Winding down: The Games trickle to a halt

Note: This is a blog post I wrote for another site, cross-posted here. I’ll share the link where it’s cross-posted once I know it myself. I wrote it yesterday afternoon as the rain was clearing up.

The crowds in the Main Press Center have started thinning and there seems to be a general sense of winding down. In just three days they’ll lock down the Olympic Green, which won’t open again until September when the Paralympic Games begin.

One thing I’ve learned about doing Olympic PR is just how top-loaded the 17-day event is. That is to say, there’s an unbelievable amount of effort expended in the days leading up to the Opening Ceremony and the week following. And then, the balloon rapidly deflates. You’ve prepared your materials, held your most important press conferences, run around like a chicken with its head cut off trying to coordinate a seemingly endless stream of interviews with the very highest executives and then…. I don’t want to say it dies, but it sure slows down and gets easier.

I’m on the Olympic Green now and it’s packed. Visitors are lined up at the partner pavilions in spite of the on-again-off-again rain, gray skies and a sudden drop in temperature. BOCOG finally opened up the Green a few days ago after restricting access to non-ticket holders. Last week a number of sponsors were wringing their hands. They’d spent millions of marketing dollars building elaborate pavilions, and for the first few days after the Opening Ceremony the Olympic Green was practically a ghost town. The sight of televised events in stadiums that were clearly full of empty seats added to a sense of gloom among some sponsors and of mystification among the media in town to cover the Games. Every seat was supposed to be sold out.

There’s a lot more people now and the stadiums seem fuller, perhaps in part because BOCOG came up with a creative solution to save face. In any case, things are looking pretty happy at the moment.

I think the lingering question in the weeks (years?) ahead will be whether China saw a good return on its investment of tens of billions of dollars in perhaps the most ambitious positioning/branding project of all time. It was always about PR, about China’s “coming out,” about presenting a new image of China to the world. Instead of a hopelessly polluted Beijing drowning in its own traffic, newcomers would see a manicured city with relatively clean air and fast-moving highways, cops on every corner, smiling volunteers who all speak English, even recycle bins (very conspicuous all over the Green) so people can carefully separate plastics and bio-degradables. Of course, every once in a while we got uncomfortable reminders that perhaps something less delightful lurked behind the carefully constructed montage of happiness and love, but compared to the glitz and the glamor and the gold these and other inconvenient truths received relatively short shrift.

From the spectacular Opening Ceremony to the efficient crowd management to the prettying up of the city, I’d give China very high marks indeed. At the same time, I’m sorry (though not surprised) they didn’t seize on this as an opportunity to show the world they had lightened up, that they could extend some magnanimity to protesters, give reporters truly free access to pursue their stories and open up their Internet 100 percent. Such simple gestures would tell the world that China is truly secure, that it truly believes in itself. When it make grandiose displays and then tries clumsily to stifle all criticism, it leaves itself open to charges of creating a Potemkin Village and raises questions of whether the smiles and air of celebration is real or mere window dressing, to be taken down shortly after the crowds go home. We’ll know soon enough. It’s easy enough to generate a big burst of publicity when you have unlimited resources to create The Greatest Show on Earth. The true PR value can only be measured when we see how sustainable the image of The New China proves to be.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 32 Comments

Thanks for the update on what is going on there these last few days. I do respectfully disagree with your contention that, “It was always… about presenting a new image of China to the world.” It was very convenient to have the world as the backdrop, but this event and display was always about presenting a pre-determined image to the rest of China. Anything the rest of the world gets to see or wants to take away from it was icing. The 29th Olympiad has been one massive propaganda pitch to the 1.3 billion residents of the motherland, from the welcome song sung in Chinese (北京欢迎你) to the protest zones that no one got to use to the opening ceremony that was completely different from the one that the rest of the world watched. China let the rest of us celebrate the spirit of sport (blah, blah, blah) while they made clear to their own nation that this is who we are and will become, come hell or high water.

August 22, 2008 @ 5:48 pm | Comment

Actually, I agree with you, Ange. Presenting the pre-determined image to China itself was always the No. 1 priority, while “coming out” (so tired a cliche) to the world was No. 2. China showed early on that it cared more about what the Games said to China than to the rest of the world. Thus the visa tightening and other restrictions that made the event less tourist friendly. China didn’t care. Either way, it was all about PR. I’d say for domestic PR effect the Party gets a gold star, or a red star. Internationally, the jury is out but on impulse I’d give it a 7 out of 10. If they only realized how much better they would appear if they didn’t smash reporters’ cameras or try to fool people about who’s singing at their events or arrest people after inviting them to apply for the right to protest… Such simple stuff, so elementary. But image building for the rest of the world is not their first goal. It’s important to them, but it always takes second place to keeping their own people believing in them and, on the subconscious level, keeping them afraid to speak up. Staying in power at any cost is always the objective.

