China Zun, at 528 meters, dominates Beijing's skyline. Zhongnanhai and the Forbidden City, some 6 kilometers west of the skyscraper, are seen in the lower right corner of the picture. Photo: Handout
China Zun, at 528 meters, dominates Beijing's skyline. Zhongnanhai and the Forbidden City, some 6 kilometers west of the skyscraper, are seen in the lower right corner of the picture. Photo: Handout

What does an office block in Beijing have to do with the safety and privacy of members of the top leadership of the Communist Party of China? Not very much unless the skyscraper is so tall that it could put party chieftains in the crosshairs of foreign spies.

Piercing the sky of the Chinese capital city at the dizzying height of 528 meters, the 108-story China Zun, which celebrated its topping-out as Beijing’s tallest building – and the world’s ninth tallest – at the end of last year and whose inauguration was expected by October, might compromise the security of the otherwise impregnable Zhongnanhai, official residence of Xi Jinping and other top party brass, for just one reason: it’s way too tall.

Day and night view of China Zun as seen from the west, roughly from the angle of Zhongnanhai. Photos: Handout

Erected on a prime plot in the central business district some 6 kilometers east of the former imperial garden converted into a compound that houses Xi and members of his coterie, China Zun commands an unobstructed, panoramic view of the capital city, a major drawing card of the 24 billion yuan (US$3.78 billion) Grade A office tower that its developer, the state-owned CITIC Group Corp, has been trumpeting to potential tenants.

Yet the Hong Kong-based Ming Pao daily has revealed that China Zun’s top three floors, Levels 106-107 and an observatory on level 108, which could have fetched the highest rent for the developer, is to be expropriated by the national-security apparatus, since the entire Zhongnanhai complex could be seen from the top of the skyscraper with the naked eye on a clear day.

It’s said that with high-end telescopes and other monitoring equipment, the highly classified layout of the compound that serves as the headquarters of the Central Commission of the Communist Party and the Chinese State Council, as well as the day-to-day lives and activities of Xi and other top leaders, could all have been laid bare before the eyes of anyone who reaches the top of the building.

Zhongnanhai is around 6 kilometers west of China Zun. Photo: Google Maps
A rare, undated aerial photo of Zhongnanhai, official residence of top Chinese party and state leaders. Photo: DWnews
Xinhua Gate, or the New China Gate, Zhongnanhai’s main entrance. Photo: Xinhua

The issue is not merely about unraveling the mystique of Zhongnanhai that’s cloistered at the heart of Beijing’s bustling Xicheng district, but more a matter of national security, as the skyscraper could lend a second-to-none vantage point for foreign spies to pry into the nerve center of Chinese politics.

It’s also said that senior national-security officials and generals at the Central Security Bureau responsible for safeguarding Zhongnanhai and the security details of the top leaders are fuming over the “gross negligence” of Beijing’s urban planning authority for giving the go-ahead to the supertall project and CITIC Group’s “lack of political sensitivity.”

Uncertainty is hanging over China Zun (left), originally scheduled to be commissioned in October as Beijing’s tallest building. Photo: Weibo

The potential security breach more than 500 meters up in the sky wasn’t detected until after a routine check after the completion of the fitting-out work on the top floors, and CITIC Group has since been told to postpone the inauguration of the building indefinitely while national-security agents work out remedies.

It’s rumored that the observatory will be retained but operated by a team of national-security agents and a special screening of tourists has been proposed to intercept equipment like telescopes of high magnification. Windows and glass curtains facing Zhongnanhai would also be covered.

Local residents with red armbands identifying them as security volunteers kept watch near the Zhongnanhai leadership compound ahead of the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, in Beijing on March 1, 2017. Photo:Reuters/Jason Lee

Meanwhile, Macau-based military analyst Antony Wong told Hong Kong’s Apple Daily that the recoil-operated, semi-automatic Barrett M82 rifle with a range of up to several kilometers could theoretically hit targets in and around Zhongnanhai if fired from the top of China Zun, wind speed and visibility permitting.

However, he doubted the likelihood of foreign snipers perching on top of the building for an assassination mission.

Spies could also theoretically place antennas and other tapping equipment up there to intercept communications in and out of Zhongnanhai.

But the theory of a tall office tower endangering national security has also drawn some levity, as some Chinese netizens said Xi and other VIPs in Zhongnanhai could rest assured that Beijing’s notoriously filthy smog could shield them from any attempt at peeping, clandestine photography or even an attack from the top of the city’s tallest building.

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