Beijing Olympic 2008
- From: Red Cherry <noreply@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Fri, 11 Jul 2008 19:30:22 +0800
With the 2008 Olympics less than a month away, China is making every effort to shed its austere image. Gordon Rayner reports from Beijing.
Just 27 days to go until the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games, and in Beijing nothing, but nothing, is being left to chance. At the Changping Vocational School, 380 Olympic hostesses have been relentlessly drilled in such complex skills as how to smile.
Grin and bear it: Olympic workers are groomed in the art of smiling and, left, a billboard at the Workers' Stadium continues the happy theme
Grin and bear it: Olympic workers are groomed in the art of smiling
To pass muster, they must always show between six and eight teeth and be capable of unflinchingly holding their grin for 10 minutes at a time. Those who cannot manage this must train for hours with a chopstick clamped between their teeth to build up their facial muscles.
Elsewhere, 800,000 students are being taught how to clap and cheer in unison, and even the weather will be strictly controlled, using "cloud-seeding" techniques to ensure it rains before, but not during, the Games.
Yet the great irony of the communist party's instinct to control every aspect of public behaviour is that the Chinese, of all people, don't need lessons in how to conduct themselves.
Paying my first visit to China last week, my overriding impression of the Chinese was that they are unfailingly charming, friendly and polite.
They're also the smiliest people I've ever come across (even without the chopstick exercises) and they have an endearingly childlike enthusiasm for the Games and for foreign tourists, which makes them natural ambassadors for China.
Walking down Beijing's busiest thoroughfare, Chang'an Jie (a 30-mile long avenue thick with hooting traffic and whistling policemen) I made a point of stopping people in the street to ask them what they hoped the Games would achieve.
There was, of course, a time when the only people allowed to speak to Westerners would have been communist party members primed with propaganda, but those days are gone, and I had no reason to doubt the motives of Ma Bin, a 32-year-old salesman for a coffee company, who said he hoped foreign visitors would discover "that China is a beautiful place where they will feel welcome", or Sang Shigany, 25, a law student, who said tourists "might be surprised to find how cosmopolitan Beijing is".
And there were some dissenting voices - one man told me about what he perceived to be corruption in the awarding of Olympics contracts, and suggested many Games venues would turn out to be white elephants.
Alas, I can't give you his name, because freedom of speech is still a distant dream in China, which locks up journalists, bloggers and dissidents, allegedly torturing some of them, and uses violence to crush independence rallies in Tibet.
Yet China is changing fast, and changing for the better.
It is worth pointing out that the man who told me about alleged corruption had travelled extensively and had lived abroad, including in Britain, but returned to China "because there are so many opportunities here. All countries have problems, but this is a great place to live."
Indeed, the changes in China since Chairman Mao's death in 1976 have been so rapid that anyone who has never visited Beijing is likely to have misconceptions that are 10 or 20 years out of date.
Beijing is full of smart shopping malls, where wealthier citizens park their Audis and VWs (there are surprisingly few bicycles) to shop in Max Mara, Burberry and Tiffany just a short walk from Mao's preserved corpse in Tiananmen Square (how much less complicated clothes shopping must have been in his day). And China's booming economy, set to become the biggest in the world, has raised standards of living in its cities to unimagined levels.
Hi Xiao Long, a tour guide barely out of his teens, told me: "When I was a kid very few people had a television, and if they did, they would have 10 or 12 families coming around to watch it. Now everyone has three or four TV sets, people have cars and mobile phones. People here are happy with their lives."
China is desperate to get this message across, hence my visit as a guest of the Beijing Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (BOCOG), but after 60 years of communist rule, Chinese officials remain better at monologue than dialogue, lending a sometimes surreal twist to our meetings.
On a visit to the new subway line serving the Olympic Park, I was presented with a 52-page pamphlet on how to use the subway, including instructions on what to do if you drop your handbag on the line (do not jump off the platform for it, or electric shock or contusion by trains may be incurred) and what to do in the event of a poison gas attack (use handkerchief to cover your mouth, go away from the source of gas quickly).
Failure to observe the rules (which include "being neatly dressed") will result in you being "transferred to public security departments". Perhaps foreign visitors would be better off walking after all.
The Chinese also love statistics - I was told the exact circumference of each of Beijing's five concentric ring roads, the exact number of workstations in the press centre (971) the total mileage of the city's subway system by 2015 (561km), the improvement in the carbon monoxide levels in the city since 1998 (39.4 per cent)… anyway, you get the picture.
I began to suspect the Chinese officials were bombarding us with numbers so there would be no time left for awkward questions about Tibet, Sudan, the disastrous torch relay or anything touching on human rights.
In fact, the top brass did let us ask questions about such prickly issues; Beijing's deputy mayor, the sharp-suited Chen Gang, remained good-humoured throughout repeated questioning about how pro-Tibetan demonstrators would be treated, though his answer wasn't exactly candid.
They would be dealt with, he said, in accordance with Chinese laws. Anyone wanting to demonstrate must have a permit (cue wry smiles) and, he said, "You will see during the Games how we will handle such situations." A rather unsettling answer.
Yet it may come as a surprise that the question could be asked at all.
China is a country which, just four years ago, was so wary of the media that it blocked almost all foreign internet sites, yet I was able to call up the BBC and UK newspaper websites and even search those sites for articles on China's human rights record.
Beijing, of course, wants the world to behold the impressive Bird's Nest stadium and the funky Water Cube in the Olympic Village, the showpieces of the Games.
Sadly, visitors may struggle to find them through the unrelenting smog, which is so thick here that, on a bad day, it seems to cling to your face like a mask. Forget the blue-sky publicity shots of the Olympic venues you might have seen; when I visited the Bird's Nest it was shrouded in a miasma and already appeared to have a thin film of grime coating its steel exoskeleton.
The officials seem to be in denial about this, quoting endless statistics to prove how safe the air is. They don't seem to realise that if the world sees this murk beamed into their homes every day, prospective tourists might choose to go elsewhere.
And that would be a great shame, as they would miss out on a country which deserves to be seen first-hand.
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