What is the fate of Beijing’s hutongs?
The Chinese Communist Party has now almost completed its task of rebuilding Beijing and destroying the original city, launched in 1997/98 during the Asian financial crisis. The secret plan was agreed by President Jiang Zemin.
At that time much of the original Ming dynasty city still stood, despite the destruction of the city walls in the 1950s. Before 1949, much of the city was still recognisably that seen by Marco Polo when he worked for the Kublai Khan.
Parts of Beijing dated back over 1,000 years. It was the greatest political and religious city in Asia, with thousands of temples palaces and shrines.
After 1979, the CCP started trying to undo the Cultural Revolution-era damage and agreed on a number of plans to preserve the architectural heritage of Beijing. It listed buildings, implemented zoning laws and restricted building heights, and agreed on plans to modernise the city by building outside the old city walls – the second ring road.
Jiang abandoned these plans and began demolishing everything, relocating four million of the six million inhabitants living inside the old boundaries. He espoused the modernist architectural style of Le Corbusier and rejected any architecture that reflected China’s great heritage.
What impact has that had on Beijing?
The city is now completely unrecognisable – and it changes all the time.
The original population has gone. Most religious life has vanished from the city, so many of the older areas are just empty shells, devoid of life. Only two of the 40 old theatres remain.
What fate awaits the few hutongs that are left?
The official tourist hutongs and several city gates are entirely newly rebuilt – like film sets; there is a fee to see them. There is also a museum on Beijing history, but like all museums in China it shows an entirely invented or distorted history.
There are still areas – like that around Houhai or the Chinese Academy of Modern Arts –which have not yet been demolished. Here, it’s possible to see a glimpse of old Beijing – for the time being, at least.
The Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center is trying to save the last of the hutongs by organising protests.
Do you think this will be a successful approach?
I don’t think so. The regime does not pay attention to public opinion or even to the rules it agreed to under the Unesco World Heritage system. And now there are enormous commercial pressures because the price of land has risen so sharply in the past three years.
A great many people tried to resist these changes from all walks of life but they were easily frightened or intimidated. Now it’s too late – as it is all over China.
Mind you, Seoul, Hong Kong and other Asian cities have not behaved any better. But none of these had the great importance or legacy that Beijing, capital of five dynasties, had.
It’s a terrible crime because the reconstruction is a mess, with horrendous pollution, endless traffic jams and an architecture that makes the summer temperatures even more unbearable. But the building is just continuing at a fantastic rate and the city has now expanded to the western hills, lapping at the once remote ancient temples such as Jietai Si.
The sad thing is they could have just left the old city and refurbished it. Then built a city from scratch on the plains around Beijing as many suggested during the 30s and 40s – even in the 1980s.
You just got back from Beijing. What is the situation like now?
It looked worse to me. I was shocked by some of what I saw. The city was no longer recognisable – none of the taxi drivers I used knew where anything was or recognised common place or street names.
It looked like any other city anywhere in China – they all look alike now.