BEIJING — The key to China’s successful $24 million campaign to win the 2008 Olympics lay in the participation of top Western consultants and public relations firms.
Beijing was helped also by President Bush’s decision not to oppose the bid, a move reflecting the desire by both the United States and China to move past the harsh feelings created by the landing of a damaged surveillance aircraft on Hainan island.
But the U.S. influence should not be overestimated. It was not the world community that Beijing had to convince of its fitness to host the Games but simply the 131 voting members of the International Olympic Committee.
In lobbying the IOC, China suffered from missing decades of horse-trading among Olympic nations during its boycott of all Summer Games between 1956 and 1984.
In 1993, the Chinese found out they could apply massive resources to preparing a bid and still lose, said Australian consultant Peter Phillips, who helped China with its successful bid. For 2008, Beijing targeted every IOC member with the best public relations money could buy.
As part of a bid costing at least $24 million, China’s Olympic czars mastered the art of spin from top consultants like Mr. Phillips and public relations firms Weber Shandwick and Bell Pottinger, the British company that represented former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet.
Workshops picked the brains of Beijing expatriates like Briton William Lindsey, an author who runs treks along the Great Wall. At such sessions, the Chinese learned to avoid cliches like the dragon, perceived as a symbol of fear, while even the Wall was downplayed as a closed-door image.
Above all, China learned to tone down the politics and focus on its booming capital with the slogan “New Beijing, Great Olympics.”
Mr. Phillips assembled the key organizers of Sydney 2000 to polish glossy and comprehensive bid documents. He harnessed Canberra’s sister-city relations with Beijing to bring environmental expertise to bear on Beijing’s weakest area.
The result was an apparently sincere promise of a green Olympics that will benefit every Beijinger.
The spin doctors had good material to work with. China furnished a slick, English-speaking team to convey the people’s passion, and push an argument still based on China’s history and population, its impressive reform program and sporting prowess.
Without ignoring human rights criticisms, they focused on the minute detail of the IOC bidding guidelines.
Mr. Phillips and colleagues encouraged Chinese presenters to smooth the edges, such as dropping the evil cult tag when discussing banned sect Falun Gong.
While critics may condemn him for working with one of the world’s worst human rights abusers, Mr. Phillips stresses the reformist mindset of the current regime.
“I first went to China in the 1970s, and I have never known it to be more outward-looking, ready to sample and embrace experience from other countries and societies, than it is now,” he said.
Beijing has promised unfettered media access for 2008, in a state that now requires prior approval for any interviews outside Beijing and Shanghai, and restricts access to trouble spots like Tibet and Xinjiang, whose restive minorities resent Chinese rule.
Global scrutiny should place significant restraints on China’s communist bosses.
Renegade province Taiwan may breathe easier for the next seven years, while ordinary Chinese enjoy more individual freedom.
China is undergoing a deep transition as it embraces capitalism with a hunger belying the Leninist structure and pseudo-Marxist ideology of its ruling party, and the IOC will be delighted to take credit for any positive steps.
Yet most signs point against political reforms such as South Korea experienced before hosting the 1988 Games, when Seoul was obliged to respond to U.S. pressure.