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The Destruction of Old Beijing

They were supposed to stop doing this when the economy got better, when people had more time and luxury to protest and recognize that historical capital was just as important as money, when tourists streamed in and demonstrated how valuable the old parts of the city really were, and when the Olympics were over.

The sad truth of it all is - they have not stopped destroying the old city, and likely never will, at least as long as there is an old city to destroy. I remember hearing my local friends say that it was getting better when I was staying there in 2003 and 2004, that the government and the people were all looking at historical districts and old architecture differently. But, through my stay there, until 2007, I continued to see old neighborhoods get destroyed and re-built (in the most horrid ways) over and over again.

Recently, I finished a really good piece of investigative writing from the former Washington Post correspondent, Phillip P. Pan (no relation) called Out of Mao's Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China In it, he describes, amongst other things, the underpinnings of modern development in China's cities - how politics, corruption, lack of rule of law, and greed all play equal parts in the loss of our heritage. It's damning, saddening, and sickening.

Many of my local Chinese friends tow the party line - that these old sections of the city have to be destroyed in order to make way for a more "modern" city. That without new developments, Beijing (and all of the other Chinese cities) cannot be considered world class and that the whole country will be looked down upon. The depth of how wrong this notion is does not dawn on many of them until they go to Europe and see how well old and modern have been blended in places like Vienna, Paris, or Madrid.

It angers me to no end to see the continued and wholesale destruction of what is our collective heritage. It is not just me, as a person of Chinese ancestry that should be alarmed and angered, but all of us - for what is being destroyed is a part of the world's heritage. Just as I would be up in arms if Venice were bulldozed or if Angkor Wat or Machu Picchu were turned into a circus (acknowledging the fact that some would already contend that they have been.)

The debacle of the "restoration" of Qianmen from right before the 2008 Olympics was the last one I had seen. The development of Jinbao Avenue in Dongcheng was one that I didn't even realize had happened until I read about it in Pan's book. The latest is the plan to destroy the area surrounding Gulou, north of the Forbidden City, and replace it with the cringe-inducing "Beijing Time Cultural City." You can read more about it in the New York Times here.

During my four years in Beijing, I didn't get to Gulou much, but the times I did go, I found a relaxing and quiet neighborhood far away from the "anytown" character of other Beijing neighborhoods. Truth be told, the most modern neighborhoods were also the most soul-less. Hard to believe, I know (sarcasm.) Gulou on the other hand, under-maintained though it was, had something of a throw-back feel to it, reminding you that Beijing was indeed a city with some history.

The biggest irony for me was when I was in Beijing during its celebration of "800 years of history." I asked myself... where is that 800 years? In what places can I see, feel, be IN that history? The answer was and is now, increasingly, nowhere. Beijing (and other cities around China) are very good at setting goals and hitting them - they wanted to be modern, and they will get there. What they lose will all lose in the process is their history. What they don't realize is that their history is not only priceless, it is a foundation for pride, community, and a sense of place and belonging in society.

No doubt that there are problems with these old neighborhoods. From the outside, everything seems romantic and nostalgic, but there is truth in how difficult life can be there. Thus far, the government has promoted just one answer - bulldoze and build. There is another route though - one where money is invested into old neighborhoods, where people who are living there get to stay there while leading better lives. The residents gain by getting better living conditions, the city gains by preserving its heritage, the nation gains by preserving a way of life, the world gains by getting the chance to see a unique piece of human civilization now and in the future. There are few who lose out in this scenario. Unfortunately those who do - developers and corrupt politicians chief amongst those - often wield all the power.

Can we actually prevent the disappearance of Old Beijing? Or is it too late already?

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