BEIJING -- A ragtag army of free-lance car-washers was recently booted from the front of one of this city's finest hotels, a choice spot from which the streetside entrepreneurs had been aggressively peddling their services all winter.
The move did not represent a shift in the Chinese government's renewed tolerance for such low-level capitalist pursuits. Instead, likely resulted from some very important guests who will be checking into that hotel today.
The VIPs are an inspection team from the International Olympic Committee. The Chinese government is pulling out all stops to make sure that they leave here in four days with a favorable impression.
At stake is which city will be chosen this September to be host to the Summer Olympic Games in 2000, an honor for which Beijing is bidding along with six other cities: Brasilia, Brazil; Berlin; Istanbul, Turkey; Manchester, England; Milan, Italy; and Sydney, Australia.
Beijing and Sydney, which the IOC group inspected earlier this week, are widely touted as the front-runners.
But Beijing is indicating that it will do anything to win. As Chen Xitong, head of the city's Olympic bid committee, put it: "We regard the International Olympic Committee as God, and what it says is a command to us."
The Chinese leadership desperately wants the Olympics -- particularly the heavily symbolic, turn-of-the-century Games -- to enhance its political legitimacy around the world and trumpet China as a major player in world economic affairs in the next century.
Bidding for the 2000 Olympics thus boils down to another step in the overall strategy that China has been pursuing with success for the last several years: a strategy of presenting a relaxed face to the world while keeping a tight grip on its own people.
In its bid, Beijing faces many obstacles, from its poor physical environment to the lingering political fallout from the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
The murder of hundreds, if not thousands, of pro-democracy protesters "is something which belongs to the past," another Beijing Olympic Committee official, Wu Shaozu, recently told foreign reporters.
To drive home the point, China recently released early from jail several dissidents -- moves promptly branded a cynical form of "hostage politics" by overseas human rights groups.
While Sydney studiously avoided a special show for the IOC, authorities here have been doing what Communist regimes may do best: mobilizing the masses in a feverish campaign to put a cleaner, friendlier sheen on the Chinese capital.
A citywide drive to stamp out flies -- tons of pesticides and hundreds of thousands of flyswatters were distributed -- has been followed by papering the capital in huge banners announcing: "A more open China awaits the 2000 Olympics."
Security has been tightened. Police are enforcing usually ignored traffic regulations. Authorities have ordered apartment balconies cleaned of debris, unlicensed peddlers and beggars driven from sidewalks, and belching furnaces closed down.
But even these efforts may not help very much.
The IOC visit falls at one of the dirtiest times of year here, when winter coal dust mingles with spring sandstorms. With private enterprise bursting out these days, Beijing's streets and markets have reached unprecedented congestion. Many residents don't care if the city gets the Olympics, and some fear the Games would be held at their expense -- much as were the 1990 Asian Games.
To get the games, officials also have embarked on huge infrastructure projects, including a new expressway from the capital's airport to the city, a new railway station and a new natural gas pipeline enabling the city to do away with coal heating by 2000.
They've promised the IOC they will build several new stadiums and an Olympic Village for up to 20,000 participants, pay the airfare for all delegations to come to Beijing, and even turn a $120 million profit.
In their formal proposal sent to the IOC, authorities also vowed: "Neither now nor in the future will there emerge in Beijing organizations opposing Beijing's bid and the hosting of the 2000 Olympiad." It's a promise the current regime is capable of keeping.
Perhaps most important, though, China has been quietly drumming up support for its bid among Asian neighbors and other developing nations, particularly in Africa, where China has long dispensed aid.
Behind the scenes, China's message has been that the 21st century will be Asia's and the developing world's, and that there could be no better way to celebrate that than by holding the Olympiad here in 2000.
The votes of those who buy this logic could well determine the outcome of the IOC's secret balloting in September.