This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 19, 2012 - Over the past years, many stories have appeared in the Chinese and Western media about conflicts over the demolition of old urban districts in China. These episodes involving government and homeowners have come to represent social conflict in China in general and are a major concern of the central government and many scholars. As a popular joke online notes, the English word “China” can be translated as “Chai Na,” which means “Demolish it.”
The demolition of old sections of cities has occurred virtually everywhere in the world as societies have pursued progress and urbanization. However, it has never been so rapid and problematic as in the major cities of China over the past 10-20 years. Problems of urbanization and demolition have become a complicated social issue that relates to city planning, urban development, civil rights, and urban ecology. They are very difficult to address within the confines of any single discipline, instead requiring boundary-crossing understanding of how Chinese society works.
When trying to understand the process of urbanization and demolition in Chinese cities, Beijing provides the best example. Its old city has been the capital of several dynasties from 1115 to 1911. As described by Liang Sicheng, one the founders of Chinese architectural education, Beijing is one of the most valuable heritages of urban planning and architectural design in all of human civilization. Before 1949, the city and its population were largely confined by the limits of the city wall, and urbanization in a modern sense had not yet begun.
The subsequent urbanization of Beijing can be generalized into three stages. The first was from the 1950s to the 1970s. After the PRC was founded, a preliminary transformation of the old city started with a debate on how the new country’s capital should be built. The two proposals were: a) to build the new city directly within the confines of the old city, with the existing center Tiananmen serving as the core; and b) as outlined by Sicheng, to build the new central government as well as the city outside of the existing old city, 10 km in the west.
Beijing quickly expanded beyond the city wall, and the wall was torn down as road building and widening projects also took place. By 1978 the city had a population of 8.7 million.
The second general period followed the Opening-up Reforms of 1978. It was characterized by rapid urbanization and a massive transformation of Beijing. The economic growth and new life style could no longer be accommodated by the old houses and urban infrastructure, and a large number of “hutongs” (old neighborhoods built around narrow streets) and courtyard houses were demolished and replaced by modern high-rises. The city expanded rapidly from the Second Ring Road to the Third and Fourth Ring Roads.
In 1948, there were 3,200 hutongs; in 1978 2,200 remained, and in 2000 there were 1,320, only 430 of which were well maintained. Meanwhile people were building high-rises and wide highways beyond the Second Ring Road on what had been farmland. By 1998, the population of the city had reached 12.4 million.
The third general stage of Beijing’s urbanization started in 2000 and is tied to the 2008 Olympics. It led to looking at the city in a more international way. On the one hand, the government realized the importance of conserving the old city. In 2001 the government of Beijing enacted the Conservation Plan of 25 Historic Areas in the Old City of Beijing. Though this covered only 37 percent of the area of Beijing’s Old City, it was a great step forward. Many historic areas are now developed as tourist sites for domestic and international visitors to experience the traditional hutongs, courtyards and life-styles of Beijing. On the other hand, demolition took place in the new city to make space for the large public buildings, stadiums and venues of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Byf 2008, the population of Beijing had reached 21.9 million.
Urbanization continues to be a complex issue in a China characterized by a growing economy and urban population in major cities, a perhaps excessive admiration for modernity, and an absence of urban planning and supervision of developers. This rapid urbanization has resulted in the destruction of some cities’ physical and cultural heritage, the transformation of social structure, the violation of many citizens’ properties rights, and the waste of social and natural resources. This gigantic experiment in urban design promises to have many exciting, as well as troubling developments in the future. Along with other architects of the world, I look forward to watching it unfold.
Siliang Fu, who was in the McDonnell International Scholars Academy at Washington University , received his Master of Architecture degree in 2009 from Tsinghua University – Beijing, China. He received his Master of Architecture & Urban Design degree in 2011 from Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University. He is currently pursuing his Master of Design Studies at Harvard University.