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And the winner of the 2012 Pritzker prize for architecture is Chinese vice-premier Li Keqiang! Well, not really – but that is what you might have concluded from a glance at a recent front page of the official China Daily newspaper.

The paper used an expansive photograph of a grinning Mr Li to mark the first time a China-based architect has received the prestigious international award. But while the picture was headlined “On Top of the World of Architecture’’, a closer reading of its caption revealed that Mr Li’s real role was attending the award ceremony. The actual winner, the innovative architect Wang Shu, did not get a mention until page two – and even then no photo.

When I worked in Beijing in the 1990s and 2000s, such adulation of top leaders would probably have seemed normal. However, on a recent trip it stood out enough to set me thinking about some of the contrasts between China’s “northern capital” and Tokyo – “eastern capital” in Chinese characters – where I have spent the past three years.

While Japanese mainstream newspapers are tamer than those in some other advanced democracies, no Tokyo politician could expect the uniformly supportive coverage taken for granted by Mr Li, who is set to become China’s premier next year. Japanese editors rather relish the chance to criticise their country’s short-lasting leaders – and race each other to release the latest polls showing plummeting prime ministerial popularity.

Even the relatively staid state broadcaster NHK sometimes spices up its news programmes with criticism of top leaders. That is not something you are likely to see on China Central Television. Watching one recent flagship CCTV 7pm news, I found the first five minutes taken up by a recitation of a decision by the Communist party’s politburo on “deepening science and technology system reform” – illustrated by slabs of text on a plain blue screen.

A different approach to media management is just one of a host of contrasts that will strike any Tokyo traveller in Beijing. Both capitals blend avenues and alleys centred on grand palaces, but nobody could confuse the two even for a moment.

Beijing throbs with raw energy while Tokyo purrs like a well-oiled Lexus. The distinctive smell of Beijing smog washed into my arriving airliner as soon as the doors were opened – a symptom of pollution levels that Tokyo has not suffered for decades.

Japan still does a good line in food scares – including recent fretting over the effects of radiation released from the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. But Chinese safety scandals are in a class of their own. I made the mistake of consulting the Beijing Time Out guide for restaurant tips, only to find the section prefaced by a list of “famously foul foods” reportedly served to Chinese diners, including cooking oil made from rotting abattoir offcuts, pork laced with enough steroids to make tourists test positive for drug use, and cat meat soaked in sheep urine and sold as lamb.

A couple of tasty and apparently untainted dinners cheered me up. It was also bracing to see the signs of spreading prosperity brought by China’s rapid growth. Beijing now exceeds even Tokyo as a hotbed for hyper-modern architecture.

However, the flipside of such development is the destruction of the traditional neighbourhoods of lanes and courtyards that once made Beijing one of the world’s most distinctive big cities. Earthquakes, war and progress have also left Tokyo with little of its pre-modern architecture. But stronger property rights have made for more organic development of the Japanese capital, with plots staying in family hands for generations. In Beijing, modernisation generally means the razing and reconstruction of large areas and the wholesale removal of their residents.

At a forum a day before he received the Pritzker prize, China’s new starchitect Mr Wang railed against this model of development, complaining that such projects left disconnected “colonies”, symbols of a globalising tide that had rendered the once-beautiful capital unrecognisable.

The central role of government in Chinese urban development makes such complaints a sensitive matter, however. Which may help explain why the China Daily’s story on the Pritzker prize-giving focused on Mr Li’s pride in Beijing’s selection as the venue – with no mention of Mr Wang’s discontents.

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