Of the many decisions China's new Prime Minister will make during his five years in office, one will leave its mark on the capital for decades to come - the choice of a design for a National Theatre, on a prime site in the city centre. The land is west of the Great Hall of the People, where Zhu Rongji was elected Premier on Tuesday, and has lain empty for the 39 years since one of his predecessors, Zhou Enlai, proposed building a theatre there. Famines, political campaigns, a lack of money and a long-running dispute over who would use the site kept it empty until the top seven Communist Party leaders finally approved the project late last year. It will cost the state treasury more than two billion yuan (about HK$1.86 billion). Mr Zhu, a lover of Beijing Opera, has been put in charge of the project. Domestic and foreign architects have applied to submit bids for the design, which must be in by June, and the winner will be selected by July. Work is due to start next year and be completed in four years. If all goes well, Mr Zhu may be able to see a performance of his favourite opera Empress He Curses the Palace before his first term ends in March 2003. It will have a built-up area of 120,000 square metres, with four main parts: a 2,700-seat opera house, a 2,000-seat music hall, a 1,200-seat theatre and a smaller one of 300-500 seats for modern plays. The project is resonant with historical and cultural significance. Beijing has been the capital for more than 800 years, with a brief intermission during the era of the nationalist Kuomintang who ruled from Nanjing, and as such the centre of the nation's culture and performing arts. But communist political campaigns and the frantic commercialisation of the post-1978 economic reform era have demolished many of Beijing's theatres and led to the decline of its traditional arts. Promotion of culture took a back seat to raising output of steel and grain and giant housing projects. But, having achieved an adequate food supply and creditable economic growth, China's leaders have time to consider loftier issues of how they will be remembered by future generations and what they will leave behind. In Shanghai, anxious to recapture its position as one of Asia's most important cities, the city fathers have built a giant Opera House designed by a French architect with a shining glass exterior and a state-of-the-art museum considered to be the best in the country. Beijing has lagged behind. It has built China's best road system and dozens of new skyscrapers and shopping centres, but it is hard to say if any of them will survive into the next dynasty. But things are beginning to change. The Bank of China has hired Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei to design its new 60-metre-high headquarters in Beijing, due to be topped out in May, on the main Chang An Avenue west of Tiananmen Square. The National Theatre will be even more prestigious. It will be bordered on one side by the Great Hall of the People, a stark utilitarian building that impresses by its size but not its beauty, and on another by Zhongnanhai, where the top leaders live and work. Wu Zuqiang, a vice-chairman of the China Literary and Art Federation and one of the main proponents of the theatre, said that, because of its location, the choice of a design would be difficult. 'People think the theatre should have its own special character. A design similar to that of the Shanghai Opera House would not be suitable. It must blend in with its surroundings and the buildings round it,' he said. 'International companies are very interested in tendering. The choice will depend on the quality of their presentation, with price one factor. 'I think quality should be the prime consideration. Then we will have nothing to regret.' While Mr Zhu is overseeing the project, the final decision on the design is likely to be made by other members of the leadership as well. At the site itself, there is no sign of what is to come. Fenced off from the street, it is used as a car park and by construction teams digging tunnels for an extension of the city's second subway line. Residents of one-storey homes that will have to be demolished said they had heard of the project but not been told officially. One retired factory worker who has lived there for more than 40 years said Zhou Enlai first proposed the project in 1959 and homes on the north side of the site were demolished. 'Then it was sidelined by the three years of disasters [1959-61], the split with the Soviet Union and our having to pay back our debts to them, and then the Cultural Revolution. In 1979 the project came up again and more houses were knocked down,' he said. The next obstacle was a dispute between proponents of a theatre and the National People's Congress which wanted to put up its office building on the site. In the early 1980s work started on this building but stopped soon after. Then Beijing spent its money on the Asian Games in 1990 and its unsuccessful bid for the Olympics in 2000. Lack of money was always the biggest problem, the worker said. 'If we build it, it is a sign of the strength of the nation,' he said.