Let the Games Begin?

April 3rd, 2008

The Olympics are headed to China. But the Olympic torch journey—which started this week—isn’t going to be easy. On its way to Beijing, the torch will travel through Tibet; an area that has used the spotlight as recently as two weeks ago to upset Chinese government officials and call attention to what Tibetans call human rights violations.There are two things to keep an eye on here. First, is the Chinese government’s attempt to “fake out” international journalists. The second issue is the “competing narratives” from the U.S. and China, which New York Times editorial writer Nicholas Kristof called out today.

First, the “fake out.” The danger of PR fraud is a lesson China apparently didn’t learn from Wal-Mart, as the government invited a select group of international journalists (no major U.S. news networks participated) to tour a Tibetan temple and interview monks. Only they weren’t monks—they were government officials playing dress-up. This didn’t go over well with the real monks standing nearby. Recognizing the opportunity, the true monks stormed the government’s tour and immediately gained the attention of the journalists.
The whole thing was exposed as the fraud it was. And the Chinese government ended up looking like liars and fools in the world media.(Wal-Mart by the way was once again called out for “being mean,” but they also got an award for it. Good day.)

Onto the second point, and perhaps the more fundamental, of the two. The U.S. and the Chinese are telling two different stories rooted in two different traditions. Here a segment of Kristof’s editorial:

China and the U.S. clash partly because of competing interests, but mostly because of competing narratives. To Americans, Tibet fits neatly into a framework of human rights and colonialism. To Chinese, steeped in education of 150 years of “guochi,” or national humiliations by foreigners, the current episode is one more effort by imperialistic and condescending foreigners to tear China apart or hold it back.The problem with China’s story is that most countries—and most people—can’t relate to it. Sure, there are countries that could fit into this category (maybe Iraq, probably North Korea, maybe even Japan at one point), but many of the largest and loudest cannot. This is China’s problem—because the loudest and the largest are those that are going to make or break the 2008 Olympics.

The other problem with China’s story is that it is much too much self-pitying. Self-pity only works when it comes across as self-depreciation.The bottom line—no one wants to work with a country, business or individual that they can’t relate to or that feels bad for itself. It’s true in business international politics, and with the Olympics.

Hopefully, things with Tibet will be resolved and the 2008 Games in China will go on without a hitch. The world could use some new positive stories to share.

Posted Under: Media & Journalism, Public Relations
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