Zhao Jingxin wants to go on living in the 400-year-old courtyard home that his father bought 48 years ago in the heart of Beijing. A developer wants to turn it and the area round it into a shopping mall. The six-month stand-off is a metaphor for the struggle going on for the ancient heart of Beijing, for 800 years China's capital and a city with a unique architecture: palaces and gardens in imperial red and yellow surrounded by single-storey courtyard homes in grey, the colour of commoners. Eighty-year-old Mr Zhao's house is every traditional Beijinger's dream - rooms overlooking a small courtyard filled with trees and shrubs, five minutes from Wangfujing, the city's main shopping street. The family has added a modern kitchen, bathroom and central heating. As you sip green tea and marvel at the intricate wood carving in his sitting room, you can no longer hear the sound of the earthmovers building an eight-line highway just 100 metres away. It is this highway, to become one of the city's two main east-west thoroughfares, which may be the death of Mr Zhao's home. The city government cannot afford the building cost of two billion yuan (HK$1.87 billion) and so relies on developers who pay to develop land near the road. The Wangfujing Real Estate Development Company won the right to land south of the highway where Mr Zhao's home and dozens like it stand. On February 15, Mr Zhao and the other residents received a notice from the developer telling that they had 10 days to leave their homes, to be demolished to make way for a shopping complex. Most residents moved to new apartments in distant suburbs. For many, courtyard homes are not the pleasure they are for Mr Zhao, because they usually are ill-equipped, crowded with several families who live on top of each other and usually have an outside toilet. Most of the one-storey homes have now been demolished. The area is a wasteland of rubble, plastic bags full of rubbish and reminders of the people who have gone - a door and part of a sink. But in Mr Zhao developers unearthed an unexpected adversary. A glance at the photographs on his wall is enough to tell you that he is no ordinary resident. They show his tennis partners - he plays three or four times a week - former Vice Premier Wan Li, Hu Qili, until March the Minister of Electronics, State Councillor Li Tieying and Li Ruihuan, one of the seven members of the standing committee of the Communist Party's ruling Politburo. 'I am not against building new roads or public infrastructure,' said Mr Zhao. 'For that, I am willing to move. But here we are 156 metres from the new road, which is 70 metres at its widest point. What is due to be built here is not public infrastructure but a commercial complex. Beijing already has far too many shopping centres. 'Beijing needs five million square metres of retail space but has 16 million,' he said. Most retailers would agree there is a glut. Several big department stores have closed in the last year, including Concord, just a kilometre from Mr Zhao's home. In any case, will the developer actually build a shopping centre? 'Maybe not,' said Mr Zhao. 'Maybe he will sell the land to others and it will be sold several times. I am not going to give up my family home to land speculators.' In a bid to rally public opinion, Mr Zhao sent a letter to the central government and has given interviews to Chinese and foreign reporters. At a tennis competition recently, he met Beijing Mayor Jia Qinglin and introduced himself. Mr Jia knew all about the case. 'It is hard to say what is going to happen,' said Mr Zhao. 'I have the support of scholars, intellectuals and historians. I have had no reply to my letter.' Courtyard houses are a precious heritage, Mr Zhao feels. He worries that by destroying them, Beijing will lose its uniqueness and become like Manila or Jakarta. One of his strongest supporters is Fang Ke, a professor of architecture and urban planning at Qinghua University. The professor believes the city government is making a historic error by concentrating the governing, financial and commercial functions of the capital within the 62.5 square kilometres of the old city, of which the Forbidden City accounts for one third, when Beijing covers an area of seven times that figure. He says Beijing should follow the example of capitals like Paris and London and build financial and commercial districts away from the old centre. The issue is complicated by the fact that living conditions for many of those who live in the courtyard homes are terrible, with overcrowding, outside toilets and heating from coal briquettes. Before the 1949 communist revolution, these homes mostly belonged to the rich, the nobility of the Qing court and senior civil servants, who lived in comfort and had servants. After 1949, new families moving in include those rehoused after the expansion of Tiananmen Square and peasants who came from the countryside to work in the factories that Mao Zedong said Beijing should build. There was now little space, so people built additional rooms or moved into what had been servants quarters. The quality of housing deteriorated. Most people did not own their home, as Mr Zhao did, and so had no incentive to make improvements. Some courtyard homes were acquired by senior government and party officials with connections. They put in modern plumbing and central heating. But most residents who might want to stay and want modern homes, with their own kitchen, bathroom and central heating, do not have the money to make the improvements themselves. Developers are not interested - there is no profit to be had from residents who cannot afford to pay market rents - so they want the land for commercial development. Professor Fang said developers do not care about the quality of apartments they build for people being rehoused. And he added that many of the new suburban areas lack adequate transport, schools, hospitals and other amenities. He said all the developers want is land for redevelopment, and many of the families who have been relocated have been tricked and not given the accommodation they were promised. For Mr Zhao, moving to a distant suburb is a prospect neither he nor his wife can face at their age. Mr Zhao is a man who needs not be in China at all. After graduating from Yanjing University, now Beijing University in 1944, he studied in the United States, returning after World War II ended. In 1949, when the communists took power, he was in Hong Kong, working as a station manager for the China state aviation company. He could have stayed in Hong Kong or returned to the US, like his geologist brother who chose not to return. 'My father was very patriotic and urged me to come back,' he said. 'So I did, like my sister who completed a PhD at the University of Chicago in 1948. When she returned, the communists had surrounded Beijing, so she took a plane that landed not at the regular airport but the Temple of Heaven.' His father, head of theology at Yanjing University, was one of six presidents of the World Council of Churches. Mr Zhao went on to work in aviation and from 1965 until his retirement in 1991 was a professor at the University of Foreign Trade. His father died in 1979 and his sister, a professor at Beijing University, died in January this year, both in the family home.