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Beijingers feel the Olympic pinch

August 8, 2008

By Cindy Sui
Asia Times
August 5, 2008

BEIJING - The difference is noticeable as soon as one arrives at
Beijing International Airport ahead of the Summer Olympic Games which
kick off on Friday.

Just a year ago, baggage carts were situated inconveniently, cabbies
accosted passengers at the arrival halls with calls of "Taxi? Taxi?"
and the terminals' pick-up and drop-off areas were clogged with vehicles.

Now, carts are within easy reach, taxi drivers wait for passengers at
taxi stands and there's a calmer, less helter-skelter atmosphere.

"It's a lot more orderly," said Jia Hai, a native of northeastern
Chinese city of Qiqihar, who flew into Beijing recently for business.

These seemingly small changes are part of an eight-year campaign to
transform not only the "hardware", but "software" of China's capital.
It is the government's attempt to show the world the new face of
China, as a modern and civilized country. The 2008 Olympics are the
first time a Chinese city has played host to the world's largest
sporting event.

Ever since it won the bid in 2001, Beijing has been preparing.
Massive construction projects - not just of Olympic venues, but
buildings throughout the city - have given the capital a distinctly
different look and feel.

Besides completing 31 Olympic venues, Beijing has built the world's
largest airport, added two new subway lines and an airport rail link.
Throughout the city, many old siheyuan or courtyard-houses have been
demolished to make way for multi-storey shopping malls, restaurants
or upscale office or apartment buildings.

Roads in the city center and suburbs are almost unrecognizable, with
freshly painted lanes and millions of pots of plants and flowers
adorning them. The atmosphere in residential neighborhoods has also changed.

Harder to find are elderly ladies sitting on stools outside their
courtyard homes in Beijing's narrow tree-lined alleys or hutongs,
many of which have been razed. Now, old neighborhoods are are often
covered with block after block of treeless plazas, new office
buildings or commercial towers.

Street hawkers selling everything from Tibetan jewelry to freshly
made jianbing - eggs and green onions wrapped in a thin pancake - are
gone. So, too, are the wagons peddling sweet potatoes and peanut cakes.

Bars, restaurants and night clubs near some Olympic venues have been
ordered to shut down or to close earlier than usual. Prostitutes no
longer stand at street corners, and are even absent at the north side
of Ritan Park, where they once flourished.

Government measures taken to ensure Beijing makes a good impression
on the half a million expected visitors have made the city a quieter
version of its former lively self.

"We can't put tables outside during the Olympic period or we'll be
fined," said a waitress at the popular Western restaurant Grandma's
Kitchen in central Beijing.

Even personal habits, such as throat-clearing and spitting are less
common than before, thanks to a barrage of government campaigns meant
to polish up Beijingers' manners before the arrival of their guests.

Traffic now runs quite smoothly, but only after the city imposed
automobile restrictions in mid-July, effectively pulling one-third of
the city's estimated 3.3 million motor vehicles off the roads on any
given day. A 20-kilometer drive into the city on the Fifth Ring Road
during rush hour on Friday evening took only 25 minutes, compared to
at least an hour in the past.

Even cab drivers, who generally have plenty to complain about, have
mellowed out. "The city looks prettier," one cabbie told Asia Times
Online. Alexandru Patatics, a tourist from Romania, remarked: "I'm
surprised we haven't seen any beggars."

That's because police have sent them away, along with the homeless
who used to live under bridges and underpasses. Protesters and many
migrant workers have also been shooed away as the authorities strive
for a spic and span city.

"They locked me up in a detention center for five days," said Wang
Xia, a woman from southwest China's Sichuan province, who
clandestinely sells bottled water from a bicycle outside the Forbidden City.

She hides the bottled water in a black plastic bag and covers the
bike basket with a wooden board. Still, that didn't prevent police
from catching her recently, confiscating all the water and money she
had on her.

"The Olympics are good, but it doesn't bring me any benefits," said Wang.

