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Old Beijing Making Way for Modern Development

China's booming economy often means out with the old and in with the new. But at what cost? Centuries old neighborhoods in Beijing are being razed to make way for modern developments. From Beijing, Sam Beattie reports.

Beijing is modernizing. And it will soon be under the world's spotlight when its hosts its first Olympic Games in the summer of 2008.

The city looks like one large construction site. And China's booming economy means it has plenty of money to spend.

So it is a great time to be a developer like Ian Tang. He is CEO of Beijing Aust-China Industrial Development. "For a developer it's a golden opportunity, but the other angle is every city is becoming modern,” he says. “To find a piece of land is so difficult. It's nearly impossible."

But in the shadow of modern buildings, centuries-old courtyard homes are under threat.

A local developer, with the approval of local government, has given homeowners notice that they need to pack up and leave to make way for a new building project.

While some have left, others, like Xia Jie, are standing their ground, determined not to be kicked out of their homes. "I feel very sad, because emotionally I feel very attached to this yard. Most of my memories both good ones and bad ones take place here," said Xia.

Many families have lived here for generations. And the proposed compensation barely covers the cost of the small suburban apartments they have been offered.

No government officials or developers involved with such projects were willing to discuss why cultural protection laws are being flouted.

Non-government organizations welcomed the laws passed in 2005 to protect 25 historic neighborhoods from being demolished, recognizing them as important cultural icons.

Hu Xinyu is managing director of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center. It is one of several NGOs that have rallied against razing old Beijing. "The old city of Beijing is a very enormous piece of cultural heritage. It was planned in the Yuan Dynasty and the Ming and Qing dynasties follow the same urban planning,” he explains. “It has a long history, a very profound traditional Chinese philosophy behind the design of the city."

Occupying large tracts of prime real estate in the city's center, the ancient courtyards are just too tempting for developers and local officials looking to cash in.

If this modernization continues at a rapid pace, Beijing's ancient neighborhoods may become ancient history.