In Beijing, Tourists Are Dazzled, Daunted

Detroit high school students listen to a guide in Beijing. Smiling volunteers often prevented tourists from going where they wanted during the Games.
Detroit high school students listen to a guide in Beijing. Smiling volunteers often prevented tourists from going where they wanted during the Games. (By Eric Seals -- Associated Press)
By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 24, 2008

BEIJING, Aug. 23 -- Eager to share his excitement at being in the middle of Beijing's Olympic splendor, Aaron Price pressed toward the railing of the open-air set of NBC's "Today" show here Friday night, hoping the live broadcast would beam his face and his "Aaron, Rebecca, China" sign to friends and family back in New Jersey.

"I won't forget the Beijing Olympics," said Price, 29, as the illuminated girders of the Bird's Nest national stadium glowed red and silver behind him alongside the iridescent blue Water Cube aquatics center. "I'm unlikely to see another nation come to maturity like China has with this Olympics."

Ask tourists about the Beijing Olympics, and many will gush about clearer-than-expected skies, efficient transportation, sparkling venues, gracious volunteers and generous fans -- all welcome words to Communist Party officials, who had buffed the city to an unprecedented shine so it could show a friendly face to the world. But "friendly" is not the only word many of the same tourists use to describe their main impressions as they roam around Beijing. Power, artifice, intimidation: Those are also common.

"It's like success at any cost," said Price's wife, Rebecca. "They're really staging this. It's really choreographed. It's not sustainable."

Rachel Santana, 31, from Sao Paulo, Brazil, talked about her visit to the Forbidden City, the former home to emperors in the heart of Beijing. "It was wonderful," she said. "But there's a lot that is fake. It's lost a lot of its unique character."

The Chinese never tried to hide how much a "successful" Olympics meant to them, which they defined, in part, as one unblemished by reality. Attempts at protest were quashed; unsightly houses were bulldozed or hidden behind new fences draped with banners; restaurants were told to remove dog meat from menus. Many tourists have been all too cognizant of what is going on. In some cases, they recoiled from Chinese efforts at control, such as the legions of overeager volunteer squads, always smiling but often firmly preventing tourists from going places they want to go.

"It's very oppressive here," complained John Janssens, 34, as the Brussels native sat in a square on the Olympic Green, eating takeout spicy noodles before heading to the Bird's Nest for a hurdles final. "They make too much effort to make everything perfect."

Mark Wilson, a 25-year-old technology consultant from London, said he had expected the Chinese would be friendly but had not expected to feel the same pressure to be nice. "I constantly get the feeling that I shouldn't say anything that could be a slur against China. I feel a lot of pressure to 'get' the image," Wilson said. "I'd like to come back after the Olympics and see what it's really like."

Not everyone expressed unease about the ubiquitous sense of control -- evident even in the Games' extravagant Opening Ceremonies -- or the focus on security and stability. "People respect a strong central government," said Santana's husband, Rafael, who has traveled to China several times for business. "If Brazil had a stronger central government, we'd probably avoid a lot of anarchy, like robberies and people being kidnapped."

Santana, 36, said the Olympics are helping China better connect with other countries. "A lot of people who wouldn't come to China will consider it now," he predicted.

Janssens agreed that hosting the Olympics was good for the world and for China. "It does bring the country into the fold of the international community," he said.

Charles Benjamin Sutton, 23, from Salt Lake City, laughed with a friend as the two waited in a long line at the Badaling section of the Great Wall on Wednesday afternoon. Chinese paramilitary guards and police had just closed off a portion of the wall, without saying why, blocking a return path for thousands of hikers. The uniformed officials stood in silent lines, refusing to answer questions or let anyone past. Instead, they pointed everyone to the line Sutton and his friend were in, waiting for roller coaster-like cars to take them sliding down the hill, now the only way back to the main parking lot.

An Olympic theme song played in an incessant loop over loudspeakers mounted on light poles, which were also bristling with surveillance cameras. "Beijing welcomes you," the song begins.

But instead of singing along in Chinese, "Beijing huan ying ni," Sutton's friend mouthed, "Beijing's watching me" as he glanced up into a camera.

Sutton said that he was enjoying the Olympics but that some experiences in China had left him bewildered. On a group tour of the Ming Tombs, where 13 Ming Dynasty emperors are buried about 30 miles north of Beijing, his guide told the group that many of the relics had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, a decade of violent upheaval that ended in 1976 after the death of Communist China's founder, Mao Zedong.

"I asked her, 'How could someone burn their own history?' " Sutton said. "She became very uncomfortable. She told me I wouldn't understand. She didn't try to explain."

That unwillingness to dip into sensitive areas is starting to color Aaron Price's own behavior, he said as he and Rebecca left the NBC set. The couple had moved to Shanghai in April for Rebecca's job, and Aaron, something of a rule-breaker back in New Jersey, said he was now heeding advice his mother-in-law had given him before they left the States.

"She said, 'Aaron, if the Chinese police say no, listen,' " Price said. "I'm listening. I feel it. I don't even think about pushing things here."

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