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Chinese Officials Give Club District A Brusque Cleanup

Horne said he has been asked to sign documents after fielding questions he doesn't totally understand -- there is no lawyer or translator present -- including one that makes him personally liable if any employees' work papers are deemed invalid.

The worst came last week, when police told Horne he had to get rid of two bartenders who are of Tibetan origin. Horne was told no Tibetans could work in Beijing during the Olympics; police apparently fear they might mount disturbances in sympathy with the widespread protests this spring against Chinese repression.

"I don't pretend to understand the government here," Horne said.

The faces of a new China swirl around Horne as he speaks, air-kissing hellos and sipping $11 cocktails -- a steep tab in a city where the average professional's salary is $450 a month.

Outside is a neighborhood feverish with gentrification. The sleek neon displays of high-end clubs such as Horne's China Doll compete with garish Budweiser signs at the joints across the street, where shots go for $1.50 and touts steer customers to beer-soaked banquettes. A chic shopping plaza just opened on the corner, with Beijing's first Apple store. The feel is reminiscent of Manhattan's Times Square a few years back, when the city began kicking out the peep shows and bodegas to make way for a Disney theater and a Mars candy store devoted to M&Ms.

The Olympics, which many here thought would bring thousands of customers, has instead driven many away, and business owners say they are counting the days until the closing ceremony. Thousands of foreigners have had their visas canceled or been blocked from obtaining one for fear they could be troublemakers, or worse, terrorists.

The Ministry of Culture this month banned performances by any foreign entertainer who had ever attended an event deemed to "threaten national sovereignty," such as a Free Tibet rally. Police now require foreign singers to produce performance licenses that used to be an always-overlooked formality, and the Culture Ministry decreed that the words of all songs must be approved in advance.

Paramilitary guards at the embassies and diplomatic residences near Sanlitun are carrying pistols in smart white holsters.

A Chinese woman, proud that she can afford to rent a new apartment near the "bird's nest" National Stadium, said in an interview that she would love to show it off, except that her lease included a clause that she not invite any foreigners to her place until after the Olympics. She spoke on the condition of anonymity because she didn't want to risk losing her apartment.

Horne said one of his Chinese managers explained the hardening official attitude this way: The Olympics are like hosting a party in your apartment where most of the people who come are strangers. Of course you'd be afraid they might break something.

One of the more controversial police measures relates to illegal drugs and prostitution. For years, drug dealers operated openly in the area. Many were from Nigeria, bar owners said, and would approach potential customers with the offer, "Hey, bro. You want some stuff?"

In September, police cracked down. They blocked each end of the neighborhood's main street, entered the bars and hauled out every black customer. Many were beaten and arrested, witnesses said, including the innocent son of Grenada's ambassador, who expressed outrage at the time.

This month, the South China Morning Post reported that an unnamed bar owner had been told to sign a pledge not to serve black patrons during the Olympics. The pledge reportedly also barred Mongolian customers. Police are known to believe that many prostitutes are from Mongolia.

In interviews with a dozen bar owners and managers, none acknowledged being asked to sign such a pledge. Government officials denied the report, and bloggers who cover the local bar scene could not find anyone to confirm it. But given September's raid, many could not dismiss the possibility.

"From personal experience, I know Chinese police dislike blacks," said John Nugent, a British citizen who owns the popular Bar Blu. "I was here when they raided the street opposite. There was a huge police presence. They shouldn't tar everyone with the same brush."

Several black bar patrons, interviewed over three recent nights in the Sanlitun area, said they had not been denied service, although some acknowledged that they often felt hassled by police. Buba Dia, who runs an electronics trading business in Guangzhou, in southern China, said a restaurant near the Beijing Dongwai Hotel had refused him service on this trip. "It was very strange for me," said Dia, who is from Guinea. He could not remember the restaurant's name, but when he tried to enter, he said, the staff waved their arms and said, "Mei you, mei you," or "No."

Dia didn't protest, he said. "I know in China, when they say no, it's no. You never get a reason why."

Horne said police have not told him to ban any customers. What he's experienced as a black man in China, he said, is not racism but "unfamiliarity with different kinds of people."

As he lighted a cigarette, he looked approvingly around the China Doll lounge, drinking in its atmosphere, a mix of chic and cozy, contemporary and edgy, with colored lights and mod furniture, its customers a fairly even mix of foreigners and Chinese.

He had fled a budding career in investment banking for a chance to make it in the club scene here. The Sanlitun district is a place he likes, a place that could be showcased as a bold expression of China's openness and modernity when the world's attention settles here next month. It might not turn out that way, but Horne holds out hope.

"It's cool here -- something the West can never provide," he said. "There's so much to be done, a great void in what people think of as nightlife."

Researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report.

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