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Old Beijing disappearing under the steamroller of modernization

By Jaime FlorCruz and Chen Xiaoni, CNN
  • In the 1990s, Beijing's old city came under attack from the wrecking ball of modernization
  • Beijing's traditional hutongs and courtyards have disappeared rapidly with development
  • Planners have since decided to separate the new and old cities to protect Beijing's old town
  • Public opinion has increasingly been taken into consideration in Beijing's city development
  • China
  • Beijing

Beijing, China (CNN) -- Chairman Mao had a dream. A few years after he led the Communist Party to victory, Mao stood on the Tiananmen rostrum and, talking to his comrades, expressed his wish to one day see Beijing's skyline dotted by chimneys -- his idea of a modern socialist China. Now his dream has come true. Beijing's sky is lined, not just by chimneys, but by skyscrapers too.

Not long ago, many Chinese thought the only way to modernize China was to "destroy the old and build the new." In the 1990s, when Deng Xiaoping's reform program was in full swing, Beijing's old city came under attack from the big wrecking ball of modernization.

That was around the time when Wang Jun, author of two best-selling books on urban history and planning in China, moved from his hometown of Guizhou to Beijing to start his career as a Xinhua News Agency reporter. His beat was city planning and development. In 1993, he remembers, Beijing's city planning office decreed that all new buildings near the Forbidden City would be subject to height restrictions in the interests of the historical city. For Wang, this regulation highlighted the importance of protecting old Beijing and made him want to do his part.

Since then, Wang has become an outspoken advocate of saving old cities and their cultural and architectural legacies. To Beijing residents, whose houses are threatened with demolition or who have been forced to relocate to make way for real estate developers, Wang Jun is a kind of folk hero. To scholars of traditional architecture, he is a fearless fighter. But to officials who wish to boost GDP figures through property development, he is a troublemaker.

Wang Jun spent ten years collecting materials for "Beijing Records," his first book published in 2003. "Writing a book is like building a house," he says. "You cannot cheat and cut corners in labor and materials." His second best-seller, "Cities in the Reporter's Notebook" was published in 2008.

Over a cup of tea in his apartment in suburban Beijing, Wang Jun talked with CNN's Jaime FlorCruz and Chen Xiaoni about how Beijing has changed over the years.

Some people say they felt nostalgic about the Beijing of the 1950's and 60's after reading "Beijing's Records." But after reading "Cities in the Reporter's Notebook" they felt sorrow for today's Beijing. Is that the message you wished to convey?

As a journalist, I have no intention to provoke negative feelings. "Beijing's Records" was about Beijing's history in the 50's and 60's. I wanted to answer one question: How was the old town of Beijing, a city with more than 3,000 years of history, destroyed in a few years during the second half of the 20th century? "Cities in the Reporter's Notebook" is about the current situation in Chinese cities, including Beijing. In it, I tried to answer what is pushing the biggest urbanization in human history? How did it happen? Many problems mentioned in these two books are not unique to China. Beijing was a densely populated city that was suitable for walking. And yet more roads, gated communities and giant shopping centers are being built. People have to drive around to get things done. I'm just trying to show the readers how their lives have been changed, like it or not.

So are you happy or sad about the state of contemporary Beijing?

All cities are facing and dealing with their own set of problems. Beijing is no different. Since the 1950s, Beijing's government has built a new town over the old one, using the same city center, surrounded by ring roads and expanding it concentrically. Most of the jobs are in the city center so the suburbs have virtually become "dormitory towns" for hundreds of thousands of people. Commuting between job and home causes tremendous traffic congestion. When the new China was founded [in 1949], some Chinese scholars foresaw these serious problems due to development. They suggested separating the old city and the new city in order to balance employment and residential needs. Regretfully, Chinese decision-makers didn't heed their advice.

When Beijing began preparations for the 2008 Olympics, various sectors -- the community, the central and city government officials -- finally realized that many of Beijing's problems are caused by its single-centered city structure. They decided to make an urban planning adjustment by separating the new and old cities to protect Beijing's old town, focusing on developing three new towns in the east -- Tongzhou, Yizhuang and Shunyi. The State Council approved it and it's included in Beijing's 2020 master plan. If the goal is realized, many problems like traffic and conflict between development and protection can be solved.

Do you have any suggestions for Beijing's urban planners?

The problem is how to achieve the new city master plan, which now emphasizes public involvement. This is a good approach. In recent years, public opinion has increasingly been taken into consideration in Beijing's city development, although there are still problems.

In your first book, you seem to say Beijing's hutongs (traditional neighborhoods) are dead and gone. But since the population in Beijing has increased so dramatically in recent years, how do you expect people to be housed if the hutongs are not torn down to make way for high-rises?

I didn't say Beijing's hutong has died. It's still panting. I do want to write a book called "The Death of the Hutong" and answer these questions: Why have Beijing's traditional hutongs and courtyards disappeared so rapidly during the peacetime and economic development period? Why are the left-over courtyards so dilapidated? Why is nobody taking care of them? And how has the urban fabric changed?

The population increase is not the reason for the decline of the hutongs. In Beijing, the old city occupies less than 6 percent of the total area. The increasing population could live outside the old town, so it's not necessary to tear down courtyards and build high-rises there. The courtyards are worth preserving. They are important examples of the oriental housing culture. Even though they are low-rise structures, they can comfortably house large numbers of people because of their dense design and efficient lay-out. In Beijing in 1949, for example, more than 20,000 people lived in one square kilometer of space. It worked fine.

How do you find Beijing's new landmark architecture, such as the new CCTV tower, the National Opera Theater and the "Bird's Nest"? What do they say of contemporary Beijing?

Those so-called new landmarks are all important Chinese projects and they are all designed by Westerners. This demonstrates China's openness. In Chinese history, only Russian architects enjoyed such an opportunity in the 1950s. These new landmarks have provoked widespread discussion in Chinese society to a degree never seen before. This also shows that Chinese society has become more diversified and open. As a developing city, of course Beijing needs modern architecture. It's difficult for me to say whether or not Beijing needs buildings with interesting shapes like the New CCTV tower, National Opera Theater and the Bird's Nest. They are already completed and have become part of Beijing. Many people don't like them.

How do old cities like Beijing balance and blend the styles of the old buildings with new architecture?

It's important that we protect the old city while developing a new town. Let's stop destroying the old town and concentrate on developing new cities. Beijing's new master plan, approved by the State Council in 2005, says so.

Last year, some people tried to self-immolate to protest against forced relocation from their homes. Land grabbing is causing social disharmony. What is the key to solving this problem?

The key is to change local governments' financial and taxation systems. In 1998, China started housing reform. Public housing was privatized. Real estate exchange markets were established, but still today, there's no property tax. City governments invest in public services that drive up land prices, but the city governments cannot benefit from such investment. China's constitution, promulgated in 1982, says the government owns land. An amendment in 1988 says the rights to use land may be transferred. From then on, a big chunk of the city governments' revenue came from selling land after relocating people. It's the only way to return the cost of investing in public services, but it causes serious social problems. How do you impose property tax when land belongs to the State? That's an urban planning issue with Chinese characteristics.

You say: "China's city planning should go side by side with China's democratic process." Can you explain?

The Chinese society has gone through profound changes. Some 80 percent of Chinese housing is privatized. Housing has become the Chinese people's most important property. Since the privatization of housing in 1998, a common theme has been home owners protecting their rights. This has prompted the government to pass in 2007 a landmark "Property Law" protecting legal rights of property owners. City planning must consider public opinion and allow the community to self-manage in order to push China's democratic development forward.