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Saturday, 20 January, 2001, 22:09 GMT
Beijing: Shock of the new
Demolition in central Beijing
Old districts are making way for shops and offices
By Rupert Wingfield-Hayes in Beijing

For three days it had snowed almost non stop - a rare event in this usually arid city. Now the sun was out, but along the Avenue Of Eternal Peace - the six-lane expanse that carves its way through the centre of Beijing - the traffic was still crawling over the packed ice and snow.

Before me a huge swathe of the old neighbourhood already lay in ruins

I turned north off the main drag and into the maze of narrow streets and alleyways known as Hutongs. The high grey walls of the old courtyard houses crowded in around me. According to a friend, a large chunk of this neighbourhood was about to be torn down. There had been protests by residents and I was eager to speak to them before they were forced out.

A few hundred metres further north I turned a corner and my heart sank. I was too late. Before me a huge swathe of the old neighbourhood already lay in ruins. Bulldozers chugged back and forth across the rubble. The few houses still standing appeared forlorn, their windows smashed, their roofs torn off.

Abandoning the car, I began to trudge across the mounds of rubble.

Ahead of me a lone figure - bent double - was picking through pieces of rubble, inspecting them then throwing them back on the ground. This was no construction worker - even in the cold he was wearing a collar and tie.

"What are you doing?" I asked. He looked up in surprise, then smiled, inspecting me with amusement over the top of his glasses.

"I'm looking for old artefacts," he said. "Porcelain, mainly".

Moving on

Mr Chu, it turned out, was quite an authority. Picking through demolition sites was a regular part of his hobby. This area was particularly good, he told me.

China has so much history, we are weighed down by our past, and anyway we're a poor country - we can't afford to keep all these old buildings

Mr Chu
Before the revolution many of the courtyard houses around here belonged to members of the royalty; they often buried their most valuable objects beneath their houses.

"Really", I said, somewhat aghast. "These houses they are knocking down were homes of royalty! Are you sure?"

"Oh yes," said Mr Chu pointing to a large courtyard not yet demolished.

"Look over there - that house was obviously royal. You see the cypress trees in the courtyard - that's a sure sign. And look at the roof, look at its size, the quality of its construction."

"You must be horrified," I said, "to see such destruction".

Forbidden City
The Forbidden City lies at the heart of the Chinese capital
"Not really," said Mr Chu, "It's quite understandable. We need to move on, to modernise, to catch up with you in the West.

"China has so much history, we are weighed down by our past, and anyway we're a poor country - we can't afford to keep all these old buildings."

His words troubled me nearly as much as the destruction going on around me. But I shouldn't really have been surprised: His is an oft heard refrain - modernisation is the new mantra in China, even at the cost of cultural vandalism on a grand scale.

Ideological vandalism

Beijing is not just another city, it is unique, an imperial masterpiece laid out more than 800 years ago according to the strict precepts of medieval Chinese science and astrology.

At its centre is the vast imperial palace - the Forbidden City. Surrounding it lie tightly packed districts of elegant courtyard houses.

Once the old city is gone it will be gone for ever

Attacks on the old city are not new. In the early 1950s in a bout of ideological vandalism, Chairman Mao ordered the city's magnificent medieval walls torn down.

But now a second, much larger assault is under way - this time motivated not by ideology but by greed.

From a low doorway to my left an old man emerged, his padded blue jacked wrapped tight against the biting wind.

Lao Zhang was getting ready to move, his house next on the list for demolition. He was anything but happy about the prospect.

"People say these houses are old and dirty," he told me. "But they are well built. Look how thick the roofs are - they're cool in the summer and warm in winter.

"These new apartment buildings they want to put us in are no good - they're so far away from the city centre.

"I'm old and sick. How am I going to get to hospital when I need to see the doctor?"

Squalid conditions

There's no doubt many of the old houses are in a terrible state. In the 1950s all of China's housing was nationalised by the communists.

Courtyards originally designed for a single family were split up, four, five even six families crammed in. Conditions in many are squalid.

But is that the real reason they are going? Rarely are the old courtyards being replaced by new housing - the land is far too valuable. Instead vast new office developments, hotels and shopping malls now dominate the city skyline.

Some say that's what Beijing needs, but once the old city is gone it will be gone for ever.

Feeling dejected I wandered back to the car. Ahead of me the glass and concrete skyline of New Beijing glinting in the winter sunshine.

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17 Nov 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
China's changing face
04 Sep 00 | Asia-Pacific
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28 Jun 99 | Asia-Pacific
Tiananmen Square reopens
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