Changing China

Giant on the move

Chinese smiles show changing times in Beijing

August 6, 2008

subway smilesIt’s 18 years since I was last in Beijing as a wet-behind-the-ears backpacker, and of course the city is barely recognisable.

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


Thank you. Finally someone wrote something positive about Beijing.
Pollution is an problem and Beijing is trying its hardest.
I don’t think the athelets are wearing the mask to offend the Chinese people, but they really should not have done it.

China is really not as bad as the millions negatives news out there have protraited. Thank you for your post and everyone deserves a chance to show the other side of the story.

Posted by Lei | Report as abusive

The Olympics are just around the corner and there is a lot of upcoming coverage. Because of my Jewish background I’m particularly interested in the Forward’s article focusing on Jews in the Olympics. I also found this opinion article by Gerald Eskenazi to be appealing.

Posted by Jaclyn | Report as abusive

I second that. This was really refreshing to read. I am so tired of reading the prevailing negative press and comments in blogs.

Really what did this country and its government do that other countries and governments are are not also doing? That was a rhetorical question. If we all look within, none of us are blameless. So why pick on them during their party…I mean, how rude.

Thanks for the post Simon.

Posted by Reggie | Report as abusive

I am glad that the Chinese have an opportunity to show the world community that they are able to put on such a stellar event as the Olmpics ! Hooray for those who have managed to make it happen, and the efforts involved on the part of the Chinese as well as others with whom they consulted or got some assistance from to do so. Sure do feel that they do not wish to be seen in the way they were back in the time of the Tinamen Square protests.They have come a long way since then, lets hope for the best. Peace, Stever in Los Gatos, Calif.

Posted by Stever | Report as abusive

You would smile too if the Great Dictator told you to.

The world is being duped by the Great Chinese Communist Olympics.

Posted by Neal | Report as abusive

China now is much divided. Take Olympics for example, it for sure has nothing to do with those poeple living in the coutryside struggling for a living. Glory is the glory of those big potatos who hides the nasty laundry, put on fine clothes and nervous smile to welcome the guests from all over the world in hope of positive comments would be given to satisfy their vanity and justify their savage rule.


Thank you Simon for your positive posts about China and the olympics
This will be a grand event,as all the chinese people are heartedly supportive to this event,and all what we have done for this. Our effort are deserved to be respected.
Foreigners are welcome to this ancient and modernizing country, Please come and see what is happening in China. And do believe what you see in China. You will see the other side of this fascinating country.

Posted by Helen | Report as abusive

What a “free” “democracy” internet in US.
Before cursing the “internet censoring in China”,give me the reason why did you refuse my comments.At least I can write anything in Chinese blog without leaving name or mail address.
I have heard of US is a “free” “democracy” nation.Finaly I know that “free” “democracy” means you can “freely” say other is not good but other only can say you are not bad.

Posted by Yang | Report as abusive

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