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