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2016-11-23 12:29:28

In a last-ditch effort to save what’s left of a historic city district, a nongovernmental organization is suing the government of coastal Dalian City in northeastern China’s Liaoning province. 

At the center of the suit is the area around Dongguan Street, whose buildings were mostly built in the early 20th century and designated as “unmovable cultural relics” by the city government in 2009. Nevertheless, the city’s Xigang District announced on Oct. 10 the start of a reconstruction project that would transform the area into a high-end commercial and business district, according to local media.

The China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF) filed the lawsuit in Dalian People’s Court on Nov. 9. The defendants are the Dalian Xigang District government, the district’s Culture and Sports Bureau, and two local demolition companies. 

The court accepted the case on Nov. 14, marking the second time the foundation has successfully brought a lawsuit against the Chinese government over the protection of cultural relics.

One of the defendants, the Culture and Sports Bureau of Xigang District, declined to comment on the case. A representative from the Dalian Xigang District government told Sixth Tone to call the propaganda department, but calls went unanswered on Monday and Tuesday. A manager surnamed Sui from one of the demolition companies implicated in the suit responded, “It has stopped” and hung up the phone when asked about the project.

Wang Shuai, 21, is a volunteer helping CBCGDF with the lawsuit. The Dalian native told Sixth Tone that the demolition work started in October and stopped around Nov. 9, the day CBCGDF filed its suit. 

Wang said he visited Dongguan Street, which he describes as an important piece of Dalian’s history, on Tuesday. Photos Wang took show that some buildings have already been torn down completely, while other buildings have been partly damaged. The area is fenced off, and the entrances are locked and guarded by police.

Some of the historic buildings have already been demolished in the Dongguan Street neighborhood of Dalian, Liaoning province, Nov. 22, 2016. Courtesy of a Dalian heritage protection volunteer

Some of the historic buildings have already been demolished in the Dongguan Street neighborhood of Dalian, Liaoning province, Nov. 22, 2016. Courtesy of a Dalian heritage protection volunteer

Liu Yongsen, director of Dalian’s Administration of Cultural Heritage, told Sixth Tone that the reconstruction project was suspended because the bureau had received comments from citizens protesting the demolition. He did not remember whether the project was halted in late October or early November.

Liu said that the project was originally approved at a meeting held by the district government with conservation experts in attendance, adding that the district’s Culture and Sports Bureau had approved the project as well. As part of the plan, one courtyard building will be preserved and turned into a museum to document and share the area’s history, he said.

One element of the debate is whether the district has the power to order the destruction of Dongguan Street. The area is designated as a heritage site but is “unranked,” meaning that it enjoys the lowest amount of protection. According to Liu, current laws do not stipulate which level of government has the power to decide whether unranked cultural heritage sites may be demolished. 

But heritage protection expert Yao Yuan, an associate professor at Nanjing University, disagrees. “According to the heritage protection laws, the decision to demolish any unmovable relic has to be examined and approved by provinces instead of cities,” he said.

This question of domain is currently the topic of a draft law on heritage protection. Currently, the power to decide the fate of buildings designated as unmovable relics lies with provincial and municipal governments, depending on local regulations; the draft law, published in December 2015 by the Chinese government, would move this authority down to the county or district level.

China’s rapid development has swallowed up countless historic sites over the last three decades. According to a national heritage survey conducted between 2007 and 2011, around 44,000 unmovable heritage sites had been erased since the previous survey in the 1980s. In Liaoning alone, since the 1980s, more than 1,000 sites have disappeared, 80 percent of which were destroyed due to human factors such as city construction.

The Dalian lawsuit does not represent an isolated incident in a nation where industrial development and heritage protection frequently clash. In June, seven buildings designated as cultural relics in Harbin, capital of northeastern China’s Heilongjiang province, were demolished to build new homes. In August, 11 officials were deemed liable and punished for the destruction of the buildings.

In April, CBCGDF sued local governments in Zhengzhou, capital of central China’s Henan province, over the planned destruction of an ancient village to build an industrial zone.

The heritage protection draft legislation specifies that social organizations can file lawsuits against projects that will destroy heritage buildings. “It’s good progress that this rule has appeared for the first time in Chinese heritage protection laws,” said Yao.

But Yao is not optimistic about the redistribution of decision-making power that the draft law prescribes. “If the law passes, the results will be disastrous,” he told Sixth Tone. “Local governments destroying old cities — cases like the one in Dalian — will be legal and unstoppable.”

(Header image: A senior city resident walks through an alley in the Dongguan Street neighborhood of Dalian, Liaoning province, Oct. 11, 2015. Gong Xiaojian/VCG)