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A 1,615-ft.-high symbol suddenly in search of meaning


SHANGHAI, China At first sight, the global economic slowdown seems to have had little impact in Shanghai, China's brash financial capital. A 10-minute walk through the streets of the city's financial district is guaranteed to leave shoes coated in dust from the many construction sites, where migrant workers from the country's interior work on building the latest apartment building or shopping mall, occasionally stopping to stare unashamedly at a passing foreigner. In the five-star hotels near the city's famous Bund riverfront district, foreign and Chinese businessmen still strike deals and plan for what until recently seemed to be a future of almost-guaranteed expansion.

One of the most striking changes to have emerged on the city's skyline during the past year is very much in keeping with Shanghai's role as China's modern city the completion of the Shanghai World Financial Center, the country's tallest building at 491 meters (1,615 feet). The sweeping, angular building—nicknamed the "paper bag" or "bottle opener" due to its distinctive aperture near the summit—more than satisfies the new China's desire for grand statements of achievement. It might not be the tallest building in the world—that remains the Taipei 101 tower across the Taiwan Strait—but it is one of the most distinctive and original.

The Shanghai World Financial Center also has attracted its fair share of controversy, and not just due to unfortunate timing (it was completed in August, just as China's economy began to stumble). The backing of a Japanese property magnate, Minoru Mori, has raised the hackles of some of China's more nationalistic citizens who are by no means fans of China's northern Asian neighbor. The original design for the building, which incorporated a circular space at the top, was scrapped after suggestions that it would resemble too closely the Japanese national flag. Even after the changes, some Shanghainese have suggested that the building looks uncannily like a sword, pointing threateningly at the city's heart. Bad feng shui, in other words.

There could be more pressing concerns for the building's backers. Local rumors suggest that the Shanghai World Financial Center is only around 30 percent full, with many of the tenants who had been planning to rent space in the city's prime location now considering alternative, cheaper options, or cutting back on staffing altogether. Whether that proves to be just a temporary blip or whether the building becomes a kind of grand Chinese folly marking an era of prolonged growth that never materialized depends less on the Shanghai economy itself and more on what happens in the rest of China.

Shanghai is no longer as representative of China as it once was development is faster in some inland cities, thanks to government determination to spread the country's wealth; the attention of the world (and of China's leaders) more recently was focused on Beijing and the 2008 Olympic Games; and the government's massive infrastructure investment plan announced in November envisages a much greater investment in infrastructure in rural areas than in major cities.

Shanghai is no longer the key to China's metal industry. Baosteel Group Corp. Ltd., the country's top steelmaker, is based there, but most other major producers are located elsewhere. However, as a symbol of China's growth, and the main point of contact with the outside world, Shanghai's importance remains paramount. Unfilled office space and idle construction sites in Shanghai would send a message about the health of China as a whole, and the country's ever-vigilant leaders are unlikely to let that happen.

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