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Monday, August 25, 2008

New China? Bird's Nest replaces Mao on Yuan

Country's image makeover mostly cosmetic; most policies remain

Image:  10 yuan bill
China Daily / Reuters
A handout photo shows a commemorative bank note with a face value of 10 yuan ($1.46) to mark the Beijing Olympic Games. The People's Bank of China (PBOC), the country's central bank, is to issue the commemorative bank note from July 8, 2008 to mark the Beijing Olympic Games, the bank said in a statement on July 6, 2008, China Daily reported.

The Associated Press
updated 8:34 a.m. ET, Sat., Aug. 23, 2008

BEIJING - 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 super-modern.”

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.”