Wednesday, August 6, 2008

China and the 2008 Olympic Games: Commercialization, Surveillance, and Political Influence

Much of the focus in the U.S. media on the 2008 Olympic Games has revolved around the athletic accomplishments of athletes representing the United States. There has also been some coverage in the corporate media that has discussed the human rights abuses that surround China as well as the crackdown that the Chinese government has imposed upon those activists that wish to see a free and independent Tibet. While this type of story gets limited airtime, much of the media coverage in the United States has been of a more traditional nature; coverage of athletes and their quest for gold and old rivalries renewed by the spirit of competition. As the Olympics descend upon Beijing this year, it is critical to look at some issues that surround China and China's relations with the United States. Some argue that these issues should be kept separate so as not to tarnish the "spirit of the games", but with China's continued emergence as a global market force, it is only appropriate to give some of these issues attention. Three issues that need the critical focus that corporate coverage often lacks are the commercialization of the games, the emergence of China as a surveillance society, and the rise of political influence from the West.

Commercialization of sporting events in nothing new. Many people watch the Super Bowl for the commercials alone, NASCAR race cars are plastered with company logos, and celebrities can easily obtain a second income from product endorsements. What is new, is the level of commercialization that surrounds the Olympic games. The very involvement of so many global companies with the Olympics immediately shifts the games from not just healthy sporting competition, but to a global business venture for giant corporations. Editor Robert Weissman has written a new piece in which he states:

"A record 63 companies have become sponsors or partners of the Beijing Olympics, and Olympics-related advertising in China alone could reach $4 billion to $6 billion this year, according to CSM, a Beijing marketing research firm."

Weissman is an editor of the Multinational Monitor and they have just released a report which analyzes "how commercialization is overrunning the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games". The report discusses how sponsorships and branding campaigns have eclipsed the very spirit that the Olympics are meant to embody. This includes sponsors such as McDonald's and Coca-Cola (companies not known for making healthy food and drink), which pump loads of money into the games while the Olympics simultaneously strive to promote healthy living and fitness. This type of hypocrisy can also be seen with the companies that make the majority of the Olympic apparel. ADIDAS and Nike have a dark history of sourcing their products from sweatshops and, as the report states, ADIDAS just announced that it is transferring some of the companies production out of China because they pay their workers too high a wage. These inherent contradictions fly in the face of what the "spirit of the Olympics" strive to promote and deserve to be covered fully.

The second issue that deserves in-depth coverage from the corporate media, is the emergence of China as a surveillance society and how U.S. defense contractors are aiding in this process. This issue has received relatively little coverage overall with the exception of an extensive piece done by journalist Naomi Klein and published in May of this year by Rolling Stone. This piece outlines the Chinese city of Shenzhen which Klein describes as "the crack cocaine of capitalism". This city was one of the few areas in China where capitalism was first implemented on a trial basis. The city boomed economically and now has a population of 12.4 million people. The city is now home to numerous American corporations and many electronics, automobiles, and apparel items are made in this city. In addition to this economic boom, Klein reports that the city of Shenzhen installed 200,000 surveillance cameras which all are fed into a nationwide network used to track every public space in the city. Elements of this program, called "Golden Shield", are being supplied to the Chinese by corporations such as IBM, General Electric, and Honeyshield and are being used to build a system which will help to prevent any massive public uprising during this time period in which the entire world is focused on China.

An important point that is made by Klein in this piece, is that free markets and free people do not necessarily go hand in hand. China is a prime example of how "free market capitalism" can thrive under a style of government that is does not at all promote freedom. The "Golden Shield" system is being built to provide 24 hour a day surveillance of the Chinese population, the ability to monitor phone and Internet access, and a system national ID's that will have an end result of providing China with a photo database of all 1.3 billion people within the country. This type of system will not only provide the Chinese government with detailed information about their population, but will allow for tight control over demonstrations and opponents of such a system.

