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Dissent Magazine:Farewell to the Hutongs: Urban Development in Beijing

来源:Dissent Magazine    作者:Amy Stone    2008-01-01

IN THE BEST 60 Minutes tradition, a China Central Television (CCTV) producer sent me out last summer to the planned “Jade River” real estate redevelopment for some investigative reporting on the fate of Beijing’s historic hutongs or alleyways. I was armed with a concealed camera inside a made-in-China purse. The producer also equipped me with the cell phone and e-mail persona of “Emily Tinari,” a rich American, charmed by the traditional hutongs of old Beijing, lusting to own a courtyard house of her own.
Courtyard houses or siheyuan (“yard surrounded by four buildings”) exist elsewhere in China. But these traditional, one-story houses with curved tile roofs rising behind gray brick walls lining both sides of a hutong street have long been identified with Beijing. “Hutong” can refer both to the alley and the neighborhood.
With the rush of development heated up by the drive to modernize for the upcoming Beijing 2008 Olympics, even protected hutong neighborhoods are being bulldozed by development companies with CPC (Communist Party of China) connections. The days of the serve-the-people CPC are long gone. Forget affordable housing for the masses. Luxury housing is going up in an economy closer to Darwinian capitalism than anything resembling socialism.
Most of the courtyard houses, once handsome microcosms of the Forbidden City, date from the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). But the oldest go back even further, to the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368). The most elegant houses with carved and painted roof beams and landscaped central courtyards were the homes of the aristocracy. Commoners in extended families lived in simpler courtyard houses lining narrower alleys. Hidden from the sight of passersby, the hutong neighborhoods have endured down through the end of imperial rule, the Republican Period, and the conquest of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), when the troops of the CPC entered Beijing in October 1949.

