Tibet, Beijing and Olympic Sponsors: To Boycott or Not

05/25/2011 12:30 pm ET

I have been working in Shanghai as an ad man since 1998. I have also been privileged to enjoy a courtside seat as China gears up its infrastructure and emotions for the Beijing 2008 Olympics. I am also a "official" torch bearer, slated to carry the Olympic flame 200 meters sometime this summer, somewhere in the Middle Kingdom hinterland. Until recently, the Chinese have been eagerly anticipating their epic coming out party. Pollution? Not to worry, locals say. The government will ensure "blue skies" by shutting down factories. Traffic? Again, no problem. One thing the bureaucrats know how to do, they say, is manage logistics.

The Rumbles of "Policitization"

Now, however, the specter of Tibet, international opprobrium and potential boycotts, both political and commercial, has created an undercurrent of anxiety. As yet, no one is predicting anything dramatic -- for example, a major country forbidding its athletes to participate in the Games. However, the recent stridency of Big Brother propaganda accusing Western media of anti-China bias -- it's reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution brainwashing -- suggest that tension is mounting and the masses are being prepared for a less-than-glorious bow on the world stage.

As a American raised with an unshakable belief in the righteousness of Western values and institutions -- the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; universal human rights; bottom-up representative democracy; and efficient capital markets -- I instinctively empathize with the impulses of the protesters. However, as someone who has lived in China for almost a decade, sometimes frustrated by the lack of a fully developed civil society but often inspired by the ambition and heart of the Chinese nation and people, I believe that both governments and corporate sponsors should -- no, must -- continue to support the Games. True, Westerners have a responsibility to express their displeasure, even anger, regarding the PRC's frequent failure to live up to its responsibilities as a member of the international community of nations. However, these grievances should be productively channeled and expressed with a full appreciation of China's fundamentally different world view.

The Chinese World View: Cyclical Determinism

What is that world view? The Chinese want to be modern; they want to be "international." But they are not becoming, and do not want to become, "Western." Unlike Americans and Europeans, the Chinese are morally relativistic (but not amoral or immoral). They believe in fate and maintain a cyclical view of both the cosmos and human events. In the Chinese universe, an intricate structure where everything is connected and yin morphs inexorably into yang and then back again, the only constant is change. Therefore, if there is any moral absolute, it's the near-sacred belief in the supremacy of stability and order. (Mao remains a hero, despite awareness of his "mistakes" because he unified the nation after 100-plus years of foreign domination.) In this context, the Tibetan imperative has, in Chinese eyes, little to do with human rights or respect for indigenous culture. Rather, the recent protests by the monks represent a threat to "unity," the most important bulwark against the disintegration of the motherland and chaos across the country.

Moral relativists are also pragmatists. China is blessed with an expansive, albeit ethnocentric, world view and a supremely realistic appreciation of its strengths and weaknesses relative to other nations. The Chinese government and people also boast a unique ability to absorb the influences from other countries and apply them in a domestic context, one with both challenges (a huge population; a lack of systemic checks and balances; widespread poverty in the countryside) and opportunities (a gigantic production base; an ambitious population; a consumer class with critical mass; "faith" in the wisdom of the central, but not local, government). The Chinese know they need to integrate themselves with the rest of the world and do so in a manner that does not unsettle a stable geopolitical order, one which made the country's gains of the past three decades possible. But they will insist on doing so in a manner that: a) suits China's distinct circumstances, b) reflects China's status as a equal partner vis-à-vis the West.

Why Beijing 2008 Resonates

A hot-headed "boycott agenda" - either of the Games themselves or the all-important opening ceremony -- by American and European activists and politicians would be, to say the least, unfriendly and, most certainly, counter-productive. It is impossible to overstate the importance of the games, to not only to apparatchiks but also the Chinese people. The country's emotional investment the Olympics is about more than modern China's debut on the world stage. It is more than an acknowledgment of the nation's rightful place as a budding superpower, soon shoulder to shoulder with the United States. It is even more than a confirmation of a new "glorious" era, the end of the eclipse that has enveloped China since the Opium War. The rise of an Olympics-worthy China validates the Middle Kingdom's entire worldview and confirms, in no particular order, the ebb and flow of history, the cyclical essence of yin and yang, as well as a renewed Mandate of Heaven. Beijing 2008 represents a vindication of Han culture.

In atheist China, the Games are collective spiritual balm.

