Peking turns off neon for Mao's golden day

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The Independent Online
IN A THROWBACK to the days when Maoist China banned advertising as a symbol of bourgeois capitalism, Peking appears to be reviving the tradition of socialist purity. The central government has ordered the removal of all neon advertisements, advertising billboards and company logos from the heart of the city as part of a spiritual "clean-up" for this year's 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic, on 1 October.

The ban covers Tiananmen Square and the main central drag, the Avenue of Eternal Peace, and has prompted an angry response from China's nascent advertising industry and the companies that advertise at these prestige locations. Most of these are foreign, and the advertisements range from Japanese electronic goods to XO cognac, Western brandname clothes and even paint.

China is already gearing up for the massive celebration and propaganda blitz planned for 1 October, and the thought of so many glaring foreign corporate names as the backdrop for this patriotic jamboree clearly upset the publicity cadres. It was at Tiananmen Gate on 1 October 1949 that Chairman Mao proclaimed that the Chinese people had "stood up", but if the Great Helmsman were to stand on the same spot today, he would gaze out upon a vista enlivened by McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken signs.

The veto seems bound to affect about 300 advertising hoardings and 500 buildings, many of which earn substantial revenues from hosting adverts or neon signs. "This spells a huge loss for our company," said Han Fenglai at the Peking Olympics Advertisement company (nothing to do with theGames), the agency that handles many of the advertisements along the boulevard, which is known as Chang'an Avenue in Chinese. One of the casualties is China's largest hoarding, a vast advertisement for Kodak China that sits atop the Peking Postal Service Management Bureau.

It is when such central government edicts are handed down that companies discover their contracts suddenly seem to have no legal force. Many foreign advertisers, who have spent money building the large advertisements and arranging the sites, will have no chance of appeal even though the contracts they signed have not yet expired.

The Avenue of Eternal Peace is known around the world from the picture of the man standing defiant in front of a tank during the June 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. Since then the wide boulevard has been transformed by China's economic boom, with huge buildings emerging on both sides. The sprouting of the advertisements and neon signs has mostly happened in the past four years. When the offending signs have all been removed, non- commercial neon lights will be installed to illuminate the buildings. No one has yet said when the advertisements will be allowed back.

The clean-up will extend to more than just ridding the scene of adverts. Fountains and statues, new rubbish bins, brighter streetlights and traffic signals for the blind will all be in place by October. The central section will be repaved with granite paving stones, just like Tiananmen Square itself, which is also undergoing a makeover for the anniversary.