Beijing hunkers down for the Games

Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
Trip End Dec 31, 2011

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Flag of China  ,
Monday, July 28, 2008

This year's Olympics certainly won't be dubbed the Friendly Games. Perhaps the Forced Friendly Games might be a more apt title.

Race to remake Beijing in time for 'No-Fun Games'

Erin Conway-Smith, Special to
July 24, 2008 7:41 AM ET

BEIJING - Beijing was built by invaders - the Mongolians, the Manchus - who over centuries left their mark on the city by way of its blood red walls, ornately curved eaves and narrow grey brick alleys.

These days, you might think that the latest invasion was by aliens.

The scaffolding has just come off a city newly dotted with massive steel and glass spaceship-like structures that jut out at gravity-defying angles, earning their colourful local nicknames: the Bird's Nest, the Egg, the Big Shorts.

They are clean, spacious and futuristic-looking, just as China wants its capital to be seen when the world's spotlight shines on it in August. The campaign to transform Old Beijing has involved an attempted extreme makeover of the city, from its architecture to public decorum.

All the hard work has earned some successes. The air is slightly less soupy with smog, the traffic isn't as gridlocked in recent weeks and queues are a little more orderly, though blatant queue-jumping persists. Recently, for the first time in my three years in Beijing, a motorist politely waved me through a crosswalk rather than aggressively cutting me off with his right-hand turn.

Etiquette campaign

The Olympics have also been a boon for city infrastructure. Visitors landing at the new Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital Airport, the largest airport terminal in the world, will be welcomed by a new high-speed rail link to downtown and helpful young women in sashes, rather than the illegal "black taxis" aggressively pushing their services as they did until recently. New subway lines make it easier to navigate this sprawling city, which is often choked by maddening gridlock due to rapidly rising car ownership.

One of the most visible changes in new Beijing is the security presence. Many varieties of security guards and police patrol central areas at night. Police are known to randomly stop foreigners and ask to see their papers; there are stories of some foreign residents being hauled in overnight if they weren't carrying their passports and police registration.

It's still easy to spot behaviour that doesn't befit the government's numerous "manners campaigns": a taxi driver taking a snooze in his back seat, slippered feet out the window. Or one lighting up a cigarette in his tidy cab. I also still regularly hear the unmistakable sound of someone hocking a loogie -- though slightly less often than a year ago, perhaps thanks to China's seemingly endless drives to stop citizens from spitting in public.

Many of the Olympic volunteers speak relatively good English and are at the ready -- though getting good directions from them is another thing. But as for the vaunted English lessons for Beijing taxi drivers, out of the hundreds of taxis I have taken in the past year, a handful spoke a few words of English, and only one spoke it at a beginner's level.

At some city intersections, middle-aged attendants armed with a flag and whistle cajole the pedestrians to stop instead of just zigzagging through the red light and 12 lanes of oncoming traffic as is usual habit. This is part of a long and largely unsuccessful attempt to retrain pedestrians and cyclists. One surprised me recently with her language skills, stepping in front of my bicycle after I had already stopped at a light. "Please stop. It is not safe to cross," she said curtly in English - and then inquired in Chinese if she had said it correctly.

Has the charm gone?

Civil propriety aside, as the race to remake Beijing for the Olympics ends, it seems that the city's old charm has gone missing along the way. Some of the ancient alleys have disappeared, entire neighbourhoods bulldozed to make way for ritzy new buildings. The extensive redevelopment of historic Qianmen Street, a Ming Dynasty-era neighbourhood near Tiananmen Square where old buildings were torn down to make way for Disney-style replicas -- and high-end fashion shops -- won't be finished in time for the Olympics.

Some restaurants have vanished, too. In Beijing, one of the pleasures of summer is lounging at roadside tables drinking Tsingtao beer and eating chuanr - grilled meat on a stick - at the city's many small Xinjiang restaurants, run by Turkic Muslims who live in western China. Twice in the past year I went to eat at such restaurants, which serve food that is more Central Asian than Chinese, only to find they had been torn down, the victims of neighbourhood development.

Most of their Xinjiang owners have been forced out of town too.

A much-welcome improvement is that many restaurants have in the past few months started offering a non-smoking area -- this in a city where it was not considered polite to ask someone to stop smoking near you in public. Menus have been tidied up - newcomers to the city will no longer be able to chuckle at the sometimes profane English translations of house specialties, or wonder at dishes like "pock-marked old lady's bean curd" or "chicken without sexual life."

Visitors to the city should, however, brace themselves for the squat toilets at many restaurants, public washrooms and Olympic venues. Public toilets in Beijing are a lot cleaner than they used to be. And many now include toilet paper -- something you would never have found in the past -- but squat toilets still take some getting used to.

Bunker mentality as Beijing readies for Games

6 days ago

BEIJING (AFP) - Its ancient city walls were demolished decades ago, but with the Olympic Games fast approaching Beijing is raising a new defence that is echoing those long-gone fortifications.

The capital has gone into fortress mode for next month's Games, with police checkpoints choking road traffic into Beijing, tightened security across the city, and even surface-to-air missiles set up near Olympic venues.

About 150,000 police and other security personnel will be on hand to safeguard the Games, state media reports said, surpassing the 100,000 at the 2004 Athens Games, the first held in the post-9/11 era.

The police and soldiers making up the main security force will be aided by another 400,000 civilian volunteers whose duties will include watching for any threats to the Games.

"We will help watch during the Olympics for any 'sudden incidents' or suspicious activity and report it to police immediately," volunteer Zhang Dekui told AFP, gesturing toward his hip-holstered cell phone.

"It is the responsibility of all Chinese to contribute to a successful Olympics," said the 51-year-old convenience store owner, standing near the main Olympic soccer venue in a blue and white "Beijing 2008" shirt and hat.

The wide-ranging security saw the implementation of a so-called "Defence Line" security plan launched last week that included hundreds of checkpoints manned by armed police on routes into the capital.

State media said the plan was aimed at preventing any suspicious persons or cargo from entering Beijing ahead of and during the August 8-24 Olympic Games and was causing traffic delays of more than two hours into the city.

Despite huge signs around the city pronouncing "Beijing Welcomes You!", China also has tightened visa restrictions, causing disruptions for business travellers and forcing many foreigners to leave.

On Monday, immigration police went door-to-door in Beijing's diplomatic residence district checking the passports of foreigners.

China says the blanket security is to thwart possible terrorist attacks, while as-yet unexplained explosions on two buses Monday in the southwestern city of Kunming that killed two people have added to the tensions.

But some critics say the clampdown's real aim is to prevent domestic political and social discontent surfacing while the world watches, accusing the government of carrying out a wave of arrests of rights activists and dissidents.

"It is partly to prevent terrorism but even more of the public security power is being used to silence political dissent and keep domestic discontent away from the Games," Beijing-based dissident writer Liu Xiaobo told AFP.

"We have never seen such security here before."

The government has repeatedly pointed to what it calls a threat from militants in its restive Muslim western region of Xinjiang, a claim backed by some anti-terror experts.

"Beijing faces a higher threat than Athens. Absolutely," said Rohan Gunaratna, head of the Singapore-based International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research.

China faces a threat from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement a shadowy group believed to seek Xinjiang independence and now operating in Pakistan's border regions, he said.

China has announced breaking up a number of Xinjiang-based plots this year but has revealed little evidence, adding to skepticism over the threat.

However, even frequent critics of China's government concede that with dozens of foreign leaders to attend the Games, including US President Bush, stifling security is unavoidable.

"Whether it's in the spirit of the Olympics or not, with a big international event and so many state leaders attending, that entails pretty thorough security," said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch.
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