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Hiding a host of ills under the red carpet

Beijing goes to lengths beyond any host city to ready for Olympics.

July 21, 2008|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Everybody wants to make a good impression for important guests, but it's almost like an episode of "Extreme Makeover" here these days.

With a price tag of $43 billion, the Summer Games that will open Aug. 8 in Beijing are the most expensive in Olympic history. The transformation, however, goes far beyond the eye-popping architecture. The Chinese government also has been trying to create a new, improved population to go along with its spiffed-up capital city.

Migrant workers, beggars and many masseuses and fortune tellers have been sent packing for the Olympic season along with others deemed undesirable by the government.

Since May, restaurants have been required to have no-smoking sections, and this month Beijing's food safety administration ordered restaurants to remove dog meat from their menus lest it offend Western sensibilities.

DVD shops have pulled their stocks of pirated Hollywood films. Western-style toilets have replaced squat models in many locations. And a group calling itself the Capital Committee to Promote Culture and Ideological Progress recently distributed 50,000 packages of tissues along with a warning that those caught spitting in public were subject to a $7 fine.

Almost all Olympics have been a springboard for host cities to reinvent themselves. Barcelona, Spain, redeveloped its waterfront for the 1992 Games. Athens, site of the most recent Summer Games, built a new airport, highway and mass-transit system. Like Beijing, Seoul used the 1988 Olympics as a coming-out party and took the same types of steps toward Westernizing.

But everything taking place in Beijing is, like China itself, outsized.

Beijing ordered up 40 million pots of flowers. Some varieties were specially bred for the Olympics. To improve air quality, officials created a forest twice the size of New York's Central Park next to the Olympic stadiums. Factories hundreds of miles away have been closed.

"This is an extreme, extreme version of what has happened at other Olympics," said David Wallechinsky, an Olympic historian.

Costs are running three times those of the 2004 Games in Athens, which, at $15 billion, were at the time reported to be the most expensive in Olympic history. Beijing's futuristic new airport terminal designed by British architect Norman Foster cost about $3 billion and is said to be one of the largest buildings in the world.

"It's not just the buildings, it is the emotional change in the city that is so profound," said Jeff Ruffolo, an Olympic veteran from Los Angeles who is serving as an advisor to the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee.

Since 2001, when the Chinese capital won the rights to this year's Games, Beijingers have been honing their English skills.

At least according to the official website of the Olympic Games, 90,000 Beijing taxi drivers have gone through a special training program. The city has cleaned up its English-language signage, removing some of the more notorious clunkers -- for example, those near the Olympic stadium that directed visitors to "Racist Park," now properly referred to as the Ethnic Minorities Culture Park.

Etiquette training has been all the rage. More than 17 million people participated in an online program that offered advice on such fine points as what color socks to wear with a business suit (dark ones). During a competition televised this month on state-owned CCTV, contestants had to demonstrate how to greet visitors of various nationalities as judges held up cards grading their performance.

"May I kiss your hand?" the winning contestant asked someone playing a married Italian woman before kneeling to do so. An American male was received with a hearty clasping of the hands and a "Hey, man, what's up?"

Not all the measures are popular. The Geneva-based Center for Housing Rights and Evictions estimates that 1.5 million people have been moved to make way for Olympics-related projects.

Critics see parallels to the 1980 Olympics, when anybody who could remotely be considered a dissident was banished from Moscow.

One Beijing family attracted much publicity in recent weeks by bedecking its house with Olympic and Chinese flags, along with portraits of leaders dating back to Mao Tse-tung, in a colorful protest against the government's plans to demolish the property.

The house was demolished anyway Friday.

But public protest has been relatively minimal, in part because of the Chinese government's intolerance of dissent, but also because of genuine pride in the Olympics.

"We are patriotic. We want China to make a good impression on visitors," said Yan Dajie, 42, whose DVD shop now displays mainly boxed sets of opera and black-and-white classics on its shelves. (Customers in search of "Kung Fu Panda" can get it from a carton hidden behind a sliding bookcase in the backroom.)

"My husband doesn't spit on the street anymore. I'm careful to line up when I take the bus," Yan added cheerfully.

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