China Burns for Olympic Flame ; the Decision Tomorrow on Who Hosts the 2008 Games Could Alter Beijing Leadership

Article excerpt

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. …