China & the Olympic Profiteers

(Editor’s Note: This post is a response of sorts to the debate that began with Robin Forman’s piece “China, Capitalism & the Olympics: My White House Daymare.”)

by Rick Rockwell

In about 90 days an orgy of capitalism will commence centered in of all places Beijing.

The Beijing Olympics may be based in what is nominally called a Communist nation, but for all intents and purposes the games have become an excuse for commercial and capitalist spectacle. These games will be less about sports and more about a capitalist coming out party for the biggest market in the world, and one that is just starting to feel its economic might.

For a variety of firms interested in international commerce, this may be even better than an Olympics based in the U.S. if they can gain a foothold and future loyalty among China’s 1.3 billion people.

A number of firms are helping China reshape its image and the image of the games for these Olympics. The all-star list includes: Hill & Knowlton; Ogilvy & Mather World-wide; and the law firm of Morrison & Foerster. And then there are the Olympic sponsors. A dozen firms including Coca-Cola, Visa, and McDonald's have paid $100 million a piece to be known as global sponsors of the games. (That alone is a nifty deal for the International Olympic Committee and its Chinese hosts who funded much of Beijing's pre-Olympic construction projects with funds from corporate sponors.) Don’t forget NBC, the media arm of the world’s largest corporation General Electric (GE is also one of the dozen official global sponsors), paid $894 million for the privilege of broadcasting the games. Although that's close to a $1 billion investment, NBC made $900 million on the last summer Olympics in Athens and expects to reap more from Beijing, and GE expects the games to result in at least $500 million in additional sales related to its sponsorship of the games.

All of these companies are basically profiteers. They are helping one of the world’s greatest human rights violators dress itself up for a bacchanal of commercial excess.

Take a look at the Chinese scorecard:

  • Amnesty International believes hundreds of Tibetans have been imprisoned following riots in March protesting China's occupation of the country. In some cases, the Chinese have cracked down on dissidents by initiating raids of homes in Lhasa and other Tibetan cities.
  • Human rights groups have criticized China for harassing, intimidating and jailing lawyers who attempt to fight for human rights in the country. The group Human Rights in China estimates that at least 500 lawyers were detained by Chinese authorities between 1997 and 2002. The group has documented continued intimidation of attorneys.
This of course makes one wonder why a law firm such as Morrison & Foerster would want to represent China. Morrison & Foerster at one time represented Tibetans seeking asylum (although Morrison & Foerster asked other firms to take those cases so they could successfully bid on the Olympics) and the firm successfully fought for justice in cases against human rights abusers in Central America. But handling all of the international legal concerns for the games actually makes the firm one of the smaller profiteers when stacked up against the investment that NBC, Coke, and McDonald's have at stake in the games. The firm has assigned about 70 of its 1700 lawyers to the Olympics. That’s probably only worth tens of millions as opposed to hundreds of millions.

Is it any wonder that the Bush White House (which has been sold out to the corporate interests even before W. was inaugurated in 2001) stood idly by when the Chinese put their bid in for the games? At least the British squawked about how giving the Chinese the Olympics was like giving the Nazis the Olympics in 1936. But the world’s great capitalists rolled over those objections like so many Chinese tanks in Tiananmen Square.

Now the British Olympic organizers are making their team sign statements basically waiving their free speech rights. Organizers told athletes: protest in any way, speak out in any way, wear something questionable, and you’ll be sent home.

Condemn the Chinese all you want for their occupation of Tibet. Shake your head about their human rights violations and crackdown on free speech (something the Chinese promised the Olympic committee they would fix, but conveniently forgot as the time for the games draws closer). Wag your finger at them for their policies on Darfur. But realize something: we are complicit with China. We will watch the games and cheer. We will laugh at the cute commercials and mascot. We will buy the products from the sponsors of the Olympics and question whether the Chinese are really all that bad.

Profit is what this is all about. How can that be questioned in hard times? You see, globalization has even brought the profit incentive to China. Capitalism triumphs. And the human rights violations? Those are just the cost of doing business.

(Political graphic from the China Support Network.)

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Anonymous said...

Perfect blog, you echo my thoughts exactly. i can add nothing to that...

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