China’s APEC preparations go into overdrive

BEIJING – When it comes to China’s international prestige, no price is too high, no measure too small.

With President Barack Obama and other world leaders headed to Beijing this weekend for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, schools and government agencies have been shuttered. Half the city’s cars banned from driving. Much of the entire city has gone into lockdown.

Couples, for example, looking to marry (or divorce for that matter) will have to stem their respective passions.

Even the dead will have to wait – with some mortuaries forbidding a clothes-burning ritual at funerals until most foreign dignitaries leave town on November 14.

To ensure blue, pollution-free skies, of course, scores of factories across the region have been shut down, including the heating supply for the entire neighboring city of Tianjin (where nighttime temperatures in the mid-30s are forecast).

China’s Communist leaders have a long tradition of going to extremes to burnish their country’s image. Their preparations in recent months echo the herculean measures taken before the Beijing Olympics.

Back in 2008, residents were evicted from certain areas and homes demolished to make way for new venues. Activists were rounded up and imprisoned. The government enforced strict censorship and cracked down on Tibet and other areas of unrest.

Preparations this time around have also included questionable human rights tactics, with many petitioners and government protesters rounded up and arrested ahead of the meeting to prevent potentially embarrassing criticisms of the government.

And in Huairou, the northern Beijing suburb hosting the summit, almost 9,000 houses were demolished and the residents relocated in order to build Disney-like quaint streets of fake-ancient Chinese teahouses – an effort that began as early as three years ago, according to state-run media.

On the security front, Beijing has also sent swarms of police onto the streets and organized tens of thousands of security volunteers – elderly men and women dressed in standard-issue red and gray windbreakers to report suspicious behaviors.

In recent weeks, the sheer magnitude of overpreparation in state media reports has begun veering into the realm of bizarre.

To staff the conference, the government weeded through more than 8,000 candidates and chose 2,280 finalists, who had to endure rigorous training to relearn how to sit, stand, walk and even smile, according to the People’s Daily, the party’s official mouthpiece.

Those who passed had to master four degrees of smiles, along with their respective suitabilities for different situations. They were also taught the government-sanctioned method of looking at a fellow human being. (Don’t look directly into the other’s eyes; aim instead for the area between the eyes and the nose.)

On behalf of those world leaders planning on riding an elevator or escalator, China pressed into service 103 operators who were required to pass a certification test just for the event.

Behind the craziness, of course, are serious goals at stake for China.

Beyond the potential for prestige, or embarrassment, as the annual event’s host, experts say, China is at a precarious point in its development and international standing.

Its aggressive bullying tactics in territorial disputes in recent years have earned strong enmity among neighbors. It is now trying to calm relations with countries like perennial enemy Japan and neighboring Vietnam, which saw violent anti-Chinese riots earlier this year.

China’s always-complicated frenemy relationship with the United States is also facing its share of bumps. There are long-standing disagreements over cyberhacking, human rights and territorial disputes with U.S. allies in Asia. But among their new disagreements is China’s effort to draw countries into two economic and trade initiatives – the Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank and the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific – both of which U.S. officials have opposed in part because of concerns about giving China even greater power over the region.

In the face of such intractable disputes with China, perhaps visiting world leaders will find some small solace at last in the meticulous preparations China has made on their behalf – figuring out, for example, down to the exact number of paces waiters should take to bring food from the kitchen to the conference’s dining halls: 484 steps, ideally using exactly 5 minutes and 45 seconds, if they can manage it.

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