BEIJING -- China's besieged leaders have hit on a new formula to maintain political stability, curry international respect and promote economic development: hosting big-time international sports meets.
They believe it worked in 1990 when the Asian Games were held here for the first time. And they are counting on it again if Beijing is selected as the site for the Summer Olympics in 2000.
China applied to host the Olympics in December. It faces a stiff fight with perhaps seven other cities -- among them, Berlin and Sydney, Australia -- before the International Olympic Committee decides late next year. Atlanta already has been awarded the 1996 Games.
In seeking the Olympics, Beijing must combat lingering reproach over the repressive realities here -- human rights abuses brought into worldwide view by the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
But the 80 officials working full-time with a $10 million state budget to shape China's bid have a message for doubters: Don't discount the world's largest nation when it comes to the geopolitics of sports.
"I personally feel that people are rather not interested in the Tiananmen incident now," said Wang Zhenfu, head of publicity for China's Olympics bid committee. "We are quite confident -- because the decision will be made through a secret ballot."
China's bid already has received support from Japan and from a number of Southeast Asian nations, foreshadowing a possible Asian political coalition within the Olympic Committee. The pTC Summer Games have been held in Asia twice since World War II -- Tokyo in 1964 and South Korea in 1988.
Both Japan and South Korea used the Olympics not only to accelerate their national development but also to confirm their arrival as world-class economic competitors -- something not lost on Chinese officials and at least some citizens.
"I really hope we get the Olympics," said a Beijing high school teacher, "because it will be proof that the world accepts us."
But most Chinese don't seem to care much whether Beijing gets the Olympics. So authorities for months have been trying to whip up public support here -- a key criterion for selection -- with donation drives, bicycle and foot races, English-speech competitions, petitions and banners.
They also have drawn up $1 billion of construction plans should Beijing get the Games -- plans that include six new stadiums, an Olympic Village for 15,000 competitors, and a 600-mile gas pipeline to reduce the coal soot choking the capital's air.
Similarly ambitious public works and mobilization campaigns preceded the Asian Games here in September 1990, a successful competition only in that the Chinese leadership's fear of domestic turmoil did not come to pass.
At least $500 million was diverted from state coffers and workers' paychecks to pay for Asian Games projects, including a village for 5,000 athletes that already has become a white elephant.
Walls were erected to hide from visitors some of the city's worst slums. Damage to streets from the murderous tanks of 1989 was patched up. Migrants -- Beijing usually has hundreds of thousands -- were kicked out. A limit was decreed for the number of flies per public toilet. And there was a heavy armed police presence.
Asian Games tickets were far too expensive for average Chinese, and the hoped-for tide of foreign visitors did not materialize. At many events, the stands were empty except for organized cheering squads.
"The Asian Games were not a success," said a Beijing cab driver. "The government took our money, telling us many people would come and spend a lot of money. In fact, nobody came. And now they want to hold the Olympics? The Communist Party is so unreasonable."
Still, as the Asian Games wore on, China's overwhelming sweep of the athletic events was closely followed by many Chinese on national TV, victories that seemed to fulfill deeply rooted desires here for some reason to feel national pride.
Such desires will now be tapped by Chinese leaders in trying to bring the Olympics to Beijing.