A well-known global PR firm and China’s Olympic Committee search for the right way to present China to the world.

There has never been a public relations campaign like this, selling the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and then the world on Beijing as the place to be in August 2008. Judging from a conversation I just overheard among group of Columbia students about going—not because it’s the Olympics but because it’s the Olympics in China—the campaign may be working.

The city lost its bid for the 2000 Olympics to Sydney, but by the time I made my first trip to China in April 2001, Beijing was a strong contender for 2008 and was making every effort to secure the honor. There were Beijing Olympics posters in the elevator. There were posters in the lobby. There were posters everywhere you turned, in fact.

And in the city itself, the hutongs (narrow alleyways) lined with dreary one-story buildings that have characterized the city for centuries were giving way to building sites for gleaming glass skyscrapers, while meanwhile the brilliant green of thousands of newly planted saplings—an effort to control Gobi desert sandstorms across the region and to make the city cooler and greener—bent in the spring winds.

A few months later, in July, the IOC voted to award the Games to Beijing. Or, more accurately in the minds of many people, to China. At last, said a student to a BBC reporter, “The world is embracing us, China.”

Back when I had been visiting China, the public was in an uproar over the U.S. spy plan that had crash-landed on China’s Hainan Island and China’s release, on 11 April 2001, of its crew. Many Chinese were angry about this; U.S. behavior had triggered a surge of nationalistic fervor, and young Chinese were very sensitive to what they saw as misrepresentation of China in the Western press. Winning the Olympics bid in July was particularly sweet.

A New Olympics?

The story behind the slogan for Beijing’s bid hints at the challenge that faces China and the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) in presenting the Olympics. The slogan was “New Beijing, Great Olympics,” in English, but it was xin Beijing, xin Aoyun in Mandarin, which actually means “New Beijing, New Olympics.” The scholar Susan Brownell, who was a consultant for the Chinese Olympic bid, has said that the phrase was intentionally mistranslated because the bid committee feared the West would find the literal wording presumptuous—or even threatening.

A search was held for a new, more glamorous slogan once the Olympics had been won. “The new motto that BOCOG is looking for will shift the focus from the city itself to the three concepts of 2008 Games (namely, Green Olympics, Hi-tech Olympics and People’s Olympics) and the universal values of the Olympic Movement, such as peace, unity, friendship, participation, inspiration, dedication, joy and fair play,” reported the BOCOG on its website, but some hear in the new slogan (“One Olympics, One World”) echoes of the Nazi propaganda slogan “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer” (“One People, One Nation, One Leader”).

Fear of China

Fear of China is potent, and it will be particularly interesting to see how the BOCOG and Hill & Knowlton, the international public relations firm that has been hired to promote the Beijing games, will strike a balance between showing China as a global leader and defusing that fear. The Olympics may be meant to promote international understanding and peace, but they are also a stage on which differences have been aired and battles continued—in the media and on the playing field. During the Cold War, the United States and many of its allies boycotted the Moscow Games of 1980, and in retaliation the Soviet Union and its allies boycotted the Los Angeles Games of 1984. (Boycotts have since ceased, not only because of the IOC’s threat of severe penalties, but also because they don’t succeed, and they leave the field to the nonboycotting countries.)

Those opposed to the Beijing Olympics are likely to continue comparing them to the Berlin Olympics of 1936, making analogies between the Nazis, who downplayed their anti-Semitism and plans for territorial expansion, and the Chinese. There has been general agreement, however, that with the Beijing Games on the horizon, Taiwan’s position is safer, and some Chinese tell us that Shanghai’s hosting of the 2010 World’s Fair is similarly likely to stay Beijing’s hand when it comes to military action against Taiwan.

Hill & Knowlton

Hill & Knowlton is now responsible for Beijing 2008. It was the first international firm to open in China, in 1984, and it has a number of major clients in China in addition to BOCOG. No details are yet available on its plans, but even during the bidding process, the Chinese organizers were alert to the need for a media-friendly approach. BOCOG’s president Liu Qi met in May 2006 with Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC’s Universal Sports and Olympics and discussed the fact that broadcasting about the Olympics will help Americans get a clearer picture of Beijing and China as a whole. This is the fundamental challenge for China: it wants the world to see what it really is, in terms of modernization and history, and to understand what it sees—which means eliminating outdated notions and stereotypes.

Take the need to understand cultural context: how many Westerners would understand why the (Japanese-owned) Shanghai World Financial Center had to alter its building design to eliminate a cut-out circle near the top (which was in the design to relieve wind pressure)? It’s because a circle on a Japanese-owned tower suggests a rising sun, something unacceptable to the Chinese public, with their memories of Japanese wartime aggression. On the other hand, the Beijing National Stadium, designed by the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron and currently under construction, was more fortunate: for the Chinese, its design, which resembles a bird’s nest, is laden with positive meaning, because certain birds’ nests are a culinary delicacy eaten only on special occasions.

Back in April 2001, it was hard to imagine Beijing hosting the Olympics and dealing with thousands of demanding Western tourists, but China has always been adept at marshalling large projects, and the commercial possibilities of the Olympics are motivating people both in China and outside. This is not to say that challenges don’t remain: communication, for instance, is still a big issue. But the unprecedented opportunity to get to know China and the Chinese, and through that increased familiarity to grow in mutual understanding, more than outweighs the burden of the challenges.

Source: Christensen, Karen. (2006). Bringing the world to Beijing. Guanxi: The China Letter, 3, 1.