The traditional courtyards, many now filled with ramshackle housing rented out to migrant workers from China’s countryside, are being leveled to make way for modern high-rise apartments and offices. The ancient neighborhoods, which make up centrally located old Beijing surrounding the Forbidden City, have become prime real estate. With their desirable location and architectural detail, a small number of courtyard houses and their alleys are being preserved, thanks to gentrification. Wealthy Chinese and foreigners, eager to restore the old courtyard housing to ancient splendor, are replacing longtime homeowners who sometimes sell willingly, sometimes not.
Destruction of the old is nothing new in China, though previously it was for political, not economic, reasons. In the early days of the New China, Soviet planners won Mao Zedong’s support to build the new capital on top of old Beijing, saving only the walled Forbidden City at its center. Leading architects argued that the old city should be preserved as a treasure reflecting the values of ancient China and that the new administrative center should be built to the west, but they were ignored.
Master architect Liang Si Cheng reportedly wept when Mao gave the order for the PLA to fire cannonballs at the walls surrounding the old city. His words remain: “When a section of the city wall collapses, I feel my skin is being peeled off.”
The imperial symbols of grandeur are now matched by CPC grandeur. Above the main gate of the Forbidden City, a giant portrait of Mao looks south across the vastness of Tiananmen Square, past the Great Hall of the People to his own mammoth mausoleum.
Despite the commitment to bigness, the old hutong neighborhoods persisted and even thrived through the early years of the New China as a refuge for the extended Chinese family. The hutong mix of gracious and decrepit housing survived even while the government scrambled to house the millions of new workers migrating to the city to build Mao’s modern industrial state. Mega-residential flats on the Stalinist model were built to shelter the work force. During this period, Beijing burst its old boundaries, exploding from a medium-sized city of four million in the 1960s to the metropolis of today, with a population estimated at more than fifteen million.
Along with the population boom, incomes grew; wealth spread among the urban and, to a lesser extent, the rural population. Under the economic reforms initiated by Deng Xiao Ping in the 1980s and continued by his successors, there was a tenfold increase in gross national product between 1985 and 2006. Material well-being grew and expanded; a modern, bourgeois middle class became the symbol of the New China. A new class of the superrich emerged with tinted-glass SUVs, $40,000 limited edition Swiss watches, and luxury brand leather goods, much of the wealth paid for by fortunes made in real estate.
Massive real estate development is especially lucrative as China’s economic growth keeps surpassing expectations (the World Bank revised its forecast for gross domestic product growth in 2007 upward to 11.3 percent), and fortunes continue to soar on what was once communal property. According to Forbes magazine, twelve real estate tycoons are among mainland China’s top forty richest. The wealth is staggering. The combined net worth of the top forty rose from $38 billion in 2006 to $120 billion in 2007.
Beijing real estate developers have not yet eliminated all the old hutongs, but the number is shrinking fast. There were 3,250 hutongs when the CPC came to power in 1949. By 2004, according to the Beijing Urban Planning Society, only 1,204 remained.
The transformation of the Beijing skyline could not have come about without the wholesale transfer of public property into private hands with the collusion of the party. The transfer was done for the benefit of private individuals, with enormous losses to the state, according to former CPC general secretary Zhao Ziyang. Zhao was put under house arrest for sixteen years (until his death in 2005) for siding with the Tiananmen student protests of 1989, and Zhao Ziyang: Captive Conversations, a bestseller in Hong Kong published two years after his death, is not allowed into mainland China. But within government restrictions, mainland media have criticized real estate development, especially when it threatens cultural preservation.
MY OPPORTUNITY to do some undercover reporting for CCTV came after a relatively uneventful eighteen months working in China as a “foreign expert” copy editor for two government-controlled, English-language newspapers—first in the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong, a wonder city of the New China economic miracle, and then in Beijing for the national English-language paper of record, China Daily. My connection to the CCTV producer covering the Jade River redevelopment came with my own coverage for China Daily of another hutong threatened by bulldozer renovation.
The producer chose Jade River because it is one of the hutongs with historical preservation status, thanks in part to its proximity to the Forbidden City. He then connected me with Elite Realty, a company selling one of the old courtyard houses in the hutong. I made an appointment with Sophie Hu, an Elite Realty salesperson. A car and driver delivered the two of us to what is being positioned as a future upscale redevelopment.
Despite its preservation status, the hutong and surrounding area had been reduced to piles of rubble and bulldozed open spaces mixed with still-occupied courtyard houses. With the hidden camera rolling, Hu told me the price for the 1,200-square-foot lot was eighteen million yuan ($2.4 million—a fortune in China). That was just for the land. The crumbling courtyard housing would be removed. She told me the deed was free and clear, and the owner wanted payment in cash. She assured me—incorrectly—that the hutong with its courtyard houses was not one of the thirty-three Beijing hutongs with preservation status. She also assured me that although special permission was needed to build an underground level in the dream house she assumed I would want—these basements of the rich include garages and swimming pools—that wouldn’t be a problem. Elite had the connections. All it would take is money.
