The passage of the Olympic Torch in the last few days has been an unmitigated public relations disaster. China presumably hoped to announce itself on the world stage – but watching various B-list celebs jog nervously through the streets of London while a phalanx of Chinese secret service agents and British policeman wrestled pro-Tibet protesters to the ground wasn’t exactly the embodiment of the Olympian ideal, was it?
When the relay put the disastrous London leg behind it and moved on to Paris yesterday, the Chinese probably hoped the worst was over – but in fact the French made our efforts look pretty feeble, managing to extinguish the flame three times and eventually bring the relay to a premature end. What’s more, protests have already started in San Francisco, the torch’s next destination, with Hillary Clinton even sticking her oar in to urge President Bush to boycott the opening ceremony.
China is insisting that ‘no force’ can stop the torch's progress, but apparently talks are imminent with the International Olympic Committee, which is said to be reviewing future relays. Admittedly we don’t recall Atlanta attracting quite the same level of hostility, but protests aren’t exactly unheard of in the next-but-one Olympic venue...
According to press reports, China is now so worried about its image that it’s been interviewing several big British and US PR firms, who would be tasked with trying to improve its perception in the West – the suggestion being that our coverage of the Tibet situation has been unfairly biased against Beijing.
It looks as though China has badly misjudged how the Tibet situation would play out in the West. Beijing appears to have dealt with the protests on the assumption that it was an internal matter, and nothing to do with anyone else – but since its human rights record was already under scrutiny as the Olympics approached, its strong-arm tactics seem a bit naïve, to say the least.
It just goes to show that cultural misunderstanding cuts both ways – business people are being constantly told about how they must adapt to succeed in China’s huge potential market, but this episode shows that China has its own problems operating on a global stage. (Although given their chance to get their foot in the door in Beijing, we can’t imagine any of the potential PR firms will be intimidated by the scale of their task).
Maybe China’s best bet is just to forget the torch. After all, the relay was invented by Goebbels in 1936 to publicise the Olympics in Germany – which ended up being best known for Jesse Owens' gold medals. Sometimes when you play with fire, you can get burned...