China paints town red for African leaders

China has not only rolled out the red carpet, it has also redecorated its capital in red as it prepares to host more than 40 African heads of state for a summit billed as a warm-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

About 1 700 delegates and hundreds of journalists are expected for the November 1 to 6 China-Africa forum, designed to boost trade and economic links between the Asian superpower and the underdeveloped but resource-rich continent.

Delegates will be able to zoom into town from the airport free of traffic jams, with private cars restricted on the expressway at key hours and the city’s residents being offered toll-free driving on alternate roads to encourage them to stay off the main route.

Giant clusters of balloons brightening the thoroughfare into the city dip so low in the wind they risk obscuring drivers’ views with the cheery — if ungrammatical — proclamation: ”Welcome to Beijing Summit”!

While Beijing may be seeking oil and iron ore from Africa, giraffes and zebras are the images it is using to highlight the continent to its population, for most of whom Africa remains an unknown despite deepening ties.

”Chinese people don’t know too much about Africa,” said Ren Fang, who works for a space institute. ”But travel is just opening up, so more and more people are going.”

Television specials on African tourism reinforce the image of the continent being projected around the city on banners with exotic images of animals marching through the savannahs and people dressed in warrior clothes and face paint.

”Africa — the land of myth and miracles,” proclaims one poster, featuring a backdrop of an elephant.

It’s a public relations campaign that avoids the weighty issues of debt forgiveness and oil deals.

Instead, it reinforces a legacy of goodwill built through China’s support of African independence movements in the 1960s and 1970s with the theme of the summit, ”Peace, Friendship, Cooperation and Development”.

But hosting old friends for the biggest gathering of foreign leaders Beijing has ever had comes at a price for the city of more than 15-million, which is scrambling to pull together traffic curbs and safety measures to ensure a smooth summit in a dress rehearsal for the 2008 Olympics.

In the north-western district of Haidian, doctors and nurses have been mobilised to patrol the streets to help maintain order, one doctor said.

School hours will be adjusted to prevent traffic clogging and school buses will be rerouted, 80% of government vehicles have been ordered to stay off the roads and half of all cars owned by state or party institutions or the military will be banned from the streets for six days.

Taxis without passengers are to be barred from the Avenue of Eternal Peace, which runs past Tiananmen Square in the heart of the city, and trucks will be forbidden from transporting petrol, diesel and dangerous chemicals in the downtown area. – Reuters

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Lindsay Beck
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