The Softer Touch

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Ren Wanding was in prison the last time Beijing made a bid for the Olympic Games. That was 1993, and he was serving seven years for supporting the 1989 student demonstrations that ended in the disastrous Tiananmen Square massacre. There was no way he could support the bid, Ren recalls. The Olympic torch would cast a flicker of legitimacy over the Communist Party. Released five years ago, Ren can now crusade against Beijing's current attempt to be host to the 2008 Summer Games. But he isn't, and not because he's afraid. Instead he is hopeful that the Games will empower leaders who favor political reform. "China needs to improve its human rights," he says, "Opposing the Olympics won't help reach that goal."

If the rest of the world wrings its hands over entrusting the Olympic spirit to an authoritarian regime, the People's Republic has made remarkable progress in convincing corporate sponsors and its citizens, including some (but not all) dissidents, that Beijing deserves to be awarded the Olympic rings this week. Whatever the outcome, Beijing's $24 million bid--subsidized heavily by foreign corporate sponsors--shows China has at last mastered public relations, offering appealing images of economic progress while slickly downplaying human-rights abuses.

Crucial help came from a former rival. Australian consultant Peter Phillips picked up "one by one" the five key organizers of the wildly successful Games in Sydney, which beat out Beijing by two votes back in 1993, and made them China's exclusive counselors. For more than two months last winter, Phillips and friends spent 16-hour days in Beijing helping craft key documents. When the International Olympic Committee sent an evaluation crew to grill the committee, Phillips and his team suggested answers the Chinese might have muffed, such as making them omit the usual "evil-cult" epithet from comments on the underground Falun Gong spiritual movement. Phillips even solved Beijing's dreaded puppy problem. Many Chinese eat dogs, and dog farms import the frozen sperm of St. Bernards to breed quick-growing canine roasters. Beijing officials were certain that Swiss visitors would protest at seeing their rescue pooches on chopsticks, and they wanted a response ready. So, Phillips advised, "just tell them Chinese find it strange that Europeans eat horses."

China's savvy bid contrasts sharply with its failed 1993 effort. Back then police rounded up mentally handicapped people who might have wandered into sight of an IOC motorcade and beat one to death. The government enmeshed its bid with an empty political slogan: "A More Open China Awaits the 2000 Games." Nothing like that this time. Beijing emphasizes the country's rich history and the $12 billion the city will spend on environmental protection. Its current slogan, "New Beijing, Great Olympics," deliberately focuses on the city, not the country's policies.

The changes have paid off at home. A Gallup poll earned top headlines after finding 95% support for the bid among Beijing residents. But there's another explanation for such favorable results: heavy-handed propaganda. A similar poll showing 87% support outside Beijing went unreported because "it was deemed too low," says Victor Yuan of Horizon Research, which conducted the study. Ordinary Chinese will never read a quote saying the Games "will bring Beijing's corruption to the world's attention," as Zhao Hong, a teacher of Marxist philosophy in the distant city of Kunming, told Time. And they don't know that a member of the banned China Democracy Party, Shan Chengfeng, wrote an open letter in December asking the IOC to press for the release of her activist husband and "every political prisoner," or that she is serving two years in a labor camp for her missive. Still, dissident Sha Yuguang, who has pressed for democratic reform for two decades, is typical in hoping that a Beijing Games will "bring China closer to the world, which helps promote political reform."

The trouble is, nobody knows who will rule China in 2008. By then the Communist Party will have undergone a tricky succession; its previous two changes came amid purges and massive unrest. Olympic scrutiny intensified upheaval in Mexico in 1968 and South Korea in 1988. Awarding China the rings now could be like arranging a marriage for children, then inviting the whole world to critique their maturity. And once China is wed to the Games, marital spats may be inevitable.

With Reporting by Barry Hillenbrand/Washington