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Bleak future for Beijing's heritage

By Dan Griffiths
BBC News, Beijing

Step away from the bustling streets of Beijing into the old parts of the capital and you enter a different world.

Traditional music drifts across a world of small tree-lined lanes, where old men sit playing Chinese chess, their pet birds hanging in cages from the branches.

Friends gather to gossip outside their centuries-old courtyard homes and the cyclists meander along lazily.

Time seems to move slowly. But this is China, where change comes quickly.

Now this whole area and hundreds of years of history are under threat.

The outside world has arrived in the form of cranes, bulldozers and diggers. These homes, like so many of China's historic buildings, are facing a bleak future.

Lack of government interest and eager property developers mean they are being destroyed quickly, making way for the new country that has emerged from the ashes of communism.

Thousands of temples, homes and other buildings have already disappeared.

Property developers

Xia Jie is fighting to stop property developers knocking down the home where she grew up - Number 11 Dongsibatiao.

It is a traditional house - 150 years old - with old swooping roofs built around a courtyard and two old trees in the middle.

"They are trying to destroy my home where I grew up, where my mother grew up," she said. "You can't put a price on that kind of heritage."

The authorities have said they will protect homes like this, but Xia Jie said they are not helping.

"I have appealed to the government but there has been no help from them, so I am left to fight on my own," she said.

"I remember running round here, climbing those trees. How can I give up a place that means so much to me?"

Xia Jie faces an uncertain future. But many residents of old Beijing have already lost their homes and been forced to move to the outskirts of the capital, losing friends and a sense of community.

But some are happy to move on. Many of the old houses do not have bathrooms and residents rely on communal public toilets. A move to a new, modern apartment is a tempting offer.

'No legal recourse'

The reality is that many of China's historic buildings were being torn down well before economic reforms took hold.

In the mayhem of the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao ordered the Red Guards to destroy all traditional ways of life. Countless ancient buildings, artefacts, antiques, books and paintings were ruined.

Conservationist Hua Xinmin is one of a small band of people fighting to preserve what is left of China's ancient architecture.

Her father was an architect who helped build much of Beijing. But she says the Cultural Revolution and then economic reform has left much of his work in ruins.

She said the past 50 years had left China with few historic buildings - but it is not that ordinary Chinese people do not care about their culture.

"I think that sometimes there is a feeling that ordinary Chinese people aren't concerned about these buildings but the reality is that they have no power, no legal recourse to stop the government and the property developers," she said.

"In the Cultural Revolution it was the same - who could stop Mao's Red Guards from destroying China's heritage? No-one could."

That is a story that is all too familiar in China. Individuals, powerless to act in the face of an authoritarian government.

The result - five decades of, first chaos, then rapid economic growth - has left many of China's most beautiful and ancient buildings in ruins.

With the authorities unwilling to intervene many of those remaining will disappear, leaving people like Xia Jie without a home and China without an important part of its historical heritage.
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