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China: Public Space Shrinks for Discussing Fate of Heritage Area

Inter Press Service by Kit Gillard, Wednesday 31/03/2010

The emails started arriving two weeks ago, first in a trickle but slowly in increasing numbers. They talked about a public forum to discuss plans for the controversial redevelopment of a historical area of the Chinese capital Beijing.

Scheduled for Mar. 27, the forum was organised to allow concerned Beijing citizens a chance to exchange and voice their opinions about the redevelopment of the protected heritage area of Gulou. Attendance was expected to be in the hundreds. The day before, however, the event was cancelled.

While organisers declined to give more information on the last-minute cancellation, merely saying there were ‘various reasons’ for it, local media have reported that it was made under police duress.

It would not be the first time that a well-publicised Beijing event dealing with an uncomfortable issue for China has had to be called off at the last minute. It is also not the first incident of this kind this year.

In January, Mr Gay China Pageant, an event to choose the Chinese contestant for the gay equivalent of Miss World, was called off an hour before it was scheduled to begin.

At the time, police said it was because the correct paperwork to hold an event containing live performances had not been filed, although the event organisers refuted this claim.

Last weekend’s incident touched on the sensitive issue of urban development and increasing concern by locals over the destruction of much of traditional Beijing in the city’s drive toward modernisation.

Once a warren of alleyways and courtyard dwellings, Beijing has been changing fast — and where 500-year-old houses once stood now stand 20-storey tower blocks.

More than 88 percent of the city’s old residential quarters are gone, including many that were once government-designated heritage zones, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

While some residents in this city of 22 million people are happy to accept compensation and move — older courtyard houses share outside toilets and have little heating in the winter — many locals and experts have decried the wholesale destruction of the old city.

He Shuzhong, founder of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre, the organisers behind the forum, describes the destruction of valuable heritage for development as a ‘waste’ and says it is up to groups like his to help people see the importance of protecting these areas.

Once a thriving district similar to Gulou, the Qianmen area of the city, just south of Tiananmen Square, was redeveloped in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and is now widely used as an example of how not to redevelop ancient parts of the city.

‘Areas like Gulou (the area scheduled to be redeveloped) are important parts of the old city. The residents who live in them reflect the traditional values of Beijing life. They represent the old city of Beijing and are invaluable,’ He told IPS.

‘If you look at the history of Chinese cities, they are carefully planned. Without the hutong (alleyways) you can’t appreciate the grandness of places like the Forbidden City,’ said Zhang Jie, a professor at Tsinghua University’s school of architecture and a key member of the Urban Conservation Academic Committee at the China Urban Planning Society.

The Gulou area has been an important part of Beijing life for over 800 years. At its centre stand two towers that in ancient days were used as the city’s official timekeeping devices.

Despite being named a Historical and Cultural Protected Area in 2002, the vibrant area is scheduled to be largely demolished and turned into a theme park-like ‘Beijing Time Culture City,’ although the towers will remain.

Five billion yuan (732.3 million U.S. dollars) has been earmarked for the project, which reports suggest will contain imitation time-telling devices from over the centuries, a museum, several new plazas and underground parking.

All of this will occur at one of the oldest remaining areas of the city, currently occupied by buildings dating back many centuries.

Few locals have any hope that the local government can be persuaded to change its plans. One shopkeeper, who asked for anonymity, told IPS: ‘They will tear it down, we just don’t know when.’

The project is to be completed by 2012, but locals are yet to receive eviction notices. ‘When it happens, we will just pack up and move somewhere else,’ the shopkeeper continued.

The greatest worry of conservationists, and probably of city officials as well, is that the area will become another Qianmen.

There, ancient buildings were torn down and replaced with faux-traditional architecture. Where once crowds of locals and visitors bustled about through thin alleyways, visitors now see only handfuls of domestic tourists in what some Beijing residents compare to a ghost town.

Many of Qianmen’s shops remain empty 18 months after the area first reopened.

‘It is not restoration at all,’ He says of Qianmen. ‘It is destroying the culture and history of the city.’

Had the Mar. 27 forum to defend Gulou from a similar fate taken place, few think that it would have had much of an impact. But now, Beijing folk may never know.

Read the original article.

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