For Five Olympic Rings, One Face

Former College Professor Guides
Beijing's Summer Games Message
January 15, 2008

Western-educated, affable and full of confidence, Wang Wei is the Chinese government's public face for the 2008 Summer Olympics.

As secretary-general of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, or Bocog, the 57-year-old former college professor is one of eight vice presidents serving under committee Chairman Liu Qi. But Mr. Wang has been the most voluble Chinese official promoting the message that the Olympics will change China for the better -- cleaning up everything from its human-rights record to its polluted skies.

Mr. Wang, who earned a master's degree in English literature from Rutgers University in New Jersey, helps run a 2,000-strong agency that acts as a liaison among the various government agencies that must cooperate in the colossal task of preparing China's capital for the Games. It also coordinates with dozens of sponsors and suppliers that are using the Games to market everything from cars to noodles to the world's most populous nation. Analysts say these Games are likely to be the most commercially successful to date, raising an estimated $1.5 billion in sponsorships in cash and in kind from sponsors including Volkswagen AG, Coca-Cola Co. and General Electric Co.

After leaving academia, Mr. Wang rose through the ranks to become a senior civil servant in the Beijing city government, before taking his current role. He sat down with The Wall Street Journal in Bocog's office tower to discuss the public-relations ramifications of the Games, a recent ticketing fiasco and ways of navigating Chinese bureaucracy. Excerpts:

WSJ: With just months to the Olympics, what are some challenges that remain?

Mr. Wang: For one thing, there is the environment -- a lot of attention and concern about the environment. All we have to do is to let the world know how much effort government has made to improve environment. The campaign started in 1993 before [China's] first bid for the Games. We've invested $12.2 billion to improve air quality, and there's been improvement. We are still working very hard toward the goal, but as we go along it becomes difficult because it's not just Beijing but the whole of northern China working together. We've set up 27 monitoring stations among all the sports venues to make sure the air quality is good enough for athletes.

Also, there's lots of media coming to town. I consider it a good thing. It's been almost 30 years since the opening up and economic reforms, [but] the world still doesn't know much about Beijing, about China, The Olympics provides an opportunity for the world to focus on China for 16 days. I think not only Beijing but the whole country will benefit from this opening up. That will be the big achievement of the Olympic Games.

But there's challenges -- I think by my estimation over 30,000 media will be coming. They are everywhere, they see good things and not so good things. They are going to report on that. If some of the not-very-satisfactory phenomena [are] shown or recorded, I think it's OK. It is a reality of hosting the Olympics. It is something we should improve.

WSJ: In 1993, Beijing lost in its first bid to host an Olympic Games. Tell us a little more about what it was like to bid for the second time.

Mr. Wang: We narrowly missed last time because the international environment was not very good. It was 1993, only four years after 1989. [In June of that year, government forces violently cracked down on democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, killing hundreds, perhaps thousands.]

For the second time, we employed a lot of international [public-relations] agencies. We had Weber Shandwick from the U.S., Bell Pottinger from the U.K. We had consultants from Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. We tried to find a good stance to convince the [International Olympic Committee] members and international media, to show that helping Beijing win the Games would be a good thing for the world, not just for China.

WSJ: How did you handle the pressure the second time?

Mr. Wang: You know, during the bid in Moscow, when I learned the whole process was going to be broadcast, I was scared to death. I thought, 1.3 billion people watching. If you win, OK. If you lose, people pass around the tape and say, 'OK, here's what you said wrong.' I prepared a whole day and night. My eyelids were heavy, I wanted to sleep and rest, but my mind was working, going through all the possible questions.

WSJ: What's your workday like now?

Mr. Wang: I try and keep it a little bit more normal. I work six days a week, keep Sunday for exercise. I don't like to use evenings and Sunday unless necessary.

I like to cut short people if [what they're saying is] irrelevant -- that's not typical [for China]. That's why we can do more things in a day. I hate people reading messages and text messaging during meetings. If I see it, I cut it short, tell them, "Don't do that, OK?"

WSJ: In an operation of this size there are always glitches. In October, Bocog was forced to abort a first-come, first-serve policy for Olympic tickets after massive demand crashed the site within hours of its launch. What happened with ticketing? Why did it go wrong?

Mr. Wang: I think Ticketmaster [which was handling the sales in a joint venture with a Chinese partner] is the world's biggest and most experienced agency -- they did the Athens Games -- but they underestimated the overwhelming demand of the Chinese people. The lesson learned from this is, we used international norms for Olympic Games, and IOC policy, but we have to understand the ground in China. The lesson applies to other things.

WSJ: The Chinese government wants to present a really positive view of China. Could such an approach lead to negative news being swept under the carpet?

Mr. Wang: I think for some time now, we've been trying to give the accurate truth of what's going on. There's no point in hiding. From my point of view, as long as you find the reason, there's a way to improve it.

--Sue Feng contributed to this article.

Write to Mei Fong at