China's Gold Medal Spin Doctors

Beijing's Olympic organizers have responded with surprising public-relations savvy to controversies over forced labor and Darfur

Beijing's bureaucrats are not naturals at public relations, yet they are embracing the biggest PR exercise of all: the Olympic Games. A government prone to heavy-handed crackdowns seems unlikely to fare well in the era of camera phones and blogging, especially with hundreds of foreign correspondents roaming the country.

But banish the idea of a world-class faux pas. So far, China has handled Olympics controversy with surprising savvy.

The Olympics limelight is as irresistible to governments and corporate sponsors as it is to activists and pressure groups. The last games broadcasted 34.4 billion viewer hours to international audiences and the Beijing games are likely to get even more attention.

"These are going to be the highest profile games in years - much higher profile than Athens," said Ineke Zeldenrust, who works with the Cleanclothes Campaign, a labor rights group from Holland.

"[China] is the biggest producer of exported garments, it is the host of the biggest games, it is the biggest reservoir of labor, and it's the biggest consumer market of the future."

Zeldenrust's organization helped release a potentially damning report in June that said children as young as 12 were being used to manufacture Olympics merchandise. International media interpreted the event as another chapter of an ongoing forced-labor scandal, where abducted peasants were found working as slaves in brick kilns and mines in Shanxi province.

PROACTIVE RESPONSEThe Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad (BOCOG) did not deny the claims. Instead reacted swiftly, promising to mount an investigation into the allegations.

When asked for an update on the situation at the time of writing, BOCOG said local authorities were still investigating the claims but it had implemented several additional measures, including commissioning an external agency to review all licensees' working conditions.

"BOCOG will deal with the issue seriously," the media department said.

Earlier this year, when activists tagged Beijing 2008 the "genocide Olympics," pressuring China to intervene in Sudan's civil war, Beijing listened and sent a senior official to refugee camps there. In May, a Chinese military engineering unit was dispatched to the region, underlining China's resolve to deal with the issue.

"The relevant parties should continue pushing forward the peace-keeping operations and political processes in a balanced way," BOCOG's media and communications department said. "China is willing to cooperate with the international community to resolve the Darfur issue politically."

Even the activists agree that Beijing has responded well to problems that have arisen so far.

"Chinese attention to Darfur issues has skyrocketed since the beginning of our campaign," said Eric Reeves, a Smith University professor who works with pressure groups like Dream for Darfur. "We are not assuming that China won't do the right thing."

This assumption is a massive step forward - one that underlines the importance of Beijing responding appropriately when new problems arise.

The Darfur groups have appointed high-profile spokespeople like the actress Mia Farrow, who have rallied everyone from Steven Spielberg to NBA basketball players to prod China into action.

The Olympics organizers in Beijing take the image-making potential of the games seriously enough to have spent more than a year, beginning in February 2005, choosing a PR agency and finally settling on international firm Hill and Knowlton.

The organizing committee budgeted US$60 million for advertising and promotions in its original bid for the games. It did not respond when asked how much it has spent on marketing so far.

KEEPING ITS COOLThe Olympic Games are still a year away, so the organizers are far from feeling the full heat of the spotlight. Protests and demonstrations in some form are almost a certainty when the games do start. The trick will be for Beijing to stay cool and keep its promises.

"[The Chinese government] will try very hard to be seen to be unruffled by the protests and attention-getting stunts they're going to face," said a PR professional in China who has been following the publicity around the games and wanted to remain anonymous.

"But they also need to avoid the old trick of watching the demonstration, letting it happen, then cracking down afterwards, [because] attention is not going to pass after the Olympics."