August 22, 2008 @ 8:01 pm | Comment

You said the following: “One thing I’ve learned about doing Olympic PR is just how top-loaded the 17-day event is. That is to say, there’s an unbelievable amount of effort expended in the days leading up to the Opening Ceremony and the week following. And then, the balloon rapidly deflates. You’ve prepared your materials, held your most important press conferences, run around like a chicken with its head cut off trying to coordinate a seemingly endless stream of interviews with the very highest executives and then…. I don’t want to say it dies, but it sure slows down and gets easier.”

Having lived in Atlanta through the 1996 Olympic Games, I can certainly tell you that it’s all about the buildup. During the games things are exciting and the town is packed with visitors to the point of inconvenience to the locals…but the fact is, that once the Olympic games are done, it’s bound to be exceptionally anti-climactic. Beijingers and the national government will be taken aback at how quickly life goes back to being humdrum…to being “just normal”. Almost as if the Olympics never happened. Sure, Atlanta got some extra recreational infrastructure out of it (Centennial Olympic Park, etc.) and some tourism monies. Beijing undertook far, FAR greater infrastructure development and modernization (new train lines, subway lines, etc.) than did Atlanta, so that should benefit Beijing for years and years to come. But, the Olympics fade into memory FAST.

The Paralympics are an important event but, typically, much MUCH smaller in terms of participating athletes and attendance by the public. We noticed them in Atlanta after the Olympic games but…to be honest…we BARELY noticed them. No intention to take away from the great importance of the Paralympic games to physically challenged people, but just by the nature of the smaller size of the Paralympics by comparison with the Olympic games, the truth is that after Sunday, the hoopla in Beijing is over and done with.

If my prior experience living in Atlanta can be used as any reasonable comparison, that is.

August 22, 2008 @ 8:09 pm | Comment

@richard
“Staying in power at any cost is always the objective.”

That, in short, explains a lot of things.

August 22, 2008 @ 8:11 pm | Comment

Whoaaa! Hold on there pardner! You’ve still got the closing ceremony with such luminaries as . . . . Gordon Brown and . . . . . Boris Johnson. Even the online feuding over whether the closing ceremony represents the rise of the new third reich v. the coverage of said demonstrating the western media plot to ‘undermine China’ is going to be anti-climatic . . .

Ah well . . .

GO TEAM GB THIRD PLACE WOOOOHOOOO!!!

August 22, 2008 @ 8:30 pm | Comment

Perhaps by accident or design China made this Olympics only about sport and nothing else. After 10 days of running, yachting, dressage etc I realised I am not interested in sport. Boring Beijing. Is that it?

August 22, 2008 @ 8:43 pm | Comment

I find it quite hard to take seriously a post which suggests China is too image conscious from a man who works in marketing and PR. Nothing personal Richard. From your own training, the reason China does not care as much for the international ‘demographic’ as it does the domestic is that it must only sell the brand image to its own people in order to maintain its high sales/level of approval. In fact, one could argue from evidence this year that the world having a dim view of China actually increases the positive image of brand CCP at home.

August 22, 2008 @ 9:48 pm | Comment

Ugh, looks like someone is taking a page from Beijing’s ‘apolitical’ playbook:

http://tinyurl.com/6b5lr8

The funny thing is that, unlike the CCP, these guys actually have to wonder whether they’ll still be in power in 2010 :-)

August 22, 2008 @ 10:07 pm | Comment

Le Conte made a good point here

I think it is important to realize this tradeoff

August 22, 2008 @ 10:08 pm | Comment

By the way, Jamaicans today were just incredible . . no anti-climax there!

August 22, 2008 @ 10:35 pm | Comment

ind it quite hard to take seriously a post which suggests China is too image conscious from a man who works in marketing and PR.

Did I ever say China is too image conscious? It’s fine to be image conscious. In fact, it’s essential in this world of instant impressions and brand competition. I believe, however, that you should live up to the image you are putting forward or else risk exposure down the road. That’s my big piece of unsolicited advice to China: If you want to present yourself as merry, sparkling clean, environmentally sensitive, polite, open, freedom-loving, etc., then you had better make sure those looking underneath the bed sheets don’t find a lot of lice. Metaphorically speaking. In other words, if you’re putting on a show, expect to get exposed one day, just the way they were for AIDS in Henan province and SARS in Beijing. Time to learn from your past and grow up.

