One of the quickest ways to appreciate the contrast between China and the United States is to stand in the airy, modern, well-proportioned lobby of the new Jianguo hotel in Peking. Look beyond the chairs and tables in comfortable groupings, the tall plants and smooth brown-tiled floors, through the long, spotless stretch of plate-glass windows, at a typical Peking street scene - people, virtually all blue-clad, streaming by on black bicycles against a gray backdrop of buildings, dust covering everything.
The Jianguo, a replica of the Holiday Inn in Palo Alto, California, would be accepted without astonishment in most parts of the world. Its square design fits in with Jianguo Boulevard, the most noticeable difference between it and the surrounding buildings being its golden-brown color. Clement Chen, an American architect and developer who owns the Palo Alto Holiday Inn, built and financed the Jianguo, but he owns only 49 percent of it; the other 51 percent is owned by the government of China.The Jianguo is the first hotel to be built in China under this arrangement.
Mr. Chen says that he and his developers took advantage of the fact that the Jianguo and the Palo Alto Holiday Inn would be so similar. ''The contractors were able to live in the hotel and see the finished product,'' he says. ''It was difficult enough for them to build a Western-style hotel for the first time. I tried to make it as easy for them as possible.''
The hotel will belong to the Chinese government at the end of 10 years. This, says Mr. Chen, is a ''condition I proposed to the Chinese at the time. I felt that, in 10 years, the profit from a well-planned hotel could be sufficient to compensate an outside investor for his effort. In a society like that, I felt that nobody but the government should own everything.''
Since 1979, China has turned its attention from long-term development to investments with short-term benefits like tourism. ''They've realized that it (tourism) is easy money. You need a room and a bus, and that's it,'' commented one businessman, a Peking resident. A shortage of rooms suitable for tourists has been one of the main obstacles to tourist development; thus projects like the Jianguo.
What is unique about the Jianguo - for China - is that you can actually ''book'' a room there. When you are on a tour of China you don't know what hotel you will be staying in until your escorted tour bus pulls up at the door. China International Travel Service (CITS) makes the arrangements. One veteran China traveler commented, ''I'm not quite sure how they do it; I always picture someone sitting on a high stool with two very sharp pencils. . . .''
But if you would like to arrange to stay at the Jianguo, you can just go to a travel agent - though he will urge you to take a tour unless you are traveling on business. The Jianguo cost $22 million and took 20 months to build; it opened in March - a ''soft'' opening with no official announcement.
The reason for this, according to Mr. George Fraschia, who has come from the luxurious Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong to manage the Jianguo, was to compensate for the inexperience of the hotel's young workers. The Peninsula Hotel Group has a 10-year contract to manage the hotel and train a staff. ''We have inherited students who have never seen a hotel in their lives,'' Mr. Fraschia says. Just by being a typical American hotel, the Jianguo is unusual. ''The hotel coffee shop, direct dialing from your room, reservations, you don't surrender your keys on the floor, you sign for bills, receive a proper invoice - these are all innovations here.''
For years the most impressive and popular hotel in Peking was the Peking Hotel, with its fabulous lobby, rooms with antimacassars on the chairs and blonde 1950s furniture, and houseboys on each floor. ''A lot of people think that the Peking Hotel, with all its deficiencies, after all is China,'' Mr. Fraschia says. ''Why come all the way to China to stay in Palo Alto in your room? But a businessman who has already been to China doesn't need the cockroaches in his room.
''Other hotels are 60 yuan (about $30) per room; we charge 110 yuan. I think it's foreseeable that they (CITS) might guarantee the Peking at a higher rate.''
During the Cultural Revolution politeness of any sort was discouraged; the government is now trying to turn the tide by having National Courtesy Months, anti-spitting campaigns, and the like. The Jianguo takes an even more direct approach. Mr. Fraschia took us downstairs to one of the rooms being used for training. On the wall were taped pieces of paper with such comments as:
''A smile does not cost anything. People do not like to be surrounded by grouchy persons.'' Next to the sign were six young girls, just arrived to start their training and looking anything but grouchy; they were jumping up and down, squeaking with joy. ''We are very lucky,'' one said earnestly.
The Jianguo has a Chinese restaurant, a Western restaurant with an American chef, and a coffee shop. ''We'll offer something different if you get tired of Chinese food,'' Mr. Fraschia says.
''Until now, the Peking Hotel was the center of life in Peking [for foreigners]. Now you have another nucleus.''