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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 September, 2004, 12:06 GMT 13:06 UK
Letter: Battle over Beijing
A housing fare in beijing
There are competing visions of what the city should like
The Olympic flag has been handed from Athens to Beijing, the next host of the games. But when the Olympic torch is rekindled in 2008, how will the Chinese capital appear to the world?

Feature writer Lin Gu met one man who has been charting the history of the city.

The issue of Beijing's image has been a focus of numerous disputes among architects, city planners, and decision-makers for decades. The debate is surging to a new high as the city prepares to host the 29th Olympics scheduled for four years from now.

Some advocate modernisation - with fancy-looking skyscrapers and wide streets. Others argue that the city is of such stunning historical value, it must keep its ancient appearance.

Much of this ancient fabric is preserved in the city's diminishing alleys, which are known as "hutong" in Mandarin. On a sunny afternoon shortly before Beijing's mayor received the Olympic flag at the closing ceremony in Athens, I started an exploration of ancient Beijing.

My tour guide was Wang Jun, a 35-year-old journalist based in Beijing. He published a book called The Story of a City about a year ago, which has been at the top of Beijing's bestseller list ever since, and has triggered a new wave of discussion on urban planning in the capital.

We began our tour in one of the tree-lined narrow alleys that lead on to ancient courtyards. I was surprised when Wang Jun told me that many hutongs like the one we were walking through have been in existence since the 13th Century, when Beijing was the grand capital of the Yuan Dynasty and began to take its shape some 800 years ago.

The original urban fabric of Beijing has been acclaimed as an "unparalleled urban planning masterpiece".

Wang Jun used to live in this alley and seems to know every part of it.

"A group of us in the neighbourhood used to gather here after supper," Wang Jun told me, while pointing to the tree near a public toilet.

"So we named our gathering 'public toilet club'," he laughed.

In his eyes, this is part of the charm of living in a hutong: It offers shelter from bustling city life - a more intimate world where old neighbours, shady trees and humorous grocery store owners sooth one's soul after a busy day of work.

For centuries, the Forbidden City in the centre of Beijing protected emperors and their concubines, while the surrounding hutongs and courtyards provided ordinary Beijingers with shelter, a community, and a place to nurture their dreams.

A native of Guizhou Province in remote south-west China, Wang Jun did not immediately feel at home when he first moved into the area as a college graduate in 1991.

The narrow lanes only aroused a sense of frustration in him, and he was disappointed in what he regarded as "such a backward neighbourhood."

Wang was born during the peak of the Cultural Revolution which denounced all the old traditions, and he had grown up during a period when youngsters admired western cultural trends.

The main purpose of my book is to remind readers not to forget the past, otherwise history will repeat itself
Wang Jun

Despite his indifference to the area, he accepted a dormitory room allocated him there by his employer, the Xinhua News Agency, China's largest media organisation.

Wang was assigned to cover Beijing's urban construction and cultural relics, a beat unlikely to generate breaking news on which a journalist can build a reputation easily. Nobody, including himself, expected Wang to do anything great.

But Wang gradually became interested in the seemingly dull topic. He learned with shock that much of Beijing's second ring road follows the same path of its ancient city walls which were demolished in the 1960s.

Why should people destroy the city walls? This question drove Wang into a 10-year exploration of the city where he went to college, embarked on a career and started a family.

Wang's enquiry led him to the work of the late Chinese architect and city planner Professor Liang Sicheng, who contributed to the design of the United Nations headquarters in New York.

In 1949, when the communist army besieged Beijing in the civil war, Professor Liang was secretly consulted by the communists to mark all areas of cultural value, so that they would be preserved if the fighting extended to the capital. Fortunately the communists took the city peacefully and Old Beijing remained intact.

If the city was saved from cannons, as Wang discovered, Beijing didn't escape what many term "destructive" construction after 1949.

Professor Liang and another architect proposed to the new central government that the old town of Beijing should be preserved as a whole, while a new district be set up to accommodate administrative development. But the proposal was rejected.

The new leaders did not like old things and they wanted Beijing to be a productive city, with new buildings replacing the old ones. "Forests of factory chimneys should mushroom in Beijing," Mao Zedong declared.

In the official mentality, the ancient city walls must go as the embodiment of feudal order, and they blocked the traffic as well. Workers, soldiers, and students were mobilised to join the team to dismantle the walls that had witnessed the vicissitudes of the capital for hundreds of years.

For Professor Liang, watching this was as painful as peeling off his own skin.

More than 20 years later, when Wang Jun came to Beijing to study journalism, the city walls had almost completely disappeared, and now the city was burdened not only with heavy traffic, but also with heavy pollution and a population of over 10 million trapped both within and outside of the old town.

