes time."

The developer's original deadline for residents to move out – set in the eviction poster for Saturday, six weeks after it first appeared – has slipped, Bai says. "Because of negative reports in some media, our timetable has been affected," he explains. "Now it depends on the development of the whole situation."

A wrench in developers' gears

Xia admits that she doubts she will be able to prevent the destruction of her house for ever, but takes grim consolation in her feeling that "even if I have to lose, this is a no-win game for the developers. Either they lose their money or they lose their image," she says.

In the end, say activists, delaying a demolition order or saving an individual courtyard here or there is all that they generally succeed in doing, as the pressures of city development mount.

"What we do is like throwing eggs at a rock," acknowledges Zhang Wei, founder of the "Old Beijing" website, which defends hutongs against developers. "We cannot win, but we can make things messy for them."

Meanwhile, on Dongsi Batiao, the renters hope that the developer's offer of compensation is just a bargaining position. "They are just saying that," says Mrs. Li, collapsing on the bed she shares with her daughter after a fruitless afternoon apartment hunting. "They will have to give us more than that if they want us to leave."

If they don't, and the bulldozers arrive anyway, it would not be the first time hutong dwellers have been forcibly evicted in Beijing. "If I am brave they won't be able to do anything, and if I'm not, they will tear it all down," jokes Mr. Huang, bitterly. "But all most of us can do is cry."

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