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.