China’s Olympics PR and Why the Chinese Just Cannot Win

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By Chris Devonshire-Ellis

July 22 – A lot of comment continues to appear in various media about the Olympics, much of it negative. From reports in Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post about “black people not allowed into Beijing bars,” to issues over excessive clampdowns and visa issues, it seems whichever way the Chinese turn, a media angle is there to criticize.

However, much of the criticism is directed at issues that are not quite as they initially appear. The article about black people in Beijing’s bars, which in the face of it appears racist, emanates from a different set of circumstances. Regrettably, the bar street concerned (a rather seedy area to be frank, populated by bars selling low cost happy hour beers, and a haunt of students, rather than Beijing locals or businessmen) has long had problems with drugs. The pushers and dealers are regrettably often Africans. What the police actually asked bar owners in the area to do was to “look out for black people behaving suspiciously on your premises, and if necessary, ask them to leave.”

Given the full context of the circumstances, it’s not as initially racist as it appears. It’s not unreasonable for the police in any country to work and make requests concerning security to bar owners and managers. Who are the perpetrators of wrongdoing here; the Chinese police, trying to crack down on drug abuse during a time when the city is full of tourists; or the drug dealers, viewing the Olympics as a prime occasion to make more money than usual? Yet it’s the Chinese police who get all the negative headlines.

Negativity has also been directed at the heavy handed manner that China has again gone about its traffic management during the Games. Commencing just a few days ago, private vehicles in Beijing were restricted to even numbered license plated cars on the streets one day, odd the next. Draconian? Hardly. It’s a time proven way to widen road capacity during a busy period and also assists with pollution issues. Years ago, when I lived in Athens, the Greeks would do the same when the pollution got too bad. People would grumble about if of course—it’s inconvenient and out of routine—but faced between that and choking, putrid air and congested traffic, it’s the lesser of two evils by far. Yet certain media take issue with it.

The same applies to checking bags and having x-ray machines installed, for the first time, on Beijing’s subways. Passengers are required, rather like at an airport, to put baggage through an x-ray machine, and not to take drinks or food on the stations. Complaints aplenty, but why? Hong Kong’s excellent MTR system has never allowed food and drink on the subway, and surely the specter of some idiot with a vengeance carrying explosives into a crowded underground space to blow himself up is a legitimate one given today’s heightened security situation and tensions. These measures are not unreasonable. The next Olympics, in 2012 are in London and I am sure that similar measures will be in force on the underground system there.

Discussing the issue with China-based PR experts, I hear a common thread: “When a media situation becomes a no-win argument, it’s better just to say nothing,” and common agreement that in handling the media as they are, the Chinese are doing a very professional job, rather than a poor one, in their management of such stories.

Continuing a debate along such lines can make matters far worse, as was pointed out. In the past, when China has tried to explain its position, it’s just dug itself deeper into the mire. Consider Darfur. Much has been written about the Chinese supply of arms and equipment to the government and thus adding to the problems of the civil war. When attempting to explain their position, the international media just went further on the offensive. Little matter that the trucks and arms the government backed militia are using were sold to the Sudanese well before the conflict erupted. The perception has largely been the Chinese have directly helped fund the conflict. Mia Farrow dubbed the 2008 Games, “The Genocide Olympics,” and called for a boycott of an event “organized by mass murderers.” The Chinese then just stopped talking to the media, and instead limited their discussions over the Darfur problem with other nations, behind closed doors. The issue has now dropped quietly from the headlines.

I live in Beijing, and I can advise the ambiance there is one of emerging excitement and anticipation, and that the Games look as if they are going to be a blast. It’ll be a great occasion, and one I do not want to miss. So, when reading negative headlines about China, business, culture, and the Olympics, especially at this moment when the international world is focused on the country, consider these truisms: don’t believe everything you read in the media, and sometimes you just can’t win. These have never been truer about China, or about the Chinese, than they are right now.

8 thoughts on “China’s Olympics PR and Why the Chinese Just Cannot Win

    David says:

    There are about four things that make little sense in this article, but I’ll try to take them one at a time.

    1. Although the black people not being allowed into bars story was probably over-hyped given that it seemed to have questionable sources, it is important to remember that twice in the last year there have been crackdowns aimed at black people. Once people were out behind 3.3 hosing down the street to wash off the blood–yes, that it absolutely true. And one of those alleged drug dealers turned out to be a diplomat’s son. Police allow the drug trade there, so racially profiling is hardly an acceptable solution after the fact.

    2. Who is complaining about the traffic restrictions? Most people are complaining because it hasn’t changed the pollution one bit. They should keep the restrictions forever!

    3. A major complaint you never addressed was the visa issue. People ARE complaining about that because legitimate businesspeople and travelers are being kept out of the country for no reason, but you ignore it. Will you even be in the country for the Olympics or are you leaving because you don’t want to deal with the hassle?

