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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

July 9, 2007

Written by C.N.

Corporate Sponsorship, Human Rights, and the Chinese Olympics

You might recall that next year, the Summer Olympics will be held in Beijing, China. Ever since Beijing was selected as the host city, there have been a storm of outcry and controversy regarding its appropriateness, given international criticism about internal human rights abuses and individual liberty restrictions, its continuing occupation of Tibet, accelerating environmental degradation, and implicit support of totalitarian regimes such as Sudan, to name the main issues.

Nonetheless, with the 2008 Olympics fast approaching, China’s critics are preparing to use the Games to amplify their criticisms against China. However, since the Olympic Games also represent a major corporate sponsorship opportunity for many U.S. companies, many of whom stand to be judged guilty by association if they have any involvement in the Games. As BusinessWeek magazine reports, these companies are seemingly caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place:

[M]ost sponsors are counting on a high-profile presence in Beijing to build their brands in the mainland and win favor among Chinese consumers and officials alike. . . . [At the same time,] says Matt Whitticase, press officer with The Free Tibet Campaign, which opposes Chinese rule in Tibet: “You cannot as a large multinational trumpet your corporate responsibility credentials, while at the same time indulging China and refusing to criticize it.” . . . .

To deflect criticism, most sponsors seem to be following a three-pronged strategy: They stress the global nature of the Games, point to other charitable work, and show concern for the activists’ causes without directly mentioning Beijing. Companies are likely to “express their commitment to human rights in ways that don’t clearly embarrass their Chinese hosts,” says Shireman of Future 500. . . .

McDonald’s says the Olympics are not the right forum for discussing Darfur. GE notes that its foundation has given $2 million to fund humanitarian efforts in Sudan. United Parcel Service Inc. (UPS) highlights its work in aiding the poor worldwide. . . . Adidas says it is open to dialogue with activists. But rather than lean on the Chinese government, the maker of athletic shoes prefers to spur change by pressuring its suppliers, “where we have direct influence,” says Frank Henke, Adidas’ global director for social and environmental affairs.

Some time ago, I wrote about the controversy surrounding Internet search giants such as Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft censoring their search results for users in China, in accordance with the Chinese government’s restrictions. In that post, I said that it was rather hypocritical for companies, particularly Google and its corporate-wide credo of “Don’t Be Evil,” to turn around and ignore these principles of free speech by helping the Chinese government with their censorship activities.

In this case with Olympics sponsors, there is no such contradiction — these multinational corporations have no corporate credo about not doing evil, promoting free speech, or any other idealistic principle about furthering the human community. Instead, their own credo is maximum profits and maximum returns for their shareholders. Therefore, I am not surprised at all to hear that apparently, the vast majority of them consider activist protests against their participation in the Chinese Olympics as a mere public relations nuisance.

On the other hand, with the power of the Internet and its ability to facilitate communication and coordination of activism, these corporations may be in for a rude awakening if calls for boycotts and other actions against them reach a critical mass, due to their implicit support of Chinese repression. We’ve seen it before — General Electric leaving the defense contractor business, Nike paying more attention to working conditions in their overseas factories, companies divesting from Sudan, campaigns to get colleges to stop doing business with Coke, etc.

Public revolts against oppression — and those implicitly supporting oppression — are real and in many cases, are effective. That’s the bottom line that these corporations might need to pay more attention to.


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Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Corporate Sponsorship, Human Rights, and the Chinese Olympics" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2007/07/corporate-sponsorship-human-rights-and-the-chinese-olympics/> ().

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