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Olympic Mettle: Business, Civil Society, and Politics During the Beijing Games


By Christina L. Madden | Workshops for Ethics in Business | May 27, 2008

China may have come a long way since Mao, but the country's recent crackdowns on Tibet and the Falun Gong have sparked protests worldwide, with many people calling for boycotts of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the opening ceremonies, and the sponsors. When the torch started off on its Journey of Harmony earlier this year, the president of the International Olympic Committee insisted that the Olympic Games are not political and that China's pre-Games promise to improve its human rights and environmental record was purely a moral obligation. Others argue that corporations, the Chinese government, and the international community have a larger responsibility in holding China to its word.

Our fifth Workshop for Ethics in Business broached the subject with a discussion of "Olympic Mettle: Business, Civil Society, and Politics During the Beijing Games." The event was sponsored by Booz & Company's strategy+business magazine, with additional support from Merck and New York University's Center for Global Affairs.

Scholar and journalist Ian Buruma began by debunking the idea that the Olympic Games are apolitical. He cited the 1936 Games, which were used to show the "glories of the Third Reich" under Hitler. The more important question, according to Buruma, is whether or not the Olympics should be used as a means to engage a country. Two positive instances are Tokyo in 1964 and Seoul in 1988. For Japan, hosting the Olympic Games helped the newly democratic country become a "respectable member" of the postwar international community. South Korea's leadership had conceded to democratic elections prior to hosting the Olympics, and the Games helped hold them to that promise.

Buruma is skeptical about this year's Olympics bringing much change to China. Although it's unfair to compare the country to Nazi Germany, Buruma worries that having the world's eyes on China may in fact lead to harsher oppression as China seeks to hide domestic dissent. He noted, however, that China's state coverage of the Sichuan earthquake was a positive step toward greater openness, and that the attention generated by the Olympics could encourage more transparency.

Joining via video from Hong Kong, journalist Thomas Crampton gave an overview of Internet nationalism China. He showed clips of what he called "user-generated propaganda," including pro-China hip hop videos and power point presentations on "age-old Western Racism toward Chinese people." Crampton called it a "propaganda war from all sides," complete with anti-China videos made by foreigners.

In addition to China's "Great Firewall," which prevents Internet users within China from accessing blogging platforms and conducting searches on controversial subjects like the Falun Gong, the government is retaliating via new media against foreign protesters of the Olympic torch relay. Crampton explained a group called the "50 Centers," generally recruited by the government from the country's top universities, whose members are paid to post the party-line sentiment online in an effort to drown out more dissonant voices.

Crampton explained that members of China's "digital generation" have few cousins and no siblings, which has created a feeling of separateness among them that gives power to online activity.

Qi Qianjin, of the Permanent Mission of the People's Republic of China to the United Nations, gave an overview of China's 30 years of progress implementing the Open Door Policy reforms initiated under Deng Xiaoping. Since 1978, China's GDP has grown at an average annual rate of nearly 10 percent. Its economy is currently 17 times larger than it was pre-reform, and it is the world's third largest trading economy. China has reduced its rural poor by 220 million, making it the only nation to have halved poverty ahead of the schedule set in the UN Millennium Development Goals.

Qi acknowledged nonetheless that major challenges still exist, not the least of which are severe pollution and inequality. Qi maintained that China would work with other countries to continue its shift to becoming a responsible power as the country transitions to being a major player in the international system.

Minky Worden, Media Director of Human Rights Watch, discussed the potential for the Games to speed up the transformation process in China. She specifically noted a proposal for an "Olympic pardon," which would liberate prisoners held as "counterrevolutionaries" since the 1989 Tiananmen Square riots.

As part of its pre-Games promises regarding press freedom, China altered its laws to lessen restrictions on the media. An estimated 30,000 journalists will cover the Olympics this year, with many of them predicted to report on China's progress over the past several decades. Worden noted, however, that many of the new rules are temporary and don't apply to domestic journalists. She suggested that if China were to allow for greater domestic coverage of issues like corruption, unfavorable stories would be less likely to explode in the international media.

Corporate sponsors, according to Worden, have a unique opportunity to present the case to China that press freedom is a sign of a confident nation that's ready to take its place on the world stage.

General Electric's Bob Corcoran, Vice President of Corporate Citizenship, discussed GE's history in China. As a public company with 6 million shareholders, Corcoran says GE's model for corporate responsibility is to "make money, make a difference, and do it ethically." The company's more than 450 trained auditors have conducted more than 2,300 audits of suppliers during the past year alone. The audit team terminated relationships with 150 suppliers, according to Corcoran, for failure to comply with the company's standards on the environment, product quality, and human rights.

Media coverage of corporate practices is not always fair or accurate, said Corcoran. A black mark on GE's record came from a report issued by a small nongovernmental organization earlier this year, accusing a GE supplier in China of violating workers' rights. The company spent $200,000 of its shareholders' money on a 10-day unannounced audit of the factory and found no basis for the allegations.

Corcoran said GE's experience in China has been mostly positive, although they have found that small and midsize suppliers often face challenges when it comes to compliance and enforcement of regulations. To that end, GE has funded a number of capacity-building organizations. GE's Olympic sponsorship agreement extends through 2012. Corcoran agrees that the Olympics are political, but he believes the Games can bring people together for peace and cooperation if supported in a principled and ethical manner.

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Read More: Business, Communication, Democracy, Development, Diplomacy, Economy, Ethics, Globalization, Governance, Human Rights, China, Asia

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