City Life: Peking - Professor fights to save his piece of old Peking

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The Independent Online
EIGHTY-YEAR-OLD Zhao Jingxin is fighting to preserve a way of life. On 15 February, he was informed that his home would be demolished for development - an everyday hazard in fast-changing Peking.

But Mr Zhao's house, where the family has lived since 1950, differs from most. It is a well-preserved 17th-century traditional courtyard, right in the centre of Peking, just south of Ping'an (Peaceful) Avenue.

This year, peaceful is not a word which springs to mind when walking to Mr Zhao's address. Ping'an Avenue, 150 yards away, is being widened into an eight-lane artery. But the city's government does not have enough money to pay for the venture, so it has sold development rights to land along the road. The Wangfujing Real Estate Development Corporation seized the rights to develop a block of land, including Mr Zhao's property and the homes of all his neighbours.

Bulldozers started to level the homes next door in March. But Mr Zhao, a retired university professor, made a stand. "I wrote to the National People's Congress [parliament] in March. I said, why should we citizens living here for years, even decades, give way to the land development companies?"

He received no reply. A letter to Peking's mayor also brought no response. But Peking's scholars and cultural experts rallied around. "The big professors, they all want to protect this house, because the courtyard houses are special," said Mr Zhao. Press articles highlighted the Zhaos' plight.

Little thought has been given by Peking's planners to preserving what is left of the old city, the narrow lanes and homes built around walled compounds. Most of these homes are overcrowded, squalid, and lack toilets, and it would be impractical to restore them. Usually, extra buildings have been built inside the courtyard, leaving people cooped up with no privacy. These residents are often happy to move out to modern apartments, although they tend to be shunted out to distant suburbs.

But Mr Zhao's courtyard is different. It is one of a few still intact and still used by a single family. A central square garden full of rose bushes is surrounded by single-storey, grey-bricked rectangular buildings, with roofs of distinctive fluted tiles. Inside, delicate carved wooden screen doors divide the different rooms. It is simple, and typical of the style in which late Ming and early Qing dynasty court officials were housed, with the added benefit of running water and late 20th-century conveniences installed by the Zhao family.

"We are not against modernising the city, but it depends how you modernise it," Mr Zhao said. "You can build new buildings without demolishing Peking's original face. I was notified that this house was to be demolished because they wanted to build a shopping mall or something ... these real-estate corporations just want to get the land and make money."

The result is that Mr Zhao's courtyard is an island in a wasteland of debris and rubble. His late father, a famous theology professor, bought the house in 1950 and the family claims freehold ownership. "We have the deeds," said Mr Zhao.

During the Cultural Revolution the Zhao family was stripped of ownership, and four more families were drafted in to share his courtyard. "We did not have to move out, but too many people moved in," he said.

In 1973 the courtyard was returned to the Zhaos, although an adjoining one, which was part of the original property, is still inhabited by other families.

With the help of lobbying by scholars, the original plan for nine tall buildings was blocked. The developers were told that any new buildings should be grey, should not be more than 60ft high, and with Ming or Qing architectural characteristics. "My house is that style. So why should they tear it down? How can you tear down a late-Ming dynasty and rebuild it somewhere else?" Mr Zhao said.

He is well-connected, thanks partly to his proficiency on the tennis court, a sport popular with several party and government leaders, with whom he plays regularly. But he insists he has not tried to pull strings to save his home.

The problem in China is the absence of channels through which to argue one's case in such a situation. Mr Zhao cannot find out who owns the development company, or why the district land and housing department gave permission, when it should have been the job of the municipal authorities.

Recently the relative of a policeman told him his home may be spared. "But they will never tell me if this is the case," he said. Mr Zhao plans this year to visit his brother in the United States, but does not know if his home will be standing when he comes back.