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Olympics as PR: Here's the new, modern China

August 24, 2008

The Associated Press
August 23, 2008

BEIJING (AP) -- If proof were needed that the Olympic Games are meant
to give China an image makeover, look no further than the 10-yuan
note: Chairman Mao is out, the Bird's Nest is in.

There are only enough of the bills that replace the late Communist
Party leader's likeness with the iconic stadium to make them a
collector's item — for most of the billions of dollars in
transactions here, Mao Zedong is still the man.

Like the currency, the modern image that China is showcasing to the
world during its turn in the white-hot Olympic spotlight may be nice
to look at, but the Communist Party remains firmly in control.

The multi-layered Chinese public relations blitz has helped lure
tourists leary of a country often portrayed as polluted and
repressive, and has given a boost to Chinese who have rallied behind
the games, experts on China and public relations said.

At the same time, the nation's leadership has barely budged from its policies.

It largely ignored criticism of its human rights record and continued
its repression of free speech. Its harsh rule in Tibet has been
downplayed, political dissidents locked up, beggars pushed out of
Beijing and journalists covering protests roughed-up. It did not
grant a protest permit.

"I think (the) China government has done a very good job of
presenting a positive image overseas, but in doing so it didn't
change much of its behavior to do that," said Russell Leigh Moses, an
analyst of Chinese politics based in Beijing.

While the Communist Party leaders will have received a warm boost
from their people for staging a successful games, the real test will
come afterwards when they have to deal with the myriad problems China
faces, Moses said.

For many Chinese, the Olympics have been presented as a comeback from
a century or more of weakness and humiliation, the culmination of a
"100-year dream." The Communist Party has gained from being able to achieve it.

China has also tried to present a non-threatening image to the world
that helps dispel fears of the country's rise on the world stage,
allowing it to restore what it sees as its rightful place in the
international community.

Beijing became obsessed by image in the leadup to the games and
anything unsightly was deemed offensive.

Neighborhood food stalls were covered up by roadside barriers showing
pictures of ancient Chinese-style curved rooftops or Olympics motifs.
Factories were shut down and millions of cars taken off the roads to
clear Beijing's notoriously pollution-clogged skies.

"This was part of the grand plan to show a new China, and I think
it's delivered in many regards," said Scott Kronick, president of
Ogilvy Public Relations in China. Chinese authorities are getting
more polished and confident in delivering their message globally, he said.

The games' lavish opening ceremony, vetted by party leaders, barely
touched on communism and the tumultuous decades after the Communist
Party came to power in 1949. The ceremony focused on China's ancient
culture -- Confucious was quoted, Mao was not.

"China is trying to present itself as nonthreatening and in a lot of
ways nonsocialist," said Michael Dutton, an academic at Australia's
Griffith University's Asia Institute who studies political cultures.
"They've gone all out to try and present a country that's ancient yet

China's political leaders have also changed their style. Dark-suited
and often appearing stiff in public, President Hu Jintao smiled his
way through the opening ceremony and was seen at a pingpong event
clapping alongside his wife and International Olympic Committee
president Jacques Rogge.

Beijing also has another audience to please -- the millions of
Chinese who have benefited from the economic boom through growing
personal wealth and greater access to the outside world via
television and the Internet.

It serves the government for China's people to forget about the
excesses of Mao's Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and the 1989
crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.

Better the government be thought of as the stewards of three decades
of economic growth that have raised millions into a burgeoning middle class.

Tiananmen Square has been spruced up to include a large flower
decoration and a 55-foot-tall Beijing 2008 Olympic symbol.

While a few short protests by foreigners were held there early in the
games -- and were quickly ended by a heavy police presence — a more
common sight has been dancing and other activities on a
government-sanctioned cultural program.

For foreigners too, the government "wants people to shift their
responses beyond the man standing in front of the tank," said
Anne-Marie Brady, a political scientists at New Zealand's University
of Canterbury.

For many, the makeover appears to have worked.

"I am impressed by the cosmopolitan atmosphere. I didn't think it
would be so urban and so advanced," said Skate April, 39, a computer
consultant from Park City, Utah, who came to Beijing for some games
events. "That was a preconceived notion — now that's shattered."

Randy Lynch, the president of Kipling & Clark, a Chicago-based agency
that organizers high-end travel to China, bookings for next year have
jumped 40 percent since the games began -- many of them by people who
before the Olympics never would have considered traveling to China.

"The one thing the Olympics has shown Americans is that China has a
very well-developed and successful infrastructure, and it's easy to
get around," he said. "It's almost like they've thrown the Communist
Manifesto out of the window."
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