For Liu Qi, Beijing Communist party chief and senior Olympics organiser, the redevelopment of the Chinese capital’s centuries-old Qianmen district is a shining example of cultural and architectural conservation ahead of the August games.
“This area is being protected. When it is complete, these will be Beijing streets from the late Ming or early Qing Dynasties that also have modern content,” Mr Liu said last year.
That is not how it looks to conservationists who have watched aghast as swathes of Qianmen, a famed commercial and residential quarter near Tiananmen Square named after Beijing’s old “front gate” have been levelled. Behind high steel walls, the area has been cleared of residents and large parts of its patchwork of courtyards demolished to make way for a retail and housing development to be led by Soho China, a Hong Kong-listed property group.
It is an approach critics say means visitors seeking to experience Beijing’s fabled antiquity will in many places see little more than a theme-park pastiche of the past.
“This reconstruction has meant the loss of wonderful old houses and some wonderful architecture, and its replacement with fake things [made] of tile-covered steel and concrete,” says Zhang Wei, a resident and conservationist.
The redevelopment of Qianmen is part of a wave of construction that has been accelerated by the 2008 Olympics. By some estimates, less than 500 of the 3,000 ancient alleys Beijing boasted in the early 1980s have survived.
In Qianmen, Soho China and officials responsible for the project have waved aside a supposedly binding 2002 government conservation plan that required the retention of the area’s integrity and “texture”, with any development to be undertaken on a courtyard-by-courtyard basis.
The conservation plan for the neighbourhood just east of the main Qianmen avenue, known as “fresh fish mouth”, was approved by the State Council, China’s cabinet, which in 2005 ordered that it could not be changed by “any individual or work unit”.
However, the plan is not mentioned in Soho China’s published blueprint for the area. People close to the company say it is, instead, working to a scheme drawn up by local officials that will seek to recreate the area in a historically inspired “style”.
Soho China and Zhou Yongming, the district vice-governor responsible for the Qianmen project, declined to comment on whether it met the requirements of the conservation plan. However, Mr Zhou said officials had consulted “numerous experts” in deciding which buildings to demolish and which to retain.
“The government is absolutely acting according to law. You can rest assured of that,” Mr Zhou said.
Soho China, which held a $1.7bn initial public offering last year, is waiting for permission to buy a controlling stake in the Qianmen project.
Some people who lived in the cleared Qianmen conservation areas complain that government officials offered inadequate compensation and used force to demolish their homes when they refused it. “They drove out the private owners of the property…and transferred the land for commercial development. This absolutely does not count as renovation or preservation,” says Wang Wei, an unemployed woman whose home was demolished. “This doesn’t feel like a socialist country, it feels worse than a nest of bandits.”
Ms Wang and other residents, some of whom had lived in the area for generations, are trying to sue the city government.
Conservationists say demolition of traditional buildings has continued in areas earmarked for development by Soho China, which has in the past been praised for its distinctive development projects featuring work by noted architects.
“I don’t know why they would want to get involved in this project,” says Mike Meyer, author of The Last Days of Old Beijing, a book based on experience living in the Qianmen area to be published this month. “Why do they want to build…a fake antique mall?”
State media this week claimed that 76 per cent of buildings along the redeveloped stretch of Qianmen’s main avenue had been “preserved or restored to their original style”. However, Wang Shiren, a government adviser, said this figure included new-built concrete and steel shopping centres decorated in a style that fitted the image of the street.
One person briefed on Soho China’s plans, said its designers were aiming for an imaginative interpretation. For critics, this spells a mish-mash of imagined antiquity, laced with old, crudely renovated buildings stripped of the collective memories of its inhabitants. “Qianmen was 600-years-old, but now its culture has been reset to zero,” Mr Zhang says.
Gradual settlement of the area outside the main southern entrance to Beijing, known as Qianmen, or “front gate”
Officials of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) enclose the district within an expanded city wall and Qianmen grows into a commercial centre
Many officials move to Qianmen after being ejected from the inner city by the new Manchu-ruled Qing dynasty. Area becomes famous for its shops, guilds and as a centre for entertainments, ranging from opera to prostitution
Area is damaged during fighting between foreign forces and anti-imperialist Boxer rebels, but remains one of Beijing’s most vibrant neighbourhoods until the Communist revolution of 1949
Large-scale clearance of residents and demolition begins as part of the redevelopment of an area that has long suffered slum-like conditions
Workers labour to finish new steel and concrete buildings along Qianmen Avenue decorated in “traditional” style before the Olympics
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