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National Theatre
or national joke?
byMark O'Neill
South China Morning Post

Critics call it a UFO or a dinosaur's egg and a colossal waste of public money. Its supporters say it will be a global landmark and do for Beijing what the Opera House did for Sydney.

Love it or hate it, work will officially begin the National Theatre, a translucent glass and titanium bubble nestling on a lake with four auditoriums that will cost 4.7 billion yuan (about HK$4.4 billion), with 3.7 billion yuan being provided by the central Government and one billion yuan by the Beijing city government. 

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People will enter the new complex through a glass-roofed sunken avenue under the lake.

National leaders will attend the opening ceremony at the site, to the west of Tiananmen square and the Great Hall of the People. It is the biggest construction project in central Beijing since the mausoleum of Mao Zedong in 1977.

It will house a 2,500-seat opera house, a 2,000-seat concert hall, a 1,200-seat theatre and an experimental theatre with 300-500 seats. There will also be a new park on the south side of the site.

Hundreds of labourers have been working for a year to demolish 1,000 homes, restaurants, offices and workshops. Large demolition trucks with a single steel arm are destroying the last few buildings, apart from a few which will be used as dormitories for workers. "This is an enormous project, will take three years and involve tens of thousands of workers," said an engineer at the site. "The theatre will be 30 metres below ground and 30 to 40 metres above ground. As a result, it will be lower than the Great Hall, which was an important consideration.

"The design was chosen by national leaders, but I do not know who," he said. "We gave residents money as compensation for the loss of their homes and they decide where to go. They have spread to many parts of Beijing."

Although the theatre should be a matter of national pride and prestige, the members of the selection committee, the selection process and plans for its construction have been shrouded in secrecy. Few Beijing people know that the heart of their city is about to be transformed.

Mainland journalists say they have been ordered not to report on it. Officials will not say who will attend tomorrow's ceremony to mark the official start of construction. Apparently, there are two reasons for the secrecy. One is that the committee of national leaders which selected the avant-garde design, by French architect Paul Andreu, was bitterly divided on its design, scale and cost.

Mr Andreu, chief architect of Aeroports de Paris, has a strong track-record. His past work includes terminals at Jakarta, Cairo and Seoul airports and the Kumihama golf resort in Japan.

According to one version of events, it was President Jiang Zemin who made the final decision to select the design, wresting control of the project from Premier Zhu Rongji who was originally in charge of the selection process.

This would explain a sudden change in policy. In July 1998, models of the 44 designs were put on display at the Museum of Revolutionary History, attracting thousands of people who wrote to the selection committee with their opinions, widely reported in the media. Since then, there has only been silence.

"Given the scale of the project and the amount of public money to be spent, the secrecy is ridiculous," complained one exasperated mainland reporter. "But we have to follow orders."

The other reason is the high cost and the fact that the theatre will mainly be used by foreigners, the rich and senior officials at a time when millions of ordinary people have lost their jobs and live at a subsistence level. Perhaps it is better not to arouse their resentment by reporting the project.

For many scholars, the project is a mistake of historic proportions. He Zuoma, a member of the China Academy of Sciences, said it was too big and that the country should postpone construction for 15 years. He said that each seat would have to take about 780,000 yuan to cover the construction cost.

"Unless we subsidise the tickets, no one will be able to afford them," he said. "But we have abolished subsidies for the subway and for cabbage, why should we subsidise opera? It would be a subsidy for a small number of rich people. In the West, such theatres can operate commercially because the level of personal incomes is much higher.

"Beijing has many theatres and none are full. The Chang An Theatre was enlarged at a cost of 100 million yuan and tickets cost 200 yuan, but very few people go. Is the National Theatre not an example of inefficient and wasteful construction?"
Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei also believed it was too big. "They should build not one but two or three smaller theatres in different parts of the city to make them closer to ordinary people and lower the cost."

Zhang Kaiji, 89, one of the country's most respected architects, also argued that China could not afford such an expensive project at this stage of its development and should not go for the biggest and most luxurious. Like many architects, he is against the design, saying it does not fit in with the historic heart of Beijing, close to the Forbidden City.

A petition from 30 delegates from Hubei province to the National People's Congress this month criticised the project for the same reason, calling it a "giant cone floating on a pool of water" and saying that it was too avant-garde and not in harmony with the cultural feeling of Chinese.

Other names are not so flattering: a space alien, a frog and - after its inevitable covering of Beijing dust and dirt - a ball of manure.

But not everyone is so negative. Supporters praise the selection committee for breaking with tradition and not picking a Chinese design, a sign the country has joined the modern world.

Beijing author Wu Zuguang said that Chinese artists had wanted such a theatre ever since Prime Minister Zhou Enlai proposed it in 1958. "A National Theatre is a symbol of the nation. The United States, France and Russia have them and why not China, now that we have become a strong and powerful country?"

Feng Zhongping, an architecture professor at Qinghua University, said that lack of money was the reason the theatre had not been built on the site since 1958. "With our long history and culture, we should build such a theatre."

But he said: "I was surprised that the selection committee chose Andreu's design. I do not know why. We should not necessarily have a Chinese design, but must go for the best one. It will not be a commercial project but a government one. If we are going to do it, let us go for a big project."

Excluded from this debate are the ordinary people, who travel past the site every day on buses and bicycles. "This project is not for the people, it is just for the leaders and the rich," said one retired worker walking past the site. "Ordinary folk will not be able to afford a ticket.

"The Communist Party of today is not the party of the 1950s. It cares nothing for the common people. Look at the buildings they've put up - expensive hotels and saunas where young ladies provide massage and sex for officials. We cannot afford such places. We are left to fend for ourselves. Do we have a chance to express our opinion on these issues?"

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