China razes alleys, bulldozes way of life


BEIJING - Song Guirong was fast asleep in her home when a thunderclap of splintering wood and falling chunks of concrete the size of dinner plates jolted her out of an afternoon nap. Tumbling out of bed onto the bare floor, she assumed she had just survived an earthquake.

When the dust settled, the real cause of the commotion became clear: A front-end loader dispatched by the municipality of Beijing had ripped off part of the roof of her house like a lid peeled from a tin can. It didn't matter that Song and her family had lived there more than 30 years. The city wanted them gone.

Their house, along with thousands of others, was falling victim to a municipal demolition and construction project being carried out on an almost unimaginable scale, an urban renewal program that has displaced hundreds of thousands of people as entire neighborhoods are razed.

In the past 12 years, more than 760,000 people in Beijing have lost their homes to the demolition crews, more people than live in Baltimore, Annapolis and Towson combined. In putting a modern face on China's ancient capital, a city of 14 million, the Communist Party has relied on the same bare-knuckle tactics that have helped keep it in power here long after communism's demise elsewhere.

The government, which treats urban planning like a matter of national security, often gives families no more than a few weeks' notice before demolishing their houses so that even those people foolhardy enough to challenge the decision have little time to organize. Residents who stand in the way have been crushed or bought off.

Officials like to claim that China has 5,000 years of history, but in leveling many of Beijing's oldest neighborhoods, the government has destroyed mile after mile of the labyrinthine alleys and old courtyard homes that were the capital's most distinguishing features.

In futile efforts to save their homes or defend neighbors, families have suffered beatings or risked jail. In the scramble for new, affordable housing to replace what they have lost, families have quarreled over government compensation and split up after decades of living under one roof. In some alleys, neighbor has turned against neighbor, brother against brother.

Demolition crews have targeted architectural treasures and destroyed shops that provided their owners their only livelihood. This boom of destruction and rebuilding is further fueled by the city's preparations for the summer Olympic Games of 2008, an event leaders here see as a stage for showing the world a modern, sophisticated capital. "The speed with which Beijing is being redeveloped is unprecedented," says Zhang Jie, a professor of urban planning at Qinghua University, the MIT of China.

No other city has seen such destruction in peacetime. It dwarfs Baron Haussmann's reshaping of Paris in the 1850s, when the city's grand boulevards were built; it is a far larger project than the construction of all the freeways of Los Angeles.

In the eyes of the municipality, Song's brick house stood in the way of progress.

Life in the "hutong"

She lived on a lane off South Small Street, in the heart of the capital's East City - prime real estate for the municipal government and politically connected developers. Several blocks to the west lie Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the shopping district of Wangfujing, a pedestrian mall of chrome-and-glass department stores with a Starbucks and an Outback Steakhouse. Jammed with well-dressed crowds, the Wangfujing district generates the electricity of a great urban downtown. Were it not for the flashing neon signs in Chinese, it could be London or New York.

South Small Street is a narrow, two-lane road with an utterly different feel and a lived-in look. The air fills with the heavy smell of charcoal from kebab grills and the sweet scent of fresh peaches from fruit stands. Laundry hangs from lines wrapped around power poles along sidewalks filled with noodle restaurants, hardware stores and barbershops where prostitutes in 3-inch-high platform shoes masquerade as beauticians.

Radiating east and west off South Small like ribs from a spine were some of Beijing's meandering alleys, called hutong. The hutong have defined the city for more than seven centuries. Single-story houses made of gray brick line the lanes and are the architectural soul of the capital. They are also home to thousands of retirees and laid-off state workers who devoted their lives to building Mao Tse-tung's socialist dream.

Life is hectic, sometimes squalid, in Beijing's back streets. In recent decades many became slums. Multiple families cram into courtyard homes designed for just one and rely on foul-smelling public toilets. On summer evenings, neighbors sit outside, chatting and cooling themselves with hand-fans made from marsh reeds.

Since April, tens of thousands of residents have fled South Small Street as an army of migrant workers with sledgehammers cut a mile-long swath through the neighborhood to make way for a six-lane road and apartment towers. Left behind is a battleground of crumbling walls and mountains of brick covering nearly a square mile. Government workers paint the walls of the houses to be destroyed with the Chinese character chai, which means demolish. In all, 32,000 families will lose their homes.

The price of change

Speaking through China's state-run press, officials justify the demolition project by saying they are knocking down decrepit housing to protect citizens, relieve overcrowding and improve traffic. There is truth to this, but change is coming at a price.

Much of the maze-like, urban design that Emperor Kublai Khan first laid out here in the late 1200s has been obliterated. Gone is the architectural heart of one of the world's great ancient capitals. Gone, too, is the crowded intimacy, each hutong a world nearly unto itself.

Residents of these alleys were the young, the elderly, students, entrepreneurs, pensioners. They were neither heroes nor villains. Virtually all of them, regardless of their pasts and their wishes, lost their homes. Theirs is a story of the destruction of the old Beijing of winding paths and small brick houses and the building of the modern city rising in its place.

Song Guirong is among the few who refused to leave when the bulldozers arrived.