With the complexities of China’s property laws, this is not exactly the old story of development versus preservation. Responding to concern that eight-hundred-year-old Beijing was getting to look like every other traffic-congested high-rise city the world over, the Beijing municipality’s 2002 Conservancy Plan for 25 Historic Areas in Beijing Old City was a major step toward preservation. Despite the accelerated construction boom produced by Beijing’s winning bid to host the Olympics, the municipal government extended the number of protected areas to thirty-three in 2004, leaving an estimated nine hundred hutong neighborhoods unprotected. The laws give specific guidelines, with emphasis on residential preservation rather than rebuilding, and with residents given priority over developers.
While preservationists hailed the laws, facts on the ground speak otherwise, and not just in Jade River. A case in point is last year’s battle over Dongsi Batiao, to the south of Jade River. Dongsi Batiao has preservation status. Starting in 2001—a year before the Conservancy Plan—one developer after another had attempted to turn the hutong into a real estate gold mine. The first went bankrupt; the second went onto bigger and more lucrative projects, including Jade River and a major showpiece next to Tiananmen Square. Now a third developer was on the scene.
The reality of redevelopment finally hit the Dongsi Batiao hutong in April 2007. A sign posted by the district housing department announced that a real estate developer had gained rights to the area and residents were to move out with relocation compensation by May 26. With the posting of the eviction notice, the stage was set for testing the 2002 hutong preservation law.
When I arrived at the hutong to cover the story for China Daily the day before the eviction deadline, battle lines were clear. The district housing department, the developer, and many of the renters were pitted against long time residents who own their courtyard houses and were backed by heritage experts. Despite the hutong’s protected status—new construction was supposed to be limited to the height of the old buildings—the 570-million-yuan (roughly $80 million) real estate project included a fifty-nine-foot high-rise.
PEOPLE WHO had long ago abandoned aging family members in the hutong for the comfort of modern apartments were showing up to claim relocation money. Working within state restrictions on media, Beijing newspaper editors and television producers concerned with preserving old Beijing were covering the Dongsi Batiao conflict. Volunteers from Friends of Old Beijing, part of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP), a nongovernmental organization, were helping to publicize the threat.
Perhaps feeling the heat of preservationist and public outrage as reflected in the media coverage, District officials let the May 26 deadline slide. On May 27, they suspended demolition. On May 28, the director-general of the State Administration for Cultural Heritage stated, “There will be no new development project in Dongsi Batiao in the future.” Although this sounds definitive—the state finally stepping in to give teeth to preservation laws—those who know the articulation of state/local power say the Cultural Heritage administration is not the deciding force here.
Dongsi Batiao is not a showpiece. Built in the Yuan dynasty, the glory days of the six-hundred-year-old hutong are long gone. Prostitutes operate out of storefronts marked by barber poles. Behind the siheyuan traditional double red entrance doors, many of the once tree-shaded courtyards are filled with makeshift shacks rented out by private owners or the local district. Even for people in the original housing, living can be primitive, with toilets out in the alley and no central heating. Of the eleven courtyard houses with a motley mix of some ninety families, seven houses are privately owned and four belong to the Doncheng District. Because of the on again, off again threat of forced relocation since 2001, owners had suspended home improvements until they could be certain their property was safe from developers.
In June, the conflict turned ugly. A band of seven angry tenants from Dongsi Batiao, who were denied promised information from the district relocation office, marched on the office of the current developer, the Zhong Bao Jia Ye development company. They demanded the compensation they’d been promised for vacating their rented property. Those on the scene reported that when the company’s executive manager, Bai Hua, refused to meet with the disgruntled group, one enraged woman barged through his door and attacked him. In the ensuing struggle, she was knocked to the ground, and the police were called.
The injured woman and the company manager (who reportedly had a history of heart problems) were carried off to separate hospitals in separate ambulances. When I walked into the triage room at the nearby military hospital where the woman was taken, she gestured wildly: no pictures! The reason soon became clear. Unlike the rest of the half-dozen protesters, the woman does not even live in the hutong, according to longtime residents of Dongsi Batiao. Using her connections to make some quick relocation money, the opportunistic outsider was claiming residence in a space smaller than a bathroom. In the words of a resident who’s seen it all, “The area isn’t even big enough for a bed. She’d have to sleep standing up—like a horse.”
WITH THE redevelopment threat, one person emerged as a spokesperson for the home owners. Xia Jie is attractive; articulate; educated in Sydney, Australia; and media-savvy. Born in 1974, she grew up in the Dongsi Batiao courtyard house her family has owned since her great-grandmother purchased the property in 1948. During the ravages of the Cultural Revolution, according to Xia Jie, the government took away the deed to the house, restricted her mother and her to thirty-six square feet of living space, and moved other people in need of housing into the remaining space. The family regained its deed in 1984.
Her response to the eviction threat was to file for an administrative review by the district law office. Truly worthy of a starring role in the drama, Xia Jie is also project manager for avant-garde Belgian artist Wim Delvoye. His tattooed pigs, one covered in Louis Vuitton logos, were on exhibit a few blocks away in a Ming-dynasty rice storage house turned gallery. Emblematic of the Beijing feeding frenzy, the art pigs were nosedown in their sanitized trough.
During the administrative review period, Xia Jie had access to the archives. The data she uncovered were sufficiently unseemly that the administrative review office extended its review period from sixty to ninety days “due to the complexity of the situation.” In what may be a first, at the end of July, the developer asked the district to take back its development certificate.
The way Xia Jie sees it, her demand for administrative review demonstrated that “not everybody is legally illiterate. . . . I stalled the development not because of actual heritage regulations but because I found out they didn’t have a land certificate.”
