China faces uphill task polishing image ahead of Olympics
14:34 AEST Thu Apr 10 2008

With four months to go before the Olympic Games, host China faces a Himalayan task of polishing its image following a global outcry over its crackdown in Tibet and human rights record, experts say.

Beijing's image was seriously battered by widely publicized raucous protests especially in London, Paris and San Francisco, disrupting the Beijing Olympic torch relay. The traditional flame had to be doused several times in the French capital.

Chinese embassies and consulates in several cities were also damaged as they became another focal point of demonstrations by pro-Tibet groups and others capitalizing on the summer Games to highlight China's rights record and support for dictatorships in such nations as Sudan and Myanmar.

Following the bad publicity ahead of the Olympics, which was supposed to be China's coming-out party, Beijing is reportedly hiring a top foreign public relations agency to advise the government on how to redeem its battered image.

Several British and US agencies were invited to interviews with Chinese officials to discuss a contract, which includes pre-games PR strategies, media training and market research on western perceptions of China, the Financial Times reported.

The new agency would take on a greater role for the Beijing Olympics public relations campaign than the existing contract between American public relations firm Hill and Knowlton and the Beijing Organising Committee, the newspaper said.

But communications experts warned it will be a great challenge for PR firms to carry out this nearly impossible mission -- especially with little time left and the prospect of dealing with a client who may not accept rapid but painful remedies.

"That's the challenge to public relations firms: do you want to take a client on who has a reputation as this country does and has human rights abuses," asked Gemma Puglisi, a crisis communications expert at American University.

"Will it damage your reputation as a firm? It is a very, very interesting situation," she said. "The issue and the challenge is, many of these countries have to understand that if they hire someone, they have to listen to them."

A "very savvy" China, Puglisi said, "knows what is at stake" with the Olympics, especially the enormous publicity and potential earnings for the rapidly-growing Asian giant.

The New York Times offered advice Wednesday on how China could burnish its own image ahead of the Olympics.

"In the spirit of the Olympic ideals, we are prepared to help China -- free of charge," the respected US daily stated in an editorial.

"Here's what you do: Stop arresting dissidents. Stop spreading lies about the Dalai Lama, and start talking to him about greater religious and cultural freedoms for Tibet. Stop being an enabler to Sudan in its genocide in Darfur.

"In other words, start delivering on the pledge you made to the International Olympic Committee to respect human rights -- which, by the way, include the freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly."

Beijing has called the Dalai Lama "a wolf in monk's clothing" and vehemently deny religious and cultural repression in Tibet, and insist its 57-year control of the remote region has benefited its devoutly Buddhist people.

Tibetan exile leaders say the recent crackdown in the Himalayan territory has left more than 150 people dead but China has denied those claims. Beijing says Tibetan "rioters" have killed 20 people.

The move to hire a PR agency to repair his country's image is seen as a signal that President Hu Jintao, who once was in charge of the remote region, is not prepared to make any immediate policy changes on Tibet or other human rights questions, some analysts said.

"The fact that they are considering hiring a firm makes them realize that so much is at stake and that they are at a critical point," said communications expert Puglisi. "It is a challenge but I believe anything is possible."

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