The municipal government maintains that most of the displaced residents will move back to South Small Street in two years to live in the apartment towers taking the place of their demolished homes. Like many other elderly Beijing residents, though, Song can't afford the new housing. Nor does she want to live in virtual exile in the distant suburbs, a two-hour commute from the city center.

The government offered to sell her a pair of new apartments once the new buildings are completed, but the $48,000 price is 12 times the family's annual income.

"If we didn't eat and we didn't drink, we couldn't save $48,000 in a lifetime," said Song's husband, Nie Wenyi, 75, the retired manager of a state-owned foundry.

Officials call households like Song's "nail families" because they are hard to dislodge. Whether holding out for more money or hanging on because they can't find another place to live, residents run the risk of incurring the government's wrath. Occasionally, officials hammer a household to set an example.

After the front-end loader tore off part of Song's roof, Song fell ill with headaches and dizziness. One of her sons took her to the nearby Army General Hospital. At first, the district demolition office paid her bills. When a Beijing newspaper ran an article describing what had happened, payments stopped.

Song spent five weeks in a hospital bed. At night, she dreamed her house was collapsing on top of her.

Song had devoted her working life to sewing uniforms for China's People's Liberation Army. Now, the government she served wanted to push her aside.

"They smashed the house," she said in disbelief, wiping tears from her cheeks. "I think they should care about me."

Lightning-pace change

The face of Beijing changes at a disorienting pace. A shaft of sunlight suddenly appears one day where a 15-story building had stood for a decade. Entire streets are swiftly reduced to deserts of pulverized concrete the consistency of baby powder.

Week by week, floor by floor, office towers rise from the wreckage. In 2000, officials revised city maps at least five times to reflect the construction of new roads. The redevelopment will continue apace at least until the Olympic Games in 2008.

In the past four decades, Beijing has more than tripled in size. More than 4 million people lived here in 1958; 9 million by the early 1980s, and nearly 14 million today.

The government continues to build concentric beltways that radiate from the city center like ripples on a pond. In addition to the existing Second, Third and Fourth Ring roads, the city plans next year to complete Fifth Ring Road, a 59-mile asphalt ribbon, eight miles longer than the Baltimore Beltway. In 2005, engineers intend to complete Sixth Ring Road, 117.5 miles around. There are already plans for a Seventh Ring Road.

The municipal government began knocking down houses along South Small Street in early April, less than a week after residents were notified. Officials from the local demolition offices, located in the alleys, called families in to negotiate financial settlements, offering cash to encourage people to leave quickly and threatening some who refused.

As soon as people left, workers used sledgehammers to punch holes in the walls to make sure no one could return. Money for compensation came from the developer, Beijing Urban Development Group, owned by the municipal government.

Residents had no say in the process that led to the neighborhood's destruction. People do not elect mayors or city councils in China, and public hearings do not exist. Officials and developers make their plans for demolition and construction in private.

Their decisions filter down to Beijing's eight municipal districts. District officials usually have authority to carry out a municipal order however they wish as long they produce more roads, buildings and economic growth.

"By the time [a project] gets to the developer and the local district, it's out of control," said a municipal official familiar with the planning process. "The municipal level only cares about the result, they don't care about what happens in between."

More 'nails' pounded

In early May, around the time Song lost her roof, the government made examples of other homeowners. Officials were eager to begin widening a section of South Small Street. One of the few buildings still standing in the way was the Zhengzheng Television Service Shop.

Zhengzheng was among the first private enterprises in the neighborhood. A local entrepreneur named Wang Xiaozheng opened it in 1982 as China began to encourage private enterprise and break out from decades of central planning. Her shop thrived, repairing everything from stoves to air conditioners.

A few years ago, Wang used some of her profits to build a small apartment above the shop and lived there with her husband, her father and daughter. This spring, officials told Wang they wanted the family to leave the neighborhood for at least two years, promising she could return to live in a new building.

She refused, arguing that the government wanted to sell space for a new apartment at more than three times the going rate.

One Sunday afternoon, a group of more than 40 police, district officials and demolition workers marched toward the Zhengzheng Television Service Shop. When Wang demanded to see a government demolition order, the workers responded with sledgehammers, shattering the store's plate glass window.

That evening, Wang's husband wrote the slogan "Give Us Back Our Human Rights" in blue ink across a bedsheet and hung it outside the shop. Police responded by sealing off the street.

Furious and distraught, Wang came undone. She pulled a bottle of cooking oil from a cupboard, poured it on herself and her family and prepared to set all of them on fire in protest. Police wrestled a lighter away and pushed her into a patrol car.

Police also tried to take her husband into custody, but his brother pulled him free. Wang's husband jumped in his brother's van, and the two sped off with a pair of police cruisers giving chase.

With the police in the rearview mirror, Wang's husband dialed his cell phone to reach his father, who lived in a nearby alley. His father listened to his son's urgent plea.

The brothers drove the van toward their father's house. Moments after the van passed by, their father stepped into the path of the police cars and briefly blocked the way. Wang's husband jumped out of the vehicle and hid in the shadows behind a stack of tires until the police had passed.