Stopping the illegal development was not general cause for dancing in the alley. Tenants who were still bargaining with the developer over relocation money felt cheated of a windfall. Whether renting from private owners or in municipally owned courtyard housing, few could afford to move to less decrepit housing without a cash infusion. Many of the owners of the courtyard houses, themselves not wealthy people, remained cautious, still feeling vulnerable to a future development triumph. In fact, one home owner, checking her property’s status, found the city is planning a road sixty feet wide cutting through her courtyard. Preservationists, who grimly call this “road kill,” have discovered that the city’s giant roadways, planned before the 2002 preservation laws, take precedence over heritage protection. This is car-centered city development with expressways replacing hutongs—a Robert Moses vision with no Jane Jacobs restraint.
Those who care about cultural preservation, especially those in official positions, tread carefully. He Shuzhong, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, is well aware of the delicacy of protecting cultural heritage. Even while working as deputy director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage legal and policy department, he felt the need to establish an NGO to protect Beijing’s heritage. Many at the center argue that preserving what remains of old Beijing would in no way hamper development. Beijing would continue to expand outside the inner ring of the old city. Retaining the less densely populated hutong neighborhoods would decrease traffic bottlenecks in a more livable, workable central Beijing.
ALTHOUGH THE Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center staff would cringe at the idea that they have a political agenda, they are rallying volunteers to work for the values of a civil society. Their attempt to get the government to enforce its own preservation laws may seem nonpolitical to the West, but it is highly political action in a society where ideas come from the top down. In fact, until recently, all NGOs, including the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, had to be incorporated within the appropriate governmental organization.
As China experiments with the rule of law, praiseworthy laws are passed without clear means of enforcement. And those who expect local heritage protection agencies to at least sound an alarm against threatened development should look elsewhere.
The line between cultural preservation and bulldozer development may be nonexistent. As one well-placed official concerned with heritage protection put it, “If the government had truly thought about implementing the laws, half these laws would not exist.”
Documents show that the second of the three development companies involved in Dongsi Batiao—Dong Fang Kang Tai—has top people who came directly from the district cultural relics bureau. This is the same company that’s now redeveloping the Jade River hutong. The fox is guarding the hen house.
Journalist Wang Jun, best known for his book Diary of a City (in Chinese only), documenting the destruction of the old hutongs, suggests that the hutong neighborhoods with their courtyard houses won’t be safe until tax laws are changed. Speaking at the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center he made the point: “Since there is no real estate tax in China now, the expenses of the local government, which provides basic services, cannot be maintained by real estate. The only source of revenue is the sale of land.”
According to Wang Jun, “Of the total capital investment in Beijing, real estate investment accounts for 50 percent or more. In fact, the reconstruction or renovation of the old city is a driving force for the real estate sector development.” He does not include the fact that developers with CPC connections are most likely to win development rights.
The question of property rights, not only the issue of tax laws or the effectiveness of preservation laws, is at the heart of hutong survival. One Chinese-French Beijinger has tackled the tangled issues of courtyard housing property rights. Now fifty-three, Hua Xinmin spent the first twenty-two years of her life in a courtyard house, which she is now fighting to retain. She wants property owners to know their rights and argues that laws passed in the 1990s give home owners rights to their houses and the land. She urges the owners of courtyard homes as well as other property owners to regain the deeds confiscated during the Cultural Revolution and remain alert to real estate companies that advertise their property for sale on the Internet and to listings by local municipality land bureaus that claim their property. As she puts it, “Suddenly the land has two owners. But the land bureau is not the owner. How could it sell what doesn’t belong to it to a developer?” She insists, “This demolition could be stopped if the illegal land sales stopped. That’s the core of the whole problem.”
Dong Fang Kang Tai, the development company for Jade River, prides itself on a glowing record of hutong improvement. The jewel in its crown is Chung Pu River Park just east of Tiananmen Square. The supposedly squalid old hutong structures have been replaced with faux-classic one-story brick buildings with elaborately painted beams and ceilings and graceful curving tile roofs with imperial motifs. A lavishly landscaped park attracts both rich and poor.
Inside the development, a special point of pride is the Beijing Art Museum of the Imperial City. A museum publication proclaims this “pseudo-classic post and panel structure” houses a detailed model of the old city. Preserving the past, a six-hundred-year-old brick from the old city wall is protected behind glass with security enhanced by constant temperature and humidity control, infrared surveillance, and electronic alarm system.
Meanwhile, the CCTV investigation of hutong preservation, including the Elite Realty meeting with “Emily,” videotaped with hidden camera, is on indefinite hold according to the producer. The government is reportedly reining in the media, insisting on only harmonious news until after the Olympics.

———————————————————————

Amy Stone, a New York-based journalist, recently returned from two years in China, where she worked in Beijing as a copy editor at the China Daily, the country’s leading English-language newspaper, and at the Shenzhen Daily.

http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=1160

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