By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 21, 2008
BEIJING, July 20 -- Beijing, a city of 16 million that never seems to stop, slowed down Sunday and in some ways was unrecognizable.
Visibility was far above the usual few hundred yards. Streets were lined with newly planted flowers instead of dusty shrubbery. In parks and hotels, smoking was officially banned. And the city's legendary traffic jams had mostly vanished.
An official Olympics shutdown began Sunday, a drastic last-minute effort to lift the choking pollution that hangs over the city most days and smooth out the rougher edges of a populace that rarely puts on airs for foreigners.
As the city prepares to welcome as many as half a million overseas visitors to the Games next month, residents greeted the two-month plan -- including alternate driving days, depending on a car's license plate number -- with a combination of grumbling and acceptance.
"My wedding ceremony is today," said Chen Yaping, 29, a telecom engineer who had to exchange the cars he had rented earlier for the festivities. "I spent much more than I planned to fix this problem. Should I feel happy about this rule?"
Only taxi drivers were joyful. "Usually, it takes more than 10 minutes to cross under the Changhong Bridge, but today it took a minute," said Zhang Shuwang as he traversed downtown on a major avenue nearly devoid of cars.
But a few motorists said they hoped the changes would not be temporary.
"Ten years ago, the government promoted the dream of owning a car in order to develop the car industry," said Zhang Dalin, 40, a sales manager who usually drives to work but now takes a bus and the subway. "Now, traffic and pollution are so bad, they have to do something. But ordinary people shouldn't pay the price for the government's wrong decisions."
The temporary traffic rules, which are taking nearly half the city's 3.3 million cars off the streets, coupled with a ban on construction and factory closures, are meant to reduce the amount of fine particulate matter and other pollutants that can harm athletes and spectators.
But spray painting, public drunkenness, spitting and cutting in line are also prohibited. Unlicensed restaurants are out, as is serving dog meat.
Though it is too early to assess how well the rules are being enforced, taken together, they have already transformed Beijing less than three weeks before the Summer Games begin.
Nightclubs near the Workers' Stadium, which will host men's and women's soccer, have been shuttered. Elsewhere, bars have been banned from amplifying ethnic folk music and punk rock. Crumbling neighborhoods have been spruced up with fresh coats of paint. Conferences have been canceled and visas denied. Even recycling has been interrupted.
"We can't use trucks to collect waste until Sept. 20. We can't collect paper or cardboard unless we use small cars, but then our profit won't cover the costs," said Liu Zhonghua, the owner of a recycling company that operates six licensed trucks. The only thing worth picking up, he said, was unwanted computers.
"But the country needs us now, so I guess I can make money after the Olympics," Liu said.
Officials have stepped up control of the city's "social order," including an effort to settle evictions, tighten enforcement of residential permits and banish unemployed migrants and others deemed undesirable, advocates said. Activists have been warned against protests of any kind.
At the sporting venues, no banners will be allowed. Nor will leaflets, long umbrellas and flags larger than 6 feet, 6 inches by 3 feet, 3 inches.
Cheng De, 42, the owner of a small noodle shop in an east Beijing neighborhood, planned to close his 10-seat restaurant Monday.
"We plan to go home to Shanxi province and return after Oct. 1," Cheng said. "Most of our customers were migrant workers who helped build the Olympic sites, and they have left in the last week. We have no license and not many customers, but we still have to pay the rent. It's a little bit unfair."
A banner on a fence near his front door declared, "Happily Welcome Beijing Olympics. Create a Civilized City. Abandon Unlicensed Businesses."