China burns for Olympic flame

The decision tomorrow on who hosts the 2008 Games could alter Beijing leadership.

Winning an Olympic bid brings prestige, and possibly commercial lucre, to the newly crowned host city.

But if Paris or Toronto lose or win the 2008 summer Games - a decision that comes tomorrow - the influence on national pride and on the future politics of those countries is likely to be mild.

This is not the case in China. Here, frontrunner Beijing's Olympic bid is of great national moment, a decision that will empty the streets as it is watched on TV.

Moreover, the success or failure of Beijing's bid plays directly into a pattern of power politics here. After a crushing loss of the 2000 Games in 1993, tomorrow's outcome will not only influence how China deals with what is still called "the outside world" on issues such as human rights and Taiwan, but is likely to alter the climate in which China's crucial leadership succession decisions are made in coming months, experts say.

"In the shape of things today, the Olympic bid may be the most important issue," says Cheng Li, author of a new book on China's leaders. "If China doesn't win, it will be seen as a great failure, useable by [President] Jiang Zemin's opponents, and it could bring a domestic crisis. If China wins, it will be a tremendous foreign-policy success."

Sports in China are not seen only as recreation. Since the opening to the West after the Cultural Revolution, sports are a powerful lens through which Chinese weigh themselves on the international stage. Getting the Games, a project China has labored at for years - and may spend tens of billions on if it wins - is first an identity issue, one that carries a high-octane mixture of personal and national feeling, experts say.

Certainly important externals like international prestige are behind Beijing's bid. For more than a decade, China has wanted the Games to solidify its emergence as a rising modern power. But on the street, and among many newly elite Chinese, one also hears a deeper variation on that theme: a collective desire for confirmation by the rest of the world that China is worthy of respect.

"The main issue is not the horse race between Beijing and the other cities [which also include Istanbul, Turkey, and Osaka, Japan], says a Western diplomat. "The issue is the larger effect of the outcome on Friday. Cab drivers in Paris or Toronto are not going to get up on their cars and scream and yell if those cities don't get the Games. Here in Beijing, feelings can run deeper."

In the mid-1980s, for example, well ahead of the Tiananmen Square tragedy, student demonstrations swept across Beijing. The issue: China's failure to qualify in the soccer World Cup qualifying matches for the Asian region. Those protests were a prime reason then-leader Deng Xiaoping removed protege Hu Yaobang as party secretary. "Those protests were not political, they reflected a collective dismay," says one Chinese professor who lived through them. "Today, especially having failed once, winning the Olympics is extremely important in the Chinese national psyche."

Official versions of Chinese foreign policy also illustrate this potent mixture of sports and nationalism. Current TV programs show Mao Zedong's summit with Richard Nixon in 1972 and Deng Xiaoping's 1979 visit to Washington, segueing straight into China's women's volleyball world championship in 1981 as key moments in international relations.

To be sure, while there is a quiet mood of confidence here, China's leaders have carefully ratcheted down public expectations. In 1993, the Olympic bid committee acted as if the Games were already "in the bag" prior to the vote. This year, posters that splattered the city are gone. Top officials at the influential People's Daily are currently preparing two editorials, just in case.

But for at least 20 months, the "New Beijing, Great Olympics" campaign, as it is known, has been sold to the Chinese as a collective endeavor that every citizen has a stake in - the kind of national sales job, reminiscent of Soviet-era persuasion, that is possible only in a state with a centrally run government and media.

In recent days, the break-of-dawn national flag-raising ceremony on Tiananmen Square has been even more packed than usual. Yesterday at 4:55 a.m., for example, there were no seats in the bleachers along the Avenue of Eternal Peace during the ceremony. Students from Inner Mongolia and Guangdong Province handed out two tiny flags: China's and a Beijing Olympics flag, with its logo of a tai-chi figure and the Olympic rings. "China is a very strong country in Asia, a big country in the world," says Soong Yujian, a teacher from Shandong Province, who, with his students, got up at 2 a.m. for the flag ceremony. "We failed to get the Olympics the last time, but this time China will win. Beijing people have done so much. China has done so much."

One positive sign from Beijing's vantage: On May 15, the IOC Evaluation Committee said the city could host an "excellent Games," based on its technical plans and facilities.

Indeed, for a country that didn't field a modern Olympics team until 1984, China has high-jumped to the top ranks. It placed third in medals last summer in Sydney. The nation of 1.3 billion has developed world-caliber talent in diving, gymnastics, and, of course, ping pong due to a rigorous program of identifying promising athletes while toddlers.

Such a commitment to sports is one of several relatively simple but compelling arguments Chinese officials use for what they say is a "right" to host the Games, a feeling shared by most Chinese.

Another argument is geographics: The summer Games have not been to Asia since 1988, in Seoul, South Korea. In 2004, they will be held in Athens. Some IOC members oppose back-to-back Games in a European Union country, in this case Paris.

Outgoing IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch has pushed Beijing as part of his legacy. He argues that the tenor of the post-cold war world allows for Olympic ideals for the broadest participation among nations. A large country like China, an emerging sports and economic superpower, deserves its day, he says.

Yet whether China's human rights record makes it a deserving candidate - a standard many would like to apply - is not a simple issue. One group, Human Rights in China, says the competing questions are hard enough, so it has remained neutral.

Rep. Tom Lantos (D) of Calif. says Beijing's direction on human rights would put the 2008 games on a par with the Berlin games of 1936 - used by Adolf Hitler to showcase supposed Nazi and Aryan superiority.

In recent months, Beijing has not pleased any number of governments or watchdog groups. Two US citizens of Chinese origin are being held on spy charges, and several US-based Chinese scholars have been detained. China's two-year crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement has been brutal and unrelenting. A "Strike Hard" policy brought more than 1,700 executions of felons in the past spring. Domestic newspapers and magazines here are under new pressure not to report "bad news."

Chinese officials counter by offering a longer-term perspective. They point out that, compared with even its recent past, human rights conditions are vastly improved. There is no mass starvation, no Cultural Revolution. Give us the Games, say officials, and the exposure to international standards, and an opening of society will bring steady change.

Whether that promise will be kept is unknown. But the ripple effect of a win or loss would influence long term approaches to recently strained relations with the US, relations with Taiwan, China's attitude once inside the World Trade Organization, new outreach to neighbors like Russia, and such issues as the US-proposed missile-defense system. "If China gains the Olympics," says Dr. Li, "that will be good for Jiang Zemin, [presumed successor] Hu Jintao, and the others who represent forces of stability."

During the spring, nationalist voices here grew louder, following a standoff with Washington over a mid-air collision of two military planes. One hears increasingly of a "golden age" of China that was destroyed by Europe and Japan in the 19th century. Losing the Olympics could feed such national grudges. Anti-American feeling is manifest, despite the Bush administration's position of neutrality on Beijing's bid.

Writes Lau Naikeung, a not untypical delegate to the Chinese People's Consultative Conference: "If the West rejects China - for instance by again denying Beijing the Olympics, those countries should not be surprised to find [China] one day pointing back at them and saying: 'I have been trying very hard to play the game, and if it is still not good enough for you, then you can get lost.' "

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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