he wall that encloses Datong's old city is almost impressive - encircling an area of 3.3 sq km it is perfectly polished and sharp-edged. An ancient city's outer wall is often its most historic feature, but this particular one is brand spanking new and unfinished: a gap in its western stretch ranging hundreds of metres is waiting to be sealed up.

Lying at the heart of contemporary Datong, the old city was almost unrecognisable until a few years ago, except for a handful of surviving monuments lost between shabby multi-storey buildings. But as China's capital for three separate dynasties, Datong was once home to royal palaces, gardens and temples. The spectacular Yungang Grottoes, a Unesco world heritage site of ancient Buddhist art and carving, are a reminder of its past.

Today's Datong, in Shanxi province, is a third-tier city of 3.3 million people, with a vastly expanded urban area of almost 50 sq km. In recent decades, mass and indiscriminate rebuilding, alongside a booming mining industry that gained Datong the label "China's capital of coal", also made it one of the country's grittiest cities.

Six years ago, Datong's then newly appointed mayor, Geng Yanbo, set out to restore its glorious history: to resurrect the old city of Datong.

At the height of the mainland's property boom, Datong was abuzz with construction. But in February last year Geng left to take up mayorship in Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi province, leaving behind a landscape pockmarked by construction. His departure prompted thousands of residents to plead for his return, many on their knees begging for him to finish what he had begun.

STARTING WITH THE NORTHERN WEI dynasty, 1,600 years ago, Datong was a beautiful capital. It continued to thrive in the Liao and Jin dynasties, and later regained prominence as a major strategic centre in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Falling into decline thereafter, continual warfare and neglect had engendered a state of chaos by the early 1900s. Datong's fortifications, heavily damaged but still intact until the mid-19th century, were slowly torn down.

But with its epic revival, Datong would regain its Ming-dynasty splendour, building on the geometric layout that had survived from those times. Wide intersecting streets running along the central axis split the city into quadrants, which further divide into a network of lanes and alleys. Within this, symbolic landmarks such as the Drum and Bell towers (of which only the Drum Tower survives), multi-tiered and symmetrically positioned, loomed over a predominantly flat landscape. Wooden gates and archways framed major streets and denoted neighbourhoods in which locals traversed bustling lanes of commerce, visiting one of the countless temples that dotted the city. To the east stood the 180,000 square metre Prince's Palace, its jade-green rooftops a majestic sight. But from every angle, the city wall was the most recognisable view. Atop this, an array of 62 watchtowers, jutting out at regular intervals, formed a formidable line of defence.

Using official government records, maps and sketches, as well as photographs from the early 1900s, Datong's appearance would be reconstructed, but the scurrying footsteps of local inhabitants lost. Tens of thousands of residents would be moved out beyond the city wall and permanently resettled, their homes demolished for Ming-style replicas. Datong would be transformed into a commercialised tourist site - where the only footfall to count would be that of the visitor.

Professor Tao Ran, senior fellow at the Brookings-Tsinghua Centre for Public Policy, says that the move is in line with local governments relying heavily on land-sale revenues to generate profit in recent years.

"By moving locals out in the name of tourism, the land can be sold at a higher value to developers and to attract commerce; the local government can make a lot of money that way," he says.

Such mass expulsion is possible in the mainland because all land falls under public ownership, and because local areas have a lot of autonomy, says Professor Lou Jianbo, of the Research Institute for Property Law at Peking University. Evictions - often by force - are therefore legal, and have become a common part of the country's development.

As Datong's new mayor, Geng was well positioned for such a task, having previously evacuated large traditional estates for tourism - including the Wang Family Grand Courtyard, in Lingshi county, Shanxi.

An audacious figure whose legacy split public opinion, Geng is nevertheless widely regarded as "highly capable". Ambitious by nature, he was made deputy county chief 14 years ago, in his late 30s. Known for spending more time scrutinising construction sites than sitting in his office, Geng is seemingly applying the same standard to Taiyuan, where he is overseeing sweeping infrastructural developments.

