HONG KONG—Beijing’s fast-disappearing historic alleyways, or hutongs , survived the Cultural Revolution but are proving no match for the revolutionary fervor of property developers aiming to cash in on the city's hosting of the 2008 Olympics.
Home to renowned cultural figures living and dead and the site of China's first foreign affairs office, Dong Tangzi Hutong looks likely to be the next victim of demolition fever sweeping the city.
Just around the corner from the capital's main shopping street, Wangfujing, and within walking distance of the Forbidden City palace complex, the alleyway has been partially signed over by city authorities for development by Hong Kong property tycoon Chen Lihwa—listed in Forbes magazine as the richest woman in China.
Chen Lihua is a very powerful figure in China, and particularly in Beijing.
"Chen Lihua is a very powerful figure in China, and particularly in Beijing," Liu Qing, chairman of the New York-based group Human Rights in China, told RFA's Mandarin service. "She has extraordinarily good relations with members of the standing committee of the Politburo," Liu said.
Among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against Chen and the Beijing municipal government at the Dongcheng District People's Court are the relatives of top archeologist Shi Shuqing, who is also vice-chairman of the National Committee for Cultural Relics Authentication and Preservation, and whose traditional courtyard-style family home is in the alley.
But lawyers and rights groups say that even with such well-known names and historical value as Dong Tangzi can show, the lawsuit has little chance of success. The outer wall of Shi's home has already been marked with a large "Condemned" notice, local sources told RFA.
"Demolitions are still going on at a crazy rate in Beijing. It's happening everywhere," Beijing-based lawyer Lin Yulan told RFA.
"On Dec. 17, [the vice-president of China's Supreme Court] Cao Jianming issued a directive forbidding China's courts at any level from getting involved in rural land or urban eviction protests," said Lin, who was detained for 10 months for representing other evictees.
She said Cai ordered courts not to take an active role in enforcing evictions and not to harm the rights and interests of rural or urban residents.
"Not only have they not done that, but only last week I heard that in a case around Guo'anmen, regarding an eviction dispute in the Da Guanyin area, filed at the Xuanwu District Court, officials from the court actually sought out the people fighting eviction for a chat," Lin said.
"The purpose of this ‘chat’ was to tell them just to move out soon or their homes would be demolished and they would be thrown out on the street. So we still have court officials getting involved in the business of threatening ordinary people."
We still have court officials getting involved in the business of threatening ordinary people.
Dong Tangzi Hutong is one of the most famous alleys remaining in the capital. China's fledgling office of external affairs, the Zongli Yamen, was set up at number 49 by the Qing Dynasty in 1861. And the residence of the former head of the country's prestigious Beijing University, Cai Yuanpei, is also in the same street.
According to a report in Hong Kong's Ming Pao newspaper, the Beijing municipal land and resources bureau in 2002 suddenly turned over the development rights to a plot of land in the alleyway to Chen, 63.
Chen was recently listed by Forbes magazine as the fifth-richest individual in China, with a personal net worth estimated at around U.S.$500 million.
Among the plaintiffs are local families who have been resident in the alley for generations, and the relatives of archeologist Shi Shuqing, who is also vice-chairman of the National Committee for Cultural Relics Authentication and Preservation. Shi's department has already been involved in efforts to preserve the Cai Yuanpei property.
HRIC's Liu also cited an account carried on the overseas Chinese news site Boxun that said Chen had used contacts with the family of Li Ruihuan and Beijing city officials to buy a warehouse-load of valuable antiques confiscated from Chinese families during the turmoil of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.
The article, signed by an unnamed "Beijing Resident,” said that Chen—whose flagship company is the Hong Kong-listed Fu Wah International—made her first fortune by shipping these antiques out of the country and selling them in Hong Kong at a massive profit.
Chen's own account is that she was able to save items of red sandalwood furniture in her Manchurian family, which she says was closely associated with the imperial court of China's last emperor, Pu Yi.
Chen, who owns the flashy and centrally located Chang'an Club and residential complex in downtown Beijing, portrays herself in at least one media interview as the sensitive heir to Chinese cultural artifacts—especially red sandalwood, to which she has dedicated a museum in a Beijing suburb.
Her detractors say she is uncultivated and made her money through political opportunism, and they accuse her of stealing. But everyone appears to agree on one thing: that Chen stands to get still richer from lucrative real-estate deals in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.