China's Olympic PR Blitz

It wasn't your normal Chinese press conference. Last month, dozens of foreign journalists were invited to a dusty military training ground in Henan province to see the People's Liberation Army in action—specifically, Chinese combat engineers soon headed on a peacekeeping mission to Darfur. Media access to China's military is rare, but the PLA put on a good show. Apart from demonstrations of martial arts, road construction, bridge building and the erection of a hut with "U.N." painted on it, there were peacekeepers who spoke a bit of English and an unflappable colonel, Dai Shaoan, who took tough questions straight on. When asked about the nickname—"Genocide Olympics"—activists have given Beijing's 2008 Summer Games to pressure it into changing its Darfur policy, Dai had his answer ready: "The spirit of the Olympics is that the Games are not political. It's unreasonable to link the two."

That's a line Chinese spokespersons around the globe are rehearsing these days. Beijing is fighting hard to burnish its PR—striving for a softer, more sophisticated tone—ahead of next summer. Its Olympic organizing committee has hired Hill and Knowlton, a consulting firm, for help and holds regular Olympics-related press conferences and media trips. Last Thursday China joined Western nations condemning Burma's crackdown in the U.N. Security Council, the first time Beijing has agreed to such a measure. But they're not the only ones with a strategy for Games. Foreign-based advocacy groups are also gearing up their lobbying efforts, using the spotlight of the Olympics and increasingly sophisticated and coordinated tactics to highlight unsavory aspects of China's behavior.

Of course, Beijing is no novice when it comes to dealing with protesters. But the foreign activists are posing new challenges by targeting the Games, often with what they call "direct action" inside China itself. Beijing's trying to show a welcoming face to the outside world—especially foreign media—in order to fulfill promises it made when bidding for the Olympics. But as the country prepares to welcome hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors, it must confront the fact that at least some of these will be planning embarrassing protests.

This danger became clear in early August, when Chinese officials launched a series of "one year to the Games" celebrations. The most creative event was held by several free-Tibet activists—all foreign nationals—who abseiled down the Great Wall with a 450-square-meter banner bearing the slogan ONE WORLD, ONE DREAM, FREE TIBET 2008. Second prize went to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), whose activists held a press conference in Beijing to protest its clampdown on domestic media—then segued into a quickie protest on an overpass not far from the Olympics venues.

Then, last month, all hell broke loose in Burma. China's support for Rangoon's military junta and its arms sales to the regime have long been a target of Burmese pro-democracy groups. But Burma's relative obscurity had kept the exiles from getting much attention. That all changed once monks started protesting in Burma's streets—and soldiers started shooting them. Suddenly Beijing's friendship with the generals became a source of worldwide public outrage. The advocacy group ALTSEAN-Burma had people "coming out of the woodwork [asking] 'What is your China strategy? Are you targeting the Beijing Olympics?'" says the group's Debbie Stothard in Thailand.

Newly invigorated, the groups started hatching up novel ways to pressure Beijing. Online activists began circulating a letter asking supporters to e-mail the 2008 Olympics ticket-sales office a message stating, "I cannot, in good conscience, attend the Beijing Olympics unless your government uses its influence to improve the political situation in Burma." Senders were asked to write to the site every six hours. "If they get tens of thousands of e-mails a day," the letter read, "they will have to do something about it."

Other groups, such as the London-based Free Tibet Campaign, are also taking a fresh approach. The group recently hired a staffer dedicated to handling the press, and began carefully tailoring its media pitch. "Before, our campaigns had only one message for journalists, supporters and government officials alike," says press officer Matt Whitticase. "Now we've professionalized the media operation." He acknowledges considerable similarities with the Burma Campaign UK, with which he's shared ideas. "They're in the same building as we are. They'll do a lot of work around the Olympics; we welcome that."

To maximize their Olympics leverage, many advocacy groups such as Human Rights Watch?and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) have begun compiling special reports and expos?s to appeal to people hungry for more in-depth information about China's human rights violations. The Free Tibet Campaign has commissioned a half dozen scholarly articles on the plight of ethnic Tibetans. The CPJ also recently published a lengthy report, "Falling Short," on the lack of press freedoms in China, and decided to present it in Beijing, not somewhere safer like Hong Kong—an unprecedented move. "We took a gamble," said CPJ's Asia program coordinator Bob Dietz, "[and] were a bit surprised that we were able to carry it off."

Indeed, the fact that they were not harassed was one sign of how Beijing is trying to counter the activists' blitz—namely, with its own charm campaign. Chinese authorities are trying hard to show the world that they're lightening up. Regulations governing foreign media reporting during the Olympics period have been liberalized, allowing non-Chinese journalists to interview provincial sources without getting government permission beforehand. The government is also offering more and easier-to-obtain journalist visas than ever before. And even this week's 17th Congress of the secretive Chinese Communist Party has been trumpeted as the most "open" ever, in terms of media access.

But China's soft touch has not completely supplanted its iron fist. Security personnel are still grappling with how to differentiate foreign protesters from ordinary Olympic revelers. The new breed of activists is not so easy to spot. As Stothard says, they're "not going to be the person with the FREE BURMA sticker on his backpack—the easy target. Known activists will not get through Beijing airport." Authorities have begun cracking down on foreign visitors who overstay their visas, abuse their status or live where they aren't supposed to. A recent, heavy-handed drug raid by baton-wielding cops in Beijing's Sanlitun bar district resulted in dozens of foreigners—mostly Africans—being detained; many were also beaten. Clearly, not everyone in China's bureaucracy is ready to put their full faith in the power of PR.