Susan Brownell: Was There a Master Plan to Use the Olympic Games to Promote a Positive Image of China to the World ?

The China Beat has reprinted a version of a paper on the 2008 Beijing Olympics and China’s image, presented at a recent conference at the University of Southern California in January 2009. Below is an excerpt:

There was a common perception outside China that the Beijing Olympic Games involved a master plan to promote a positive image of China to the outside world and that this was one of the major goals of hosting the Olympic Games, if not the major goal. I want to argue that while there was widespread agreement in China that the Olympics were an excellent opportunity to promote an image of China to the world, the vast majority of the attention and effort was focused on the domestic audience; that there was never a concrete communication strategy for dealing with the human rights issue; and that in both instances, China’s ability to communicate a positive international image was hindered by the domestic political structure.

Olympic China National Image Ad

If there had been a master plan for using the Olympics to promote China’s image, it would have been developed by the Central Propaganda Department. The single person most responsible for coordinating everything would have been Li Dongsheng, who was simultaneously a member of the Party Central Committee, Vice Minister of the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, and – more to the point here – Deputy Director of the Central Propaganda Department, chief of BOCOG’s Media and Communications Coordination Group, and president of the China Advertising Association. Western media tended to make a big deal out of the American (Hill and Knowlton) and British (Weber Shandwick) PR firms that had worked for BOCOG, but in fact the non-Chinese viewpoint that they provided to BOCOG was only one among many collected, and probably not the most influential – and in any case, BOCOG was not empowered to discuss “political” issues.


So the major reason that there was no master PR plan was due to the strict division of labor with regard to communications with the outside world, with only the organs under the Central Propaganda Department empowered to speak about “political” issues. While the sport, educational, and cultural systems were crafting their “cultural” messages, the Information Office was engaged in a completely independent effort to produce a television commercial for “China” at the end of 2007. The difficult eight-month birthing process of the “Olympic China National Image Ad” indicates that if Li Dongsheng were trying to develop more proactive communications with the outside world, he may have had his opponents. The ad had been approved at the start of 2007, but it was not finally pushed through until just before the end of the fiscal year. Pressure was exerted via a long article entitled “Raise China’s Face – Where is China’s National Image Ad?” (《扬起中国脸中国国家形象广告在哪里》)which appeared in November 2007 in Modern Advertising Magazine, a publication of the China Advertising Association of which Li was president. The article was written with the help of scholars at the Communication University of China and demonstrated the widespread support of the heads of China’s major advertising firms. One section, “Using the Opportunity of the Olympics to Build a National Image,” reviews the risk of negative media coverage but, like the other publications discussed, it does not develop a communication strategy for responding to it.



 See also CDT’s stories on Olympic business and publicity


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