No more 'Friendship' in China

With soft toilet paper and fresh dairy products available all around Beijing, a famous landmark closes.

A bastion of Chinese socialism - a place entrenched in Beijing lore dating to 1959 and a rival to the Great Wall in visits by foreigners - closed its doors last week.

Known as the "Friendship Store," the three-building complex was off limits to ordinary Chinese until the 1990s. But for diplomats, visiting dignitaries, and intrepid tourists, it was the only place in the communist capital to buy shaving cream, a decent piece of cheese, or a scarf guaranteed to be 100 percent silk.

In today's China - where "every store seems a friendship store," as a local scholar puts it - the Friendship property is a hulking anachronism, with overpriced, outdated products. It suffered itsostensible coup de grâce from the tourist-depleting SARS epidemic. In late June, some 400 out of 800 Friendship employees were laid off, with little advance notice.

The shuttering of the Friendship Store and the sit-in that followed - not a "protest," insist the former workers, which is illegal here - illustrate the complexities of modern China, with its more-open economic climate running up against a regime that still wants to show who's boss.

Last week, as more than 500,000 citizens of Hong Kong flooded that city to protest a new "national security" law that would allow police to jail dissidents and search homes without a warrant, the newly unemployed of the Friendship Store huddled silently beneath two huge red lanterns in a doorway of their former workplace in Beijing.

"I worked nine years here and I was given two days notice," says a young woman, afraid to say her name. "It wasn't really even a notice. Our managers aren't being clear with us. But they are on the inside, and we are on the outside." The workers want to talk to city officials directly, but say their bosses have shut down all efforts at dialogue.

'Come and be comfortable'

Friendship doors first opened a year after one of the worst famines in China's history and on the heels of Chairman Mao Zedong's "100 flowers" campaign, a brutal purge of intellectuals. In those zealously ideological days, "Friendship Store" was China's way of showing that visitors could still come and find friendly habitation.

The message: "We are abolishing the market system and creating a revolution, but you can still come and be comfortable," one scholar remembers.

Indeed, genuinely eager to have waiguoren, or outsiders, feel at home, Chinese have always pointed visitors to the store. Chinese language texts have pages of dialogue using the phrase "Zhenme qu Youyi Shangdian," or "How do I go to the Friendship Store?" It's a place any cabbie in Beijing can take the lost foreigner.

The ironic truth is that the real friendships spawned by the store involved foreigners going into the shop and buying necessities for Chinese neighbors and colleagues who were forbidden to enter. Mothers asked foreign friends to buy milk powder for babies, quality cooking oil, or soft "Golden Fish" toilet paper, unattainable elsewhere.

China had no decent dairy products, for example. But at Friendship there were great slabs of butter shipped from Mongolia. There were creamy cakes, electric extension cords, cameras, and the best tea in China.

One Chinese remembers the late 1970s, when shop windows in what is now upscale Wang Fujin showcased a half-dozen pairs of the same cloth-and plastic-shoes. But at Friendship you could buy hard leather shoes or a Chinese-made winter coat - a thick tweed that seemed as heavy as chain mail that would last a lifetime, and was not available in regular shops.

By the time the Friendship Store opened its doors to Chinese, economic reforms were well under way. Wealthy Chinese might shop Friendship on the guarantee of high quality, but most people with money went to new department stores that opened in the mid-90s.

Workers interviewed at the sit-in last week say the crisis started in 1998 when Friendship merged with another Beijing group. The new partners didn't have great wealth, but had great political connections, and the Friendship group found its assets were steadily hollowed out. Workers say their salaries dropped after the merger to $100 a month from about $200.

But Friendship, located at a crossroads of popular hotels, embassy compounds, and shopping complexes stayed alive by tourists bused in, foot traffic, and familiarity.

Lattes, not milk powder

Still, product quality and freshness suffered. Tourists saw the same oriental bric-a-brac and treacle at every other stop. Expats visited not for milk powder, but for the space rented to Starbucks, Pizza Hut, and Baskin Robbins. The store became a shortcut, a way to avoid harassing DVD hawkers. And expats sped down cavernous hallways past uniformed hostesses who stood perfectly postured next to glass cases of outdated electric razors and stereos that were all cheaper one block over.

In recent days, average Chinese aware of the sit-in (like the Hong Kong protest, the Friendship sit-in wasn't covered by state-run media here) are not sympathetic with the laid-off workers. Friendship employees were famously unfriendly. Their high status, the assumption of life-time jobs, and lack of competition meant the employees could take their time - to put it mildly - in aiding shoppers. The store was crowded with employees, but finding one to help was always a challenge. Buying was an act of patience: There was a salesperson, a manager to write a ticket, a cashier, a wrapper, someone to give an official receipt, and so on.

"I hope they find another job," says a long-time Beijing resident who lives near the store. "But they were never very nice to us."

From the ranks of the sit-in, however, the culprits are the managers who let the store run down, while collecting larger salaries - and who are still employed. The story is a familiar one here in the transition from state to semi-private business.

"Our managers get a car, a fat salary, and profits from the sale of our property," says one worker. "We are getting nothing."

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