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Blogging Beijing

The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.

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July 11, 2008 5:01 AM

Line up, line up

Posted by Daniel Beekman

It's November 2007. You're strolling down Zhichunlu, a windy boulevard in north Beijing. A bus rattles past, blowing swirls of Gobi Desert dust your way.

And then you gasp. Up ahead, where the bus has screeched to a stop, mittened Beijingers are silently, patiently, neatly...queuing up.

In all your strolls through the city, you've never seen anything like it.

'Boarding a Beijing bus'

Flash-forward - it's July 2008. Wrinkly retirees in red baseball caps have invaded Beijing's bus stops and subway stations. They're whipping nylon flags to and fro, barking out instructions, charged with the unenviable task of maintaining curbside order and wenming ('civilization').

Back in 2002, Beijing launched a comprehensive 'civilization improvement campaign' - part of an Olympic Action Plan designed to ready the city before its 2008 Olympic Games. Among the campaign's lead initiatives: crusades against spitting, littering, smoking and...queue jumping.

Local organizers are working to ensure Beijing shows a modern face to the world this August - their pride will suffer if too much spit flies and foreign Olympic tourists are offended.

According to Xinhua, China's official news agency, Beijingers' 'civic index' jumped nearly 10 points to 73.38 in 2007. The index theoretically measures compliance with city rules involving public health, manners, etiquette at sports events and Olympic participation.

"There's been a big change," confirmed Mr. Zhang, queue guard and former factory worker. "It's due to the Olympic Games. We want traffic to flow unimpeded."

"Things really got going last year - when the government designated the 11th of every month 'line-up day' and the 22nd of every month 'offer your seat to an elderly person day.'

Beijingers' notorious distaste for queuing has horrified many an overseas visitor since the city re-opened its doors to the outside world in the late 1970s. People here favor a tooth and nail approach to everyday life - perhaps necessary in crowded Beijing.

"Yeah, there's been more queuing because of the Olympics," a young man waiting for his bus near the transportation hub Gongzhufen shared. "Before, even last year, it was really bad - dangerous. Like, if you had a child with worried he might be trampled."

Mr. Zhang is a retired factory worker and volunteer 'queue guard' in Beijing.

'Olympics welcome you - please line up to get on the bus - thank you' reads the handpainted sign.

Thirty-four new bus routes will begin service this month in Beijing. Buses running on lithium battery power will help accomodate an incredible bump in ridership (4.1 to 21.1 million per day) when the city's Games-period traffic restrictions take effect July 20.

What's it like to board a bulging Beijing bus sans-queue? You've got your 'divers' and your 'shovers.' The former cut in line - avoid if you can their ultra-chic, ultra-high heels. The latter don't like to wait - ignore their hands on the small of your back.

"There are still a lot of people in a big hurry," said a balding man, massaging his socked feet on a park bench. "Maybe on the 11th each month everyone lines up. Mostly it's closer to 30 percent. Those who don't - the other 70 percent? They're going to work! They've got stuff to do!"

Space is tight below ground as well. It's squeeze or be squeezed when rush hour hits Beijing's expanding subway system. Don't be surprised when a wall of harried commuters flood onto the train at your stop, blocking the way out.

Volunteer queue guards have brought jostling under control; the city's Olympic organizers are committed to safety. Beijing security officers and 30 sniffing dogs began subway station baggage checks June 29. X-ray machines, positioned just past the system's new ticket turnstiles, were in evidence.

"It's better than before," one subway queue guard insisted. "Now I'd say 90 percent of riders queue up - a real improvement.

"Things get complicated, however. People from different parts of the country queue differently. China is a big country. Here in the capital, Beijingers must set the example."

"The Olympic Games are closely related to wenming suzhi - quality of civilization," remarked Mr. Zhang, gazing up Beijing's 3rd Ring Road. "The Games are about China playing host. Beijingers are more civilized than people from other parts of China, because of all the xuanchuan ('propaganda')."

Beijing's subway system averages 3.4 million riders per day.

New subway lines eight and ten, along with an airport line, will open before the 2008 Games.

Less than two months before the Opening Ceremonies, Beijing is plastered with Olympic-themed posters and banners, urging citizens to mind regulations.

"The propaganda has been effective, definitely," said a vacationing college student from Shanxi province. "We line up. We pick up trash and throw it away. Five years ago, queue-jumping was a big problem. It's been our custom since the Qing dynasty, actually. These campaigns are related to cultural differences between East and West.

"Our queue guards...their intentions are good," laughed the young man, still waiting for his bus. "But China is China. There are so many people. Such customs never change as fast as we wish."

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