A top cultural heritage official spoke out last week against China's nationwide march toward urban redevelopment and the enormous toll it is taking on the preservation of the country's rich and varied heritage.
The China Post reported Shan Jixiang, head of the state administration for cultural heritage as saying, "Bulldozers have razed many historical blocks... The protection of cultural heritage in China has entered the most difficult, grave and critical period."
Everyday in China, historical buildings are torn down to make way for new, generic tower blocks to be filled with residences, offices, bar strips and malls. Often built using low grade materials and with an unhealthy amount of corner-cutting, within a few years they begin to fall apart, lasting just a fraction of the time that their historical predecessors stood on the same ground. In this article on Shan's outspoken statements, the Guardian cites China Daily figures, stating that the average Chinese building lasts just 30 years--compared to 74 years for those in the US and 132 years for British construction.
Of course, in some cases, re-development can be justified. Some old housing is in such a dilapidated state that it is beyond repair but in reality, many of these traditional buildings could be upgraded instead of demolished. Though many residents want improved housing and living conditions and see these new high rises and skyscrapers as symbols of success and progress, others fight a losing battle against the enforced loss of their lifestyle and community as they are forcibly moved out to peripheral parts of the city. For some very moving photography and commentary on Beijing's fast disappearing hutongs, take a look at Jonah Kessel's blog, Nomadically Curious Visual Thoughts. The creative director of the China Daily, Kessel lives in a hutong himself and has witnessed the destruction around him first hand.
Knocked down at a rate of up to 600 per year, the Guardian article points out that in Beijing alone, 4.43m square metres (1,100 acres) of hutongs have been demolished since 1990. That's the equivalent of around 40% of the downtown area. Another planned development around the capital's Drum Tower and Bell Tower areas will result in the razing of a large part of the as yet, untouched district. Earlier this year in southwest China's Yunnan province, the Dali municipal government knocked down a stretch of 1,300 year-old wall to make way for a new expressway. These are just a few examples. There are no official figures that show the number of heritage sites that have been destroyed, but the most recent data from the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development shows that China has built 2 billion square meters of new houses every year—consuming 40 percent of the world's building materials (The China Post).
Last year China declared tourism a strategic pillar of the economy, but tourists and travelers to China want to witness the country's rich and varied past as well as experience it's vibrant and dynamic present. Sadly, the present is overtaking and morphing cities across China into homogeneous, concrete jungles. In their haste to become great and rich metropolises, they lose the traditional architecture, customs and values that enticed visitors in the first place.
UNESCO recently added two more China sites, Henan's Shaolin Temple and southern China's Danxia mountains to its world heritage list, bringing the number of heritage sites in China to 40 out of a total 911 worldwide. Though small, this is at least a step in the right direction, but with the rapid pace of change in China, there's still a very long way to go.