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.

Although most of the Imperial City was occupied by the Forbidden City and its surrounding lakes and gardens, a small area by its western wall -- the site of the recent demolition -- was brimming with upper-class courtyard homes and ornate temples. "Because it was home to officials in the Ming and Qing dynasties, the architectural quality of the structures in this area were very high," Yao said.

After Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People's Republic of China from the Tiananmen Square rostrum in 1949, however, he decided that China ought to leave its history in the past. Mao demanded the transformation of Beijing from a "consumption city" to a "production city," an industrial metropolis that would lead China into the modern age.

To help lead his urban planning committee, Mao hired Liang Sicheng, an architecture professor at Tsinghua University with a graduate degree from the United States. Liang, inspired by his time in America, envisioned Beijing as a political and cultural center akin to Washington, DC. He proposed that the regime establish its administrative center in the city's western suburbs, preserving the Old City as a living monument to Beijing's past.

But Mao had declared the People's Republic in Tiananmen Square, forever linking Communist Party rule to the historic square, and his officials believed that an adjacent administrative quarter would better promote the square's political gravitas. The Forbidden City was a sufficient reminder of Beijing's history, they argued. In June of 1953, Liang's proposal was rejected.

In late January, after a three-year battle between hutong preservationists and the Beijing government, the courtyard home where he lived through much of the 1930s was razed by a property developer.

"Once a mistake is made," Liang once wrote, "it may take a hundred years to correct it, during which residents will have to endure endless sufferings." In other words, Mao's party put politics before urban planning, and now some residents are paying for it with their homes.

Yao, looking back from the Beijing of today, put it in simpler terms. "Now, they don't have as much space as they need for their work," he said. "So they need to keep on expanding into the Old City, constructing new office buildings. And this brings problems."

Until last February, Zhao Xi, 39, lived in a small courtyard house west of Zhongnanhai that her great grandfather had built soon after the fall of the Qing Dynasty. During the 2008 Olympics, she explained, the city government sent a team of workers to replace her neighborhood's old wiring and plumbing, leading many residents to believe that, despite their 20-year-old fears, the neighborhood would not be destroyed.

But in September 2010, she received a notice that her hutong had been recently inspected by the Beijing Municipal Commission of Urban Planning.

"The current situation of the Old City's people, land and housing, and the residents' living situation is relatively poor," it read. "At the same time, Old City protective work is complicated work. Melding the style of the Old City with the development strategy of a world city is of the utmost importance in Beijing's Old City protection."

Two weeks later,  Zhao's home was marked for demolition.

"A lot of people, after leaving, would go back, to see their old neighbors," said Zhao. "But I won't go back. I think it would be too hard to take." Her parents, who fought for years to regain ownership of the house after it was expropriated under Mao, had been back twice. Both trips ended in tears.

I decided to take one last walk through the neighborhood on a bright afternoon in early February, but found the site sealed off by a high concrete wall. I followed the perimeter until I came across a discrete metal door. Within seconds, somebody opened it.

The man wore a black police coat and ushered out another man, who was wearing a hardhat. Although I only caught a glimpse of the site, I could see immediately that the last remaining street was gone. The space was enormous, the ground covered in white dust from the wreckage. A fleet of empty police cars was parked to one side. A few men walked around holding clipboards.

Then I saw it, at the far end of the expanse -- one house was still standing. Of course it could be empty, I thought. But what if it wasn't? I strained my eyes for signs of movement. The house's roof still looked intact, but its walls were crumbling, its windows broken. Under the circumstances, what could possibly justify staying behind?

The black-coated man and I locked eyes for a moment. Before I could say a word, he closed the door.

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