BEIJING | The city’s Olympic beautification drive has left little unspruced.
Forty million potted flowers have been positioned strategically across the city, and reams of canvas depicting gleaming office windows cloak the incomplete facades of buildings under construction near a main shopping district.
No amount of cosmetic artistry, however, can conceal the scar carved into the landscape a 10-minute walk southeast of Tiananmen Square.
Here, a neighborhood known as Xianyukou, part of the ancient commercial and residential quarter of Qianmen, lies in ruins 2 1/2 years after the beginning of an urban-redevelopment project that has come to be characterized by official secrecy and thuggery.
The district government is worried about what Olympic visitors might think at the sight of gutted traditional courtyard homes in one of 25 historic Beijing neighborhoods that were marked for state protection in 2002.
So earlier this month, it ordered the construction of concrete walls, complete with a Qing Dynasty-style tiled roof topping, in an attempt to hide the decaying buildings in which some residents, who are refusing to move until the government offers them more compensation, still live.
“This wall is an insult,” said 40-year-old Chen Guixiang, standing in his yard behind the offending structure. “We common people are made to feel like we are damaging the environment.
“They built huge stretches of it in just 10 days, but they plan to tear it down after the Olympics. It´s all for show, to save face. The local government fritters money away but still offers only meager compensation for us to leave.”
Anger has been the dominant mood in Qianmen ever since demolition crews stormed the area early in 2006 and began to create the eyesore that they are now so desperate to hide.
Chongwen district officials wanted the redevelopment completed before the Olympics and were willing to go to extremes to meet the deadline.
Local people still tell stories of how teams of thugs, hired by the district authorities, evicted thousands of residents who refused to accept compensation of about $118 per square foot, which was the level set in 2002 and thus failed to take into account soaring property prices in the capital.
They say people from the “demolition office” resorted to violence to dislodge the most stubborn, many of them elderly people who had lived in the area for generations, to make way for a major bus route that went into operation last year.
“They would come in the middle of the night and throw rocks through the windows to scare people into agreeing to move,” said another resident, who asked to be identified only by the surname, Li.
Conservationists have campaigned for Qianmen to be restored on a courtyard-by-courtyard basis to preserve centuries-old architectural gems and the rich stories associated with an area that dates back 400 years to the Ming Dynasty.
Qianmen won fame as the haunt of Peking Opera singers, acrobats and calligraphers and was dotted with guild halls where scholars from all over the country would sit for the national civil service examinations.
It had a grittier side, too; its many opium dens and brothels were frequented by officials from the imperial court.
But widespread vandalism of vacated properties, reportedly carried out on the orders of the district government, has all but wiped out the area´s character.
“First they drilled holes in the walls, then they tore off the roofs and ripped out windows and doors so the rain would pour in. They left trash everywhere to try to make the whole area so disgusting that we would give up and move out,” said Miss Li.
She said local residents have a saying to sum up how much money the demolition office workers made by ransacking pieces of old architecture: “They arrived on bicycles and left in cars.”
Preservationists, academics and determined residents have voiced enough opposition to provoke infighting within the government on how to develop the area, a major reason why the neighborhood of Xianyukou is a long way from completion.
Substantial pressure has come from the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, a nongovernmental organization founded by He Shuzhong, who said the group´s criticisms have found their way to the very top of the Chinese leadership.
“The Qianmen project is illegal as defined by the law and encapsulates the difficulties we face in cultural heritage protection in Beijing these days,” Mr. He said. “Some government officials don´t care about laws and a lot of them support this project because it shows Beijing´s modernization.”
The future appearance of the area is not clear, although the signs are that the re-creation of Qianmen´s past will be more Qing Disney than Qing Dynasty as the area becomes full of new courtyard homes, hurriedly rebuilt in faux-antique style, some of which will be sold for millions of dollars.
“The area is being rebuilt into a luxurious and high-fashion area completely incompatible with the old style of architecture and living,” Mr. He said.
The development is set to be led by Soho China, one of the country´s leading real estate developers.
It held a $1.7 billion initial public offering last year in Hong Kong but is still waiting for government approval to buy a 49 percent stake in the Qianmen project in order to develop an area that it calls “Tiananmen South.”
A spokeswoman for Soho said she could not discuss details of the project until the government gave the company the official go-ahead because of its “sensitivity.”
Soho recognizes the magnitude of its task. “Tiananmen South is an iconic and historical site that is irreplaceable,” reads a statement on its Web site.
The spokeswoman stressed that the government was responsible for the conservation of the area and the relocation of residents. Mr. He argued that real estate companies should have a “social conscience.”
Chongwen officials refused to comment on their plans for the area. An employee of the Fifth Office for the Protection of Old Qianmen, a tiny room with only one desk and a computer buried in the derelict alleyways of Xianyukou, said all the original residents would be moved back into rebuilt courtyard homes.
But when pressed as to why so many propaganda slogans calling for the remaining residents to leave the area were plastered all over the gate outside, he shrugged and said, “We don´t have a plan yet.”
A smattering of holdout residents may be more fortunate than others.
Mr. Pu, a retiree who rents his home from the government for $9 a month, said he has been told that he can share a newly renovated property, fitted with the running water that many of the old homes lack, with two other families for an extra few dollars’ rent a month.
“It´s not a question of luck. This is what the law entitles me to,” said Mr. Pu, who also asked that only his surname be used.
Several blocks west, the newly renovated Qianmen Street, the area´s main north-south thoroughfare, will be presented to the public on Thursday, the official Xinhua news agency reported last week.
The pedestrianized shopping street will feature famous old Beijing brand names such as the Quanjude roast duck restaurant, but half the shops will be occupied by international brands such as Starbucks, Nike and Prada.
“The area is expected to display Beijing´s historic and cultural heritage to visitors from all over the world, which is also in line with the Olympic spirit to encourage cultural exchange and mutual understanding,” Xinhua quoted a Chongwen official as saying.
Officials will be hoping tourists visiting the street do not stray too far east and peek behind the walls. Their concern is well-founded if the assessment of Florian Laker, a passing Austrian tourist, turns out to be representative of overseas opinion.
“I´m just surprised how close this kind of run-down area is to Tiananmen Square. It looks like the typical work of a communist regime,” he said.