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China’s Olympic-Size Controversies

Protests Have Been Building Over Human Rights and Air Pollution Issues.

This Olympics offers big upside potential for sponsors hoping to make an impact on China’s huge emerging population. But China is also a land mine of potential downsides, and sponsors and advertisers risk being associated with some of the nation’s controversial policies that already have created worldwide protests during the torch ceremony and in the international press. A few of the issues that may steal the spotlight from the athletes at the Beijing Olympics are:

This story first appeared in the August 6, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

• Tibetan organizations, such as Students for a Free Tibet, have protested China’s human rights treatments of Tibet, calling for independence. China has banned ethnic Tibetans from working at the Games, fearing they may initiate protests.

• Other human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, have voiced concern over China’s policies in Sudan’s Darfur region.

• China’s air is highly polluted, an issue the country has worked to improve before the Games. But for the athletes, whose lungs must be pristine at this level of competition, the air quality is still an issue, and some are delaying their arrivals to protect their lungs. U.S. athletes entering China now are sporting masks to filter the air.

• Never a country big on free speech, China had promised to allow open media access during the Olympics, but Human Rights Watch has accused the country of failing to follow through with its pledge. Sites at the Games with controversial content, such as protests and Tiananmen Square, likely will be off limits to journalists.

• Monday’s deadly ambush, which killed 16 in China’s majority Muslim northwest region, has fueled ongoing terrorism fears for the Olympics. Some have speculated that China would use the heightened Olympics security as a pretext to crack down on long-standing issues with the Uighur minority group, part of which (the East Turkestan Islamic Movement) has been blamed for this week’s attack. China has called the group terrorists and the greatest threat to the Olympics.