China's heritage lost to look-alike cities, critics say

Richard Spencer in Beijing
June 13, 2007

CHINA'S record of bulldozing swathes of historic city quarters in its rush to development has come under attack from one of its own construction ministers.

The country's cities had been "devastated" by the "senseless" actions of its officials desperate to construct "new and exotic" buildings, said the Construction Vice-Minister, Qiu Baoxing.

"This is leading to a poor sight - many cities have a similar construction style. It is like a thousand cities having the same appearance," he said.

Mr Qiu, who has an increasing reputation for criticising the drawbacks of China's rapid growth, then strayed into even more sensitive territory, comparing the effects of modern commercial development with two of the major disasters of the era of Mao Zedong.

On Monday, the English-language China Daily quoted him saying that what was happening to China's heritage was a "third round of havoc" after the Great Leap Forward, Mao's catastrophic experiment in mass industrialisation in the 1950s, and the Cultural Revolution of the following decade.

"Some local officials seem to be altering the appearance of cities with the determination of 'moving the mountain and altering the watercourse'," he was quoted as saying at a conference on Sunday on urban culture and city planning in China.

The conference coincided with the second national cultural heritage day on Saturday, a belated attempt by the Government to encourage preservation in an era of rapid economic change.

Mao's hostility to traditional Chinese culture, followed by redevelopment under the raw capitalism pursued in the three decades since his death, has reduced most Chinese cities to grey patchworks of housing blocks, glitzy office developments and increasingly packed roads.

During Mao's reign Beijing's historic centre and city walls were knocked down to make way for a ring road, as well as the concrete expanse of Tiananmen Square and the monolithic Great Hall of the People.

Recent attention has focused on the hutongs of Beijing, old alleys lined with grey-brick, gabled courtyard houses, and the shikumen of Shanghai, a distinctive cross-breed of Chinese and Western housing, partly because of international interest and partly because so little survives in other cities. In some cases, even historic temples have been torn down. There have been signs that the Government has become more responsive to local and international pressure.

A development in a hutong north-east of the Forbidden City was put on hold earlier this month after it was condemned by local newspapers.

But the destruction of Qianmen, one of the most famous of old Beijing's districts, south of Tiananmen Square, has continued unabated. Officials say that it will be replaced by courtyard-style housing.

But such schemes came under fire from the Government's representatives at the conference.

"It is like tearing up an invaluable painting and replacing it with a cheap print," said Tong Mingkang, the deputy director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage.

* Nearly two-thirds of Chinese cities suffered from air pollution last year and had no centralised sewage treatment facilities, the China Daily reported yesterday.

Only 37.6 per cent of 585 cities surveyed had air quality "indicating a clean and healthy environment", down 7.3 percentage points from 2005, the paper said, citing a report by the State Environmental Protection Agency.

Thirty-nine cities, many scattered across the northern coal-rich province of Shanxi and the north-eastern rustbelt province of Liaoning, suffered "severe" air pollution.

Telegraph, London; Reuters