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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The rapid pace of development in China's capital is worrying architects and conservationists alike. Much of the old city has already been lost to developers.

But as NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Beijing, now even relatively new buildings are falling to the wrecking ball.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRONG WINDS)

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: Down a quiet Beijing alleyway, as the winter wind whistles, two men stand guard over a pile of bricks hidden behind a corrugated iron fence. This was once the home of the man known as the father of modern Chinese architecture, Liang Sicheng. The Orwellian reason for its demolition, according to the developer, was for maintenance.

That's outraged many, including Hu Shuzhong, founder of an NGO, Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center.

HU SHUZHONG: (Through Translator) This concept doesn't exist. I think this company that demolished the house are hooligans. I think they are thugs. This company should become infamous forever.

LIM: Liang Sicheng spoke of the pain he felt watching old Beijing being destroyed. Each city gate knocked down is like a chunk of flesh scooped from my body, he said, according to this documentary. Liang died in 1972. But Hu's NGO has been fighting to save his house. They stopped its demolition three years ago. It was supposed to be protected but that was not enough to stop the developers.

But Hu has been heartened by the reaction.

SHUZHONG: (Through Translator) I've received 8,000 emails and people call me all day long until midnight. So, Liang and his wife up in heaven may feel great pain seeing their old home demolished. But they should feel very gratified so many people are talking about it and taking action.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

LIM: This epidemic of demolition is driven by money. Local governments need the income they earn selling land to developers. And while few dispute the historical value of the alleys, residents don't necessarily want to live there without proper sanitation or heating.

(SOUNDBITE OF BARKING DOG)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: We all want this knocked down, says one man living on the same street. He wouldn't give his name. Then we wouldn't have to live in such rundown houses.

And it's not only Beijing's old houses that are being pulled down. I'm now picking my way through piles of rubble in southwest Beijing, in what was once a very nice housing compound. In front of me, it's just an enormous wasteland of rubble.

And among those who've lost houses here is one of China's most famous authors, Yan Lianke.

YAN LIANKE: (Through Translator) Money and power are the black hands behind this demolition. People abuse power blindly and money is controlling people's minds.

LIM: Yan Lianke's experience could have come straight out of one of his absurdist novels. He'd been living in his new house for a year. Then, out of the blue, he was told his beloved house would be knocked down. He was never shown any official documents explaining why. They were, he was told, confidential. Local media showed no interest.

LIANKE: (Through Translator) There's so much demolition. If all the demolitions were reported, maybe there wouldn't be enough space in all the newspapers, television, and radio stations in China.

LIM: Yan wrote an open letter to President Hu Jintao. There was no response, so his community of newly-wealthy became rebels, threatening to defend their houses to the death.

But one neighbor was detained and the others gave in. They were compensated to the tune of a quarter of a million dollars each, regardless of the size of the house. Yan says he'll write about his experience, though no Chinese publisher would touch such material. Four of his books are already banned. But the past year has been the blackest of his life.

LIANKE: (Through Translator) Such desperation is not just about my house and belongings. It's more a kind of spiritual desperation. You feel our society is so rich, yet so deformed. You start to feel distrustful of reality and desperate.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIM: And there's no end in sight for the destruction. I'm now standing between Beijing's Drum and Bell Towers, where 60 courtyard houses are slated for demolition. This time, the local press says, it's for a style restoration project. But as these latest cases show, even the great and good are at risk nowadays; neither wealth nor fame can stop the developers.

And as long as forcible demolitions continue, there'll breed insecurity and distrust in a government that allows its people to be treated this way.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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