Did the “Genocide Olympics” influence China?

Propaganda and censorship are two sides of the same coin. Both share the same goal: to enable an individual or organization to shape consensus in a group. They often work together. Censorship eliminates competing ideas, creating a void in which propaganda can be more effective. Having a coup? Seize the transmitters and studios so you control the message. It’s a time-honored strategy. Propaganda and censorship are related in another way. They both work cumulatively, over time. It’s not usually the “magic bullet” that drives consensus so much as the patient steering of discourse over time via many channels.

But propaganda and censorship do have one difference. I wrote recently that the most powerful censorship is what you don’t see. That’s not always the case with propaganda. Brilliant propaganda can certainly be subtle. Think of manufactured word-of-mouth campaigns that cultivate something that feels like a grass-roots public groundswell. But brilliant propaganda can also be right in your face. There was nothing subtle about the 1934 Nazi Party rallies, but they were brilliant propaganda, as was Leni Reifenstahl’s film of the rallies, Triumph of the Will. That was propaganda as sensory overload and religious experience. And it was devastating in cultivating the Nazi mythology.

The 1936 Olympiad was also propaganda, designed to showcase the grandeur of the Third Reich and the physical superiority of Hitler’s Aryan race. Like the 1934 rallies it was also filmed by Leni Reifenstahl. There was a problem with the Olympiad, however. It was hijacked by Jesse Owens, the black American sprinter who won four gold medals and undermined the messages that Hitler wanted to send to the world. Owens was a powerful, visual symbol and he himself became the lynchpin of a public mythology.

Now it’s China’s turn. China is not Nazi Germany, but the 2008 Olympic Games is as symbolically important to China as the 1936 Games was to Hitler, if not more so. It is a monumental affair staggering under symbolic baggage, and it will be, once again, propaganda as a religious experience. Like the 1936 Olympiad, however, it is also vulnerable to being hijacked. Jesse Owens didn’t mean to undermine Hitler’s message. He just wanted to win. But that didn’t change his impact.

China won’t have it so lucky. The Olympics is more than a sporting competition. It’s a global platform that makes a seductive lever for anyone with an agenda that they want to propel into the public consciousness. The modern Olympics has always been seen as an opportunity to make political statements. Hence Owens in 1936, Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’ “black power” salute in Mexico City in 1968, the Black September hostage drama in 1972 in Munich (Germany star-crossed again), and the reciprocating Russian and American boycotts of 1980 and 1984. China’s Olympic games isn’t even the first time an authoritarian Asian nation has used the Olympics to debut on the global stage. That honor goes to Korea, for the Seoul games in 1988, when Korea was at the tail end of its authoritarian regime. You can even make a case that Japan beat Korea to the punch in 1964 when its summer games served as the stage for Japan’s symbolic postwar rehabilitation less than twenty years after the end of WWII.

If all of this makes you feel a little grimy, remember that the modern Olympics exists specifically as a propaganda vehicle (and here I include marketing as a kind of propaganda). The IOC may call it a “movement”, evoking images of grass roots participation and noble sporting ideals, but that is propaganda itself, designed to draw a graceful fig leaf over the reality that the Olympics is a vast business venture –reportedly US$4 billion in revenue over its previous quadrennial cycle– driven by sponsorships and advertising. Sponsors take the messaging opportunity seriously, as well they should considering what they invest.

China, hungry to be seen anew as a great power, had its own agenda in mind with the Olympics. Unfortunately for China, all the debate and controversy that swirls around its human rights, environmental and geopolitical issues is being dragged along in the Olympic slipstream. People have China axes to grind, and that beautiful Olympic fulcrum is too enticing to pass up. The 2008 Olympics was politicized from the moment it was awarded to Beijing, and will be more contentious than any games in modern memory. That’s a big deal considering the Olympics’ propaganda-splattered pedigree. In the PR industry we refer to the 2008 Olympics as “issues rich”, which is a polite way of saying, “watch this space for crisis”.

That’s why “the genocide Olympics” is such a brilliant piece of propaganda. It is as un-subtle as you can get, and it looks like being effective.

The phrase has emerged into the popular consciousness thanks to a campaign by actress and activist Mia Farrow and her son Ronan, most recently in an op-ed piece (also here) published in the Wall Street Journal and Boston Globe (and possibly elsewhere) in late March. Mia Farrow is just one of a constellation of people and groups with a China issue. In fact, Ms. Farrow’s real problem is with the Sudanese government’s sponsorship of widespread destruction and killing in the Darfur region. But China’s support for the Sudanese government and its investment in Sudan make it a convenient pressure point, and the Olympics provide that all-important leverage. The editorial says:

[There] is now one thing that China may hold more dear than their unfettered access to Sudanese oil: their successful staging of the 2008 Summer Olympics. That desire may provide a lone point of leverage with a country that has otherwise been impervious to all criticism.

Whether that opportunity goes unexploited lies in the hands of the high-profile supporters of these Olympic Games. Corporate sponsors like Johnson & Johnson, Coca-Cola, General Electric and McDonalds, and key collaborators like Mr. Spielberg, should be put on notice. For there is another slogan afoot, one that is fast becoming viral amongst advocacy groups; rather than “One World, One Dream,” people are beginning to speak of the coming “Genocide Olympics.”

