- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 12, 2008

China, an emerging superpower with a booming economy to match its military might, appears to need a lesson in good, old-fashioned PR as it stumbles in its high-stakes campaign to shine up its international image prior to hosting the Olympic Games in August.

The country”s latest public relations fiasco involves one of the country”s newest movie stars, Tang Wei. The actress starred in last year”s critically acclaimed “Lust, Caution” from director Ang Lee. This week, China unofficially blacklisted Miss Wei for her role in the movie as a student activist who displayed unpatriotic behavior during the Japanese occupation, according to numerous press reports.

“I am very disappointed that Tang Wei is being hurt by this decision,” Mr. Lee said Tuesday. “We will do everything to support her in this difficult time.”

Mr. Lee is not the first big-name Hollywood director whom Beijing has recently alienated.

Last month, Steven Spielberg withdrew as an adviser to the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics to protest China”s refusal to exert pressure on Sudan to change its role in the five-year-old crisis in Darfur, which has killed more than 200,000 people and forced more than 2 million from their homes.

China yesterday vigorously denounced the “groundless accusations” and “ulterior political motives” of international critics who have sought “to link the Darfur issue and other irrelevant issues with the Olympic Games in Beijing.”

“They have even used sensational words to instigate [a] boycott of [the] Beijing Olympics,” the Chinese Embassy in Washington said yesterday. “Their action is against the universally recognized principle of sports being nonpolitical, against the Olympic spirit, and against the wish of the people throughout the world.”

But the catalog of Chinese public relations setbacks is lengthy and expanding. On Monday, London”s Times Online reported that Ethiopian marathon runner Haile Gebrselassie is threatening not to go for the gold this summer for fear that Beijing”s polluted skies could damage his lungs.

On Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that the U.S. State Department”s annual survey of human rights practices around the world finds that in the “authoritarian” China, “forced relocations went up last year with people pushed out of their homes to make way for Olympic projects in Beijing.” (However, China was, in a controversial move, dropped from the State Department”s list of the very worst offenders.)

As if blacklisting, overlooking genocide, polluting and forcing relocations weren”t enough, a recent report in London”s Daily Mail says the Chinese government is rounding up and, some allege, killing hundreds of cats in the nation”s capital in an effort to beautify the city in the run-up to the summer games.

The eyes of the world will be on China this summer.

Will the country be ready for its global close-up?

Ethan Gutmann, author of “Losing the New China” and an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, says blacklists similar to the one imposed on Miss Wei happen all the time in China.

“It”s a pretty effective way to get entertainers in line,” Mr. Gutmann says, adding that the ingenue”s blacklisting is unusual in that most actors are targeted for expressing a form of Taiwanese nationalism.

Ultimately, any blowback from moves like this “will have almost zero effect” on the Games, he predicts. If the international community didn”t act given the country”s links to Darfur”s ongoing crisis, severe Internet censorship, the arrests of countless dissidents and accusations of cruel organ-harvesting practices, then a starlet”s career crisis won”t even move the needle, he says.

On the other hand, if any event can overcome such ghastly press clippings, it”s the Olympics.

Douglas Smith, senior advisor for public affairs with international PR firm Hill & Knowlton, says the Olympics have traditionally transcended political bickering.

“Warring nations would lay down their arms to compete,” Mr. Smith says.

“Clearly, it”s not that simple anymore,” he acknowledges. “With blogs and 24/7 news cycles, it”s harder for the Olympics to exist in its purest sense.”

A marketer trying to help China”s image problem would have to strike a delicate balance between showcasing the country”s cultural riches and accepting on some level the realities of modern politics.

Mr. Smith helped work on Chicago”s attempt to attract the Olympic Games to the Windy City. He says his starting point was putting the Olympics into that historical perspective, to “separate what the Olympics means to the world, and the country that”s temporarily hosting it.”

Mr. Gutmann says China will have an unwitting team of public relations agents on hand this summer — the reporters covering the games.

“Most journalists have never been exposed to China before,” he says. “They”ll be amazed by the progress being made. “This isn”t your father”s China,” they”ll say. All the glitter is going to overwhelm any judgments.”

Noting that reporters expecting to see a despondent people will instead see hip, young citizens who defy these preconceptions, Mr. Gutmann concludes, “This will be a coming-out party for China.”

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