Beijing press corps to face construction

1970s buildings to make way for new media center

BEIJING -- A plan to upgrade the '70s-era Beijing housing project where many foreign correspondents for U.S. news outlets live and work is getting mixed reactions.

Next spring, after surveying employees of ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, the New York Times and other tenants of the Jianguomenwai Diplomatic Residence Compound, the management of the buildings will oversee the demolition of three red brick low-rises -- situated between Tiananmen Square and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs -- to make way for four mixed-use high-rises.

"We will ask the residents and journalists what they need, then build a modern media center with apartments, a clubhouse and offices on the second floor," a project manager said, confirming rumors swirling around the "Jianwai" -- as the complex is often known.

A spokesperson for the MFA-affiliated company managing the demolition and construction plan said it is meant to make better use of space. "The low Jianwai buildings are from 1970 and the apartments and offices are small. The new buildings will be better and have bigger offices," Chen Haiou, a representative of the Beijing Housing Service Corp. for Diplomatic Missions said.

But even if the offices of the broadcasters currently in Jianwai's nine extant high-rises are not directly affected, many foreign businessmen, diplomats and journalists working and living there were puzzled by the plan.

"If the reason to build is to serve our community, why aren't we being told?" said one U.S. TV producer who asked not to be named before his network was aware of the situation. "Before the Olympics, we saw what Beijing under construction can be like. This will be very disruptive to our work."

Residents said that the noise and dust raised by such an undertaking would certainly endanger the dozens of children who play in the compound garden during warm weather, less than 50 feet from one of the soon-to-be-condemned low-rises.

"This is one of the few places in Beijing that's avoided China's crazy pace of development. That's why we like it. It's quiet," said a reporter with another major U.S. network. "If they're going to knock these buildings down, we're all going to have to move out."

Reacting to news of the plan, Jonathan Watts, president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, which represents the interests of 264 paid members of the foreign press corps here, said: "In this, as with many other issues, the FCCC hopes that the government of China will treat foreign media as stakeholders in decisions that affect so many of us. This would be in our interest as well as in theirs."

Still, all did not frown upon the idea of state-of-the-art offices. Many of the compound's buildings are in need of regular repair and recently have lost foreign news organization tenants.

Norman Bottorf, head of Associated Press Television News -- a former Jianwai compound tenant -- said that CNC is generally a very efficient operation. "They'll do a good job," he said.

Plans for the four new buildings show each will have 14 or 15 floors with two or three apartment units each for a total of 204 units, the project manager said.

Current residents of the doomed low-rises -- including this reporter's family -- will be offered apartments and office space in the old, nearby high-rises or in other government housing projects on the East side of Beijing, a city of more than 12 million people.

A spokesperson for the MFA, which oversees all issues relating to the foreign press in China, said construction could go ahead as soon as the end of 2009, adding that the media office component still was being discussed with state-controlled telecommunications firm CNC, a unit of China Unicom.