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Beijing's Traditional Neighborhoods Fall Victim to Olympic Building Frenzy

  • Daniel Schearf
  • Alex Sullivan

China's economic expansion, which is moving the country from the 19th century to the 21st, has created a construction boom in many cities. This is especially evident in Beijing, which government planners want to showcase during the 2008 Olympics. However, construction is also destroying many traditional parts of the ancient city.

A street hawker's cry echoes through the maze of alleyways in Qianmen - a traditional Beijing neighborhood south of Tiananmen Square. It tells residents to bring out their old quilts, which he will load onto his cart and, using a special hand tool, fluff up like new.

Residents here have had their quilts fluffed like this for generations.

But this way of life and the neighborhood itself is being threatened by the backhoes and bulldozers grinding away just two blocks away.

Mrs. Wang, a 59-year-old retiree who has lived here all her life, says the people do not want to leave but they have no choice.

"There are none willing to leave. … Their [the government's] policies are just like this: you work for more than 30 years, then you just get a little bit of money. Then they want to tear down your house," she said. "What are you supposed to go buy a [another] house with?"

Qianmen is made up of some of the oldest of Beijing's traditional courtyards and alleyways. Known as hutongs, some of these areas date back to the 13th century. Now, they are being leveled to make way for high-rise apartments and other expensive developments.

Foreign media and academics often deplore the destruction of the hutongs, calling them cultural and historical treasures that will be forever lost. For the local people, however, the effects are more immediate.

The government gives compensation money but it is only enough to buy an apartment in suburban areas far away from the city center. In these places, transportation and access to medical care are difficult - the most common complaint from those who are evicted.

Twenty-six-year-old Meng Xiaofeng, who has lived in this neighborhood for most of his life, works a night job at a nearby hotel.

"My job will probably be the same, but my commute will probably increase by two or three times," he said.

The Center on Housing Rights and Evictions, or CoHRE, in Geneva last year named China one of the three worst violators of housing rights in the world. It shared the title with Zimbabwe and the Indian state of Maharashtra.

The executive director and coordinator of CoHRE's Global Program on Forced Evictions, Jean du Plessis, says China's housing policies set a poor example.

"If development proceeds in this kind of way, just pushing the poor aside, that it sets a very poor example for other emerging economies and also will have bad consequences not only for the communities but eventually for the country as a whole," noted Jean du Plessis.

The process of demolition here in Beijing is already quite far along. Official statistics show about 40 percent of the approximately 3,700 hutongs recorded in the 1980s have disappeared. CoHRE has verified cases of more than 300,000 people losing their homes in the city's Olympic preparation.

Nevertheless, the people who are forced to move from Qianmen to the outskirts of the city do benefit in some ways.

A typical walk through a hutong is like taking a trip back in time. The smell of coal - heating the cooking stoves in communal hallways - mixes with aromas of traditional Beijing dishes and as well as the odor of human waste emanating from the public toilets that all residents use.

The high-rises outside the city, on the other hand, have all the amenities of 21st century life, including central heating, hot and cold running water, and private kitchens, toilets and showers.

The prospect of these comforts, however, is not enough to console Mrs. Wang and many of her neighbors. They mourn the loss of their close community and resent having to give up their homes in the heart of the city.

"In any case, there is nothing we, the common people, can do about it," she concluded.

Often, residents like Mrs. Wang say, the authorities hold no hearings and pay no heed to residents' opinions before deciding to demolish neighborhoods. Officials argue that the demolitions and subsequent new developments provide better lifestyles for all.

The face of Beijing is changing faster than ever before and by 2008 the city will look very different from the one that existed for centuries. But many in the city say they will miss the days when they answered a yell from the street and ran out of their hutong homes to have their quilts fluffed.

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