BEIJING — String quartets still play during the cocktail hour at luxury hotels, blond children still ride their bikes along the broad avenues, the spouses of diplomats and foreign business executives still shop for luxury provisions at the cavernous Friendship Store on Beijing's main drag.
After more than a week of martial law and mounting tension over student protests, troop movements and convulsions within the Communist Party, life remains normal--more or less--for the city's expatriate community.
But uncertainty over the course of events has reportedly put many business deals on hold and sparked an exodus of Hong Kong Chinese from the capital. And with images of mass protests appearing daily on television in Japan and the West, China's bold flirtation with democracy has cast a pall over the tourism industry.
"When you see on TV a million people demonstrating and chanting something, it's going to seem far more ominous than if you were actually there," said Tony Zamora, executive vice president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing. "But what's amazing is that there's been no violence. The mood of the city now is one of great optimism. There's almost a carnival feeling."
After Premier Li Peng declared martial law May 20 and tried to move troops into the city to clear demonstrators out of Tian An Men Square, however, many foreign firms decided things were getting too hot for comfort.
"Quite a few wives and children have decided to go shopping in Hong Kong for a week or so, at company expense," one American executive said.
Yet, with the exception of Hong Kong Chinese, who do not enjoy diplomatic protection, few foreigners have been bolting. An informal survey of 30 American companies in Beijing by the U.S. Foreign Commercial Service last week revealed that only four had evacuated some or all of their expatriate employees.
Still, a travel advisory by the State Department, warning Americans to delay plans to visit China, remains in effect, a U.S. Embassy Marine guard said Monday.
Richard Ondrik, Beijing sales and marketing manager for Crown Pacific, a freight forwarding company, said a number of clients have postponed moves to Beijing since the disturbances began. He has in turn advised that "people don't send personal effects to China for the time being."
Left in a Hurry
And he has been getting calls from Hong Kong Chinese who left the People's Republic in a hurry, then started planning for contingencies--calling him to ask what it would cost to have their belongings shipped out, if it came to that.
More significantly, though, Ondrik said his commercial cargo shipping business has been drying up over the past two weeks.
"People aren't signing contracts, and there's been a substantial drop in new cargo," Ondrik said.
Group tours are being canceled, meanwhile, resulting in a rash of vacancies at Beijing's hotels. Zamora, the American Chamber official who is also general manager of the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel in Beijing, said his occupancy rate declined by 25% to 30% over the past two weeks. The billeting of several television news crews and a minor legion of reporters has failed to make up for the losses, even in bar proceeds.
"Unfortunately, all you journalists are out chasing demonstrations instead of drinking," he said. "Our bar business is not what it could be."
Should the pro-democracy demonstrators capitulate to the hard-line government and abandon their position in Tian An Men Square, concern about further instability could slow foreign investment, local business executives said.
The manager of an American company making boilers in a joint venture factory in western Beijing, where People's Liberation Army troops were stymied by citizen barricades a week ago, said production slowed because some of his 2,500 Chinese employees could not get public transportation to work--or apparently stopped off to join the throngs in the streets.