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Beijing readies for influx of foreign visitors

In a matter of days, hundreds of thousands of visitors from more than 100 countries will flood into China's capital, where non-Chinese faces are still a rarity in some neighborhoods.
Image: A tourist in Beijing
Elvis Agbo, of Ghana, poses with a group of Chinese girls who asked him to join their group photo when their paths crossed at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. In a matter of days, hundreds of thousands of visitors from more than 100 countries will flood into China's capital, where non-Chinese faces are still a rarity in some neighborhoods.Robert F. Bukaty / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

In a matter of days, hundreds of thousands of visitors from more than 100 countries will flood into China's capital, where non-Chinese faces are still a rarity in some neighborhoods.

The Beijing Olympics will be the largest gathering of foreigners in China in recent history — the biggest foreign influx since the Mongol invasion — and a social experiment of sorts for a country that is overwhelmingly monochromatic.

More than 90 percent of the population is Han Chinese, and many of the minorities do not have radically different features.

"It will be a cultural exchange. Foreigners will experience China and Chinese people will learn more about foreign cultures," Liu Yiyuan, a 60-year-old silver-haired cobbler, said with a toothless smile.

Chinese reactions vary to tourists and the more than 1.1 million foreigners who now live in Beijing, a city of 17 million people. Some are indifferent, others are cautious or just plain curious.

"Hello!" is sometimes shouted in English in the direction of a passing foreigner. A blonde head of hair or dark skin can draw crowds in Tiananmen Square, which is almost always packed with visitors from overseas and other parts of China. Foreigners are occasionally asked to pose for a photo, sometimes with a Chinese child.

"I definitely notice people looking at me. I never take it in a bad way," said Ryan Horne, a whip-thin, raspy voiced black Los Angeles native who manages a bar in Beijing's raucous Sanlitun bar district. "A lot of things that go on in China in regards to race relations people automatically are quick to construe as racist. But I don't necessarily believe that."

"You're dealing with a very homogenous population that has been very closed to the outside world," said Horne, 25, who moved to Beijing six months ago for his job. "Anything that's not like them, they are curious about and therefore it's easier to stereotype things that you don't know about."

The government has taken pains to appear receptive and culturally sensitive to the arrival of an anticipated 500,000 Olympic visitors. The final number may be considerably smaller due to tightened visa restrictions, as testified to by the thousands of hotel rooms still empty.

The five Olympics mascots have Chinese names that when strung together make up the phrase "Beijing Welcomes You." District governments in Beijing have distributed etiquette guidelines on dealing with foreigners. They suggest, among other things, that Chinese avoid asking a visitor's age or income. In addition, emergency hot lines will be staffed by workers who speak foreign languages.

Although the Chinese have absorbed outsiders and their influences over the centuries, nationalism, and occasionally xenophobia, still bubble up.

In recent years, Beijing and other cities have seen anti-Japanese protests over World War II-era grievances and anti-French demonstrations over remarks made about Tibet and the Olympics, a source of huge national pride.

Last year, police raided Sanlitun, rounding up blacks in a crackdown on the drug trade. The crackdown drew complaints of unfair profiling, racism and brutality.

Hong Kong's South China Morning Post newspaper last month quoted a Beijing bar manager as saying that police made him sign a pledge not to serve blacks or Mongolians, who are perceived to be involved in prostitution, during the Aug. 8-24 games. Local authorities and bar managers denied the report.

Chinese are becoming more accustomed to foreigners, and Western and East Asian cultures have a growing influence, said Barry Sautman, Associate Professor of Social Science at the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology.

Interest in developing regions such as Africa is burgeoning, he said.

"Stereotypes about foreigners abound and national chauvinism and racism are far from uncommon, but foreigners are generally no longer deemed to be strange or suspicious," Sautman said.

The trading and manufacturing city of Guangzhou in southern China is home to one of the largest African populations in Asia.

In a neighborhood of Guangzhou called Hongqiao, malls and shopping arcades do thriving business with Africans. The businessmen can be seen walking along the sidewalks, shouting shipping instructions into mobile phones or pulling large suitcases packed with what they hope will be the next hot product back home.

The area, dubbed "Chocolate City" by taxi drivers because of the African presence, also showcases how daily life can be riddled with frustrations for some foreigners.

There is a heavy police presence. Blue metal police signs on building walls read: "You have entered an area that is under 24-hour security surveillance." Many Africans say it is difficult to find a taxi, because the drivers worry they won't be paid.

"I have a lot of problems getting a cab at rush hour," said Joseph, a trader from Ghana who would only give his first name, because he was worried about offending authorities.

"If I'm standing on the curb waving my hand, and there's a Chinese person just down the street, the cab will pass me and pick up the Chinese person," he said. "Sometimes I'll run down the street and jump into the cab with the Chinese person and say, 'OK, let's go together.' The Chinese person will usually get out of the cab."

Joseph has spent the last six years making business deals on DVD players in China and has learned to negotiate in Mandarin — the country's official language — and Cantonese, a dialect widely spoken in Guangzhou.

"Business is good. ... You just have to learn how they do things," he said.

Guan Jian, a professor of social psychology at Nankai University in Tianjin, said Chinese tend to link stereotypes to the country people are from, not their skin color.

"For instance, Americans are warm and outgoing, Japanese are hardworking, but stingy; Germans are inflexible, but punctual," Guan said. "The stereotypes were formed historically, but may change with passing time."

For the Olympics, Chinese will welcome foreigners as part of a cultural tradition that emphasizes hospitality. Some also hope for more material benefits.

"It's great for us that foreigners are coming! It's great for business," said Zhao Qiuhai, a wiry, lively convenience store owner in Beijing's commercial district. "I've learned a few simple phrases of English for the products in my store like green tea, beer and Coke."

"Oh," he added. "And an important one: 'Can I help you?'"