Bang! China shoots its own Olympic PR in the foot

Imagethief, who has bid for something on the order of RMB12,000 worth of Olympic tickets, is trying resolutely to remain optimistic about the Games. Unfortunately, it’s proving harder as time goes by. Tomorrow marks the one-year-remaining milestone. This should be an opportunity for Beijing to highlight progress, turn the excitement crank, and demonstrate that has the patience and forbearance that will be necessary for a successful Olympics. However yesterday brought an important test of China’s patience and forbearance, and China failed it.

The problem is that while tomorrow’s milestone date is a legitimate time for celebration and anticipation, it was inevitably also going to be a perfect date for a dry-run by the many activist groups that want to appropriate the Olympics for their own agendas or score points against China. Sure enough, that is what has happened. Reporters Sans Frontieres,Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International all chose this week to release announcements or hold protests.

Of these, the RSF protest yesterday was most provocative. Activists wearing T-shirts and carrying signs that portrayed the Olympic rings as handcuffs staged a demonstration on a highway bridge near BOCOG’s headquarters. To add an extra measure of discomfort for Beijing, IOC Chairman Jacques Rogge happens to be in China right now.

Unfortunately, reports say that foreign correspondents covering the protest were detained by police for one or two hours afterward and “roughed up”. From the AP coverage:

[Uniformed] and plainclothes police physically restrained reporters coming down from the pedestrian bridge, pushing and pulling them, seizing IDs and refusing to allow them to leave the scene. Reporters were detained in a parking lot directly opposite the Olympics office tower, facing the Beijing 2008 logo and Olympic rings on the outside of the building.

Journalists were allowed to leave after about two hours, with no explanation from police about why they were detained.

A woman in the spokesman’s office of the Foreign Ministry said she did not know about the case and would look into it. Liu Wei from the information office of the Beijing Olympics Organizing Committee said she was not aware of the situation and had no comment.

If that isn’t playing right into RSF’s hands I honestly don’t know what is. I found the reports somewhat confusing and had to dig around to get a clear idea if the journalists detained on site were protest participants or locally credentialed reporters covering the event. But it appears to be the latter. RSF’s own release suggests much the same.

The best thing for Beijing to do under these circumstances would have been to err on the side of tolerance and allow the protest to proceed under supervision. Credit is earned slowly, painfully and in tiny increments while setbacks come in great, heaving leaps, and activists can win the PR battle by baiting the Chinese authorities into overreacting. Detaining journalists on the scene, under any circumstances, was asking for trouble.

The result is not only that the protest is probably getting more coverage than it would have otherwise, but that the tone is distinctly nastier from Beijing’s point of view. Coming on the heels of last week’s widely covered FCCC survey and at the same time as all the other reports listed above, it looks very bad and reinforces people’s fears of what might go wrong during the Games themselves.

The PR rule of thumb operating here is that response to an issue can become the issue if it is handled badly. That is a rule that Beijing needs to stay mindful of. Unfortunately, it seems likely that not all of China’s bureaucracies will be on the same page about this. It is entirely possible that BOCOG and the Public Security Bureau will have different opinions on how these kinds of situations should be handled. This might be someplace where the IOC could provide a little visible leadership, but they have stayed silent until now.

Fair or not, China will be judged differently than other countries that host the Olympic Games. Now matter how glamorous the venues, how exciting the games, or how successful China’s athletes, the Games will be judged in large part based upon how gracefully Beijing can manage the inevitable protests. That is the price China pays for hosting the Games in a political environment that disdains many of the freedoms that the Games’ primary audiences abroad take for granted. The Financial Times‘ Beijing Bureau Chief, Richard McGregor puts it nicely:

Over more than a decade Beijing has gradually defused pressure over its human rights record. Through remorseless diplomacy and skilful use of its growing economic clout, it has sidelined western complaints about human rights and marginalised the non-governmental lobbies that seek to promote them.

The Olympics, however, are offering China’s critics a moment in the sun, and they have grabbed it eagerly.

McClatchy’s Tim Johnson also captures the risk Beijing faces nicely:

Because of China’s history of quashing revolt, any protest has the potential to become an iconic image, like the moment when U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a “black power” salute at the 1968 games in Mexico City.

That’s an important thought to bear in mind. It will be interesting to look back a year and a month from now and see what the iconic image of the Games is. I sincerely hope it will be a moment of athletic triumph or a moment of Olympic splendor in one of those magnificent venues.

After all, the Olympics are a magnificent opportunity for China. An opportunity not only to showcase the country’s development and rightful place on the international stage, but also to explore a more constructive way of engaging with the activists and NGOs that, for better or for worse, will be interested in China for decades to come.

But the heavier a hand that Beijing takes in dealing with dissent and protests before and during the games, the higher the chance that the iconic image of Beijing 2008 will be something that dispels the goodwill the Olympics could create and reduces those opportunities to dust.

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