August 22, 2008 @ 10:55 pm | Comment

I wish I could be at the closing to see Jimmy Page. I hope he has a good night!

August 22, 2008 @ 11:01 pm | Comment

Ditto to Ani. I lived in Atlanta during the ’96 games, and still live here. The ending is abrupt and things go back to normal at an almost depressing rate. As important as they are, the Paralympics will barely be noticed. It is exciting to see the Olympic cauldron lit once more though.

Things return to normal as soon as the cauldron is extinguished. People are in for a heck of a hangover.

August 22, 2008 @ 11:51 pm | Comment

I don’t think the question is whether or not China believes in itself — which it does — but whether it trust the others in the room. And the answer to that question is a clear no, at least when it comes to the self-celebrating “internationally community” consisting of the NATO and its allies. If anyone want to call this distrust lack of self-belief, he’s just incredibly naive. It’s not a persecution complex if you’re actually been persecuted the whole time — or as Washington likes to call it, “strategic containment”.

August 23, 2008 @ 1:18 am | Comment

Nice post and agree heartily with Ange and Richard’s first posts. There were plenty of controversies, both well-known and not well-known – such as composer Peter Breiner getting his Olympic theme knocked off by China, and the fact that China blocked the iTunes store because of a single album (guess the topic).

http://blog.wired.com/music/2008/08/composer-says-b.html

http://blog.wired.com/music/2008/08/china-blocks-ac.html

Not to mention the hordes of the voiceless whose problems and plights will go unheard.

Perhaps it is better to establish ties with China than to continue to isolate the country. But…well I just wish I had a kuai for every time someone tried to manage my perception or opinion in China. Or told me what people in my own country think, yet never bother to actually inquire. Cozy, having all the answers like that. Why contest it with truth?

August 23, 2008 @ 1:30 am | Comment

I think it’s perfect that “China didn’t seize on this as an opportunity to show the world they had lightened up.” It shows a more accurate picture of China to the outside–that on one hand it is capable of setting up huge spectacles; on the other hand, it’s still tightly controlled. Anything different would distort the truth even more.

August 23, 2008 @ 3:48 am | Comment

>>Such simple gestures would tell the world that China is truly secure, that it truly believes in itself.

It isn’t and it doesn’t (yet), so there is no real surprise there. Despite the laughable claims of persecution by a lot of Chinese these days, China will never be “persecuted” by the West as long as it sees $$$$ that can be siphoned off. As long as Chinese workers can be exploited, the land can be polluted, and Chinese consumers are viewed as potential customers, China has nothing to fear. Don’t get too rich, though, or discover oil in China. That spells ‘regime change’.

August 23, 2008 @ 7:50 am | Comment

No, no surprise at all.

Loafer, I was being hypothetical/fantastical when I said it would’ve been cool if the government lightened up. I didn’t mean I wanted it to pretend to lighten up for the Games, but to really lighten up. I know, I may as well want the skies to rain hundred-dollar bills…

August 23, 2008 @ 8:15 am | Comment

Remember Hurricane Katrina and how all the news crew just came and went. This is the exact thing that is going to occur. Along with all the Tibet Protestors also?

August 25, 2008 @ 12:38 am | Comment

Oh, boo-hoo…

I’m proud of China. Sure, there are imperfections, but overall, China did well, not only in hosting the Olympics but also in the Olympic competitions. Asians can do well in sports as well as in education. As an Asian, I am proud. Is that wrong?

Ok, I know, bring up the problems…but what country does not have problems? And what problem time and later generations cannot solve?

August 25, 2008 @ 6:32 am | Comment

The Olympics is something invented by Westerners. I don’t know being successful at hosting something invented by others is something to be proud of. How many Westerners need to stage a special ‘Chinese Martial Arts Expo’ to feel that their country or culture amounts to something?

Modern China has never been able to produce a single quality brand name or piece of technology that is marketable around the world and is truly CHINESE (rather than bought from someone else and repackaged). She never will.

Prove me wrong.

August 25, 2008 @ 10:44 am | Comment

K T Ong:

you just being jealous

August 25, 2008 @ 11:21 am | Comment

Where did all these trolls come from?

