Beijing unveils grand plan to protect old town, as China’s capital looks for a new landscape

Sidney Leng

Beijing’s municipal government has unveiled a grand blueprint to redefine the inner city of the Chinese capital by 2035, after decades in which it was ravaged by demolition and development.

The detailed design was revealed on Monday and is now soliciting responses over a 30-day period. It says it seeks to preserve as much history as possible and to serve primarily the functioning of the central government apparatus.

The blueprint covers two districts in Central Beijing spanning an area of 92.5 sq km: Dongcheng and Xicheng, both key to China’s centre of politics, culture and international diplomacy.

It is part of a broader masterplan covering the whole of Beijing from 2016 to 2035 that seeks to achieve more macro aims, such as keeping the population under 23 million in 2020 and maintaining that level for a long time. This revamp has already seen the Beijing municipal government kicked out of the Forbidden City to a completely new site about 30 kilometres away, in the Tongzhou district.

Much of Central Beijing’s old structures, including its city wall, were torn down in the early years of Communist rule. The narrow alleyways that formed the residential hutong districts were bulldozed amid urbanisation in the 1990s and early-2000s. The new plan seeks to preserve what is left.

The government has made clear that small businesses or factories are not welcome in the inner city, shutting down restaurants and shops, and removing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of domestic migrants from the city.

It said the blueprint will protect the old Beijing city, strictly control the height of buildings, and preserve cultural heritage sites, including underground burial areas, historical streets and alleys, hutongs, traditional place names, historical gardens, and revolutionary sites.

A recent visit to the Xihuamen, or the West Gate of the Forbidden City, found that many small restaurants, pubs and stores were closed, replaced only by grey brick wall. The atmosphere was solemn on the street neighbouring the Zhongnanhai compound, the working and living area of China’s state leaders.

Demolition of temporary structures, which usually housed small shops, has been conducted across the city, with billboards pulled down and open air markets cleared.

The ultimate aim is to create a “flat and open” view of the old town, according to the plan.

As Beijing has been clearing up its streets, it has also carried out massive “restorative constructions” that replaced old buildings with new ones that shared antique flavours. Indeed, town planners in the capital have long had a taste for tearing down old structures only to replace them with something less popular.

For instance, the Yongding Gate, the southern entrance of the Beijing city that was completely demolished in 1957, was rebuilt in 2005. The traditional Dashilan alleyways, meanwhile, were completely demolished to build up new shopping malls in 2007.

This sort of real estate development has been opposed by some long-term advocates of protecting historical heritage sites.

The municipal government does not realise that it does not need to spend so much demolishing the old city, people still have confidence in its old form.

Wang Jun, Palace Museum

Wang Jun, a researcher from the Palace Museum in Beijing and author of “Beijing Record: A physical and political history of planning modern Beijing”, noted in a speech in 2018 that when he visited a newly renovated neighbourhood near the Drum Tower in central Beijing, shop owners told him there were no regular customers, as the area had became a tourism attraction without the old communities.

“The municipal government does not realise that it does not need to spend so much demolishing the old city, people still have confidence in its old form,” Wang said.

At the same time, in an effort to reduce density of the inner city, the plan encourages schools, hospitals, and elderly care facilities to move outside the central zone. It also encouraged residents who live in single-storey bungalows, many of which in hutongs, to relocate to other government sponsored homes.

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