Does Mr. Spielberg really want to go down in history as the Leni Riefenstahl of the Beijing Games? Do the various television sponsors around the world want to share in that shame? Because they will. Unless, of course, all of them add their singularly well-positioned voices to the growing calls for Chinese action to end the slaughter in Darfur.

The Farrows don’t take immediate credit for “the genocide Olympics”, and in fact the phrase has been circulating since at least last December, when the Washington Post ran an editorial by that title. The Boston Globe, extends a degree of credit to a Smith University professor named Eric Reeves who advocated the Olympic-China-Darfur link on their own op-ed page, three days after the Post piece ran. A week after Reeve’s piece, theGlobe ran another editorial that cited Reeves and did use the phrase “genocide Olympics”. (The Globe has been banging the drum very hard, and it launched the phrase again in a new editorial from May 8th, here republished in the International Herald Tribune.) The phrase also had a bout of publicity in March thanks to the Farrows, and has been resurrected in the past week or so thanks to the efforts of US politicians, including long-time China critic Tom Lantos and others:

“We don’t want these Olympics to go down in the history books as the genocide Olympics,” said Lantos, chairman of the House of Representatives committee on foreign affairs.


“It is outrageous that China is using the very symbol of international unity and brotherhood to further grind down the Tibetans and the Taiwanese who simply want to live their lives without interference from Beijing,” Lantos said.

Two things are making this a successful campaign.

First, the campaigners have a brilliant slogan. The genocide Olympics. It sticks in the head and it conjures up the worst possible set of associations. It fits on a T-shirt (which you can order), and it is evocative and emotive at a visceral level.

Second, in a classic PR strategy, the advocates have marshaled what we in the biz call “a chorus of voices”. One angry person heaving around an incendiary phrase does not necessarily make for PR disaster. An expanding group of celebrities, politicians, activists and editorial writers heaving that phrase around does. Over time they will imprint “the genocide Olympics” on the public consciousness. (Mr. Reeves writes more about the campaign here.)

The Farrows did something else brilliant. They appropriated an intensely powerful advocate in Steven Spielberg, who is advising the Beijing Olympic Committee, and they did it in the most audacious fashion possible. The Farrows compared the Jewish film director and Shoah (Holocaust) Foundation founder to Hitler’s own cinematic propagandist, Leni Riefenstahl. The drew a direct and highly visual line from 2008 to 1936, right through Mr. Spielberg’s chest, and turbocharged the genocide concept. Mr. Spielberg obliged by apparently personally lobbying China to take tougher action on Sudan.

So is it all working?

This is debatable. China is notoriously impervious to outside pressure. But China doesn’t necessarily need to be directly persuaded. If the “genocide Olympics” idea gains enough currency, major sponsors and other national governments will start to become queasy. If the activists can pressure Visa, McDonalds, Coca Cola, GE, Samsung et. al. (Lenovo is probably a write-off) then they’ll pressure Beijing and the IOC in turn. And the sponsors, who depend upon the image of the Olympics, control the money that is the life-blood of the “movement”.

Despite its tradition of hard-headedness, China last week appointed a special envoy dedicated to the Darfur crisis. Earlier, shortly after the Farrows and Mr. Spielberg ratcheted up the pressure, China dispatched a “senior official”, Mr. Zhai Jun, to Sudan to push the Sudanese government to accept a UN peacekeeping force in Darfur. On April 12, the New York Times reported on Zhai in an article titled “Darfur collides with Olympics and China yields”. (Behind the Times paywall but can be read on Ms. Farrow’s website.) The article suggested a direct link between the campaign and the mission. Lest you think China is getting soft, however, Mr. Zhai is quoted in the article describing boycott advocates as, “either ignorant or ill natured”.

Perhaps the link isn’t as direct as it seems. Last week I had coffee with an experienced China journalist who said he felt the article was reaching in linking the campaign directly to Zhai’s visit, and that China had already been in motion on Darfur. Indeed, the article itself says:

During closed-door diplomatic meetings, Chinese officials have said they do not want any of their Darfur overtures linked to the Olympics, American and European officials said.

In an e-mail message on Thursday, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington warned anew against such a linkage. “If someone wants to pin Olympic Games and Darfur issue together to raise his/her fame, he/she is playing a futile trick,” the spokesman, Chu Maoming, wrote.

But the Chinese would say that. After all, if they admit having been pressured once, the floodgates will open. Darfur is only one of the agendas swirling around the Olympics, and other interested parties will be watching to see to what extent the Olympics can be used to pressure Beijing.

In another discussion I had last week, the regional managing director for one of my company’s cross-town rivals wondered aloud to me if China is ready for a “multi-stakeholder world”. That’s a PR flack’s way of wondering if the Chinese can gracefully juggle the pressures that will accumulate from governments, activists, Olympic sponsors, celebrities and everyone else who has one of those China axes to grind. Not every pressure campaign will have the in-your-face impact of “the genocide Olympics”, but more are certainly on the way. I think the success or failure of the Olympics will be determined not by the campaigns themselves, but by the grace and sensitivity with which China can respond to them. Angry rhetoric aside, if there is any sincerity to them them then China’s recent moves with regard to Sudan are promising.

Unfortunately, it will be hard for China to shed its authoritarian and reactionary instincts. Just this week the country responded to a recent Tibet-oriented protest on the slopes of Mount Everest by cracking down on individual tourism to Tibet. That self-destructive move will generate exactly the kind of negative publicity that will remind the world of all of China’s faults, and ensure that the shadows continue to linger over 2008.

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