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Reported Reflects on IAP Journey to Beijing, China

By Joanna Stone
Arts Editor

This week marks the twentieth anniversary of President Nixon's initial visit to China, on invitation from Premier Zhou Enlai. His trip ended decades of antipathy between the two nations and was applauded as a triumph -- the opening up of one of the world's most historic cities. Nixon's visit to The Great Wall, one of the seven wonders of the world, was compared to the moon walk that occurred only a few years prior. The trip was triumphant for the monumental ancient history it reopened and the communist-democratic politics it bridged.

Two and a half years ago students in Beijing, students at one of their nation's best universities, demonstrated for democracy. Many of those students were killed. All American embassies in China were closed. Americans, both students and tourists, were advised to evacuate the country.

It is now 1992, the year of the monkey in China. The government has also dubbed it the Year of the Tourist. Signs can be found all over Beijing relaying this information. The government has launched what could be viewed as a major public relations campaign in the hope that the negative feelings lingering from Tiananmen Square can be ameliorated and that an increase in tourism will help stimulate the struggling economy. The signs vary from the simplistic "Visit '92" to more complex statements describing service to be done for the motherland.

The tourism campaign extends into surprising arenas, with the government extending the "service to the motherland" idea to include a decrease in spitting and flies and an increase in politeness. Smoking is a common habit among men in Beijing. In the same vein, spitting is a habit among all Chinese -- women and children included. It is natural for people in Beijing to spit every five minutes or so, wherever they may happen to be. This is something that does not please the tourist who finds himself at the adjacent table in a restaurant. Recognizing that customs such as spitting tend to offend the tourist, the government has moved to curtail these habits.

Another custom the tourist is said to find insulting is the Chinese lack of pleasantries. Frequent utterance of "she she" (thank you) is thought odd by Chinese, who save "thank you"s for truly momentous expressions of gratitude, and who until recently never responded to the tourists "thank you"s with your welcome.

Without exerting direct control over these habits, the government has attempted to represent politeness as good and spitting as bad. Meanwhile, in areas where the government can assume direct control, it has begun creating laws. Fines will be levied on public establishments that do not take care of their fly problems this summer. Similarly, there is a push to assure on-time airline transportation. For any Chinese-run airline flight that departs late, even if only by one minute, an investigation will be launched to determine who was responsible for the tardiness and that person "will be punished."

Such information is made public in many Chinese publications, an English version of which is called China Daily. These publications are nothing more than government propaganda.

Part of the Year of the Tourist propaganda has a "Big Brother" feel, with huge billboards juxtaposed with the city's Mao imagery, such as the large painting hanging from the Tiananmen Gate, which marks the break between Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, and the Mao statue that greets shoppers at the department store entrance on Wanfujing, the major shopping street. The large, colorful tourism billboards scattered across the city are adorned with large Chinese characters, with English translations beneath.

The tourism campaign includes the translation of existing and future street signs to enhance the image of China as an international city.

Many of the signs are mistranslated or misspelled. A sign posted in all subway cars tells passengers to "Give this seat to the disabled man"; a message which reads as if there were one disabled man in all of Beijing, and if you see him, you must give your seat to him. The fact that such signs are mistranslated is testament to the isolationist feeling the city still possesses and to how few English-speaking people actually make their way down to the subway system.

The city is, for all intents and purposes, segregated, and many of the foreigners never make their way outside the foreigner's ghetto -- the area surrounding the cluster of foreign embassies, where most diplomats and journalists live.

Those who do venture out find that the Chinese people have a great curiosity about Americans. Despite the common talk among people in the city about how things have changed since '89, the open curiosity continues. A white person can walk for hours through the center of the city without seeing another white person. During this time, the foreigner will be constantly approached by Chinese people who will walk up to him and introduce themselves. Chinese people who speak English relish the chance to practice and will ask question after question about America. Those who don't will simply ask their questions in Chinese and hope that the foreigner will understand.

The Chinese harbor no apparent resentment of foreigners, although the Chinese system seems designed to inspire such resentment. At the various high-rise diplomatic residence and office buildings that line Jai'goumen Wai and other "foreigner ghetto" strips, a Chinese person will be physically stopped by guards if he wanders too close to the property. Chinese-Americans who are stopped in this way are shocked by the blatant discrimination.

Differentiations between the foreigner and the Chinese person, while usually physically obvious, are exaggerated further institutionally. There are two types of currency in China, the Foreign Exchange Currency (FEC) and the Reminbi (RMB). The only way to get FEC is to exchange foreign currency for it, or to do business with a foreigner. Most Chinese have only RMB, and there are many stores which charge extra for RMB and some which will only accept FEC.

At a nightclub called House Disco, frequented mostly by Chinese, the drinks are 20 yuan if paid in FEC, but 35 yuan if paid in RMB. The club has a clear disposition toward foreigners. And while the average Chinese person only makes 150 yuan a month, it is surprising that there is not more disdain for the foreigner, who casually counts his 500 yuan on a busy shopping street. The foreigner is admired more than scorned, but most of all, the foreigner is an object of curiosity. People are eager to talk to foreigners, eager to exchange their stories for stories about life outside of China.

While the images of Tiananmen Square may still haunt the collective American unconscious, the foreigner is easily warmed to the Chinese, and it is this warmth which will make the Year of the Tourist a success.