    4. Who is complaining about the X-ray machines?

    You are defending a probably non-existence–but were it real reprehensible–policy against black people in the city. You then proceed to criticize critics who don’t exist, while failing to address any of the real concerns people have (including absurd media restrictions). Your positions make little sense in this man’s eyes.

    Chris says:

    This article makes little sense to me. It seems more like it was written by a Chinese based business solely to please the Chinese.

    David makes his point in (1) above very eloquently. There are many black drug dealers but they mostly service a foreign trade in ‘soft drugs’ what about the predominantly Chinese meth-amphetamine dealers who peddle a truly evil and dangerous drug to their own kind?

    The visa issue has stopped my company earning money and has stopped a USD 10m deal that should have been concluded by now purely because clients could not get into China- people from an ASX100 company with invitations from a Chinese company.

    I have not read any complaints about X-ray machines or traffic management, anybody who has been to Beijing would agree that management is necessary.

    I’ll leave off commenting too much about Darfur and Zimbabwe as the UK has Iraq and Afghanistan, however, when our press criticises China for this blatant human rights abuse then they cry unfair and that we always pick on them. However, pick up any newspaper and you will see far more criticism of our leaders for their policy in the middle east.

    British and American leaders have a long history of propping up evil regimes and selling arms, however, they do not cry foul, lock people up or impose reporting restrictions when others criticise policy.

    The reason China keeps quiet is because they can’t handle free speech and can’t take criticism it has nothing to do with good PR policy.

    Guy says:

    Comments on comments

    The first thing when you talk you about Olympics in China is that Olympics is every country’s Olympics, not about China solely. It is a place to build friendship and faciliate understanding from bot sides, not a political playground. It never works that way and is not helpful for democracy and human rights emphasized by people outside China or more specifically outside Asia.

    The second thing is when you try to critisize countries in Asia or China, it might be a good idea to put your analyis in its specific context. Don’t get me wrong, democracy is a most beautiful if no other factors considered. Yet, it is the reality that matters most (e.g. how we feed ourselves and how the countries can grow richer and powerful for a fair say in the world). Why do you see Asian countreis criticize little about China’s democracy and human rights issues? This is beause they know they have gone through the development stage and understand there are lots of issues to be addressed parallel to democracy and human rights. In addition, there is never perfect democracy. To each of its own, European democracy (if there is one unified concept) is different from the amiercan one. Asian or Chinese democray will be different from the two.

    There are lots of problems in China but Chinese people in general have never been happier and confident. And China is gradually improving democracy and human rights problems. It may take time but it is getting a lot better than before. Would Chinese people be happy if that happened?

    Please be aware that a lot of national interests are behind the critisms from the US and European governments. So remarks from the governments are always political.

    Joseph says:

    the notion that the world’s perception of china is a matter of public relations is absurd. and a position that mr. devonshire-ellis must take to further his business in china.

    mr. devonshire-ellis should stick to matters of law and commerce in his newsletter. this article was pure pandering to the minions of china’s latest emperor, the communist party.

    Gilbert says:

    The article does set some things straight about bias in foreign media but all together smells too much like the typical honey talk to please local officials. Either the writer has little clue what is going on in Beijing or is trying to look politically correct. As I know Chris goes around in the nightlife, at least sometimes, his bias is clear. He completely ignores the fact the enormous amount of locals expelled from the city, as well as foreigners, the draconian clampdown on nightlife and related. Go out and talk to real local Chinese who don’t speak English and then you’ll know. No need to read SCMP. I respect Chris but this is disappointing.

    Charles says:

    Yes, Mr. Devonshire-Ellis is a delusional apologist, but let’s forget the social and security issues for a second. There is a more pernicious threat to China’s image. This place is becoming unlivable.

    One of the things that attracted me to living in China was that I felt that I had much more freedom here than I did in the U.S. That is no longer true. The government’s heavy-handed approach to virtually everything has not only dampened my enthusiasm for the games, it has made me seriously reconsider my residency here. If I had wanted to experience the irrational fear-mongering and annoying, ineffectual policies that have been set in place in China over the past few months, it would have been easier for me to simply stay in the United States.

    Nigel Lam says:

    China has no business hosting an Olympics when its embassies around the world are not openning a WELCOME mat to visitors. Neither has it any business operating a happy and exciting event, when its internal security problems warrants a police-state security environment. If there is a real public opnion poll on residents of BJ in respect of do they want the Olympics there, I bet its a NO. They prefer to have jobs in polluting factories, drive their polluting cars, take their public transports without being treated like a terrorist, and have fun at night without half the crowd told to behave or go away.
    Finally, I do agree with Chris on, don’t believe what the media tells you. My point is about a Green Olympics. This games preparation had most likely caused more pollution and increase in greenhouse emissions than any other activity in China.

    Gerraldo says:

    “Hong Kong’s excellent MTR system has never allowed food and drink on the subway”

    slight difference: Eating & drinking is not allowed in the trains or the paid area of the subway station.
    There’s no issue bringing any liquids or food into the MTR;

    Lost in translation?

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