Companies in the United States don't see the emergence of the Chinese surveillance society as a problem, they see it as an opportunity. IBM, General Electric, and Honeywell are all providing China with the infrastructure for building this "Golden Shield" technology. Everything from the computer monitoring systems to the security systems which can control thousands of cameras and track fast-moving objects. The market is ripe for these companies as well as others who are lining up to help China with its immense need to coordinate a system that can help track over a billion people. While this is certainly reason enough for concern among those in the U.S. who care about human rights, Klein quotes a British researcher named Greg Walton in her article who states that the U.S. government is not expressing outrage at this, but rather mining this type of system for ideas.

As has been shown above, American companies already have the opportunity to make big money on the over-commercialization of the Olympic Games as well as in the new Chinese market of population surveillance. In addition to these issues, the Chinese connection of advisors to both major Presidentail campaigns show a very real relevance to the 2008 Presidential election.

Ken Silverstein has written a new piece in Harper's Magazine which outlines how many bipartisan experts (tied to the campaigns of both major Presidential candidates) profit from the emerging Chinese market while simultaneously calling for constructive engagement with the country. Silverstein was on the news program Democracy Now! recently to discuss his most recent article. In the interview, he outlines how several advisors to both major campaigns have appeared regularly on television and in print without disclosing their connection to consulting firms whose business model is built upon pushing for policies that will open more economic doors with countries like China. Silverstein states in his interview:

" cannot open doors with Chinese government officials on behalf of Western companies unless you are on good terms. I mean, if they don’t like you, if you say a lot of nasty things about Tibet or human rights or anything else, then the Chinese government officials that you need to help you in your business are not going to be there for you."

The issue with this is not simply a lack of disclosure, but the very real possibility that many of these private-sector advisors to both campaigns could very well end up back in government jobs. Silverstein points to the example of Sandy Berger from the Clinton Administration. Prior to his time spent in the Clinton Administration, Berger worked in the private sector for Hogan & Hartson pushing for the continued normalization of trade with China. Upon his arrival in the Administration, he continued to push for the normalization of trade relations with China and the Clinton Administration ended up prioritizing normal trade relations over human rights policy by the end of their time in office. After Berger left the Clinton Administration, he went to work for Stonebridge International where he still lobbies for China to this day.

In connection with the current Presidential race, Silverstein expands on the connections of Alexander Haig and Brent Scrowcroft with both China and John McCain and of Jeffrey Bader with Barack Obama. These advisors have very strong connections with or have started their own bipartisan firms (The Scowcroft Group) that have direct ties to lobbying for favorable policies toward China. Silverstein states:

"If you look at the authors of virtually any major think tank report on foreign policy and you look down the list of who put it together, you’re almost always going to find people from these consulting firms. And again, at least let’s identify these people. I mean, you’ll see them identified as belonging to a think tank, say, but what you won’t see is, you know, a guy like [Kevin] Nealer identified as working for the Scowcroft Group. I mean, let’s get these conflicts out in the open, at least, so the public knows who’s putting together our foreign policy. "

Affiliations with these firms are often not disclosed to the public when these officials comment in the media and these same advisors have the potential to have very real sway within either a McCain Administration or an Obama Administration. Their backgrounds and agendas need to be both examined and exposed.

The three issues that I have outlined above get very little attention within the greater discussion that has surrounded the Olympic games. Instead, we hear advertiser friendly messages of unity, competition, and the human spirit. Serious issues that directly affect the Olympics are brushed aside and labeled as items that distract from the true nature of the games. What is missed, is the reality that these issues are directly connected the 2008 Olympics and its host country. Commercialization has woven itself through every corridor of Beijing and the Olympic stadiums in which the athletes will perform. The increase in surveillance has been used as an excuse to "beef up" security prior to the games in order to keep people safe, yet the long-term plans to continue construction of the "Golden Shield" speak to the pervasive nature of China's surveillance society. The connection of institutions that lobby for normalized relations with China to prominent advisors of both major Presidential candidates speak to the tangled political and economic web that is woven from the Far East, to Washington D.C. These are the issues that need addressing because the implications of each issue have the potential to last much longer than the shine on a gold medal.

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The Commentator said...

I enjoyed this Chris. Hope to form a thought or two around this soon.

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Chris Johnson said...

@ Conrad:

Thanks for the comment and for stopping by the blog, I appreciate the traffic.

Please feel free to share your thoughts on the various topics or to just stop by and read some of the material.


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