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Reinventing Beijing

Tourists gather in the Forbidden City, which is now being extensively restored.
Launch Slideshow
Photo: Dean Kaufman

Ever since reformist leaders proclaimed an Open Door policy in 1978, the arrival of global capitalism has wrought even more damage to the remnants of the urban treasure that was old Beijing. Four more, ever larger, concentric roads ringing the city have been built over the past 15 years, and a fifth is planned. Daring architectural constructions are rising all over what is now a megalopolis of 15 million people, most notably the bubble-like National Theater complex, by French architect Paul Andreu; an expansion of the Beijing airport, by Norman Foster; the new Chinese state television headquarters, designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren in the form of a gargantuan contorted arch; and a huge Olympic stadium, by Herzog and de Meuron.

The television headquarters will be the second-largest building in the world, after the Pentagon, and the architects have attributed at least part of the building’s dramatic form to the need to make it visible in the heavily polluted air hanging over Beijing. "It’s an environmental condition you have to be aware of when you design here," Scheeren says. "It’s not only bad for your health, it also makes all architecture look bad. I call it Beijing blur."

Coming into clear focus despite the blur is the destruction of the traditional neighborhoods, known as hutong. In these areas, a pitched battle over the city’s past and future is being waged daily, as Beijing rushes to modernize and adopt Western-style ways and standards of living.

A few minutes’ walk south of Tiananmen Square, I find the bustling Dazhalan neighborhood in an upheaval. A central road is being widened and large swaths of old houses and shops are being bulldozed to make way for new apartment buildings, including rebuilt contemporary versions of the traditional courtyard houses called siheyuan. Billboards advertising the new development show Pizza Hut and Starbucks among the new tenants.

Picking my way through the rubble, I spot several buildings of architectural merit, but here squalor often trumps charm. In many of the courtyard houses, built around an open quadrangle, the central patio area was ruined—not always irreparably—when the Communists, facing a housing shortage, pushed for them to be subdivided and filled in with new buildings. Ramshackle renovations and additions mar the original beauty and grandeur. Beyond aesthetics, residents have no running water. Open drains in the alleyways are clogged with decaying food and refuse, and residents share public toilets and baths. "Many houses are not fit for modern life," Wu Xiaoshan, a 53-year-old walking his bulldog, tells me. "It’s inconvenient and uncomfortable."

I meet later with Zhu Jiaguang, a leading official in the urban planning bureau. "Preserving culture is important, but so is improving quality of life—we must keep both in mind. The majority of people want to move," he says, explaining that "during the development process there are always going to be displaced residents."

Still, many citizens are disoriented by their forced uprooting and disgruntled with both

the compensation and the new housing developments—often well outside the city center—where they have been relocated. Rather than going quietly, some Beijingers are mobilizing public opinion and fomenting political activism. "The street has become a public space for common people to express views," says Ou Ning, who has made a documentary film about the Dazhalan neighborhood. "This is a great advance for China. This is a new beginning of citizenship here."

Dozens of lawsuits have been filed against the destruction, so far without success. "The heart of old Beijing is being wrecked," says one such litigant, Hua Xinmin, who is trying to prevent development in the hutong where she was born. But although the government has gotten its way so far, the space for public discussion of the issue has become far broader in recent years. In 2003, the authorities granted official recognition to a nongovernmental organization known as the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, which is systematically documenting current conditions in the hutong.

A master plan adopted by the city in 2002 sets aside 25 historic-preservation districts, and the group wants to ensure that these areas survive development pressures. There are only 1,500 alleyways left in Beijing, half the number that existed in the 1950’s. And fewer than 600 of those remaining are in designated historic districts, whose protected status is far from clear. Still, whereas just a few years ago hutong preservation was seen primarily as a foreign media obsession, Chinese authorities are increasingly aware of their value. "The appearance and style of old Beijing is an important cultural resource and competitive advantage for the sustainable development of the modern city," Liu Qi, general secretary of the Communist party of Beijing, said recently. And an editorial in the official paper China Daily commented, "With better-preserved hutong, Beijing could attract more visitors and win greater applause."

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