Sponsors' big chance

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 April, 2008, 12:00am

So, you have an axe to grind with China. Perhaps it is over human rights, the treatment of Tibetans and other ethnic minorities, a lack of media freedom, abuse of the environment or inaction over Darfur. With the Beijing Olympic Games just around the corner, now would be the perfect time to do something about it.

Hollywood director Steven Spielberg was quick off the mark when he withdrew as an artistic adviser to protest against China's stance on Darfur. Tibetan activists jumped on the bandwagon with demonstrations in Lhasa and, after disrupting the torch lighting ceremony in Greece, have made the relay a security nightmare for Beijing. As far as protesters are concerned, the starter's gun has gone off and, through to the end of the Games, they will do their utmost to get their message out loud and clear.

Beijing should have seen this coming. A counterattack should have been prepared along the lines of talks over Tibet or a strongly worded statement attacking the Sudanese government over Darfur. There has been none of that; instead, the same tired old tactics of foreign media suppression, rhetoric from the Mao Zedong era and arrests have been wheeled out. Beijing promised to change its ways for the Olympics, but the status quo remains the order of the day. Surveys of international perceptions of China by a range of foreign pollsters put the government's image now as low as in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square killings in 1989.

Nonetheless, governments that have a bone to pick with China are not likely to use the Olympics to push for a rethink. In the past, they have used boycotts to show displeasure. Doing this with China will not work; the nation has far too much economic clout and an administration that does not readily forgive and forget.

Nor will protests work. They are easily ignored, can be prevented with security and will only harden Beijing's resolve. Better to try something else.

Who better to ask than American human rights activist John Kamm, whose softly-softly approach of compiling lists of political prisoners and handing them to mainland officials has achieved great success. The former president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong and a one-time regional vice-president of a multinational corporation has won the release of dozens of detainees over the past 18 years this way. His Dui Hua Foundation has already compiled a list of Tibetans rounded up after last month's Lhasa protests and given it to the authorities.

Mr Kamm told me in Hong Kong last Saturday that in human rights or business, the four 'P's' apply: preparation, persuasion, patience and persistence. Persuading the central government to make concessions was the biggest challenge. He believed that, when it came to the Olympics, sponsors held the key.

There are 12 so-called global partners that have marketing rights to use the Olympics logo internationally, 11 China partners that have struck deals to use it within China and a further 10 sponsors. How much the deals are worth is generally not revealed, although the German sports clothing maker, adidas, is known to have paid US$100 million to use the Olympic logo China-wide. A total of US$4.4 billion has already been earned through sponsorships and broadcasting rights for the Beijing Games and the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics.

With so much money and image involved, this is where the real leverage with Beijing lies. For sponsors that are conscious about corporate social responsibility, a perfect opportunity exists to convince China to change its ways for the sake of a truly successful Games. Mr Kamm said that, as a businessman and knowing Beijing, this would be considered by the leadership as an acceptable way to broach issues of international contention.

Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Johnson & Johnson, Kodak and the other companies which have invested a lot of money in the Olympics: here is your chance to go for the most glittering gold medal of all. Approach the government as a friend and appeal to officials to improve the atmosphere to make the Games a success.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor