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For centuries China's leaders have reshaped the capital to showcase their power and reflect their preoccupations. The Forbidden City was constructed during the 15th century to project the Ming dynastic rulers' connection to heaven. A throng of Soviet-style halls, stadiums, and vast boulevards sprang up in the 1950s and '60s following the Communist Party's rise to signify the collective strength of workers and the absolute control of Mao's rule. Today Beijing, the national emblem, is being remade as China's global city. When new buildings open, officials like to speak of how the structures embody the country's "soft power." Outsiders, goes the message, need not fear China as an aggressor nation or military power.

This message is clearest in the 40-billion-dollar building spree occasioned by the Olympics, the nation's coming-out party. The buildings say that China is big and powerful, but also inventive, sophisticated, and open. Look at three of the most prominent new structures: One is a stadium that looks like a bird's nest, another an aquatic center that resembles a blue bubbly cube, a third an arts center in the form of an egg as big as a city block. Nests, eggs, and bubbles—a whimsical, approachable China. And then there's the "twisted doughnut," the stunning giant home to CCTV, China's government-run broadcaster. Still unfinished, the building connects at the top with cantilevered sections that meet 31 feet high in the air. Practical-minded Beijingers crane their necks and wonder aloud whether the skewed tower will tumble.

A complaint often heard: Many of these structures are designed for foreign tastes, not Chinese. "China is not confident of its own designs, and people prefer to try something new," observes Du Xiaodong, editor of Chinese Heritage magazine in Beijing. "The results are disconnected from whatever's next door, and the newest building in the world sits next to some of the oldest, standing together like strangers."

One of the public shames of Beijing is that its building boom has destroyed most of the city's old hutong neighborhoods of traditional courtyard houses, whose residents are often forcibly relocated to make way for projects that enrich local officials and developers. Pei Zhu and Tong Wu, the Chinese architects who designed the digital command center for the Olympics, are among the few architects trying to preserve and adapt what remains of the old city. Instead of razing and building over historic neighborhoods, they'll take a factory constructed during Mao's time and refashion it with courtyards and glass walls that offer vistas of the old city. The approach restores Beijing as a city for walkers. Above all it balances the old with the new, a fitting combination for an ancient capital in transition.

As for Mr. Wang, he will likely be among the million or more migrants who will have returned home or moved on to other jobs before the Olympics commence. When the television cameras roll, the city's futuristic vista will have little place for the workers who built it.

Ted C. Fishman is the author of China, Inc. Gred GIirard's most recent book is Phantom Shanghai.
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