BEIJING -- One of the most remarkable pieces of real estate in China is off the rental market.
For two decades, Beijing's Summer Palace, the warm-weather home of emperors, has quietly rented a handful of imperial courtyard houses to foreign businessmen, multinational companies and wealthy Chinese.
Newspapers began attacking the practice more than a year ago, comparing overseas tenants to invading soldiers from times past and suggesting that officials were selling out the nation's heritage. Since then, the Summer Palace has allowed the leases to lapse. The last occupants were expected to have left by this weekend.
"It was the media pressure," acknowledges Geng Liutong, the Summer Palace's general engineer. "What we're doing is approved by government bureaus."
The issue highlights the tension between nationalism, cultural preservation and commercialism as China tries to protect 5,000 years of historic relics while embracing market economics.
"This is not a problem with the Summer Palace," says Lu Junhua, a retired professor at Qinghua University's School of Architecture in Beijing. "This is a problem with the country."
The Forbidden City, off limits to the public for 500 years, rents courtyard homes to the well-connected for parties at an asking price of $20,000 a night. Visitors to Mutianyu, a steep section of the Great Wall in the mountains north of Beijing, can spend a few bucks to climb into carts and career down an alpine slide.
At the foot of the Western Hills, the Summer Palace is an imperial garden with Buddhist temples, arching marble bridges and a lake fringed by willows. Tourists jam the park on weekends, climbing about Longevity Hill, where the Empress Dowager Cixi worshiped, and splashing about Kunming Lake in paddle boats.
The emperor and his family used the palace as a summer retreat from the Forbidden City. In 1998, UNESCO named it a World Cultural Heritage Site.
Renting out buildings inside a historic landmark would generate controversy in many countries. One need only imagine how the French might react if Americans rented rooms in Versailles.
China is an intensely nationalistic country with a past that includes occupations by the Japanese, the British and the Germans. Western soldiers set fire to the Summer Palace in 1860 and again in 1900 in retaliation for the Boxer Rebellion.
"Foreigners enter courtyards to satisfy their craving to live like emperors," read a headline in the Yangcheng Evening News in October. "Under the Tower of Buddhist Virtue where the Empress Cixi lived, now German, French and British people live."
Geng, the park engineer, says he doesn't understand what all the fuss is about. He says the palace has served as a guest house since the Qing Dynasty.
Wang Daocheng, an expert on the palace and a Qing Dynasty history professor at People's University, disagrees. Emperor Qianlong built the Summer Palace in 1750 for his mother's 60th birthday. Even close friends and relatives of the imperial family were forbidden to live there, Wang says.
Wang's concerns about the Summer Palace are prompted by preservation, not nationalism.
`Never the same again'
"When you rent old buildings to people, the tenants have their own ideas for decorating rooms," he says. "Once you change it, you will damage the cultural relics. You can repair the homes, but it's never the same again."
The commercialization of the Summer Palace began soon after the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. Evicted from the Forbidden City, the last emperor, Pu Yi, moved into the resort. He sold admission tickets to visitors and rented rooms to make ends meet.
After Pu Yi was thrown out in 1924, the city government took over and began renting courtyard homes to wealthy warlords. Since then, college teachers, park employees and Mao Tse-tung have been among those calling the palace home.
The Summer Palace applied for status as a hotel in 1979 as Deng Xiaoping, then the nation's leader, began to loosen the reins on the nation's command economy. Geng says the purpose was to provide more space for foreigners because Beijing had few good hotels.
The well-kept park used rent income to maintain buildings, officials say. In recent years, a pair of courtyard homes could bring in $95,000 to $120,000 annually, not unreasonable for such an interesting property in Beijing's inflated housing market of the mid-1990s.
Eight years ago, Serge Dumont, a French public relations consultant, moved into a pair of courtyard houses just off the Long Corridor, a wooden breezeway covered with colorful murals that stretches about 2,100 feet along the lakefront. He says he loved living in the home, which once was a receiving area for the emperor's family.
Dumont threw lavish parties and dinners with performances of the Peking Opera and guests including Pu Yi's brother, Pu Ren. Dumont recalls lounging in the courtyard with a cup of espresso on quiet mornings listening to the birds and staring at the Chinese pavilions on the hillside above.
"It was a wonderful privilege to live there," says Dumont, 39, who adds that he took great care to maintain the home's historical integrity. "I have the most wonderful memories," he says.
Dumont understands why Chinese would object to having people, especially foreigners, living inside the palace, but he says news reports comparing tenants to barbarians were in poor taste.
He says he hopes his rent payments helped the park, which spends less than $1 million a year to maintain buildings.
Dumont moved out at the end of October when his lease expired. He shows no bitterness.
With the tenants gone, palace officials are looking for ways to make up for the lost rental of about $850,000 a year. Geng has plans for the courtyards, but he won't divulge them.
"We have lots of ideas on how to use them, but we haven't gotten approval yet, so I don't want to tell you," he says. "Our principle is: Whatever we do, we will protect the buildings."