The Great Beijing Cleanup

As the Olympics nears, the Chinese government is building walls to hide blight.

ByJo Ling Kent
February 18, 2009, 2:18 PM

BEIJING, Aug. 4, 2008 — -- With a mere four days to go until the Olympics begin, thousands of shopowners around Beijing are preparing for what they hope will be a big month of tourist-generated profits. However, just across the street from the Temple of Heaven, one of the city's most trafficked tourist spots, August looks uncharacteristically bleak.

Chen Shihua, 43, has lived in and operated a small restaurant across from the Temple of Heaven Park for over 20 years.

In July, she earned just over one thousand Chinese Yuan ($146) serving noodles next door to a shoe shop and a clothing seller. Her modest income was enough to put her children, ages 8 and 15, through public school.

Her neighbor, Zhou Jiafeng, sold cold drinks and ice cream to tourists along the street, providing much-needed relief from the summer sun.

But everything changed on July 17, when a notice from what seemed to be city authorities was posted informing them a wall would be built around their shabby but functional storefronts.

The next morning, construction workers appeared and built a 10-foot brick wall in half a day, completely blocking Chen's storefront.

Suddenly, Chen's shabby but convenient street-side presence was blocked, save for a door-sized opening. Hou's drink and ice cream stand was now virtually invisible to the beaten path of neighbors and tourists.

Two days later, Chen said, mysterious people wearing Olympic-looking credentials hung Beijing Olympic signs on the wall facing the Temple of Heaven.

Chen felt the effects immediately. Her income slowed to a sputter.

"Before the wall, we made 1,000 to 1,500 Yuan per day. Lunch was the busiest. Now we probably only get 300 to 400," Cheng told ABC News.

Chen also owns the property of three shops next door and felt forced to stop collecting rent money from her tenants.

"Why has this happened? The Olympics, definitely," she said in a melancholic tone. "But you know, hosting the Olympics is not easy."

Wang Qing, 23, works in the clothing shop nestled between the shoe seller and a trinket store just inside the newly constructed wall. A fresh college graduate, Wang hopes to save up for grad school while she helps her older cousin run his business while he's away.

She has been on the job since July 1 but her inexperience doesn't stop her from observing reality.

"Sure, I've only been here a month but I understand the basics of business," Wang Qing told ABC News on a sunny Saturday afternoon. "Our income has dropped by two-thirds since July 18."

Beautifying China, Brick by Brick

According to the Center on Housing Rights and Eviction (COHRE), a Geneva-based human rights group, Olympics-related construction has displaced 1.5 million people in Beijing since the building process began in 2000. Beijing municipal officials say approximately 14,900 residents have been asked to relocate.

The razing of neighborhoods has been for far more than just shiny new stadiums. Historic neighborhoods in Beijing's central axis have been gutted or covered up to help the city look clean and polished for Olympics visitors.

In recent weeks, beautification of the city has been a top priority, second only to security.

Billboard-sized walls have gone up, boasting Olympic slogans and blocking incomplete construction projects and unsightly hutong alleyways. Flowerbeds have been meticulously planted along every avenue as popular street food vendors have suddenly vanished from the sidewalks.

To make room for the venues and clean lines, scores of local residents have been given financial compensation that's far from enough.

"This has become an Olympic nightmare. Our fear is that inadequate redress and no one is being held accountable," said Salih Booker, Executive Director of COHRE.

"You have the municipality and contractors with a financial interest really exploiting this process, which reduces the amount of compensation that the families who are relocated actually receive," Booker told ABC News.

"The corruption that has been so severe that this whole process has reduced what is already inadequate levels of compensation. Corruption…is denying people their basic rights to adequate housing," he said.

Chen, the restaurant owner and landlord, is trying to think ahead. She anticipates the future with fear.

"If my income continues to fall, I won't be able to meet [my kids'] school fees," Chen said, as she fidgeted with a worn-out menu. After the Games are over, Chen predicted what she believes will happen to her and her neighbors.

"The authorities will talk with us, figure out the compensation, and then ask us to leave. I'm not sure if they're going to give us a new shopfront and home or if they'll give us money," Chen explained. "If it's money, they definitely won't give us enough."

Back at the clothing store, it's another slow afternoon. Wang watches a worker hammer a doorframe across the courtyard in what was previously a door-sized gap in the wall. The doorless opening faces a stream of tourists exiting the Temple of Heaven.

The young worker is building a 10-foot tall sliding door, which will effectively seal off the shops from locals and tourists. Paid for by the city government, the door is supposed to remain open during business hours so merchants like Chen and Wang can continue to do business.

Wang is skeptical.

"That door they're building is probably going to halt business altogether," Wang said with a shrug of her shoulders.

"It's supposed to remain open during the day but we'll see. Why would they install a door but not close it?"

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