Beijing's smart set in a fever over isolation hospital

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For years, exclusive compounds on the outskirts of Beijing have offered well-heeled executives a sanctuary from the grim realities of life in China.

In the teeming capital of 14 million people, only the wealthiest of the 50,000 to 80,000 foreign residents can afford to live in Beigao. It is home to gated communities whose names - Beijing Riviera, Grand Hills and Champagne Cove - offer an indication of the lifestyle their inmates enjoy.

With house prices starting at £285,000 and boasting their own supermarkets, golf courses and swimming pools, the compounds are home to a growing number of foreigners who work in Beijing for multinationals, or entrepreneurs looking to cash in on China's economic boom.

But now dark clouds are hovering, at least metaphorically, over Beigao. Much to the fury of many foreign residents, the Beijing Health Bureau has decided to move a 600-bed hospital for infectious diseases from the city centre to within a stone's throw of their haven.

Property prices have already started to fall in Beigao, as Mike Ashburn, who moved to Beijing from Newcastle seven years ago, has discovered. "We're trying to rent our house out, or maybe even sell it, but every estate agent we speak to mentions the hospital," he said. "Inevitably, it's having a negative impact on the price of the property."

Appalled by their dwindling assets, expats have banded together to oppose the move. "The hospital should be built somewhere far away from a residential area," said Andy See, a lawyer and Beigao resident who is leading the campaign.

Faced with a legal system that offers few options to contest government policy, the campaigners have resorted to the right to "petition", a remedy normally used by the poor to challenge land confiscations.

For the wealthy, Beigao's compounds are a way of keeping China at arm's length. Beijing Riviera resembles the set of The Truman Show, where all houses look the same and there is neither crime nor litter.

Some residents are talking of setting up roadblocks if their petition fails. "We have no choice but to fight," says Mr See. "It's not just about property prices, but about our way of life."

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