Richard

August 25, 2008 @ 11:28 am | Comment

***K T Ong:

you just being jealous***

Who’s jealous? Considering what (so many of) the mainland Chinese have to put up with under the CCP, I’m GLAD I don’t live in China, but in Singapore. Indeed I look at the mainland Chinese with pity.

August 25, 2008 @ 5:18 pm | Comment

Did anyone see how Yao Ming rebuffed that blonde-haired Western bird who hugged him in the crowd during the closing ceremony festivities? When she hugged him, she said: “I love you.” She was trying to get a piece of Yao Ming.

Yao Ming just cold-shouldered her and walked away.

I like Yao Ming. He’s got class.

August 26, 2008 @ 6:05 pm | Comment

For anyone interested in US democracy, you should read this piece form US news & world report report. I do not mean Obama stuff. I mean the how nepotism in Chicago has produced very competent leaders. Amazing. There are princelings in China. But at least Hu and Wen have worked its way up.

http://www.usnews.com/blogs/barone/2008/08/22/obama-needs-to-explain-his-ties-to-william-ayers.html

August 27, 2008 @ 7:05 am | Comment

I want to see how people here react to this. Will people cry “Unbelievable”? Will they say the Aussies are “inferior, dirty, weak” too? If it’s even Remotely close to what the scrunity China was getting here, I will admit that all my past perceptions of the west being hypocritic and holding double standard towards China is totally wrong and unfounded.

“As a result, the Sydney Symphony’s confirmation that it mimed its entire performance at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics comes as something of a shock. Even worse, it admits the backing tape was recorded, in part, by its southern rival, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.”

http://tinyurl.com/5qkcmp

I specially invite Raj to comment. When Americans faking parade in parades was mentioned you say it’s pee-wee league, When Pavarotti lip-synching was mentioned you say nobody gives a rat-ass about Winter olympics, so what would be your execuses now?

August 27, 2008 @ 11:36 am | Comment

[...] commenter in the thread below points to an article in the Syndey Morning Herald about how the Sydney Symphony mimed its way [...]

August 27, 2008 @ 2:56 pm | Pingback

No excuse – shouldn’t have been done at Sydney. People paid to see a live performance, not something that might as well have been released on a DVD.

But we were talking about the Beijing Olympics because we’re in 2008. “tu quoque” isn’t a defence.

August 27, 2008 @ 6:35 pm | Comment

By the way, would you support the Chinese government if one of those two grannies had been your relative? What do you have to say about that?

August 27, 2008 @ 6:36 pm | Comment

The above comments were addressed to Chinese B.

More generally, spare a thought for poor Chinese who are suffering a man-made drought for the Olypmics – quite possibly the water wasn’t even needed in the end.

http://tinyurl.com/6a7xsr

The story was repeated everywhere. Half-built aqueducts, pipes that disgorged a murky trickle, untapped reservoirs where water gleamed just a pebble throw from parched fields. By every account, the building stopped soon after an uprising in Tibet led to world-wide protests during the Olympic torch relay and calls for a boycott of the Games.

It became clear to the Chinese government that the number of tourists would be much fewer than expected. They also decided, in effect, to expel a host of migrant workers from the capital. Many residents opted to shun the oppressive security measures and left town. Beijing no longer needed the water.

Nobody bothered to relieve the plight of the hapless farmers. “Our streams and rivers have no water,” said a farmer called Wang Duchuan, 30, “How can we grow rice? We don’t even have enough water for corn.”

…..

Rather than change policy, resume the supply and lose face, officials resorted to repression. For a sleepy agricultural centre, Baoding had an extraordinary number of policemen on duty. Roadblocks prevented any unauthorised vehicles going north to Beijing. Taxi drivers were given a printed order that any “unusual” passengers should be driven straight to the police.

Armed police checked cars at 10 points along one road to a reservoir. At each stop, a banner proclaimed “Olympic Security Checkpoint”, although the Games themselves were more than 100 miles away. Posters offered a reward of more than £7,000 for “special Olympic information” given to the Public Security Bureau.

August 27, 2008 @ 8:26 pm | Comment

@Raj,

“No excuse – shouldn’t have been done at Sydney. People paid to see a live performance, not something that might as well have been released on a DVD.

But we were talking about the Beijing Olympics because we’re in 2008. “tu quoque” isn’t a defence.”

fair enough … but where is you usual hypo animated indignation [ad hominem deleted]?

August 27, 2008 @ 9:31 pm | Comment

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