Beijing’s urban makeover: the ‘hutong’ destruction

Sean Gallagher
11 June 2006

"Demolition and eviction has several decades of history in China. In the past, ordinary people longed for demolition and eviction (because they were moved to better homes), but now, ordinary people fear demolition and eviction, they hate it, and even use death and suicide to oppose it. This hatred, this opposition to demolition and eviction has really only appeared in the last few years."

– Tenants Rights advocate Xu Yonghai in his "Open letter to President Hu Jintao and the General Committee", Human Rights Watch.

On every street corner in Beijing there is some form of demolition or construction taking place. The city's historic layout, which dates back six hundred years to the time of the Ming Dynasty, typically consists of small, narrow alleyways that run in a maze-like fashion around the centre of the city. These alleyways, or hutongs, are highly revered as a direct link to China's much venerated past. However, they are also regarded as a source of shame – representing a backward way of living that Beijing does not want the world to see when all eyes are on it in for the 2008 summer Olympics.

China is in the midst of spectacular change, which some have labelled the "Second Industrial Revolution". Under the rule of Mao Tse-tung, during the Cultural Revolution, very little construction took place throughout the country. Now, as China steamrollers its way to modernity, it is as if a lid has been lifted off a pot of constructive energy that has been simmering for nearly half a century. The destruction of hutongs has been taking place for a number of years, but since Beijing was awarded the Olympics, the rate at which they are now being cleared has increased exponentially.

For thousands of Beijing's residents, this "urban makeover" is coming at an incredible cost. According to UNESCO, in the past three years a third of the 62km squared area that makes up the central part of the old city has now been destroyed. This has displaced close to 580,000 people – one and a half times the total population of Washington D.C.

As a result of China's basic – or lack of – individual property rights protection, all property is state-owned, and therefore individuals have limited say over housing issues. This has subsequently allowed for the continued abuse by contractors to demolish and clear hutongs virtually unopposed. Residents can appeal to local law enforcement agencies, but the perceived ingrained corruption and weak judicial system results in protests that invariably fall on deaf ears. The recent dismissal of Liu Zhihua, the official responsible for Olympics-related urban planning, on corruption charges may have a positive impact.

The overwhelming feeling amongst many locals is one of reluctance that they cannot do anything about what is happening to them. However, continued frustration by some local residents escalated in 2003 when a spate of suicide attempts, aimed at highlighting the hutong clearance plight, erupted around the city. In September of that year, hutong resident Wang Baoguang, burnt himself to death whilst being forcibly evicted. In a second case, Ye Guoqiang attempted suicide by jumping of a bridge to oppose destruction of his hutong that was making way for developments for the 2008 Olympics.

The true impact of these events may only be fully seen after 2008, when the construction dust has settled slightly over a post-Olympics Beijing. What is clear now is that a fundamental way of life that has existed for hundreds of years is being destroyed. It is a bittersweet irony that the very 'Chinese flavour' the Communist Party want to project to the outside world in 2008 and beyond, is swiftly disappearing.

The photographs in this slideshow were taken between October – November 2005.
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