Olympics Sponsors Scrutinized After Crackdown in China

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 22, 2008

BEIJING, March 21 -- Chinese officials' harsh response to protests in Tibet has brought a fresh wave of accusations that corporate sponsors of the Beijing Olympics are partners with a government that ignores basic human rights.

Amid a widening crackdown in the remote Himalayan province, human rights organizations have renewed demands that Coca-Cola, Visa, General Electric and other international companies explain their dealings with the Communist government as it prepares to host the Summer Games.

Many of those companies have invested millions of dollars in enterprises associated with the Olympics, traditionally a venue for both mass marketing and political protest. But China's poor human rights record poses a special challenge for companies seeking to capitalize on a worldwide audience while maintaining reputations as good global citizens.

Sponsors are talking privately to Olympics organizers, turning to PR companies for more help and meeting with each other in an effort to plot strategy, according to activists and advisers. No companies are considering pulling out yet, but many know that this is just the beginning of a concentrated push by a variety of interest groups.

The companies are "at the table; they're able to use quiet diplomacy to send messages of the importance of being responsible global citizens," said one Beijing-based public relations adviser to sponsors, who spoke on condition of anonymity so he could speak freely.

"In their interactions with the government, they would talk through issues and share some of the challenges," the adviser said. "There are officials inside the government that are genuinely interested in understanding what the world thinks and how images and messages are communicated around the world."

Video and photos of the crackdown have made it past Chinese government censors, reinvigorating the pressure on the Games' financial backers.

"The role of the sponsors in subsidizing this event, while monks are being shot, is not going to look very good," said Sophie Richardson, the Asia advocacy director of Human Rights Watch. Major companies have the ability to "get the ear" of the Chinese leadership, she said.

"What's at stake is much more than the tens of millions of dollars these sponsors have bet on the Games. It's their future business with China," said Damien Ryan, a Hong Kong-based media relations adviser for Olympic sponsors. "Officials here read between the lines, and that's why sponsors are thinking carefully about their response."

Dream for Darfur, an activist group, said it put out a statement to sponsors Monday, after the Tibet uprising, saying that public relations issues surrounding the Olympics had grown and that it was eager to discuss what action might be taken. While there was no immediate response, three companies later agreed to meet with the group Friday and two companies agreed to meet next week.

"They're concerned. I think they wish this would all go away," said Jill Savitt, the group's executive director.

"The Chinese government's lack of experience in dealing with international opinion is obvious," said Guan Kai, a sociologist in Beijing. The government "didn't expect so many foreign activists would take advantage of the Olympics to advance their own agendas," Guan said.

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