MONTE CARLO — Word arrived here over the weekend that U.S. intelligence agencies believe China is preparing to defy the worldwide moratorium on underground nuclear testing but will defer the detonations until after the International Olympic Committee decides Thursday whether to anoint Beijing as host of the 2000 Summer Games.
That news, some IOC members say, is an appropriate metaphor for Beijing's Olympic bid, which can be heard ticking even above the crash of the waves from the Mediterranean or the melody of French francs from the slot machines.
As Beijing's long march against formidable contenders from Sydney, Australia; Manchester, England; Istanbul, Turkey, and Berlin nears its conclusion, the tension is as evident in the faces of the Chinese as in their long-winded, confusing and occasionally inane daily statements to the media.
They might indeed have the most compelling reasons for winning the IOC vote, but, like the Greeks three years ago, they spend less time communicating them than they do fending off their numerous critics. The Greeks got angry, a condition that has not abated for some of them since they lost to Atlanta in bidding for the 1996 Summer Olympics. The Chinese are flustered.
They have done some things right, although most of their successes occurred before they, 200 strong, arrived here last week. The construction of a special state-of-art toilet for IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch when he visited Shanghai for the East Asian Games was a nice touch. So was the naming of a panda after him.
But other elements of their campaign that they counted on to improve their image have come out in the wash soiled.
For instance, when an IOC inspection committee went to Beijing in March, city officials showed off their clean, blue sky. It later was revealed that they achieved it by turning off the heat in numerous buildings, including apartments, offices and even a hospital, so that filthy black smoke would not spew from chimneys and pollute the air.
The Chinese also have proudly pointed to their recent release of prominent political prisoners, but all that has served to do is alert some IOC members to how many remain incarcerated and how unjustly they have been treated.
Even the slogan on banners throughout Beijing, "A More Open China Awaits the 2000 Olympics," serves as a reminder that the country has been closed.
The slogan might also be a lie. Human rights advocates have gotten considerable mileage by emphasizing Beijing's guarantee to the IOC that dissent against the Games in China will be not be tolerated. How open is that?
Some IOC members are not concerned about that because, after all, no country is perfect. Until the Vatican City applies, they say that they simply are searching for a place that will organize safe, efficient and fair athletic competitions.
But, in the interest of their own survival, even the most jaded among them had to take notice of an article in the New York Times last week about China's atrocious air safety record. According to the article, British Airways bans the boarding of passengers at Beijing International Airport during refueling because local ground crews will not put out their cigarettes.
The most prominent issue between Thursday and the summer of 2000, however, might be China's disposition toward Hong Kong when the colony is transferred from Great Britain's governance in 1997.
There is sentiment within the IOC that China will have to behave if it is awarded the Olympics, but the British are nervous.
That, combined with the fact that Manchester is a candidate, is believed to be a reason that Great Britain's foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, invaded the IOC's domain last week by voicing his opposition to Beijing's bid.
The U.S. Congress arrived at that conclusion several weeks earlier. The House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning Beijing, and 60 senators signed a letter critical of the bid that was sent to each of the 91 IOC members.
One result of that was a tirade by the senior member of Beijing's bid committee, Zhang Baifa, in an interview in late August with an Australian television network. Timed for the maximum impact, the network, which scheduled the interview to be shown Saturday, released a transcript Friday.
A number of IOC members related to Zhang's frustration. They also resented interference from the U.S. Congress, believing it was hypocritical in light of that body's earlier approval of China as a most favored trading nation. Mexico's Mario Vasquez Rana, president of the Assn. of National Olympic Committees, said four IOC members had told him they decided to switch their votes to Beijing as a protest against the U.S. Congress.
But Zhang lost whatever sympathy he had with the IOC when he uttered the "B" word--boycott.
If Beijing does not win the vote to organize the 2000 Games, he suggested that China might not participate in the 1996 Summer Olympics at Atlanta as "revenge" against the U.S. Congress.