Razing History

In the Atlantic, Jonathan Kaiman writes about the destruction of Beijing’s historic neighborhoods, including the hutongs surrounding Zhongnanhai, the central leadership compound, which were on a protected list compiled in 2005:

In January, 2005, over a decade of negotiations between officials and hutong preservationists culminated in the passage of a sweeping proposal called the Beijing City Master Plan. The Master Plan designated a large swath of hutong in central Beijing as a “historical and cultural protected area,” immune from redevelopment. On a map of protected areas, the hutong around Zhongnanhai glowed in a bright, safe yellow. Obviously, it didn’t do much good.

Overhead satellite images viewed on Google Earth suggest that the protected safe zones were neither safe nor protected. In images from early 2005, a small area by Zhongnanhai’s eastern border appears as a dense cluster of trees and rooftops, virtually indistinguishable from any other hutong neighborhood in Beijing. In an image from April, 2006, it is a construction zone.

A walk through the neighborhood is enough to understand its transformation — the old hutong is now concealed by a high brick wall, the tops of vaulted roofs and boxy office buildings visible from beyond its unmarked gates.

“That over there is Zhongnanhai. You can’t go in there,” said a nearby restaurant owner who only gave his surname, Fu, waving his hands as if to refuse a favor.

Yao Yuan, an urban planning expert at Peking University, told me that he believes that the Zhongnanhai-area demolitions may be a belated consequence of city planning decisions made over 60 years ago, when the ruling Communist Party first came into power.

Over Chinese New Year, the historic home of Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin, architects who fought for the preservation of Beijing’s traditional buildings, was itself demolished. Read more about architecture and hutongs in Beijing, via CDT.