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3 million tons of steel remaking Beijing

By Adrienne Mong, NBC News Producer

We were on our second pass of the eastern edge of Beijing National Stadium, aka the "Bird's Nest," in the Chinese capital.

"What? Which gate?" Lao Guan, our driver, shouted into his cell phone as he reversed the minivan a second time. "This whole street has changed the past month!"

I could understand his frustration. A native who can count back to at least three family generations born in Beijing, Guan knows this sprawling city inside out. But these days he finds himself regularly stumped by its wholesale physical changes.

Image:  Construction around the Bird's Nest stadium.
Adrienne Mong/NBC News
Construction around the Bird's Nest stadium. 

Our contact at the Bird's Nest construction site had arranged entry for us through the northern gate. But the northern gate Guan knew was no longer there. Instead, there were several other entrances buried in the morass of fences, upended pavement, piles of rubble, temporary workers' housing units, earthmovers, and trucks.

The swift construction of the Bird's Nest is emblematic of Beijing's sprint towards the Summer Olympics.

Ready, set, go…

It's impossible to know how many building sites exist in Beijing right now, but consider how many there are just for the Olympics: 31 stadiums and 45 training centers are being built for the Summer Games, according to the 2008 Project Construction Direction Office.

Adrienne Mong/NBC News
The construction site of the CCTV headquarters building in January 2007. 

The resources required for all the construction is almost as much a feat as the building and rebuilding. A conservative estimate, according to the China Business News, puts the total demand for steel for Beijing's makeover at 3 million tons – that could build the equivalent of 50 Empire State Buildings. 

The Bird's Nest stadium alone required 110,000 tons. The steel towers that make up the splashy new headquarters for CCTV, China's state television network, weigh somewhere around 50,000 tons. 

Image: CCTV headquarters building<br />
Adrienne Mong/NBC News
The CCTV headquarters building seen here in October 2007. 

A steady supply of manpower also underpins this boom town. Municipal authorities said in December that Beijing's population is now more than 17 million,  a big jump from the population of nearly 15 million in 2005. 

Of that total, more than 5 million are considered "migrants" by the Ministry of Public Security – many of whom are energizing the capital's construction boom. They can be found all over Beijing's construction sites. On a quick visit to the Bird's Nest stadium alone we met people from the surrounding provinces of Hebei and Henan.

This is not the first time Beijing has been remade.

Beijing: Back to the future

The "northern capital" has had more than its fair share of makeovers over the centuries, but the parallels to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) are especially notable.

According to the book "Beijing: From Imperial Capital to Olympic City," that era saw incredible growth with parallels to the city's current transformation.

"After 1421, Beijing more than ever became a magnet for people, goods, and services. Population increases during the Ming era, reach[ed] near one million at its highest point in the mid-fifteenth century....  The surplus entered the market. Growing commercialization fostered greater social mobility and a less tightly controlled population."    

Sounds mighty familiar, no?

Image: CCTV's nearly completed new headquarters
Adrienne Mong/NBC News
CCTV's nearly completed new headquarters seen in December 2007. 

"The impulse to remake the city and to use all possible resources to project the image of power and authority…that was a motive the Mongols had, and of course, quite a lot of the Ming emperors," explained Alison Dray-Novey, professor of history at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, who co-authored "Beijing" with Lillian Li and Haili Kong.

Of course, there's one key difference.

"In the present context, you have competing forces of the state and globalization and economic interests," noted Dray-Novey, as opposed to earlier times when the government truly controlled the city's destiny. Now, "whether the state can actually control the outcome is more in question."