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China diary: Vanishing Beijing

Tim Luard
Former BBC Beijing correspondent Tim Luard is back in China, 25 years after his first visit, to write a series of articles for BBC News Online on how much the country has changed. He is also writing a diary during his trip, and this is his seventh instalment:

Jiang Zemin's sudden departure from office at the week end is spawning all sorts of rumours.

A well-known Chinese writer, with connections to the party leadership, meets me for a drink and says the real reason for Mr Jiang's resignation was a huge corruption scandal.

Apparently it involved so much money - siphoned off to Hong Kong bank accounts by people linked to Mr Jiang in his political base of Shanghai - that the price for hushing it up was his resignation from his last and most powerful post as Chairman of the Party's Central Military Commission.

He wasn't even allowed the expected consolation of having his top henchman promoted as deputy chairman to look after his interests.

Hutong site, Beijing
Most of the old neighbourhood of Beijing has been flattened
The story is impossible to confirm. But the mysteriously late appearance of the People's Daily and other state-owned newspapers on the day after the announcement is fanning the speculation.

Whatever the truth, bringing the army under national rather than party leadership is the first condition that must be met before China can rightfully take its place among the top league of nations, the writer told me.

And in the meantime, she said, there must now be more pressure on officials at every level to stop using state property and party policies to line their own pockets.

Cultural destruction

Corruption is, as ever, a major issue here. But another by-product of China's economic transformation has become just as worrying for many - the rapid disappearance of the country's resources, including its incomparably rich cultural heritage.

Trying to track down a late-night party I'd been invited to, at a bar called Bed, I stumbled across the black, dusty remains of a long line of ancient courtyard houses that had just been bulldozed.

It was in the middle of one of the few remaining areas of Beijing where you can still find the narrow winding alleyways known as hutongs, which once gave the city much of its unique character.

The low traditional houses lining the alleyways, grouped around courtyards often shared by several families, may not provide the comfortable modern lifestyle that many Chinese are now coming to expect.

But there's been an outcry over the way officials and developers (often one and the same) have knocked them down and forced those who were born in them to move out to new tower blocks far from the centre.

Rickshaw, Beijing
Rickshaws tout for tourists in the now-fashionable surviving hutongs
Of some 6,000 original hutongs only 25 remain, I was told tonight by someone writing a book on Beijing and the loss of China's cultural legacy.

Two-thirds of inner city residents - two to three million people - have now been moved out to the distant suburbs, he said.

A few select areas have now been declared preservation zones, and tourists cruise through them in highly decorated cycle rickshaws.

Some residents have been happy to sell up to the growing number of foreigners, bar-owners and others ready to pay large sums to take over suitably renovated courtyards (sometimes complete with parking for three cars).

But the Central Committee meeting that saw Jiang Zemin's removal coincided with the arrest just outside Beijing of more than 30,000 petitioners - almost all of them protesting at having had their homes requisitioned with little or no compensation.

PS - Just in case you're wondering, the party was great and I met lots of old friends. The "bed", if you must know, turned out to be of the opium variety. But I suspect not a genuine antique - they've all been sold abroad or were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.


Are you in China or have you visited recently? What do you think about all the changes China has gone through in the last 25 years?

My first visit to China was last month. The view I had on China prior to this visit was that it is an underdeveloped third world country, which had suffered due to the tyranny of communism. I was dead wrong. I was surprised to find Beijing to be a very developed and posh city, not too different from the cities of the other so-called ┐capitalist' countries in the region. The only traces of communism I could find were the statues and portraits of Chairman Mao at the Tiananmen square. Otherwise Beijing could easily pass for any other city in the capitalistic world. Calling it as 'communist China' is no longer valid. Otherwise Microsoft, one of the most powerful firms today, would not have concentrated so heavily on the Chinese market. I think we all should thank Chairman Deng and other reformist for this transformation. Communism is a dead dinosaur. Instead of waiting for the rebirth of that dinosaur, China should forget its turbulent past and focus on building its industrial and service sectors to become the biggest market in the Asian region.
Chanuka Wattegama, Colombo, Sri Lanka

I visited Beijing in 1993 and 2003. A mere decade and the city was almost impossible to recognise. Yet despite the new flashy billboards, shiny new shopping centres and shops the people remain inherently Chinese. The values and attitudes have adapted and adjusted to communism, capitalism and Westernisation, but a conversation with the locals tell you that despite what the Western media and official Communist Party portray as China, the reality is very different.
Angelina Ng, Toronto, Canada

Over 60 years ago, my mother left an extended family in China, barely in her teens, to seek a better life here. Thirty years ago, she was still sending suitcases of unwanted old clothing back home to help alleviate the grinding poverty. My first cousins were risking their lives to swim across to Hong Kong for a better life. Over 20 years ago, I stood in Hong Kong looking at the border post to China - in fear that a few steps more and you would lose your life as you know it. Today, my cousins who remained behind run their own businesses. One, who caught rats to eat them as a decent meal, employs a few thousand workers producing locks for the German and US markets. Tomorrow, I wonder what will happen to those of us who left China.
Anthony Lee, Singapore

My first visit to Beijing as a 15-year-old schoolboy was like stepping across a technological and ideological chasm. At 15, the experience mostly passed me by I'm sad to say, but I do remember the depth of difference, that existed especially in relation to authority. Then as a teacher 10 years later Beijing became a kind of home for me. The dusty streets, glass shopping centres and eating dumplings on cold days, all memories close to my heart. Now after two years in Hong Kong (a different country!), the hectic progression of China towards consumer society is easy to see. I love and sometimes hate this mad, wise country like a family member.
Neil Thomas, Hong Kong, China

Twenty-five years ago China was just opening to the world, thanks to Deng Xiaoping. Now Beijing is a modern city and China is a much better society but there are still many problems. I think the main one is the difference between the development in the cities and the poor life of farmers. Tim Luard should talk to the people in the small villages who still have a hard life.
Hu Yarong, Sydney Australia

In Beijing, building cranes are omnipotent and one cannot escape the sounds of construction machinery even in the wee hours of the early morning. A rising middle class, consumer choices, and a plethora of foreign products are all evidence of capitalism at full throttle. This country is on a serious mission. While economic and technological development have been staggering, it will be interesting to examine how this plays out in the political and cultural realms.
Timothy Lee, Vancouver, Canada

China is on the fast track to being a superpower. There has been some major changes in force structure, equipment and development. It's still in a period of growth now but in a few years will be in the top three of the world easily. The economic potential of this nation is really astounding. This is, of course, barring any major conflict in the near term.
Lawrence Lau, Kuching, Malaysia

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