Like most of China's poorest, many of whom can't afford a TV or
newspaper subscription, she has no idea who China's famous athletes
are, and would be hard pressed to identify basketball star Yao Ming
or champion hurdler Liu Xiang.

Clearly, the changes in Beijing have not come without a price.

While officials such as President Hu Jintao have praised China's
athletes, the government has not acknowledged the sacrifices made by
hundreds of thousands of Beijing residents who were relocated to the
outskirts of the city to make way for construction carried out in the
name of beautifying the city.

Most willingly, albeit grudgingly, took the non-negotiable and
less-than-market-price compensation the government and property
developers paid them. Those who refused to move were forcibly
evicted. Some who protested were jailed.

Many of the evictions did not involve making land available for
Olympic venues. Instead, neighborhoods profited district governments
who sold them to property developers or developed the land themselves.

Other Beijingers are struggling to eke out a living amid work
stoppage orders, driving restrictions and the suspension of some
small businesses.

Hotels, travel agencies and businesses involved in foreign trade are
also feeling the Olympic pinch as visa restrictions for foreigners
have caused a drop in tourist numbers and kept foreign businessmen
from entering the country.

The "go along, get along" attitude of Beijingers and the Chinese
government's strict authority have enabled the government to enact
the monumental changes and sweeping measures ahead of the Games, analysts said.

"It's certainly possible in North Korea, but very few countries [can
pull this off]," said Joseph Cheng, a political science professor
specializing on China at the City University of Hong Kong.

"As a Chinese saying goes, 'Beijingers are people who live just
beneath the foot of the Son of Heaven [emperor]'. They tend to be
more patriotic and proud," said Cheng.

Forty-year-old pedicab driver Zheng Hai used to live in a hutong just
north of Ritan Park in central Beijing. Now, he and his family had to
move more than an hour away to the suburbs because the 300,000 yuan
(US$44,776) compensation was not enough to buy an apartment in the city proper.

Zheng still goes to his old neighborhood every day, looking for customers.

He expects the government will soon suspend his one-man operation
because the rickety carriages he and others peddle are considered an
eyesore by officials, even though they are great for squeezing by
cars and navigating congested streets. He earns no more than 80 yuan
($11) a day.

"I'll just look for some other kind of work. It will only be for a
month," said Zheng.

Losing a month's salary is never easy, but Zheng's attitude is not
unusual in Beijingers.

Zheng will not be able to afford tickets to the Olympic competitions,
but said he will watch the Games on TV. He hopes Chinese hurdler Liu
Xiang will defend the gold medal he won four years ago in Athens.
"I'm really proud as a Beijing native," Zheng said.

Most people in China seem positive about the Olympics.

"Everyone who is in China can detect this tremendous support for the
Olympic Games ... This is a milestone marking China's achievements,
so there is tremendous enthusiasm. There's no doubt about it," said Cheng.

Many Beijingers feel they have benefited from the changes - including
the new subway lines, the property boom and the beautification of
their previously dusty streets. Beijing officials say the Olympics
have provided millions of jobs.

Still, some circumstances are beyond the Chinese government's
control. While the weather is not stifling, it's been more than 30
degrees Celsius and humid in the past week. Worse, the pollution
doesn't seem to be going away, although skies did clear enough for
clouds to be visible Friday.

"It's beautiful, but very hot and we can't see the blue sky," said
French tourist Jean-Thomas Giraud, pointing to the typically thick
layer of haze that shrouds Beijing.

The government last week announced emergency measures, including
banning another 10% of vehicles in Beijing and restricting drivers in
neighboring Tianjin municipality and Hebei province. The government
also suspended operations at more than 200 factories.

Meanwhile, despite the raft of public awareness campaigns, some old
habits die hard.

People can still be seen scrambling to get on subway cars without
lining up or letting passengers alight with any semblance of order.
Others continue to go to the bathroom in public. A little girl last
week squatted down near a tree outside a newly built commercial
building in the central part of the city to urinate. Her mother
watched approvingly.

Cindy Sui is a freelance journalist from Taipei.
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