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Hiding a host of ills under the red carpet

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

Beijing’s People’s University sent out students from its Sociology Department to observe people’s public conduct and concluded that manners had greatly improved. In a bid to quantify the changes, the university devised a “civic index,” which it reported had risen from 65 in 2005 to 72 as of December.

Sha Lianxiang, the sociology professor who led the study, said that China needed to clean up its act so the quality of life could catch up with the exploding economy. The Olympics merely presented a convenient excuse.

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“The problem is that the market economy happened so suddenly that people got involved in this harsh competition,” Sha said.

“China didn’t have time like the Western countries to develop the civility that should go along with a developed economy.”

Critics wonder whether Beijing isn’t just sweeping its social problems under the rug for the Olympic period to create an illusion of a modern, sanitized China when in fact little has changed.

Wallechinsky, the Olympic historian, recalls staying in Seoul to do some sightseeing after the 1988 Summer Olympics ended.

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“In just one extra day, there were beggars, there were street vendors -- all sorts of things we didn’t know existed during the Olympics,” Wallechinsky said.

Jing Jun, a sociologist at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, said that a meaningful change in Chinese society would require far more than refined manners.

“A lot of people think that manners are a sign of civilization,” Jing said. “But to have a truly harmonious society, that is much deeper and has to do with our political system. We can’t just pretend to be polite and gentle.”

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barbara.demick@latimes.com

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Begin text of infobox

Olympic etiquette

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Excerpts from an online quiz taken by 17 million Chinese, which ended July 12.

On formal occasions, when wearing a dark suit, the color of the socks should be . . . ?

A. White.

B. Dark.

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C. Light-colored.

What is the appropriate time to applaud in a symphony concert?

A. A pause in a musical composition.

B. After the whole musical composition ends.

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C. Any time when you feel happy.

Which seat in a car should be reserved for a distinguished guest?

A. The passenger seat.

B. Right side of the back seat.

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C. Left side of the back seat.

What is the appropriate behavior when receiving presents from foreigners?

A. Express gratitude and put the presents aside.

B. Express gratitude, open the presents and voice your pleasure in front of other people.

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C. Express gratitude, open the presents and make no comment.

The answers are all B.

Los Angeles Times


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