A Beijing Neighborhood Changes

NPR's Frank Langfitt used to be a newspaper correspondent in Beijing. After five years away, he returned to his old neighborhood during the Olympics. What he found was a lot of new wealth. And some repression.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

NPR's Frank Langfitt used to be a newspaper correspondent in Beijing. After five years away, he returned to his old neighborhood during the Olympics. What he found was a lot of new wealth and some repression.

FRANK LANGFITT: I'm a couple of blocks from my old apartment, and I'm front of the Urton In-House Restaurant(ph). I used to come here all the time. It was a cheap, unpretentious place. I could get a kung pao chicken for about three bucks or so. And the place has completely changed.

I'm in the lobby right now. There's a 10-foot tall golden Buddha in front of me, and the ceiling is all golf leaf. (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language).

LANGFITT: (Speaking foreign language). I asked to see a menu. That kung pao chicken now costs more than eight bucks. I've been priced out of my old restaurant.

I ask the manager what happened. Her English name is Jessica. She says a major business district has sprouted up around the neighborhood.

Ms. JESSICA (Restaurant Manager): (Through translator) As this society develops and the surrounding area has more and more office buildings, there are more and more businesspeople, and of course they need an environment like this to invite guests and entertain them, and we just adapted to this environment.

LANGFITT: One morning I head over to Red Scarf Park. It's several miles to the east. I'm doing a story on ballroom dancing there. Suddenly one dancer confronts me. He's a retired college professor named Sun San Bao(ph).

Mr. SUN SAN BAO (Retired College Professor): (Through translator) I hope you will be more friendly. The Chinese common people's lives are a lot better.

LANGFITT: At first I'm confused; then I get it. He wants to set me straight on how much progress the country's made.

Mr. BAO: (Through translator) The situation of Chinese people, you still don't understand, especially Americans. Right now Chinese people are richer. Everyone is very satisfied. It's not like what you imagine. Being oppressed, unable to sustain their lives, it's not like that at all.

LANGFITT: I could dismiss this guy as a crank, but I've heard similar arguments from other Chinese. The country's economic growth is dazzling, but what you don't see is revealing as well.

I'm back near that old restaurant, the one that went way upscale, and right now I'm in a park just next door. This is one of the three parks in the city the government has said people can come here and protest during the Olympics. So I'm going to go in and look for some protestors.

Two women sit at a table by the front gate. I ask one, who only gives her surname Wong, if there have been any protests.

(Speaking foreign language)

Ms. WONG: (Speaking foreign language)

LANGFITT: So far we haven't had any protestors, she says. Why? I ask. Because people in Beijing feel their lives are quite good, she continues. So no one has come to protest. They're all at home watching the Olympic competition.

Soon security guards appear. They wear earphones.

This is amazing. Now we are up to five security guards now. Another guy has come in from the pond. (Speaking foreign language)

He smiles at me, waves his white-gloved hand.

One guard shadows me as I walk towards a waterfall. A plainclothes cop is waiting there. He starts videotaping me.

I can't imagine anybody would want to talk to me here, and I can't imagine anybody would want to stage a protest here.

In fact, some people did. The government received more than 70 applications for protests during the Olympics. None were approved. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Beijing.

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