Twilight ‘zone’

A zoning debacle means the old Summer Palace won’t be rebuilt after all

Twilight ‘zone’

Dongyang was ready to 'go rogue' to get one of these. It failed...

The old Summer Palace – ‘Yuanmingyuan’ – was as large as a city. Witnesses remembered it as more grandiose than the pyramids,” writes Mark Leonard, in his book What Does China Think? “All that is left today are a few desultory fragments and some cardboard scale models. These dilapidated remains have been carefully preserved by successive Chinese governments. Like the scar of Ground Zero in New York City, they play a defining role in the Chinese psyche – arguably as great as any building still standing.”

The old Summer Palace – from which the Qing emperors governed in the 18th century – was almost eight times the size of the Vatican. A mere 8km northwest of Beijing’s city walls, it contained three giant gardens, and a variety of architecture of both Chinese and Western style. It was razed to the ground by British and French troops during the Second Opium War in 1860.

This is a memory that the Chinese associate with their nation at its lowest ebb – hence Leonard’s comparison of ‘Yuanmingyuan’ with Ground Zero. So the news that an exact replica of the old Summer Palace was to be built near Shanghai was always bound to touch off a round of debate. What has occurred has proved far more controversial.

The project was the brainchild of the firm Zhejiang Hengdian, which forecast it would cost Rmb20 billion ($2.9 billion) and be completed by 2013. The company had previously built Hengdian World Studio, which has become popular with Chinese movie and television producers, as well as tourists. The plan was for ‘new’ Yuanmingyuan to take this to the next level – like Universal Studios, it would be part film production base, and part theme park.

The high profile announcement quickly aroused official ire. The four square kilometre site violated the nation’s land policy, as about half of the proposed land did not conform to zoning regulations and a big chunk of the area was officially classified as ‘agricultural’ (which means it can’t be used for theme parks).

Agricultural land zoning is a touchy subject in China. In the past, ‘re-zoning’ has tended to be a means for corrupt local officials to line their pockets – buying farmers’ land cheaply, and then selling it to real estate developers for a massive ‘re-zoned’ profit.

So how did the Yuanmingyuan project get as far as it did, when it evidently contravened government land regulations from the outset? The land in question was in the city of Dongyang and was being co-sponsored by the Dongyang Development and Reform Bureau. It saw the project as a means to promote economic growth.

And a bit like Sarah Palin in last year’s US presidential election, Dongyang decided to “go rogue” and – rather creatively – divide the project into seven sub-projects and independently approve each.

But local approval has now been trumped by national veto – the Ministry of Land and Resources has since waded in – and the project was formally aborted last week. The secretary of the Dongyang Development and Reform Bureau, Xu Peichang, has even earned an ‘administrative demerit’, according to website Da Zhong. To further atone for his error maybe he should be sent to Linfen (see page 11).

The decision has been applauded by those who considered the reconstruction of an emperor’s pleasure palace to be an extravagant waste of money. The Yuanmingyuan example may even offer a timely warning to local officials of the dangers of rule-breaking, however patriotic their intentions may be.

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