Razing History: The Tragic Story of a Beijing Neighborhood's Destruction

As the Chinese capital develops, the demolition of historic neighborhoods and displacement of once-secure families is becoming one of the city's most controversial issues.

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Children play in the ruins of a residential neighborhood in the process of being demolished / AP

BEIJING -- On a cloudy day last March, a retired office clerk surnamed Sun stood outside of his courtyard home in the heart of Beijing, lit a cigarette, and tried not to dwell on the eight-acre swath of rubble down the street that used to be his neighborhood.

Despite an inundation of official bulletins urging residents not to indulge in gossip, the remainder of Sun's street was teeming with whispers. Some were tales of arrests and disappearances -- a botched protest, a terrorized lawyer -- but most were attempts to answer a seemingly simple question: what would they build once the street was razed?

Sun told me that he was confident that he knew what it would be. About 200 meters east of his doorstep, behind a high red wall under the perennial watch of large, uniformed men in unmarked vans, was Zhongnanhai, a sprawling, closed compound home to the offices and reception halls of the central leadership of China.

"They must have run out of space," Sun said, flicking away his cigarette. 

The demolition of Beijing's historical courtyard alleyways, called hutong, has long been one of the city's most controversial issues. At the height of the city's headlong rush to modernity in the 1990s, about 600 hutong were destroyed each year, displacing an estimated 500,000 residents. Seemingly overnight, the city was transformed from a warren of Ming dynasty-era neighborhoods into an ultramodern urban sprawl, pocked with gleaming office towers and traversed by eight-lane highways.

Remaining hutong dwellers are worried, and for good reason -- they have a lot to lose. Their courtyard houses have survived centuries of war and revolution, the strain of collective ownership, and the turbulence of early economic reform. Passed down from generation to generation, they are often last-remaining monuments to entire family lines.

Patchy compensation schemes have left some displaced families insolvent. Unable to afford a new home in the old city, which is gentrifying almost as quickly as it's disappearing, they are forced to move into shoddy high-rise communities on the city's exurban outskirts.

While some hutong residents are resigned to their fates, others are more resistant. Over the past few years, hutong preservationists have succeeded in forestalling some high-profile redevelopment projects, such as a plan in 2010 to refashion a large swath of hutong north of the Forbidden City as a cluster of museums and public squares.

But Zhongnanhai-area demolitions are not like other demolitions. They're more frightening, less easy to understand. Their location eliminates the possibility of a commercial motive. I called the neighborhood police and the district government looking for answers, but their spokespeople hung up the phone or put me through to disconnected lines. Remaining tenants responded to my questions about their neighborhood's future with incredulous stares.

"Before they build something, you never know what they will build," said He Shuzhong, the director of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, a Beijing-based NGO that works on hutong preservation. "Every time it's the same. They give some money, the people leave. Some people object, but in general, they can't be helped."

"Looking at a map," he said, "it's not hard to understand the situation" 

Indeed, in the absence of domestic media coverage (experts including He affirmed the real possibility of a reporting ban), maps do tell an intriguing story.

In January, 2005, over a decade of negotiations between officials and hutong preservationists culminated in the passage of a sweeping proposal called the Beijing City Master Plan. The Master Plan designated a large swath of hutong in central Beijing as a "historical and cultural protected area," immune from redevelopment. On a map of protected areas, the hutong around Zhongnanhai glowed in a bright, safe yellow. Obviously, it didn't do much good.

Overhead satellite images viewed on Google Earth suggest that the protected safe zones were neither safe nor protected. In images from early 2005, a small area by Zhongnanhai's eastern border appears as a dense cluster of trees and rooftops, virtually indistinguishable from any other hutong neighborhood in Beijing. In an image from April, 2006, it is a construction zone.

A walk through the neighborhood is enough to understand its transformation -- the old hutong is now concealed by a high brick wall, the tops of vaulted roofs and boxy office buildings visible from beyond its unmarked gates.

"That over there is Zhongnanhai. You can't go in there," said a nearby restaurant owner who only gave his surname, Fu, waving his hands as if to refuse a favor.

Yao Yuan, an urban planning expert at Peking University, told me that he believes that the Zhongnanhai-area demolitions may be a belated consequence of city planning decisions made over 60 years ago, when the ruling Communist Party first came into power.

"Every area of Old Beijing is in accordance with the kind of thought that went into city planning in the Ming and Qing dynasties," Yao said. Until the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, he explained, Zhongnanhai and its surrounding hutong lay within the sacrosanct heart of Beijing -- the walled Imperial City, built by Emperor Yong Le in the early 15th century.

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Jonathan Kaiman is a writer in Beijing. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications.

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