The China Report: Beijing Games hurdles pose short-term obstacles

There should be no asking foreigners their age, and questions about their love life are off limits. Phrases like "you are wonderful", however, are encouraged. Locals in China are grappling with…

Promoted by Lawyers Weekly 22 August 2008 Big Law
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There should be no asking foreigners their age, and questions about their love life are off limits. Phrases like "you are wonderful", however, are encouraged. Locals in China are grappling with the rules of communicating with foreigners as athletes and Olympic tourists descend on the country for the Games. But businesses, too, are being guided on even the finest details of how they conduct themselves.

The 2008 Olympic Games are a symbol of mass etiquette training. As Australian media reports on and struggles to understand China's interpretation of the phrases "freedom of the press" and "human rights", the host of the Olympics is also learning a thing or two about Western protocols and status quos. The Olympics, it would seem, is allowing Chinese and Western cultures to fully appreciate their differences.

Posters displayed in a central Beijing district outline eight protocols for locals when communicating with Olympic visitors. The posters are part of a sweeping campaign by China's communist government to clean up its image during the Games. The wide-ranging measures include asking locals to wait patiently in line, stop spitting, not ask questions about age, salary, love life, health and income, and improve their driving.

According to one local lawyer in Beijing, Allens Arthur Robinson international partner Stuart Mengler, there has been much media focus on the training of locals. But with Beijing being an "extremely friendly city", Mengler says this hasn't caused too many problems.

Just as the imposition of the Olympics is far-reaching for local people, businesses too are feeling the pressure. Public institutions start work an hour later each day in a plan to ease traffic congestion, reports Chinese state media. From 20 July, working hours in Beijing were altered in a bid to spread out peak hours and reduce pollution, the China Daily reported. Working hours for companies are set from 9am to 5pm, and shopping malls will open no earlier than 10am. Cars with odd and even number plates will be given turns on when they can use the roads. Everyone but schools, administrative bodies and essential services is sticking to the new rules.

Mallesons Stephen Jaques partner John Shi, who works in the Beijing office in mergers & acquisitions, says the policy of taking 50 per cent of the cars off the road saw chaos on the subway on the first day, after which people got used to it. While he personally avoids the rush, travelling by car pool instead, Shi says colleagues complained about the crowded subways, where people who had no experience catching public transport had to figure things out. "But staff still came in on time," he says.

Allens' Mengler, who rides his bike to work during the Games, agrees there has been a period of adjustment. But he says the city has fallen into the swing of things. "Before the Olympics there was a feeling that things would be substantially different. But we had a few weeks to get used to it. It's such a large city, and while there is a good Olympic feel everywhere you go, things are pretty much the same," he says.

Businesses have also been trapped by a clamp-down on the issuing of business visas during the Olympics after Beijing stopped issuing invitation letters which are needed to gain visas for businesspeople. An official with the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Commerce told the press that the restrictions would last until after 20 September, the only exceptions being visas involving employment or business contracts. China wants to keep out foreign activists and foreigners not properly employed in Beijing, but the upshot is that there can be no conferences nor face-to-face business negotiations.

Mallesons partner Shi says many clients have put off coming during the Olympic period as a result of the visa situation. More documentation requirements and the time it takes to get a visa have put some clients off face-to-face meetings. "I have a couple of clients who can't make it, but instead of them coming in, we have telephone conferences ... or people are postponing their visits to after the Olympics," Shi says.

Mallesons Beijing colleague Nicolas Groffman, a senior associate, plays down the impact of the visa situation, saying that while it may cause some trouble for businessmen, it doesn't affect business strategies. "If they're going to invest in China, they're not going to let a little thing like trouble getting a visa put them off."

Despite a few inconveniences, the Olympics have also positively mixed things up for some local businesses, who are able to entertain clients by the side of the 100-metre freestyle race, for example. It beats taking them to bars for a change.

Staff, too, are handed some flexibility thanks to the Games. "Staff are going off to events, and that includes taking clients to events. I am taking a client to the rowing today. So we're being flexible in that way," says Mengler.

"Meetings get changed around because people have commitments in terms of events. People have functions and marketing around events. So matters that are not urgent or can be dealt with after the Olympics are being postponed," he says.

Mallesons' Groffman plays down the magnitude and effect of recent regulation and policies that international press has attributed to the Olympics. Just because the world's eyes are on China does not make things suddenly mammoth, he suggests. "It all might look like a big deal, because for many people this is the first time they have seen China put on such a show. But for people here - especially those of use who have been working here for a good 10 years or so - some of what is happening is a bit more predictable," he says.

China's global economic position is influencing the government's moves more than the Olympics, says Groffman, labelling the country an "economic juggernaut second only to America".

"While people are saying that the government is legislating because of the Olympics, but we would see it as part of a general trend," he says.

Some areas of law have been labelled "hot" and have been linked to the Games, says Groffman, giving competition clearance as an example. "The changes that came out last year that were reported as unprecedented, for Mallesons, which has been here a long time, that is not such a huge deal." he says.

Real work around the Olympics for many firms started years ago, particularly in infrastructure. Four years ago Mallesons, for one, advised on that sort of legal work. "Now what we're doing is very much being driven by the economy and new regulations ... that is nothing really to do with the Olympics."

Some work for Allens and Mallesons does come from organisations grappling with how the Olympics will impact on them. Legal queries come from companies who think they will be affected, including security issues, questions around immigration and border control issues.

But this is small fry, says Mallesons' Groffman, who argues that the Olympics itself is barely affecting the work the firm does, or the legislation the government is making. "The kind of work we're doing - foreign investment, real estate, helping companies with competition clearances and so on - that was carrying on at high speed before the Olympics, it's carrying on now and it will carry on afterwards," he says.

The media spotlight has been on the differences between China's policies and protocols and those of the Western world.

In the spotlight currently are human rights issues, political protests, and questions raised over Beijing's pollution and the Chinese Government's attitude to foreign media. And some are bemoaning the extent to which locals and foreign businesses are being put out by Games-related inconveniences. Many, however, are keen to play both down.

In the spirit of the Olympics, they argue that this time will pass, and the inconvenience is minor for such an important international competition with the inherent influx of foreign spending such an event brings.

Just as with Sydney, international attention will wane, public transport will revert to the varying levels of efficiency it enjoyed before, memories of the camaraderie and sporting successes will take on an even golder hue - and all will return to business as usual.

- Kate Gibbs