New developments in Beijing
Many cannot in any case afford to live in the new apartment blocks

In 1988 when he visited the Forbidden City for the first time in his second year at college, he did not think much of it, dismissing the grand palace complex as "nothing special but just the old house of a big landlord".

Occupying the young man's mind at that time was something seemingly more serious than city planning - freedom of expression. When he proposed freedom of speech as the topic for his graduation thesis, the department head asked him: "Do you still want your diploma?"

Wang persisted, and he got an A plus for his paper.

When Wang as a reporter buried himself in the dusty archives left by Professor Liang, he found that the issue of freedom of expression emerged again.

Although Professor Liang had spoken out, he hadn't been heard, or the leaders were not willing to listen. He ended up as a very lonely man before his death in the Cultural Revolution.

Aside from Professor Liang's archives, Wang also went to various libraries. His tiny dormitory room has documents piled high on sofas, dining tables - everywhere.

Wang's wife Liu Jie had to retreat to bed when she returned home. At night, the couple were often awoken by the sudden collapse of paper piles.

In tracing the old debate, Wang developed a real interest in Beijing's alleys and became ashamed of himself for his earlier ignorance about the Forbidden City.

And as his knowledge grew so did his determination to preserve the nation's heritage.

Ten years after he became a journalist, he turned his passion and knowledge into a book - The Story of a City. And the book found an enthusiastic audience - even the current Beijing mayor told his colleagues that he was reading it.

In the same 10 years, Beijing has witnessed drastic changes in the name of development. The old town with an area of 62 square kilometres only makes up 6% of the whole metropolitan area, but remains the last haven for 70% of Beijing's renowned cultural relics.

Beijing is expanding at the price of its ancient symbols, with about 600 hutongs vanishing every year in the past four years.

New York-based city planner Jasper Goldman made a documentary about Beijing's change from hutong to high-rise and chose the same topic for his graduation thesis at MIT.

The reason to do this, as he explained to Wang, is that "Beijing has the best and worst urban planning in the world".

"For real preservation to take place," Mr Goldman observed, "the Chinese leadership at the very top must make a determined effort to really preserve what's left of Old Beijing. There is plenty of 'fake' preservation taking place - destruction of the old buildings and replacement with a Disney-land Beijing style architecture."

The bulldozers have emerged all over Old Beijing. Many of the courtyards had become overcrowded by the 1980s. No wonder many residents initially welcomed the development of high-rise apartment blocks, only to find out later that they could never afford to move in, given the shabby compensation at hand.

Wang found out that so far nearly 30,000 residents have tried to file group lawsuits against Beijing municipal housing authorities for compensation, but to no avail.

Despite the impartial role expected of journalists, Wang Jun could not help joining some experts, activists and fellow journalists to lobby the governments and save the last remains of Old Beijing.

His reports did save a few courtyards and hutongs of special cultural or historical interest. Four years ago, Wang learned that the former residence of the late Professor Cai Yuanpei, a renowned scholar in modern Chinese history, was going to be demolished.

Who is threatening Beijing's Olympic bid? Those who destroy cultural relics or reporters who disclose the truth
Wang Jun

His old courtyard stood alone in a neighbourhood already cleared to give way to a new housing plan.

When Wang arrived in the courtyard, it was under imminent threat of being torn down. He immediately began to write about it. The demolition did stop, but a furious Beijing municipal government organised a news conference to deny the alleged plan.

Wang's editor received phone calls trying to stop Wang from writing more about the issue, and suggesting if he did, he would jeopardise Beijing's Olympic bid which was then at a crucial stage.

But Wang told his editor: "This is not just a battle to save the Old Beijing, but to defend my dignity. Who is threatening Beijing's Olympic bid? Those who destroy cultural relics or reporters who disclose the truth?"

Wang remained defiant, and he chose to send his photos of the damaged house to one of China's most influential papers.

Wang did save this historical site, but he has to admit many more are disappearing. But he won't give up, and has just finished a report calling on the Beijing government to learn from Athens in showcasing its ancient city at the Olympics.

"The main purpose of my book," he told me, "is to remind readers not to forget the past, otherwise history will repeat itself."

The end point of our hutong tour that afternoon was on top of the famous drum tower, where we could still gaze at the wave of grey courtyard rooftops submerged in a sea of green trees.

But when we looked below from another side of the tower, we saw many ruins - buildings demolished to make way for a wider road.

"Shall we turn away from it now? I don't want to spoil our tour today!" Wang suggested. I couldn't have agreed with him more.

Lin Gu is a writer for China Features, which provides feature stories and photographs on China to overseas publications.

Letter is a new BBC World Service series in which one of a panel of international broadcasters reflects on the latest political, cultural or social developments in their region.


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