It sounds like Chinese chutzpah. "This nation is ready, wearing a smile and saying hello," runs a line from We Are Ready, the theme tune invitation to the greatest coming-out party ever — the Beijing Olympic Games in August 2008.
In fact, the song reflects the justified confidence of a one-party state that can move mountains, and blow billions, to play the perfect host.
For like every piece of its Olympic hardware and software, China is not leaving that welcome smile to chance.
Once infamous for surly service, Beijing Capital International Airport is undergoing a major face lift. The high-tech, dragon-shaped Terminal 3 will wow visitors when it opens next year as the world's largest terminal building. Inside, immigration officers such as Lily Li should impress with newfound people skills. "We are told to smile more, deal more politely with people, and look at them when talking," says Li of weekly training that is part of mass campaigns to "civilize" the capital of the oldest continuous civilization on Earth. "We are the window for Beijing and China."
More people than ever are flying through that window. China is set to overtake the USA as the world's No. 3 tourist destination in 2007. The Olympic bump is expected to draw 550,000 foreign visitors next August alone to Beijing (pronounced bay-jing, as in "jingle," though some Westerners say "zhing/shing"). That's almost two-thirds more than 2006 and 2 million more for the whole year.
China's communist government, isolated for decades, has seized the Olympic limelight to showcase the country's transformation. This Olympiad "matters more to China than to previous hosts," says Qin Xiaoying of the China Foundation for International Strategic Studies. "The Games show off our economic achievements from 30 years of opening up. In sport, too, we were 'the sick man of east Asia,' and now Chinese athletes win gold, silver and bronze."
For travelers, the Games mark Beijing's arrival as an international metropolis. That stunning new Terminal 3, a $2 billion expansion, is just the first taste of a $40 billion splurge that leaves this city of 17 million more accessible than ever. And, unlike the last-minute scramble to ready Athens for the previous Summer Olympics, all Beijing's infrastructure projects will be ready well ahead of time.
Besides the soon-to-be-iconic new sports venues, visitors to the Chinese capital will enjoy multiple new road, rail and air links, dozens of new hotels, freshened-up historical sites and acres-more green space in a long, gray industrial city. But "we still face challenges on every front," says Wang Wei, a top government organizer for the Games, who lists improving air quality, manners and hotel service among pressing concerns.
Sweating outside the Forbidden City on a recent August afternoon, several American tourists agree the air is still foul. "I'd hate to be one of the athletes in this pollution and in this heat," says Will Andersen, 30, a medical salesman from New York.
Wang Wei acknowledges reducing pollution "will be very difficult." International Olympic Committee chief Jacques Rogge says endurance events such as the marathon may be delayed if smog is unbearable.
Despite the frequent haze and language barrier, Andersen remains upbeat about a city whose numerous imperial sites, including the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, can require a marathon trek. China's expanding global role motivated their self-organized tour, he says. "Knowing its culture and what's going on here is very important for Americans."
Is Beijing ready to greet the world in English?
"I don't think so," says Li Yang, a key language consultant to the Games, who inspires mass rallies of volunteers to parrot Olympic slogans. "The government loves to boast of big numbers of English speakers (more Chinese are learning English than speak the language worldwide), but the reality is that many foreigners complain 'so many people don't speak English.' "
Still, correct English is making inroads on restaurant menus as authorities crack down on "Chinglish" translations (no more "fried crap") and misspellings that make tourists smile. "We are standardizing the English menus of 10,000 restaurants in central Beijing," says Yu Debin, deputy head of the Beijing Travel Administration. "It is a huge effort that costs a lot of money, but we must correct the mistakes to make the city ready for the world."
Even one year out, you can find Olympic volunteers already on the streets. At an information and recruiting stand near Sanlitun Bar Street, a popular nightlife area, Zhang Hailing promises Beijing is ready. "It is the duty of all Chinese to look after guests from afar," says Zhang, an Amway saleswoman. "I have never been abroad, but I am so happy the world will come here next year. We are all one family."
Her enthusiasm echoes Beijing's Olympic slogan: "One World, One Dream." In some parts of Beijing, however, you could add "one homogenized, globalized nightmare."
"Going to the hotel, we see Subway, 7-Eleven, Starbucks, Sizzler, McDonald's," star U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps said on a visit in April. "It's like a big American city. They have everything we have in the States."
Beijingers soon can gawk at Hooters, too, beside the soccer venue.
Peer beyond the Westernized façade, and Beijing will reward with insights into China's past that may help explain the present.
At the fast-rising Olympic Green, 5 miles north of Tiananmen Square along the city's sacred axis, all eyes migrate to the "Bird's Nest," or National Stadium, a spectacle in twisted steel.
Beside it, the sci-fi "Water Cube," or National Aquatics Center, appears sheathed in massive bubbles because of its high-tech membrane. But by year's end, when all historic sites currently under renovation will be ready, a Ming Dynasty fertility temple will be visible in the Water Cube's shadow.
The Temple to Our Lady (Northern Summit) offers a 400-year-old hint at China's more distant past and the rich religious life of China's capital before the Communist Party took charge. "People came here to pray for sons or to recover from illness," says Ren You from the district cultural office, which has spent $1 million restoring the Taoist temple, used as a school since the 1949 revolution.
The temple will reopen next year as a museum for some of the 1,500 artifacts archaeologists unearthed from 700 ancient tombs found during construction of Olympic venues. They range from the jade belts of imperial eunuchs to snuff bottles, bronze mirrors and 2,000-year-old terracotta pots.
"Wherever you dig in Beijing, you find history," Ren says. The race to build quickly meant archaeologists could excavate less than 1% of the area surveyed, but Ren hopes "the temple will help introduce Chinese culture to the world."
American Shauna Liu also is bringing history to life. Tucked deep in the hutong (alley) that once housed court musicians, the former investment banker has converted a Ming Dynasty temple, also used as a school in recent times, into Beijing's first boutique hotel, the Côté Cour. Inspired by the riad hotels of Marrakesh (formerly ancient palaces and residences), Liu battled bureaucrats and won.
"It is so difficult to win permission to open a hotel, especially for foreigners, but I want my guests to have a chance to experience local life," Liu says. "The old magic of Beijing still survives." It's there right outside the hotel door, where old men offer bicycle and shoe repair, vegetable sellers and knife sharpeners pedal by, and neighbors gather to gossip in circles. But don't wait too long. "The hutong area will get smaller and smaller," Liu warns.
The smile on Lily Li's face breaks when the immigration officer considers the Olympic tourist deluge. "I feel lots of pressure in my work. We are here to serve the people. But next year there will be five times the normal flow of people. How do we keep them all happy?" Li asks.
The Miss Manners of the Beijing Olympics never drops her smile, despite tough battles to change and save the city's face. "We need more people to smile. I wish the whole of Beijing would smile more to welcome the world," says Zhang Huiguang, head of municipal etiquette campaigns. "We are making progress, and there's still a year to go, but we have a lot of work to do. Spitting and littering still happens."
While the government mobilizes the masses for an immaculate, completely scripted display next summer, some officials suggest China should feel confident enough to let the mask slip, at least a little.
"It's impossible for everything to be perfect in Beijing in 2008," says professor Ren Hai, director of the sports ministry's Olympic Studies Center. "I don't want the Olympics to just be a communist symbol. It should be a real introduction to China — good and bad."