Giant on the move
Chinese smiles show changing times in Beijing
But what has really surprised me is the way the atmosphere has changed. Not the smog, but the way the people of China have opened their arms and welcomed visitors from around the world.
When I first came here in 1990, Beijing was a pretty forbidding place, especially for someone who doesn’t speak Mandarin.
It was only a year since the crackdown on student protests in Tiananmen, and you didn’t get the impression many people were keen to be seen in public practising their English with foreigners.
The Chinese weren’t all unfriendly, but still the phrase I seemed to hear most was “mei you”, which means “I don’t have”. Then the shopkeeper, or ticket seller, or hotel receptionist would turn away and hope the annoying foreigner would just disappear.
Today, the atmosphere has changed beyond recognition. Hundreds of thousands of young, mostly English-speaker volunteers throng the streets of Beijing, eager to help with a smile. Now I hear “nee how”, or hello, everywhere I go.
Taxi drivers, even those who don’t speak a word of English, read my Olympics accreditation and give a warm “thumbs-up”.
Even the statuesque and forbidding soldiers, who stand without moving a muscle for hours on end in their olive-green uniforms, break into a smile when foreigners walk past.
Instructions have obviously gone out to welcome visitors to China’s moment of global glory, but this is more than following orders. There is a genuine, and touching, eagerness to please, to prove, in the words of one volunteer, that “we are not as nasty as some of you in the Western media say we are”.
I can see their point. China has certainly faced an unprecedented barrage of negative publicity, and there has been a bit of hysteria.
Just take the security consultants who warned Western journalists they might face hostility on the streets because of the protests which surrounded the Olympic Torch. Or the members of the U.S. cycling team who arrived in black face masks at the spotless, vast, state-of-the-art and air-conditioned new airport terminal. Of course, they later apologised and said they had not meant to offend but it was faintly ridiculous to say the least.
As a political reporter, and one with a keen interest in human rights, I am very aware of all the criticism of Chinese policies in Tibet and Sudan, of the problems faced by those who dare to raise dissenting voices here.
But when you touch down in Beijing and feel the warmth of the reception, it is impossible not to hope that these Summer Olympic Games are a resounding success.
PHOTO: Beijing subway controllers stand inside a new station near the Olympic Stadium during a media tour in Beijing July 19, 2008. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside