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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This week on MORNING EDITION, we'll travel to one of the most fabled cities in the world. Shanghai is a major seaport, it's China's window on the rest of the world, and this week, it serves as our window into Asia's rising power.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

China's one-time nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek, once said that the rise or fall of Shanghai means the birth or death of the whole nation. A Chinese author compared the city to a cloud - capricious, unpredictable, and perfect.

MONTAGNE: It's a city that seems to be reaching for the clouds, Shanghai has more skyscrapers than New York City - so we began our reports with this Chinese city's physical transformation. Shanghai's architecture can tell you about it's colonial legacy, its communist rulers, and its capitalist boom. There are plans to change the city yet again for a world expo in 2010.

NPR's Louisa Lim reports from a Shanghai shopping area.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking in foreign language)

LOUISA LIM: Tourists cluster around their guide. The visitors sip tea in the five-sided pagoda (unintelligible) tea house at the heart of the old city. They snap pictures of the chunky gray neoclassical castles of commerce, left behind by the Western powers. Now, they're paying homage to the latest symbol of Shanghai's urban hipness, a shopping district. But these luxury boutiques, apparently in traditional in lane houses, are not what they seem. In fact, this district, Xintiandi, is a re-imagining of Shanghai's old streetscape as consumer experience, dreamt up by American architect, Ben Wood.

Mr. BEN WOOD (Architect): In order for a place to be fashionable, it has to transcend the sort of nostalgia of historic preservation. But I was quite resourceful. Some preservationists would say I was ruthless. In other words I made opening where openings didn't exist, if I thought it improved the cinematic experience of walking the neighborhood.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: Traditional music wafts along the street, heightening the film set feel of the place. This is Shanghai's most hyped urban development of recent years. But the decision to leave some old buildings standing is the exception rather than the rule.

(Soundbite of bird chirping)

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking in foreign language)

LIM: What I'm seeing now is more accepted as the new face of Shanghai. I'm now standing 88 floors above ground, on the observation deck of a skyscraper. And if I look around as far as the eye can see, in every direction I see skyscrapers stretched out into the distance. Next to me, what will be the tallest building in the world, is under construction.

What's completely mind boggling is that 20 years ago, this area, Pudong, across the river from Shanghai's original settlement, was just farmland. Now this viral growth of skyscrapers, this city on steroids, symbolizes China's urban future. Architect Ma Qingyun.

Mr. MA QINGYUN (Architect): For sure, it has a certain dimension of this symbolic quality to represent ambition and achievement, in its new form of urbanization.

LIM: Tourists are here, too, (unintelligible), to gawk and gasp at the astonishing brand new cityscape. For Ben Wood, Pudong is all about show.

Mr. WOOD: It's being designed of great plots of land for monuments to corporate power, the global economy. You can't cross the street in Pudong. They don't have a red light long enough. So they have pedestrian refuges in the middle of the street, so that you can rest up to continue your journey. Sometimes it takes as many as three changes of the stoplight to get to the other side of the street. So it's really not a humane place.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: Yet, Pudong too, is heart of Shanghai's strategy to build for its surging humanity. Almost 18 million people live in greater Shanghai. But that figure is expected to rise by a third before 2020. And so, the city is spreading unbelievably fast. In just five years, nine new satellite towns have been built - literally from scratch, each housing about the same number of people as the city of Atlanta. Senior city planner, Tang Zhiping, says the need is pressing.

Mr. TANG ZHIPING (Senior Citizen, Pudong): (Through translator) We feel that the development and construction of these small towns is pretty urgent. But these experts are even more impatient than we are. They want us to build lively bustling towns in just two or three years. That's impossible.

(Soundbite of traffic)

LIM: So Shanghai is reinventing itself anew, this time as the center of an urban megalopolis. But as lane houses are leveled to make way for a forest of skyscrapers, is it in danger of losing its Chineseness? No, says architect Ma Qingyun, because Shanghai's soul is in its openness to change, its tolerance, and its absolute pragmatism.

Mr. QINGYUN: That's true Chineseness. Anything is in its constant mutation. Nothing is set as a fixed city. We don't follow any special models. We don't care about the look of the buildings, so much so that everybody has still have to live in Shanghai, even we see some ugliest piece of buildings, we care about how convenient is the life.

LIM: Shanghai literally means on the sea. It's the city that looks outwards to the rest of the world, to the future. But what will Shanghai of the future look like in 20 years time? With change so rapid and overarching, even architects working here designing that future can't answer that question. Ma Qingyun worries about endless urban sprawl swallowing up the country side. I have hope, he says, but what I'm so afraid of is my vision of the future.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: New skyscrapers and a ring of new satellite cities, each based on a different theme. Tomorrow, Louisa Lim continues her series on Shanghai changing with breathtaking speed.

LIM: That was the whole idea of Thames(ph) Town(ph), to recreate middle England in the middle kingdom.

Mr. TIM TUNG: The client wanted an English town. They wanted a town that functions on its own - has schools and shops, houses, recreational.

INSKEEP: That's coming up. And you can see photos of Shanghai's bustling new districts at npr.org, where you can also read an essay by Louisa, on the history of the city's urban development.

MONTAGNE: And today, China announced its trade surplus with the U.S. more than doubled over the previous year. The trade imbalance for November is nearly $23 billion. That's just shy of the previous month's record trade gap.

The U.S. deficit with China tops the agenda for U.S. officials, including Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who travels to Beijing this week for economic talks. U.S. politicians complain that China holds down the value of its currency, which makes its imports unfairly cheap. Today, a bank of China official said the country's exchange rate is a matter of national sovereignty.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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