Yet he is also unafraid to break rules. While rebuilding the temple of the Yungang Grottoes, he authorised building work before gaining approval from Unesco, risking damage to the statues.

More than a year after Geng's departure, the construction fever that gripped Datong has fallen to a hum, with progress ticking along at "a drastically slower pace", locals say. The landscape is a rubbly mishmash of the old, new, the half-knocked down and partly rebuilt. At one of the biggest building sites, the Prince's Palace, roof tiles are glistening under the sun, but scaffolding still dominates the site.

Inside the east gate of the city wall, across an immaculately paved road, a rundown housing estate from the 80s stands with rubbish strewn across the ground. Inside the building's shady stairwells, the character for "expropriation" has been written and circled in red over stained walls.

Meng Jun, a man who lives next door and parks his van on the estate, says that notices for eviction went up in March, giving residents a month to move. "But even now, no date or location has been given for new housing," he says.

Of those refusing to budge, many are unhappy with the terms of resettlement, including 65-year-old Zhi Wenyi, who lives with his 95-year-old mother-in-law in a dilapidated courtyard house nearby.

"My home here is made of five large and separate living spaces, so I want more than the one apartment they're offering us," says Zhi.

At the opposite end of the same lane, new courtyards have already sprung up where the old once stood. In anticipation of losing electricity, Zhi has connected his power cables to the electricity mast beside his house.

While many cities, such as Beijing, have spruced up old streets into shopping lanes or rebuilt ancient watchtowers, none have attempted it on Datong's scale. Professor Wang Guixiang, a leading conservation expert at Tsinghua University's School of Architecture, considers the current project the greatest damage to Datong in its modern history.

"To rebuild historic monuments is against the principle of conservation," he says, calling the city wall "a fake relic". Disputing Geng's claims of authenticity, Wang points out that vital features of the wall's watchtowers, designed for functionality, have been altered for aesthetics.

Seemingly, traditional building methods are also sparingly applied. A glance at the cross section of the city wall reveals that modern-day red bricks are being used to stuff the its core, instead of the rammed earth used in the original Ming-dynasty structure.

Even Huayansi, a Buddhist temple that Wang calls "a national treasure", has undergone a modern facelift. Dating back to the Liao dynasty (916-1125), the site has been grotesquely expanded - huge new courtyards of conspicuously lacquered wood bury the smaller, faded original halls.

During Geng's leadership, government spending in Datong soared, according to Caijing magazine. While much of it was deemed necessary given the city's disrepair, it also pushed the city into an estimated debt of 13 billion yuan, equivalent to Datong's total fiscal revenue for 2011.

"Datong's old town is a huge problem because it didn't follow a city's trajectory," says Professor Zhang Song, of the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at Shanghai's Tongji University. "Just because you envisage building a tourist city, it doesn't mean the tourists will come."

Across the mainland, similar cases of overspeculation and out-of-pocket spending by local leadership - often to boost political achievement - have marred economic prospects, and created swaths of "ghost towns". Ordos, in Inner Mongolia, where a community development was planned for one million people, stands incomplete and mostly empty a decade on.

Datong faces a similar predicament.

"Nobody wants to live here now because it's all going to be knocked down and all the schools have already moved out," says Liu Wen, a taxi driver who points out the former Datong No 1 Secondary School, standing eerily abandoned near the west gate.

For some, like 35-year-old Li, improving Datong should have been from the very start about solving people's job problems and improving welfare, "not how beautiful the city looks".

Yet despite the city's turmoil, an overwhelming number still believe that Geng made Datong a better place.

"It was a dump before him, there wasn't one proper road," says an elderly lady. For others, there's no doubt construction would have been completed if Geng had been allowed to stay.

"Instead, Taiyuan is on its way up now," says another local.

For Jin Shujun, a 50-year-old former soldier whose family is facing eviction from their single-storey home, Geng may have given Datong respectable roads, but he has also emptied neighbourhoods of people.

"With all those restored temples here, for what the old city loses in the living, it will certainly gain in ghosts."

Guardian News & Media