About 2 a.m., a moving van arrived at the Zhengzheng Television Service Shop. Workers cleared out Wang's possessions, including a piano and a pair of bikes. At 4 a.m., two bulldozers pulled up. An hour later, nothing remained but a pile of red bricks.

Within a few days, workers dug a deep pit where the shop had stood and began to lay water and sewer pipes. Fifteen days after detaining Wang, police released her.

One more indignity

Not far from the Zhengzheng repair shop lay Full Blossom Lane and the courtyard home of Wu Fengmei. Like thousands of other traditional Beijing houses, Wu's was a series of small rooms wrapped around a courtyard with a shade tree where the family gathered when the weather was warm.

Early one recent morning, Wu padded from room to room to take a last look as demolition workers prepared to tear everything down.

Wu is 75, and she and all other Chinese over the age of 50 have ample experience with upheaval. They suffered through the world's worst famine, when an estimated 30 million people died during Mao's Great Leap Forward, beginning in 1958. They weathered the Cultural Revolution for a decade, beginning in 1966, with the loss of another million lives. Demolition of a house was another indignity to be endured.

From outside the brick walls of Wu's courtyard came the crash of metal against rock as workers bored test holes for the foundation of an apartment building. It reminded Wu of the gongs that the Red Guards, Mao's revolutionary foot soldiers, beat as they marched through the neighborhood in the 1960s decrying people of culture - people like her husband, Jihan.

Mao had declared war on intellectuals, and Jihan was an easy target. He worked as an English translator at the Burmese Embassy and had a passion for classical music. After the Communist Party banned all things Western, Jihan feared for his family's safety and smashed his recordings of Beethoven, Bach and Mozart.

He lost his job in 1968. Reserved by nature, Jihan withdrew further. Former colleagues from the Burmese Embassy visited and urged him not to do anything rash.

Officials were forcing intellectuals to confess to imaginary crimes. The government pressed Jihan to write self-criticisms.

"He didn't have anything to write, and some low-level officials said, 'Why don't you kill yourself?'" recalled Wu.

Jihan hanged himself in the house on Nov. 6, 1968. Wu was away, under detention in a mental hospital for publicly criticizing Mao. A member of the local street committee found Jihan's body hanging in a doorway.

"At that time, a lot of people killed themselves," Wu said matter-of-factly. "You have to do whatever the government tells you to do. It's just like knocking down our houses."

"This," she said of the demolitions, "is a second Cultural Revolution."

Wu's daughter, Chen Yisu, 48, still misses her father. She grew up sharing his passion for classical music, but after Mao's ban, her world fell silent.

Chen longed to write novels, but school officials refused to let her attend class because of her father's political disgrace, so she studied at home. Government officials gave her a job at an electronic parts factory when she was 18. With no formal education, her dream of becoming a writer remained just that. Today, she is a thoughtful, well-read maid at a city hotel.

Across the lane from Chen and her mother's house stands a home unlike any other in the neighborhood. The two-story house is a virtual fortress with 12-foot-high walls encircling a courtyard planted with fruit trees. Inside, amid the cool hum of air conditioners, lives Mao's daughter-in-law, Liu Songlin, a pleasant, 70-year-old retired military researcher.

Liu is the widow of Mao's eldest son, Anying, who died in the Korean War. While government workers painted the walls of the other homes with the character chai, Liu's remained unblemished. The People's Liberation Army owns her house. The government is in no rush to throw her out.

"She is a part of the leader class," Chen said. "We are ants. This is the difference between the aristocracy and the common people. In China, fairness has never existed."

Inevitable destruction

The movers arrived at Chen and Wu's house before 8 a.m. Within an hour, most of the family's possessions were on a truck. By midmorning, migrant workers gathered outside the doorway, waiting like vultures to pick through the furnishings the family was going to have to sell or leave behind for lack of room in their new apartment.

Chen wandered around the courtyard like a ghost. A scavenger in a green baseball cap, torn khakis and a sleeveless white T-shirt began bidding on the furniture: 12 cents for the red lacquered desk Chen's father gave her mother a half-century ago. Chen nodded wearily.

"That is too cheap!" said her mother, who did not want to part with anything.

"Give me the desk back!" Chen shouted, chasing the scavenger out the door.

Other men began to take what they wanted. One walked away with a plastic bag filled with perfume and clocks. Chen chased after him. "Go out! Go out!" she yelled, slamming the door. "Nothing to see!"

Chen packed up what she could carry and left the house. The scavengers tore off the front door and sifted through what remained. On the door jam was a hand-lettered sign: "Holding The Olympics Will Speed Up The Modernization Of Beijing."

Outside the house sat a worn green couch Chen's husband had given her as a wedding present. Demolition workers - subsistence farmers from neighboring Hebei province who earn less than $75 a month destroying Beijing houses - draped themselves across it.

Their fellow workers mounted the roof, jammed long metal poles between the ceramic tiles and bent back the timbers underneath like wishbones. Dozens of tiles slid off and crashed onto a wooden night stand sitting in the courtyard. The workers briefly disappeared into clouds of gray dust.

Coming tomorrow

The experience of three brothers is the story of those who embraced economic change and succeeded and others who resisted and failed.

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