THE FIRST SIGN, like an evil omen, is when the Chinese word for 'destroy' suddenly appears, daubed on walls. A few weeks later, the little houses and the people who lived in them are gone. Within a month, there is a fenced-off crater and workers begin to swarm around concrete-mixers. Then the scaffolding goes up, clothing a monstrous modern structure of glass and steel. Before long it's difficult to picture how it looked before. The memory labours to match the recollection of a warren of alleyways with the new vista of a straight, six-lane avenue of cars and buses. Old Beijing lies within the boundary of the Ming-dynasty walls built in the 14th century by Emperor Yongle and torn down in the 1960s to make way for a second ring road around the district. The layout of the hutongs, courtyard houses, palaces and temples remained unchanged for hundreds of years. Although temples became warehouses or factories, theatres became grubby staff dormitories and gracious courtyards became crowded slums filled with jerry-built hovels, it was still recognisably the city that was first laid out in the time of Kublai Khan, in the 13th century. Sporadic redevelopment - as ministries or factories demolished buildings to put up an office or new residential block in the 1970s and 80s - has been replaced now by a planned and total destruction unprecedented in Beijing's history. It appears it all must go. After Beijing was awarded the 2008 Olympic Games in July, the chai or 'destroy' signs have appeared all over the inner city so swiftly that many residents are shocked and angry at the bewildering speed of the transformation. One of them is Ma Dinghu, who stands in his alleyway watching neighbours carrying their furniture to a waiting removal van. Ma, who has lived in this courtyard off Fushui Jing Street for 40 years, is bitter. 'They gave us 25 days to leave. We thought we would have years to find another house,' he says, adding defiantly: 'We won't move, not until they have given us enough money to buy new apartments.' But his words stem more from bravado than intent. On the main street, the Government has pasted a sign saying the land is needed for the International Investment Corporation but no one here knows what this is or who will profit from it. Ma says the Government wants to create an entirely modern city in time for the 2008 Olympics and that's the real reason everyone in the area is being forced out. 'That is the only reason they're in such a hurry,' he says. His neighbour Li Yaojun, who was born in the district, launches into a tirade against the Communist Party and its corruption. 'No one supports it. They don't care about ordinary people, just themselves,' he says. Li adds that a high-ranking army officer, who had five cars and bodyguards, was moved from his courtyard house to a new villa in another part of town built by the Government. But despite his rage, Li admits he is powerless to resist. In some parts of town, residents' committees have warned that resistance will be punished; sentences of two years for putting up posters, and up to five years for organising street protests. In some areas, residents have banded together to take their case to court but never with any success. 'Officials always protect each other,' Li complains as a crowd gathers around and nods in agreement. 'What's the use of resistance? If we don't go, they will cut off electricity and water supplies, and then they will just drag us away by force.' More than a million people have already been relocated from Old Beijing, the equivalent of the city's 1949 population, along with hundreds of the factories that employed them. Some of those forced to go are the descendants of the Manchu families who settled around the Forbidden City 400 years ago to protect the conquering dynasty. Others include more recent migrants, the lower classes encouraged to move into the houses of the wealthy during the Great Leap Forward in 1958. At that time all of Beijing might have moved into high-rises if economic disaster hadn't followed. Courtyard houses near the White Pagoda were demolished and the six-storey 'Communist Building' was erected. Apartments had no kitchens because all life, including eating, was to be lived on a communal basis. During the drive to a communist Utopia, all private property was seized and although it was returned after 1978, the ground remains owned by the state and owners have few rights. The title-holders could not force other residents out without giving compensation and alternative housing. And now the Government is assessing the value of the property based on the replacement cost of these rundown buildings. The vaguely defined property rights of owners are the source of much of the anger. Ma is furious because he built a new brick house in the courtyard for his family of 10 for which he will receive no compensation at all. It was built without official permission. Similarly, those residents in the hutongs without the correct residential registration will also receive no new housing. 