China’s Olympic Image Trap

The events of the last week in Tibet, in which truckloads of Chinese police cracked down on thousands of rioters on the streets of the capital of Lhasa and other Tibetan population centers, could be just the start of the trouble Beijing faces in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games, which begin in the Chinese capital in August.

With very close scrutiny on the country by the international media – and human rights groups – the Olympics provide an opportunity to publicize a range of causes that seem certain to remind the world that the country remains firmly in the hands of a Communist Party that does not tolerate dissent. This fact alone could prove a major embarrassment to image-conscious corporate sponsors lending their logos to the games.

The minefield includes not just Tibetan protests but unrest in the Xinjiang region, whose population is about 55 percent Uyghur and Kazakh and who have been periodically restive over their treatment by Han Chinese settlers. Taiwan has cooled as a hot-button topic, with both presidential candidates sounding willing to work with the government across the Taiwan Strait. But already controversies have blown up over China’s links to the Sudan, where they have been criticized for their acceptance of what has been described as genocide in the Darfur region. Even before the Tibet blowup Steven Spielberg, perhaps Hollywood’s most famous movie director, quit his post as artistic director for the Olympics under pressure from Darfur activists.

Among other issues is Beijing’s refusal to countenance any criticism of Burma when riots shook Rangoon and other cities last September. The international labor movement, smarting from the loss of jobs to China, is expected to ramp up its campaign over what it sees as worker abuse. Other issues include trade imbalances, product safety and what the US, among others, sees as an artificially weak currency.

In addition, there is the country’s record on human rights and executions. Although China has cut back sharply on executions, and doesn’t publicize them, Amnesty International estimated that as many as 6,000 to 7,000 people were executed in 2006, the last year for which figures were available. Amnesty International has repeatedly condemned the expansion of China’s lethal injection program, which the Chinese view as more humane than the previous method of discharging a bullet in the back of the head.

Human rights groups have also repeatedly condemned the government for its regular crackdowns on dissent and press freedom. On March 18, one of the country’s best known activists and bloggers, Hu Jia, was tried on subversion charges for unspecified articles he had written and for giving interviews to two foreign radio outlets. The EU and other have condemned the trial and asked that Hu be released. But many human right groups believe that the arrest of Hu, his wife, who is also a prominent blogger, and others is part of a concerted drive to mute dissident voices ahead of the Olympics.

By coincidence, Hu’s brief trial was on the same day that Prime Minister Wen Jiabao held a news conference in which he was asked about the case. Wen denied that the government was cracking down on dissidents. “As for critics’ view that China is trying to increase its efforts to arrest dissidents ahead of the Olympic Games, I think all these accusations are unfounded,” Wen said.

But a study done by the respected Dui Hua Foundation, a nonprofit group based in San Francisco that tracks political prisoners in China, found that arrests for "endangering state security," the usual charge applied to dissenters, rose in 2007 to the highest level in eight years, according to Chinese law enforcement statistics. “The increase in Chinese political arrests follows a doubling of such arrests in 2006 over 2005,” the foundation said. .

As the Olympics loom, Beijing and the Games’ corporate sponsors will increasingly come under the spotlight for any one of these issues, especially if violence breaks out, leaving some of the world’s most recognizable brands facing the possibility of boycotts trying to push them out of the Games.

Beijing will also have the formidable challenge of ensuring that the 20,000 foreign reporters accredited to cover the Olympics will present a rosy picture of President Hu Jintao’s “harmonious society. This press armada will almost certainly be looking to spice up sports coverage with politics and human rights stories.

Among the hundreds of corporate sponsors who have invested millions of dollars in the Beijing Olympics are McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Adidas and other sports apparel manufacturers, along with some of China’s biggest companies. In other parts of the world, corporate sponsors, particularly in American television, have grown noticeably skittish when threatened by boycotts by interest groups. They have occasionally simply pulled out when threatened.

“Maybe it’s only being done in a low whisper at the moment, but inside company HQs it would be surprising if the same question is not being asked: is this an event we should have got so involved with?” asked Sara Jayne Adams, writing in Intellectual Asset Management Magazine. “So, have the sponsors of the games given due consideration, I wonder, to the possible consequences an affiliation with this year’s Olympics will have to their brands’ values? It could be that any benefits derived from sponsorship of the games turn out to be negligible when compared to the damage caused by being associated so strongly with a regime getting very little but a negative press in many parts of the world; particularly the two most lucrative for most multinational businesses – North America and Europe.”

Inside China, Beijing seems to have been successful at controlling the information available to its own people, with the Tibet unrest just the latest example. “Media controls within China have, I think, been quite effective in keeping a lid on the Tibet story,” says David Bandurski, an analyst with the China Media Project at Hong Kong University. “The focus (in a People's Daily story today as elsewhere) was on official action to maintain order.”

Bandurski notes that there may be “a trickling of information available online for the very conscientious Chinese Internet user, but it would be a major overstatement to suggest the Web has got the story told where traditional media failed. In the vast majority of cases new media are no more capable of getting the story out than their traditional media counterparts.”

But outside China, as the government is finding to its discomfort, controlling information is more difficult. An assertion by Beijing that “splittists” led by the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, were solely responsible for the violent protests has been greeted with scorn, reinforcing the image that China remains fundamentally an authoritarian, one-party state incapable of tolerating dissent.

These are hazards not just for Beijing, but for the sponsors, according to Damien Ryan, a Hong Kong-based media advisor to corporations whose clients include Olympic sponsors.

“Sponsors see their involvement in the Olympics as vital given the growing revenue contribution from China and the sheer potential of the country’s 1.3 billion consumers. That said, corporate involvement with Beijing 2008 is not without huge risks. Athletes and Chinese officials will also be probed by the media like never before on a horde of sensitive issues. A simple ‘no comment’ or ‘politics and sport don’t mix’ may no longer be acceptable. All involved in the Olympics had better ensure their communication skills are in peak condition as Beijing 2008 has the key ingredients for a PR disaster,” Ryan said.

The public relations situation could get increasingly dicey, especially if the body count goes up in Tibet or other areas of unrest emerge. A six-country poll released Tuesday by WorldPublicOpinion.org found that attitudes in both western and Asian countries were already sharply critical of Beijing’s Tibet policy even before the current crackdown began. “An overwhelming 84 percent of South Koreans are critical, as is a modest majority of Indonesians (54%, with only 12% endorsing China's position),” the organization found in a poll taken before the current Tibet protests. “However among Indians views are nearly evenly divided, with 37 percent siding with critics, 33 percent siding with China and 31 percent not taking a position.”