Chinese officials are carefully stage-managing the perfect backdrop as the country hosts its first G-20
China’s extravagant preparations to host world leaders this weekend reveal how desperately it wants to be seen as one of them.
Officials have spent months transforming the ancient capital of Hangzhou into a symbol of modernity and innovation. A warehouse will store up to 900 tons of food. An army of 760,000 volunteers plans to patrol the streets.
Hundreds of factories will close to ensure bright blue skies over the city’s West Lake. Local authorities distributed English-language manuals so residents can welcome visitors to China’s “paradise on Earth,” even if they can’t get within yelling distance of the dignitaries.
This marks China’s first time leading a Group of 20 leaders summit. The event in Hangzhou, a city blended with old and new, gives President Xi Jinping an international platform to demonstrate the country’s resurgent economic influence and project its role as a global leader.
“Politically, it’s very important for China to be seen not just as an equal to many of these former imperial powers, but having surpassed many of them,” said David Loevinger, a former China specialist at the Treasury Department and now an analyst at fund manager TCW Group in Los Angeles.
Leaders are micromanaging every detail, from demanding that conversations stick to economics and away from territorial disputes, to installing extra lightbulbs so the lake shimmers.
“We insist on combining delicacy and grandness, according to first-class international standards,” Hangzhou Communist Party chief Zhao Yide told reporters last month. “We expect our world friends will gather together around the beautiful West Lake.”
Local friends, on the other hand, are encouraged to leave town before the summit begins on Sept. 4. The government is giving residents a weeklong holiday to ensure they do.
Grocery stores must remain open, but officials are closing schools, halting tour groups, limiting the number of cars on the road and boosting security checks. “I took my son to a restaurant to have breakfast and was questioned for half an hour,” said one commenter on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. “Better just have some instant noodles at home.”
To ensure picturesque drone images, according to the South China Morning Post, authorities ordered buildings to paint their rooftops gray.
Ads in the New York Times last week announced the meeting and welcomed visitors to Hangzhou’s Facebook page, a site blocked in the communist country.
Never mind that a two-day meeting of the world’s largest economies often produces little more than photo ops and backroom discussions. The appearance China projects to the world during the summit means enough to leaders that they’re willing to stomach the economic damage of shuttered shops and factories.
Not even rumors of overspending have stopped them from trumpeting the significance of the event, which brings together 19 powerhouse countries and the European Union. President Obama and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew will represent the United States.
China sees opportunity. The country is experiencing its slowest economic growth in seven years, and international concern is mounting about its claims in the South China Sea. But the country also can present itself as a source of global stability, amid the greater upheaval over Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, uncertainty surrounding the U.S. election and a refugee crisis in Europe.
Some Chinese officials “may want to take this opportunity to assure the world that China wants to create a mutually beneficial future with its trading partners,” said Victor Shih, a political economist at UC San Diego. “However, I think leaders around the world have become much more savvy in the face of such Chinese rhetoric.”
China strategically chose to showcase Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province, about 100 miles southwest of Shanghai.
The city is one of China’s seven ancient capitals, and poets have penned odes about its green hillsides for centuries. An image of West Lake, a UNESCO World Heritage site, covers the back of China’s 1-yuan note. Italian explorer Marco Polo once called the city “the world’s most magnificent” and the New York Times named it one of this year’s 50 places to visit.
Hangzhou also symbolizes the country’s development. Jack Ma, among China’s richest men, founded his e-commerce company, Alibaba, in a tiny Hangzhou apartment. Xi’s leadership of Zhejiang province in the mid-2000s helped boost his career. The region, one of China’s richest, now draws throngs of hopeful entrepreneurs as the country pushes away from an economy led by manufacturing to one driven by services.
China typically goes big when it comes to globally recognized events. The country spent an unprecedented $40 billion hosting the 2008 Olympics, whose opening ceremony alone featured 30,000 fireworks. Some 200 aircraft flew over the capital last fall for the country’s 70th anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender.
China’s preparations for the G-20 resemble its efforts leading up to the 2014 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, when skies turned “APEC blue” and traffic in Beijing disappeared. But the G-20 is expected to cost millions more.
Residents of Hangzhou have lived through months of construction dust, alongside traffic jams and grinding buzz saws. The city undertook 651 infrastructure projects, demolished old buildings, relocated residents and built a new airport expressway.
Although the local government insisted it had already planned many of these renovations, officials expedited them to meet the G-20 deadline.
Some residents adapted. Others grumbled.
The G-20 “does affect our normal life but we think it’s good for the whole of Hangzhou,” said Wang Lingyan, a resident whose textile-exporting company works closely with one of the closed factories.
Xiao Han, 24, a Hangzhou primary school teacher, recently bought an electric razor online and then discovered the event’s security would delay its delivery.
“I look like a savage,” he said.
A post on WeChat, a popular social media app, went viral after a Hangzhou commenter joked about the event’s inconvenience.
“When you take the subway you will be stared at by the police dog,” the headline read.
The post received more than 100,000 views early last week. Censors found it quickly. By the afternoon, it was gone.
Meyers is a special correspondent. Yingzhi Yang in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.
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