On a personal level, individual identities are smothered, burdened by layers of suppressed expression. Chinese ego repression ensures that individual identities are linked to national pride. All strands of Chinese culture -- Confucianism, Legalism, and Daoism -- deemphasize the individual. Yet both Confucianism and Deng Xiao Ping's "to get rich is glorious" mandate put a premium on (state-endorsed) achievement. The vast majority of Chinese, particularly younger and wealthier ones, are caught between two mutually-exclusive goals: standing out and fitting in. Chinese ambition is restrained by convention. In this context, Brand China -- i.e., nationalism -- is seized en masse as the ultimate identity surrogate. Therefore, the Olympics reflect not only the nation's potential but also "my own greatness."

The Harsh Winds of Rejection

Therefore, a successful Olympics -- i.e., positive PR in both media and political circles, void of humiliation and lost face -- would yield a confident China, one less inclined to stir up trouble abroad and more likely to grasp the fruits of political and economic integration. And a successful Olympics would ensure that is haunted by fewer demons with no cause to lash out with its back is against the wall. On the other hand, if the PRC sees the world as lined up against it, the Middle Kingdom will not emerge from its self-protective cocoon. It will not look up and out; instead, it will, claws extended, shield itself from indignity or worse. And the consequences of such a defensive, self-protective crouch would make the suppression of Tibetan monks look like a walk in the park.

Everything from continued adherence to WTO regulations and constructive collaboration with North Korea to commercial reform and openness to human rights dialogue would take a huge leap backwards. And that would benefit no one, least of all the Tibetans, a people who have only recently begun to emerge from crushing poverty.

The Corporate Sponsorship Question

Corporate sponsors have nothing to be ashamed of and should maintain their support. Indeed, most should be proud of their efforts to develop holistic strategies which benefit both the bottom line and the development of China and its people.

Johnson & Johnson's "Golden Touch, Golden Mom" elegantly fuses universal mother love with a distinctly Chinese premium on "winning." But it has done more than produce a couple lovely television ads to push product. Its corporate responsibility efforts, from sponsoring neo-natal care units to supplying medical equipment to backward villages helps make Chinese children healthier, better able to contribute to society. UPS is contributing its logistic management expertise to ensure smooth operations during the games. Both Adidas and Nike are, through sponsorship of the Games and athletes, respectively, are promoting a sporting culture driven by ground-level participation and joyful release, not the edicts of a totalitarian behemoth. And TOP-sponsor Lenovo is spreading the fruits of information technology throughout the countryside as it conducts the Olympic Torch Run, with the nation cheering along the entire route.

Of course, corporate sponsors -- and government leaders -- must defend themselves against simplistic (yet understandable) accusations of using Beijing to sell product at the expense of human rights and international fair play. They should: a) leverage back channels to convey legitimate Western concerns rather than publicly humiliate a nation in which lost face is equated with diminished status and limited negotiating flexibility; b) promote dialogue with the Dalai Lama, a generous but strategically-challenged leader who does not, in fact, to promote Tibetan independence but, rather, cultural autonomy; c) Initiate PR campaigns that anticipate the concerns well-intentioned protesters, highlighting the business community's role in nudging China to evolve into a modern, responsible state; d) remind the world of the progress that China has, in fact, made in: forging a more (albeit still far from satisfactory) rule-based society, implementing corporate governance reform, lifting millions out of poverty and dramatically raising life expectancy. Meritocratic "corporate diplomacy" has driven much of this and, by the way, represents the freest form of self-expression, both in the workplace and through advertising.

Real Progress, Whether We Want to Admit it or Not

It's worth noting that China's young generation, at least those kissed by the winds of economic reform, is the most hopeful on the planet. Even amongst Western critics, that should count for something. Optimism is underpinned by faith that their strong central government will protect the nation from instability and lubricate the gears of progress. Whether we want to believe it or not, there is no push for bottom-up representative democracy in China. Yes, the middle class wants its economic interests promoted; they want to know that property rights are protected. Yes, the masses hope an independent judiciary will emerge to check the power of corrupt local bureaucrats. But the vast majority of Chinese supports the government; thirty years of centrally-orchestrated economic progress has yielded real return. And personal liberties have expanded dramatically; there are 200 million netizens who express opinions relatively freely, as long as the third rail of organized dissent is not touched.

No, the standards are not the same as our own. No, their cultural orientation is not "individualistic." And they have a long road ahead of them, rife with challenge, frustration and disappointment. But the Chinese are making progress in their way and by their own standards. In the meantime, their ambition, audacity and scale of their miracle continue to impress anyone who visits the Middle Kingdom - Americans, in particular.

A culturally tone-deaf boycott of Beijing 2008 would do more than slight the Communist party. It would reject the aspirations of 1.3 billion Chinese souls. And that could destabilize the 21st century.