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China Lowers the Bar for Summer Games

11:13 AM, Apr 14, 2008 • By JENNIFER CHOU
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In 2001, shortly after Beijing won the bid to host this year's Olympics, People's Daily proudly declared that China will "host the best ever Games in the history of the Olympiad." With the country's recent PR setback, culminating in the fracas over the torch relay last week, the catchphrase "hosting the best ever Games" is reported to have been revised to a less ambitious "hosting an Olympics that meets high standards and has special characteristics."

A marketing expert once noted that "the Beijing Olympics will not be about sport. It will be about creating a superbrand called ‘China,' and the brand essence is progress."

The "packaging" of China for its coming-out party has been in motion for a number of years. Ogilvy & Mather, for instance, has been coaching Chinese government officials to be more accessible and to treat foreign journalists in a gentler manner. The PR nightmare brought on by the crackdown in Tibet has prompted Beijing to seek additional help from Western firms for a pre-Olympics image makeover.

China's domestic propaganda machine, meanwhile, has kicked into high gear. It is attributing international support for Tibetans and protests along the torch route to Western "arrogance and prejudice" borne out of fear over the country's rising power.

The message is unmistakable: taking a stand against the Chinese government is tantamount to taking a stand against the Chinese people. Genuine and profound is the sense of disappointment among many Chinese that the 2008 Games are not turning out to be--in the words of IOC president Jacques Rogge--"the joyous party that we had wished it to be." And there has been an explosion of nationalist anger.

From some, disruption of the torch relay in London and Paris generated comparisons to the 1860 looting and burning by British and French troops of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing.

The Olympic torch is being referred to in the Chinese media as not merely a torch, but as the "holy flame." And the stony-faced Chinese men in tracksuits guarding it are depicted as "protectors of the holy flame." Jin Jing, the wheelchair-bound Paralympic fencer who shielded the torch from protesters in Paris, is being lionized as "Venus of the holy flame."

Attempting to grab the torch from an amputee--as her wheelchair was being pushed by a blind man no less--was a thoughtless, tasteless, and ultimately counterproductive act by the protesters. Video depicting the episode has been posted on Chinese websites and casts the protesters in a particularly bad light. Though there is some reason to believe that the assault may have been staged.

As it continues its troubled journey to Beijing, the Olympic torch may be a target for more demonstrations. It behooves the protesters to better articulate that their grievances are with the Chinese government's policies and not with the Chinese people.

For Beijing's part, the fact that it thinks China's image problem can be fixed by signing on more PR firms rather than fundamentally changing its behavior speaks volumes about its inability to comprehend the West's concern over its human rights abuses.