Olympic inspectors will entertain a summer Games bid this week that, if successful, will set the stage for the largest single influx of Westerners to China since the Opium Wars of the 1840s.
Nine years ago China lost the 2000 Games bid to Sydney by two votes - a catastrophic blow to China's prestige. Despite its size, its membership on the UN Security Council, and its obsessive devotion to sports, China has never hosted an Olympics. Yet Beijing has turned itself into a stunningly cosmopolitan city in recent years, and despite new questions about human rights, this time it may be the odds-on favorite to win.
The 16-member delegation visiting this week is regarded as practically the most important to reach China since Marco Polo. Bus drivers are learning 20 lines of English greetings. Clean-air police with telescopes survey chimneys to make sure none emit coal smoke. Even the brown grass on main Changan Street has been spray-painted lawn green.
"Not a decision is made in Beijing right now, not a bureaucrat breathes, unless it relates to getting the Games," says one Western observer.
"China is a 9.6 million square-kilometer area with 1.25 billion people," said Vice Mayor Liu Jingmin in a Feb. 7 press conference. "But we've never hosted the Olympics. It seems to many of us that the Chinese people have the proper right to do this."
A telling twist has to do with the ultra-sensitive issue of human rights - something Chinese officials are loath to raise, but which they want to avoid as a stumbling block for the 113 International Olympic Committee members who meet in July to choose among Paris, Toronto, Istanbul, Turkey, and Osaka, Japan.
"I can't say the human rights situation in China is excellent," confessed Vice Mayor Liu. "China falls short of world standards." But should China win the bid, he added, "this will promote the human rights movement of China and the world."
Such a frank admission marks a change of tone by officials who in the past have only elliptically admitted to problems. In recent months, China has been criticized by some Western governments for its two-year crackdown on the Falun Gong movement. Last week Amnesty International issued a report saying that torture and violations of human rights were not declining, but rising, in China.
What the new tone means is unclear. During the 1993 bid, Beijing released three prominent dissenters - only to rearrest them when the bid failed.
Some analysts argue that winning the Olympics, like entering the World Trade Organization, will only legitimize authoritarian rule and delay change in the area of freedoms. Others say that opening China to an influx of new ideas and peoples supports a "constructive engagement" policy, whose tenets read that a country as ancient and historically isolated will only change gradually.
Both sympathetic critics and apologists here who recall the massive secret famines and the Cultural Revolution under Chairman Mao say progress has been made. Both Moscow in 1980 and Mexico City in 1968 were awarded the Games, even though both were hardly human rights models.
"I won't say China doesn't need further improvement in its political system," says Wen Wen, a deputy director of the Beijing Olympics Bid Committee. "But if you've lived in China for a long period, you will agree that a lot has changed."
"Beijing's candor about its problems and challengers is positive," says one Western diplomat. "The old line that everything is fine in the worker's paradise - that's not credible.&#8230; But it shows the kind of changes needed on a larger scale."
One potential public relations issue has to do with, of all things, beach volleyball. Chinese officials say they accepted a request by the international beach volleyball association to use Tiananmen Square - known to Westerners as the place where pro-democracy students were killed in 1989 - as the venue for the sport. Some critics say the venue has been agreed to by officials in an effort to sanitize the past.
Since losing the bid in 1993, city planners have not been sitting on their hands. Neon-saturated strips with night clubs and restaurants crop up all through the central Chaoyang District. Glass skyscrapers trace the third ring road, a major artery only finished in the past half-decade. A fourth ring road is under construction. The traditional bicycling public has been moved off main streets to special pathways.
Beijing officials feel they have a good "geographic" case. With Athens the venue for 2004, Paris in 2008 would put the Games in European Union countries twice in a row. The last Asian summer games were in Seoul, South Korea, in 1988. Before that, the Games had not been in Asia since Tokyo in 1964. Western analysts say Toronto also may be a contender if lucrative North American TV rights are a factor.
The Chinese for their part, point to China's performance in recent Olympics. During the last Olympics they denied a significant number of their athletes a place in the Games due to positive drug tests.
One Western consultant feels China will benefit from the Games for reasons not always understood by officials. "They come from 50 years of state planning. To win the bid will force them to be inventive, creative&#8230;. They won't be able to control their image the way they do now."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society