China buys into the modern morality

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The Independent Online

David Beckham's on the buses, Michael Owen, too, their faces adorning placards designed to boost the sales of Pepsi-Cola. It used to be Chairman Mao's Little Red Book which conveyed the message to the Chinese people. Now it is the big red bus as it trundles its way across Beijing towards the Temple of Heaven and the Great Hall of the People.

The traditional landmarks remain, but the place has changed beyond recognition. I was last in Beijing 18 years ago, when the Bamboo Curtain had lifted only a edge, to reveal a sober-sided city where suspicion of the west was laced liberally with dogma and propaganda.

Now, strolling along the wide boulevards which abound with bistros and shopping malls crammed with all the latest designer gear, you could almost be in Barcelona's Ramblas.

Currently there is great excitement in Beijing because Manchester United are on their way to play this summer. English may be spoken more widely, but football is fast becoming the common language among China's 53 ethnic groups. The latest items of gossip from the televised Premiership and the Bundesliga are bigger talking points that any governmental edicts in the People's Daily over elevenses, which are more likely to be taken in Starbucks than the Tea House of the August Moon.

But there is also another, far more crucial, topic on the agenda, one which embraces both sport and politics. In 26 days Juan Antonio Samaranch, in his final act as the president of the International Olympic Committee, will open the envelope to reveal the name of the winning candidate to host the 2008 Games. Istanbul and Osaka will almost certainly have been eliminated in the first round, and Paris may follow, leaving Beijing and Toronto to contest the final ballot.

The Chinese are in pole position, and to say they will be disappointed if they do not get the nod after controversially losing out to Sydney for the last Olympics is an understatement. They will be gutted, and there are those who fear that such a result would abruptly curtail much of the progress of the last decade.

The Chinese will not say so in as many words, but there is a belief that the award of the 2008 Games will be a vindication for the manner in which some of their officials believe they were cheated out of those of 2000. Sydney secured the Millennium Games by two votes, and after they had done so there were allegations that sports scholarships had been offered to the offspring of two African members of the IOC. Of course, that was only the tip of a sleazy iceberg which was to surface in Salt Lake City, and it is because of this, and the vexed question of China's record on human rights, that those organising the Beijing bid are playing it strictly by the book. And that's not the little red one, either.

"Our attempt to win the Games has to be seen to be above suspicion," said Beijing's vice-mayor, Liu Jingmin. "We have conducted a clean campaign. This is about creating a new future for ourselves. We have nothing to hide and there will be no scandals as in Salt Lake City." This is why visiting members of the IOC ­ now restricted to just a handful from the official Evaluation Committee ­ received no more than a pin, some postcards and a Peking duck dinner. No Chinese giveaways here.

One of those committee members is Britain's Craig Reedie, who reckons to clear around 100 e-mails from his computer every day from Tibetan dissident groups urging that it would be immoral for him and the other 122 IOC members casting their secret votes in Moscow on Friday 13 July to do so for a nation whose attitude towards human rights remains the biggest hurdle in the race to stage the Games.

IOC members have been instructed by Samaranch, who would dearly love to see a Beijing victory as his parting gift, to ignore human rights and vote on technical merit. If it was as simple as that, Beijing would be flying their celebratory kites now, but the issue gnaws away at the conscience. "We are aware of this," says Liu. "It is our view that sport and politics should be regarded separately, but we are making every effort to improve the situation and I sincerely believe that having the Olympics would help.

"Our first priority has always been to eliminate hunger and improve the living standards of our people. Now we are on the way to achieving this we can address other matters. Every nation has its own problems and we know that ours is different to that in Europe or the United States. But China will certainly pay more attention to human rights. If you look at history you will see that the state of human rights in China is now the best it has ever been.

"But there are also the rights and wishes of our 1.3 billion people, who dearly want to have the Olympic Games. Shouldn't those rights be respected?"

With 22 of the proposed 37 venues still on the drawing board, Beijing may not be quite ready for the Olympics now, but it certainly will be by 2008, with the government's guaranteed investment of $1.7bn supported by a special Olympics lottery, which will ensure that facilities such as the new 80,000-seater Olympic Stadium will be completed in half the time and at a third of the cost of the ill-fated Wembley.

I was shown the site of this proposed new stadium, which at the moment consists of a paddy field. A pall of grey, choking smog hung in the air, but, I was assured, measuresto ensure that 90 per cent of all public transport is fuelled by natural gas should make the pollution problem less insurmountable than the political one. Last week saw the opening of the fourth of five ring roads; it is claimed that nowhere in the city will be more than half-an-hour away.

Well, maybe. When I was driven to see the splendid, state-of-the-art traffic control centre, it was sod's law we should get stuck in a traffic jam. In 1980 there were 20 private cars in Beijing; now there are almost a million. "If you think Beijing has changed now, wait until 2008," I was told.

By then the sporting agenda is likely to have been broadened considerably. Moguls from Don King (who plans to stage a world heavyweight championship) to Rupert Murdoch (who wants to buy a football team) have been welcomed, along with their chequebooks.

Altogether more than 80 sports are played in China, and many are embracing professionalism with a zeal undreamt of in the old days when the state controlled everything down to the choice of jockstraps. The Cultural Revolution has been and gone; now sport's commercial revolution is in full swing. Even the Great Wall of China is being brought into the Olympic act, with a plan to plant trees and vegetation along the entire 1,500 miles as a symbol that the Beijing Games would be most eco-friendly of them all.

No doubt it has also crossed the mind of China's new-age sporting entrepreneurs that the world's largest and most visible landmark is also potentially the world's largest advertisement hoarding, an even more effective platform for the Pepsi boys than Beijing buses.

What would Chairman Mao make of all this? The old boy must be spinning in his tomb.