China’s former communist radicals and today’s capitalist developers appear, in some respects, to have much in common. During the Cultural Revolution, with its almost visceral hatred of tradition, Red Guards were instructed to destroy anything “bourgeois,” or tainted by the past. A decade earlier, Chairman Mao Zedong had already set the tone for a new age of urban remodeling by ordering the demolition of Beijing’s imperial arches and city gates and the replacement of its ancient ramparts with a ring road.

Chinese neon blends with European shutters and facades in the former Portuguese colony

Today, the city is under siege from a different kind of vandalism. Soaring land prices in central Beijing have seen entire districts replaced with shopping malls, retail complexes, luxury condominiums and office towers. Part of the problem is that buildings may be owned in China, but not land, making it very difficult for individuals to challenge the state’s plans. It is easy for authoritarian countries like China to accuse preservation-minded ecologists and architects of being unpatriotic opponents of progress. Yet preservationists in Beijing are now fighting as hard to save the city’s colorful “hutong,” or alleyway districts, with their unique courtyard houses, as Mao’s disciples did to desecrate them. Propelled by fear, residents scratched out painted panels, pulverized decorative stone statues and burned beautiful wood lattices and lintels in an effort to make their homes appear more humble. As the Cultural Revolution shifted into high gear, makeshift shacks were built by proletarian families inside the courtyards.

Known as “siheyuan,” the courtyard residences that have survived the developers are mostly in a sorry state, overcrowded and many don’t have plumbing. Despite the official belief that in a city of 13 million it is cheaper and more reasonable to build modern apartments than to renovate the courtyards, a countertrend is evident in Beijing, best exemplified in new legislation that safeguards 25 historic Beijing neighborhoods and requires any contiguous developments to adopt a late Ming- or early Qing-era style of architecture.

While compulsory purchase orders, sudden evictions and inadequate compensation are common in China, many residents of old, worm-eaten, fire-prone houses would jump at the chance to move into a modern apartment block with proper insulation and modern conveniences. Yet though the hutong often look ramshackle and vaguely unsanitary, there is a hidden order to these districts — one integral to an ancient design that has the Forbidden City at its core. Even with the common bathrooms and frequent dilapidation of the hutong inhabited by ordinary people, the charm of these areas, with their persimmons and willows and islands of potted geranium, jujube and bonsai, is evident. An ironic coda to the saga is that courtyard houses, located mostly in central areas of the city, are now becoming popular with the urban professional classes. A well-restored home with the requisite amenities can cost over $1 million dollars.

Poverty has often come to the aid of historical sites. In Pigyao, a 2,700-year-old walled city in Shanxi Province, lack of funds thwarted ambitious development plans in the 1960s that would have resulted in the demolition of much that is now considered priceless heritage. And residents are becoming aware of the link between preservation of their city and their own livelihoods. Pigyao’s 1997 designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site has brought inestimable wealth to the city, at least to those involved in tourism and administration, through the sale of entrance tickets to its old family mansions and courtyard houses and to Qing Dynasty palaces, museums and law courts. Although some residents say they would prefer to move out of the city into modern government-housing estates, living in their grand but often drafty, dust-prone and badly heated homes is a must for those who want to benefit from the city’s newfound wealth.

Ancient rooftops are among the treasures that got this town listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site … and 2.8 million visitors last year.

China at present has 24 World Heritage Sites on the UNESCO list. A separate category lists its natural-heritage locations. China ranks fourth after France, Italy and Spain in its total number of sites and is hungry for more. The main incentive seems to be economic. China has received donations of over $10 million from private overseas sources and foreign governments, and a further $850,000 since it joined the scheme in 1985. The sites provide a tremendous boost to tourism, but the government is also well aware of the prestige attached to its recognition as a major contributor to world culture.

UNESCO officials, however, are expressing reservations about including more sites on the list amid fears that the Chinese government may not be able to manage those it already has. China has already been upbraided over Chengde, an 18th-century imperial mountain retreat whose palaces and temples have been neglected at the same time as souvenir hawkers have been encouraged to overrun the complex. Inappropriate modern buildings have also scarred the town and obscured many of its mountain views. Merchants have been permitted to stake out large chunks of the Great Wall, an early heritage site, and an inordinate number of tourists encouraged to visit the ancient town of Lijiang.

Unsustainable tourism has been compounded by ill-conceived parking lots, random litter and some lamentable restoration work. Much of the renovation of buildings has been done in a rush so as not to delay the arrival of tourists who are required to buy tickets to individual sites. Rather than seeking old craftsmen to do the job, local contractors have been brought in. The results are predictable. Where, for example, old pillars and corbels were once layered and sealed with horsehair, cloth and lacquer, a fresh coat of paint does the job today.

In China, where almost anything can be politicized, the question of heritage touches on issues of civil and legal rights, as well as UNESCO’s desire for stricter rules about site management and a more open debate among architects, scholars and local inhabitants that would put pressure on local governments to curb irresponsible development. A resurgence of nationalism — old-style Chinese centralism that places Han culture in the ascendancy — is reflected in the list, with minority cultures represented by only two sites (Lijiang and the Potala Palace in Tibet) out of the 24. UNESCO would like to see a better balance. Foreign agencies and preservationists claim that Beijing is reluctant to have more such sites added for fear of boosting ethnic nationalism. China, however, is likely to gain unexpected support for more sites from member states on the UNESCO committee who, for economic and diplomatic reasons want closer relations with China.

For some in China, it’s a simple tradeoff: either economic development through industry and commerce or a windfall from tourism. If they can’t get one, the other will do. In the old canal village of Zhouzuang, impatient local officials have made their position clear. If they cannot get onto the UNESCO listing, a highway will be built smack bang through the middle of the village and the surrounding area developed as a trade center. No one in Zhouzuang sees this as coercion; rather it’s a healthy desire to get the dollars rolling in without any more delays.

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