In construction-mad Beijing, “development happens at a crazy speed, like a tsunami,” says Matthew Xinyu Hu, the former managing director of the nonprofit Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (BCHPC). This was especially evident in the lead-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics. The government poured more than $40 billion into improved infrastructure, razing much of the traditional urban fabric of the city in the name of modernization.
The Olympics bore the brunt of the bad rap, but in truth, Beijing’s historic city center has been at risk for far longer. Mao Zedong, who began his reign as leader of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, declared, “Forests of factory chimneys should mushroom in Beijing.” In 1958, the municipal government developed a master plan to demolish the old city within ten years. Buoyed by China’s booming economy, real estate developers in the past two decades have been finishing the job Mao started. The government doesn’t have a consistent preservation policy, and historic buildings continue to disappear at an alarming rate. In the 1950s, there were a reported 3,600 hutongs, narrow alleys with joined courtyard houses on either side; in 2008, there were 1,000.
Concurrently, however, a nascent preservation movement has taken hold, stoked by individuals, journalists, and bloggers who document the city’s changes in photographs and forums and fight to save heritage buildings from the wrecking ball. One guiding force is Jun Wang, a Beijing-based journalist whose Mandarin-language blog, City-Eyes, and 2003 book, Beijing Record, helped raise awareness about the importance of preservation and urban planning in China. “The most important things are raising awareness and increasing community participation,” he says. “Many people in China think ‘city planning’ means ‘demolition.’”
There have been some victories. In 2002, the city designated 33 areas as “historical preservation areas,” limiting further development. In 2005, the Central Government of China approved a master plan that preserves the old city as a whole, but implementation of the policy has been inconsistent. Earlier this year, after persistent lobbying by Wang and the BCHPC, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage declared the house of the late urban planner Liang Sicheng—a central figure in Wang’s book—an “immovable cultural heritage,” reversing a demolition order.
But protection can be a tenuous thing in China, where the government’s right to eminent domain overrides all. Two years ago, setting a groundbreaking precedent, a courtyard house owner filed a lawsuit against the district government and won, resisting eviction. The house still stands, in a densely populated area surrounded by a gnarly knot of traffic. The government is weighing whether to widen the road; if it does, the house, protected or not, will be demolished.