BEIJING - At Beijing's new Urban Planning Exhibition Center, visitors are crowding around a computerized city planning map to try to locate their neighborhoods, and learn if and when the government will knock down their homes.
In an authoritarian system where officials have traditionally treated urban planning like a state secret, the computerized map marks something of a milestone: Information is being made available to the residents who may be affected by it.
City officials, though, have limited how far the information can travel. The computers have no printers, and the hard drives sit in locked boxes, to keep people from copying the map onto floppy discs.
The tentative approach toward the release of information is a symbol of the challenges Chinese officials face trying to overcome their authoritarian instincts and become more open with the public.
The Communist Party operates a top-down system of government. Citizens have few rights to know much of anything, and Beijing's approach to city planning has followed that philosophy.
Officials decide what can be built where with little or no input from residents. China has no public hearings, and no zoning offices where people can walk in and copy documents.
In the past decade, the issue of city planning has taken on greater urgency as the government has pushed urban redevelopment at a blistering pace. Entire neighborhoods have been razed in a period of weeks to make way for apartment buildings or shopping centers. The demolitions, which resemble wartime bombing, have displaced tens of thousands of residents and caused great social stress.
At the Urban Planning Exhibition Center, officials say they are trying to be more open, thus their computerized map.
"We want to get more and more public comment and feedback," said Huang Yan, 37, a deputy director in the city planning office. "This is a kind of progress."
The museum is the first of its kind in the city. It provides a mixture of urban history and government propaganda, designed to sell residents on the regime's vision for making Beijing a modern capital.
While most museums want to attract crowds, this one is different. It generally accepts groups Friday afternoons by appointment only because, officials say, the rest of the building is occupied by government offices.
Individuals can visit on weekends only from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Many Beijingers, though, still don't know the exhibit exists.
When a foreigner arrived at the museum recently, an official stopped him at the front gate and then radioed inside. "It's a regulation," the man said.
A few minutes later, another man emerged from the building. "What is your business here?" he asked. When the foreigner said he wanted to see the exhibit, the man obliged.
The museum opened in October. In the first two weeks, it drew 16,000 people, which surprised and perhaps alarmed some officials.
"We didn't expect so many people would be interested in it," said Huang, who speaks English and has studied urban planning in Europe and the United States. "We asked the reporters not to write too much."
The exhibit's biggest attraction is a scale model of the city, covering an area about half the size of a tennis court. People crowd around as a guide uses a laser light to point out landmarks such as the Forbidden City and sites for new construction, including the ultra-modern sports complex for the 2008 Olympic Summer Games.
The model provides a rare vantage point for people wanting a sense of Beijing, a city of 13 million that sprawls like Los Angeles and suffers from even worse smog. While the model appears to be new, its rendering of the city is already years out-of-date.
Beijing's city center appears as it once did, largely a sea of gray tile roofs on top of traditional gray brick homes. Many of the houses, however, have been demolished to make way for office and commercial buildings.
One recent day, Gu Pinglu, a retired state worker, stood at the edge of the model and tried to find his home on "Internal Affairs Street" in the eastern part of town. Gu, who is in his 70s, plans to spend five months in Canada this year, visiting his daughter.
He wanted to know if his home will still be here when he returns.
Developers are variously said to have plans to tear up part of the neighborhood to build eight-story apartment houses or modern courtyard homes.
"I just want to know the plan," said Gu, who wore cloth boots and a charcoal gray cap.
'Original look protection'
After looking over the model, Gu checked a giant backlit planning map. Then a museum employee helped him locate his neighborhood on the computer.
Color-coding indicated that the section where he lives is designated an "original look protection area" until 2010. It is zoned for buildings no higher than 18 feet. Gu was optimistic his home would survive the year.
In addition to elderly people concerned about their homes, the museum draws developers, investors and members of the city's young, emerging middle class who want to know more about an area before buying an apartment. Many say they wish the center provided more detailed information.
The exhibit devotes just a small space to what might have been.
After the Communists took over Beijing in 1949, a professor named Liang Sicheng recommended building the government's new administrative center in the western suburbs to preserve the ancient city and its low skyline.
His plan failed in part because China was desperately poor at the time and had little money for new construction. Officials also wanted to take advantage of the central city's imperial grandeur.
The decision to build inside the old city - a step that many architects now consider disastrous - set the stage for decades of hodgepodge urban planning and widespread destruction, including the demolition of the city wall.
During the 1990s, the rapid pace of redevelopment transformed the skyline into an uneven bar graph of glass and steel high-rises, some with pointy roofs resembling Chinese straw hats.
The enormous face-lift has been particularly hard on long-term residents, who are usually given only the most meager information about their fate. Officials and developers often delay revealing the dates for destruction to prevent neighbors from organizing opposition.
Huang Yan, the deputy planning director, says the city is trying to improve the process. She said the government now requires developers to post plans at construction sites, and officials are beginning to meet residents to explain the changes in neighborhoods.
Beijing's state-controlled media usually portrays these encounters in glowing terms. Some residents tell a different story.
After the government demolished dilapidated homes near Black Dragon Pool Park in southeast Beijing in 2000, it built an apartment complex.
Residents moved back into houses far better than the ones that had been destroyed, but retirees could not afford the exorbitant heating costs. Some residents now spend winter days indoors, wrapped in coats and sweaters.
China's state-run media has described life in the apartments as "heaven."
"It's hell," said Zhang Xiwen, 70, a retired state machinery worker who carries his pet crickets inside his coat to keep them warm. "We are all frozen."
Last fall, before government officials brought foreign reporters to visit the complex, they told disgruntled residents to stay inside their apartments.
"They were afraid we would tell the truth," Zhang said.