'They won't pay us any compensation until after we move - so where are we supposed to go?' he asks. With the 580,000 yuan (HK$545,200) Ma's extended family will get, he says they will not be able to afford housing near Beijing. Ma does not understand the convoluted arithmetic involved but the figure includes 40,800 yuan compensation for each adult. Each person is accorded a nominal six square metres, irrespective of the actual area they occupy. Many families, often initially elated at the prospect of moving out of their sometimes squalid homes, have discovered they have to move to county towns more than 30 kilometres away. They face long trips to work or separation from their families. The Government has promised some residents will be able to return to live in the 'economic housing' it plans to build in the centre of Beijing, but few trust these promises. 'Once we agree to leave here, we will never be able to get back,' Li says. Indeed, it seems impossible that any of these communities will ever be brought together again. The radical refashioning of Beijing's population and its architecture is also being met with vocal opposition by the city's intelligentsia, but they have proved equally impotent in the face of the party's determination. 'I keep wondering who is authorising such a big wave of construction when so many specialists and architects have spoken against it,' says Lin Zhu, the widow of architect Liang Sicheng, who devoted his life to recording and preserving China's architectural heritage. Liang's son, Liang Congjie, has often raised his voice too: 'Old Beijing is not just a precious heritage for China but the world. We should not be destroying a beautiful city left to us by past generations. Why are we destroying what is in our hands?' As a member of the local people's political consultative assembly, he has won some minor concessions. The city agrees there should be no more high-rise buildings constructed near the Huang Cheng, the inner city around the Forbidden City. In practice, such bans will make little difference. Within six years the old city will consist of office towers, hotels, luxury apartment blocks and shopping malls laid out in regular blocks. In their shadows a few small islands of preserved streets or restored courtyard houses will be left. The harmonious integrity of Beijing's distinctive architecture, based on one-storey brick-and-tile houses, will be lost. Beijing will be indistinguishable from Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong and dozens of cities all over the mainland. 'Many of those now in charge of Beijing's planning are bound to be judged by history as criminals,' says Xinhua journalist Wang Jun, who is about to publish a massive work on Beijing and its architecture. Beijing government officials counter that they have listed more than 1,000 historical and cultural sites in the city under protection orders. 'We are riding around on our bikes most days inspecting and looking after the relics. I can assure you that all those being listed are well-preserved,' says Li Zhicheng, an official with the Eastern District Cultural Relics Bureau. Yet almost every street and every house in the centre of Beijing bears witness to China's history, and the vast majority are not protected. Only representative parts of Beijing's past are to be kept. Along Pingan Dajie in the Eastern District, for instance, developers are about to destroy the last vestiges of a sprawling palace. It was built in the 18th century by He Shen, the guardsman whom the ageing Emperor Qianlong made his chief favourite, and who received the British ambassador Lord Macartney. The courtyards, walled gardens, barracks and stables later became the headquarters of Duan Qirui, the warlord who ruled Beijing in the 1920s. Much has already either been demolished or occupied by different party units and householders but all will be gone within two years. The history of Beijing's hutongs, like the nearby Zaojiu Hutong, where the imperial brewery was located, will be lost. Just to the north of Zaojiu Hutong, in Dongdan district, is the last remnants of the place where the May 4 Movement was born: communications minister Chao Wulin's home, outside which on May 4, 1919, student protesters gathered. This too is to be knocked down. As are the streets around where some of China's most famous modern writers lived and gathered in literary salons. In the 1930s, writer Lin Huiyin, the first wife of Liang Shicheng, lived at Bei Zhonghu Hutong and entertained many prominent figures, from the American scholar John Fairbanks to Xu Xhimo, the modernist poet who fell in love with her when she was 16 and abandoned his wife. Now just a small part of the original courtyard house remains; the rest was demolished in 1986 to make way for an ugly four-storey apartment block. It, too, will be demolished within two years. Huge, gaping building sites are all around. On the walls of the last houses, the ominous chai signs are already appearing, heralding the arrival of Beijing's demolition teams.