Shivering for diplomacy: Chinese villages ordered not to burn fuel to keep skies blue at APEC

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The nights are freezing for villagers near the site of an Asia-Pacific summit on the outskirts of Beijing, where authorities have banned wood fires to curb pollution and help ensure blue skies for the leaders instead of the usual grey smog.

"I now sleep under three quilts at night," said a man who gave only his surname, Bai, as is typical of many Chinese when speaking to journalists.

"There cannot be any smoke, and we cannot heat our brick beds," said Bai, 68. Traditional raised sleeping platforms in frigid northern Chinese houses are often heated by coal and provide warmth during both the day and night.

World leaders, including President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, are meeting Monday and Tuesday at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in a lavish new resort on the capital's outskirts. At best, they are likely to catch only a glimpse of the surrounding rural life.

The fruit-farming villages have been scrubbed clean. Authorities have cleared illegally built sheds, revamped 150 new storefronts, planted 100,000 saplings and promised to deliver cleaner heating sources in village makeovers that are bringing rare benefits to the small communities.

But they also get a chilly, temporary inconvenience: Since Nov. 1 they've been banned from burning their usual sources of heat.

Residents of Bai's village of Fan'gezhuang have been promised they will get natural gas for heating, and other villages have been told they'll get higher quality coal. Some gas systems have arrived, but several villagers interviewed Sunday said they have not yet received theirs despite nighttime temperatures that recently dropped below freezing.

Beijing had an all-out effort to clean up the city in 2008, when it hosted the Summer Olympic Games, and authorities have been busy again this year to present APEC leaders with a sparkling resort under blue skies.

In Fan'gezhuang, Bai brought apples and persimmons from his yard to sell at a stand he set up on a new main road that was built to replace what local authorities said was a dirty and chaotic central street. Now, the town has winding streams and tidy, faux-gray-brick buildings.

Bai was nonchalant about the changes.

"The village was not bad to begin with, and now it is just as good," he said.

On a clear Sunday, the commercial street was eerily quiet with many storefronts closed, while village Communist Party officials, volunteers and security personnel kept a watchful eye.

Guo Jingyi, 20, said she was excited about APEC and its impact on her hometown.

"As a local resident, I feel honored that we are hosting APEC," Guo said. "We already have the best air in Beijing, and the air quality will only get better."

In Upper Beitai, the village closest to the hotel, the streets were remarkably free of trash. A few uniformed men wielding long poles with nets were looking for stray dogs, although a village cadre claimed the men were merely exercising.

"Our village has seen quite a makeover," said Upper Beitai resident Zhang Xiukun, 58. "It is especially clean this year, after all the unauthorized structures were removed."

"Everyone is supportive of it as our living conditions are better," Zhang said.