LIANYUNGANG, China – As the propaganda head of Lianyungang, Wu Jiaqing’s chief mission is to carry the Chinese Communist Party’s message to the people in the economically struggling port city.

But lately, he has overseen a different campaign. From an office, this stocky career official has run an aggressive lobbying effort to get Beijing to select a local icon – a mischievous magical monkey from Chinese folklore – as the mascot for the 2008 Olympic Games. Wu and his colleagues have traipsed to the capital a dozen times to persuade Olympic officials and heads of important government entities to “make the beautiful Monkey King as universal as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.”

While the panda, China’s best-known animal, might seem the odds-on favorite to be the pick for 2008 when the selection is announced Nov. 11, sharp competition has erupted among a handful of relatively poor areas vying to have their local symbols chosen. At stake is a hoped-for boost in name recognition, tourism and investment.

Three western provinces straddling the Tibetan plateau are pushing the Tibetan antelope. Semitropical Yunnan province wants the golden-haired monkey. Arid Gansu favors the mythical dragon. Two areas back two endangered species of tiger and a marshy county south of Lianyungang is promoting the rare red-crowned crane.

“We have to seize the commercial opportunity of the Olympic Games,” said Ouyang Jun, a spokesman for Sichuan’s task force, which is proposing the panda.

The Beijing Olympic organizing committee has been tightlipped about the mascot selection, revealing few details about the process before a winner, or perhaps winners, are announced. Officials and experts who took part in evaluating the mascot candidates were made to sign confidentiality agreements.

Both the intense lobbying and the secrecy highlight how important mascots have become in marketing the Olympics. The energetic involvement of local governments is a further marker of change in China where Beijing once set the order of business in a topdown political system. In the transition from central planning to free markets, local governments have developed their own agendas for growth and are not shy about pursuing them.

Sichuan poured $240,000 into its panda campaign and appointed a vice governor to oversee operations. Qinghai joined forces with Tibet and Xinjiang, hoping the combined approach – and the poverty of their areas – would garner more sympathy in Beijing for the antelope.

In 2004, the Year of the Monkey, Lianyungang strung up monkey-shaped lanterns in a section of Shanghai for the Lunar New Year. The city’s mayor was in Beijing so often, Olympic officials joked that he lived there.

“Chinese cities are in fierce competition” for investment, Wu said unapologetically. “We’re like cats trying to catch rats crossing the street. Whoever doesn’t catch one is out luck.”

Although sales of licensed products, including stuffed toy mascots, have exceeded $300 million at recent Olympic Games and Beijing expects a bigger windfall, local governments will see almost none of this money. Instead, they expect the notoriety will bring more investment and tourists.

A chronically poor part of the country halfway between Beijing and Shanghai, Lianyungang has struggled despite central government help. Its Yellow Sea port remains the 10th largest in China a decade after the city became the terminus for a freight rail line that runs across Asia and onward to the Dutch port of Rotterdam.

But the city’s bet on the Monkey King, whose legendary mountain home lies outside the Lianyungang, has begun to pay off. Wu and other officials said tourism has picked up, with the number of tourists more than doubling over the past three years to 6.3 million visitors last year. Tourism revenues now account for more than 12 percent of the economy.

Even if the Monkey King loses the mascot competition, Wu said Lianyungang is now on the map. According to lore, the Monkey King – also called Sun Wukong – is entrusted with protecting a devout Chinese monk on a pilgrimage to India for the Buddhist holy scriptures.

Wu imagines a line of Monkey King merchandise to rival Disney spin-offs. The city’s tourism bureau head, Li Daoying, plans to ask for bids early next year to build a building in the shape of a monkey at the foot of Flower and Fruit Mountain.

“All this time we were promoting Monkey King, promoting Flower and Fruit Mountain, in reality we were publicizing Lianyungang,” Wu said. “We’re creating a brand.”

AP-ES-11-04-05 1446EST

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