Olympics sponsors feel pressure
Companies are being called on to justify their role as China, host to the Games, continues its tough crackdown on protests in Tibet.
The Washington Post
BEIJING — 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 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.
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 they were eager to discuss what action might be taken. Three companies 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.
Though the European Union and the United States have said they opposed boycotting the Beijing games over the crackdown, an EU politician said in remarks published Saturday that European countries should not rule out threatening a boycott if violence continues.
"Beijing must decide itself, it should immediately negotiate with the Dalai Lama," European Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering was quoted as saying by Germany's Bild am Sonntag newspaper. "If there continue to be no signals of compromise, I see boycott measures as justified."
Guan Kai, a sociologist in Beijing, said: "The Chinese government's lack of experience in dealing with international opinion is obvious." The government "didn't expect so many foreign activists would take advantage of the Olympics to advance their own agendas," Guan said.
Many China observers are framing the Games as the country's arrival on the world stage. The Olympics are expected to attract 500,000 tourists and 4 billion television viewers.
Corporate sponsors are trying to appear sensitive while arguing that the Games should not be politicized.
"The Coca-Cola Company is expressing deep concern for the situation on the ground in Tibet. We know that all parties involved hope for a peaceful resolution," the company said in a statement.
Like Coca-Cola, South Korea's Samsung Electronics is a sponsor of the torch relay, which will include a stop on Mount Everest, on the border of Nepal and Tibet. Activists say they plan to disrupt the relay in cities inside and outside China.
"We just go with the flow," said a spokesman for Samsung who identified himself only by his surname, Zou. "I believe the government can ensure the success of the Beijing Olympic Games. And I haven't heard that any group will protest in Tibet or anything like this. We are not so concerned about this."
Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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