Beijing’s Opening Ceremonies Bring PR Challenges: Issues to Watch During the Games

Most international events allow us to armchair quarterback the public relations outreach and response. The Beijing Summer Olympics is no different and provides some unique issues due to the Chinese political system and the international-scale issues around which the international community is raising a cacophony of voices.

In 2001, after China had won the bid for the 2008 games, a senior official said,

“Winning the host rights means winning the respect, trust, and favor of the international community.”

The statement sums up what China wants to get out of these games, but it seems the country’s challenges related to its political system, primarily, are taking the luster off the games for the country.

Issues and challenges that may be worth paying attention to during these Olympic Games:

    The “No-Fun” Olympics: Dubbed as such by some western media, the phrase refers to the massive, sweeping security measures put in place. Visa numbers are being restricted, reducing the number of visitors, curbs on outdoor parties, closure of local bars and nightspots. One journalist from tourist publication Time Out Beijing said nightlife is looking, “very dull.”

    Recently, I supervised a group of interns who were monitoring media coverage for the Track & Field trials here in Eugene. The powers-that-be here were very concerned about the quality of the experience for media, spectators and athletes. If these groups in Beijing aren’t happy, the world will hear about via their blogs, traditional media or just word of mouth.

    Impact of the Games on the Average Beijinger: Word is that forced migration, “beautification measures,” land seizures and a lack of financial return for most local businesses means Beijing residents may just be forcing a smile and just trying to make it though. Media will be looking for these stories to give a sense of the culture and community in the host country. Of course, the lack of access to journalists to tell these stories could be the headline, too. (photo International Herald Tribune)

    Can China Control the Weather?: or at least the suffocating pollution in Beijing? Double digit economic growth without accompanying regulations to manage the impacts mean that China is trying to clear out a decade or two of pollution in a short amount of time. And in August, when temperatures reach 100 degrees in the city, “the atmosphere around Beijing becomes a photochemical bouillabaisse of coal smog, steel-mill spume, and tailpipe crud, mingled with concrete dust and baked in the oven formed by the surrounding hills.” (From Wired) On an average day, the pollution in Beijing is three times the World Health Organization’s standard deemed safe. Factory relocation, driving restrictions and other regulations have reportedly resulted in a week of “clean air” according to the Telegraph. I think the question is if it’s enough and if it’s sustainable. And of course, if it’s true. China has been accused of skewig then numbers in its favor.

    Will Human Rights Issues Continue?: In the months leading up to next week’s opening ceremonies, China has been forced to deal with a number of issues, the result of which has not tended to be a bettering of China’s reputation, but rather a confirmation of a rigid, repressive regime. March protests in Tibet resulted in a violent crackdown on protesters and the Olympic Torch relay route around the world was lined with activists clamoring for China to grant more autonomy to Tibet and to lean on Sudan to quell the violence in that country both forced China to realize the depth and breadth of the international concern. Rather than the promised improvements in human rights policies, China has responded with “a traditional mix of intimidation, imprisonment and violent repression.” (from Foreign Affairs)

    The Opaque Chinese Government: China has, in the eyes of many, failed to respond adequately to its critics on issues of human rights and inability to effectively manage its environmental and product-safety issues brings to the surface the country’s insular orientation and leaves a huge blind spot. China never saw a connection between these international issues and the pageantry of the Olympics and its response has been awkward. The government has not been able to engage the groups who have focused on the international issues and China’s role in them. The lack of transparency and accountability and rule of law make many wary of China’s ability to pull off a huge international event (in the short term) and be an effective and responsible international player (in the long term).

    Available Safe Food and Safe Water?: A rash of scandals in the last year have revealed food tainted with steroids and insecticides and as much as half of the bottled water in Beijing does not meet potable-water standards. The US and Australian teams announced they are bringing some or all of their own food and bottled water will be supplied by Coca-Cola. Beijing has promised a safe Olympics, now they must deliver or the legacy of the games will be one much different than that imagined by China.

The next questions of course, is if any of these issues come to the fore or if the spirit of the Olympics will prevail, how will China deal with them and how will the rest of the world respond?

China’s Olympic Nightmare (Foreign Affairs)
Smog and Mirrors: China’s Plan for a Green Olympics (Wired)
The No Fun Olympics (
Olympics Blogroll (Beijing Olympics Blog)

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  • Aaron Grossman

    Nice breakdown, Kelli. I keep hearing about all these issues, but it’s interesting to see it all laid out succinctly. I think what’s interesting is even if the Games go off without a hitch (which I find unlikely at best), what are all the temporary regulatons and restrictions saying about the everyday way of life in Beijing? It’s like the Olympics are forcing them to act for a two-week period in a manner that officials should maintain on a regular basis.